This is another post inspired by the remarkable work of Hiba Krisht, “an ex-Muslim, an apostate, an atheist, an escapee from the Middle East” and gifted writer. She talks about the first-hand horrors she experienced, and although her main focus is Islamic culture, she really does talk to all of us. Her latest post is a clear example: it outlines the painfully obvious similarity between North American Christian conservatism and Hezbollah. If you are offended by the comparison, you should probably leave this blog now, and never come back.
[EDIT 2017: Hiba started writing under the pseudonym of Marwa Berro, eventually closed her old blog and moved it to The Ex Muslim. I’ve updated names and links to make sure they point to live content and allow to read more of her work.]
For me, raised by atheist parents but within an overwhelmingly catholic culture (including at least three grandparents), the parallel is adamant, and is about strongly normative societies. In this blog I have put some effort in trying to figure out how one can derive “ought” from “is”, what are the limits of this kind of enterprise, and whether it makes some sense. There is a philosophical side, that starts from epistemological arguments about knowledge and science, and eventually discusses the possibility of exploring ethics in a strictly empirical way. To show how this may be done, I’ve looked at the ethical stance that is typical of certain British conservatism, as exemplified by Boris Johnson. This worked reasonably well because Johnson’s ethics (or lack thereof) does not rely on any metaphysical foundation. Today I’ll try something much more dangerous: I’ll explore the link between theistic ethical foundations and normative societies, my aim is to show how empirical ethics can show that both are wrong, harmful and unjustifiable.
Hiba’s post is my springboard: please read it first. She shows us what happens in a fairly typical situation: religious beliefs, with all the weight of a “divinely informed” view of the world, are used to build and support an ethical stance. This in turn generates a long and highly rigid list of “oughts”, that crystallise social structures and conventions, generating political stability. In turn this political stability is exploited by the gatekeepers of the underlying religious beliefs (not necessarily clerics) to establish and entrench their political power. In terms of my previous post: social infrastructures become antifragile by exploiting the belief system, and, sadly, by making the single believer utterly expendable.
The whole process is the antithesis of what I’m trying to do here: where I look for evidence to substantiate all my claims, a normative society uses faith, or the archetype of unsubstantiated knowledge, to justify its ethical stance. Where I’m trying to minimise the assumptions that I have to take, theistic societies are happy to build on pre-cooked, macroscopic edifices of dogmas that need to be, by definition, beyond doubt. The result is terrifying, able to generate the worse horrors, but is also fantastically stable. I will only hint to the source (and limits) of such stability, because what I wish to do today is:
- Briefly discuss how normative societies gain their strength. Following Hiba, this requires to highlight their best side.
- See if I can, after acknowledging the strengths of such systems, use the tools I’ve developed and conclude that normative societies are dangerous and unjustifiable.
The argument will be somewhat circular: because my ethical stance is based on empiricism, it is inevitable that I will reject ethical positions that are openly denying the possibility to derive ought from is. I can’t avoid this trap, but hope to convincingly demonstrate at least one thing: since different theistic positions are inherently incompatible, and since most of them declare to seek peace, empirical ethics offers a viable common language. Yes, it may question and/or erode dogmatic foundations, but in return it allows to establish some common principles and to seek a basic understanding that may reach different and otherwise conflicting belief systems.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Normative societies have a very strong allure, when one can fit-in: they provide support, ethical clarity, and promise transcendence (by identifying a unique, bigger than human, Good); in short, they offer a readily available solution to most, if not all, existential problems of humanity.
They may differ widely in the details, but all show some similarities. The most prominent is a strong sense of cultural identity. Every normative society that I can think of is characterised by a single dominant view of the world. Small differences within each society will always exist, but will never be enough to threaten the sense of identity: members of such societies will be happy to define themselves as either Evangelical Christians or Shia Muslims, or [insert here one of the thousands of possibilities]… There always is a cultural basis that establishes a collective cognitive attraction: reality is seen through the lens of the shared values, promoting homogeneity in a self-sustaining feedback. The result is a remarkable stability (possibly tainted by stagnation, see for example this curious study of entrepreneurship and religiosity in North America), strong intra-group support networks, and a cosy sense of belonging.
What is there not to like? One thing: each belief system provides different answers to the same questions, and, in the best possible hypothesis, only one of them can be right. The result is that billions of people find reasons to deny glaringly obvious ethical truths, and generate pain and horror in the name of their own, idiosyncratic beliefs. Using Hiba’s story: if the woman who died in the woods was indeed Holy, her death can be seen as good, but all the deaths and sorrows on the Hezbollah’s side would be senseless. The reverse applies. And more: you can apply this comparison to most (if not all) combinations of religions, sects, and dogmatic beliefs. Even if one/few of them is/are right, the overall result is still an overwhelmingly monstrous amount of senseless pain and suffering. Yes, religious people are supportive, they tend to give more to charities, will generally be welcoming in person, and will enjoy living in a cohesive and well organised society. But what is the cost? These good results require to deny some otherwise obvious realities: a dead child can (and will) become a good thing. All sorts of abuses can be justified to protect the greater good. And all of this is possible because, and only because, the source of truth is not evidence: because the distinction between good and evil is done a-priori, things that are clearly unethical (such as killing, mutilating, abducting and abusing children) become acceptable.
On the flip side, critical thinking, openness and tolerance are seen as suspicious, because they carry some inherent dangers to the dogmatic truths that sustain the system. So here is the circularity of my argument: if you believe that there is one reality, and that trying to understand it is a good thing, dogmatic stances that put some truths beyond empirical verification are bad. It’s an unavoidable tautology, but it’s the only option, especially if you don’t wish to see who disagrees with you as your enemy.
In conclusion, normative societies, no matter how sensible are their norms, are dangerous at best, but downright horrible in most cases. If any norms are generally accepted to be beyond scrutiny, some consequences will be unavoidable:
- Inquisitive people will be marginalised or abused. This will inevitably slow down the ability of such societies to adapt.
- People that are born with the wrong traits or inclinations (as above, but also unmarried parents, skin colour, sexual preference, etc.) will suffer the same destiny of marginalisation and abuse.
- People that are born within a different society, or belief system, will automatically become “them”, seeding conflict on both sides in the most efficient way.
- Some unethical practices will always need to be justified, because the a-priori belief system will never be able to accommodate all the complexity of the world.
Note that the above is true regardless of the accuracy of a belief-system. It is the direct and unavoidable consequence of a-priori thinking: the more beyond-discussion assumptions are allowed, the more unethical consequences will happen. And it doesn’t matter how true/accurate these assumptions are. As a result, the only option is to strive to cut down as many a-priori premises as possible.
For me, it provides the reason why “striving to understand reality” is a good thing, conveniently allowing me to remove it from the list of my own assumptions.
All in all, I’m concluding that we ought to derive “ought” from “is”.