Philosophy in the Community takes on morality tonight

Professor Emer O’Hagan will be asking, “Do We Lack Moral Character?” If you’re in or around Saskatoon and want to take this in, the talk starts at 7pm, St. James Church basement (by The Refinery), 609 Dufferin Ave. More information about this meet (and the rest of the series) can be found here. It should be interesting.

As luck, or the Google God, would have it, I found an article from last year entitled Morals don’t come from God detailing some of the findings from a study done between Harvard and the University of Helsinki. Researchers concluded that religion had little to do with creating a sense of morality. To reach that point, they ran people through a number of psychological tests that would measure moral behaviour — or maybe studied results of people who’d taken them previously. The article isn’t too clear on that.

These tests present dilemmas ranging from how to handle freeloaders at ‘bring a dish’ dinner parties to the justification of killing someone to save others. Few, if any, of the answers can be looked up in holy books.

Thousands of people — varying widely in social background, age, education, religious affiliation and ethnicity — have taken the tests. Pyysiäinen and Hauser say the results (mainly still in the publication pipeline) indicate that “moral intuitions operate independently of religious background”, although religion may influence responses in a few highly specific cases.

A couple interesting theories are thrown in to question why religions would exist in the first place. Are they by-products of a human predilection toward believing in souls and an afterlife? Are they created solely for law-enforcement in group and community situations? They don’t answer those questions in the article, but the researchers, Pyysiäinen and Hauser, like the psychological theory.

They argue that human populations evolved moral ideas about behavioural norms — which themselves promoted group cooperation — before they became encoded in religious systems. The researchers suggest that we may possess an innate ‘moral grammar’ that guides these ideas.

The paper plays to a wider issue than this point of largely anthropological interest, for it challenges the assertion commonly made in defence of religion: that it inculcates a moral awareness. If we follow the authors’ line of thinking, religious people are no more likely to be moral than atheists.

Can I have a chorus of, “Well, duh!!” from the audience? It’s been my impression, based on all the reading I’ve done and things that I’ve learned over the years, that morality and ethics tend to rely on cultural and societal norms that exist independent of holy books. Yeah, some laws get made that are similar to biblical laws, but that doesn’t make them biblical laws, specifically. They are laws that benefit society as a whole and earlier societies came to the same damn conclusion and also enforced them. It stands to reason.

In terms of morality, though, look at the history of slavery. Better yet, let’s look at current trends in the area of incest. It’s completely legal in some countries, specifically China, France, Israel, the Ivory Coast, the Netherlands, Russia, Spain and Turkey. Switzerland made headlines last month when it was suggested that their anti-incest laws were out of date and should be reassessed. A case was up in court there involving a man and his daughter.

Epstein’s lawyer, Matthew Galluzzo,

said that charges against his client were still “only allegations” that have not been proven.

“Academically, we are obviously all morally opposed to incest and rightfully so,” he told “At the same time, there is an argument to be made in the Swiss case to let go what goes on privately in bedrooms.”

“It’s OK for homosexuals to do whatever they want in their own home,” he said. “How is this so different? We have to figure out why some behavior is tolerated and some is not.”

To quote from that Opposing Views article I linked to above:

If the only reason for prohibiting fathers from being in sexual relationships with daughters is the increased possibility of passing on a genetic disorder, then why do we permit marriages between Jews who may pass on Tay-Sachs disease or blacks who may pass on sickle cell anemia?

The reason that we don’t prohibit Jews from marrying Jews or blacks from marrying blacks despite the increased risk of passing on genetic disorders is that these types of relationships are not inherently morally flawed whereas incestuous relationships between fathers and daughters are.

Furthermore, if the possibility of passing on genetic disorders is the only reason for opposing legalized consensual incest, then what possible reason is there to oppose a father being in a sexual relationship with his adult son?

Talk about a can of worms… Good question though, eh?

And what about polygamy? Personally, I have no problem at all with the idea – so long as all marriages in the group involve consenting adults and nobody’s making sexual advances toward the kids, or grooming them to be wed before the age of consent. Given the economic problems people have with child care, jobs and affording their homes these days, you’d think it’d make sense to make group contracts that share the load more equally. But I guess that’s just me.

The Star has an article about the polygamy issue in British Columbia right now. They’ve been trying to figure out if the century-long prohibition on that was based on some logical reason or if it was a religious edict.

It will be an important distinction for a B.C. judge to consider as he decides whether Canada’s law against polygamy violates the religious guarantees in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — a case prompted by the obscure polygamous commune of Bountiful, B.C.

The B.C. government’s own lawyer has conceded that, if the prohibition dating back to 1890 is in fact a religious law originally intended to impose Christianity onto society, it must be struck down.

The article quotes John Witte Jr., a law professor in Georgia who explains that monogamy has been the desired arrangement since early Greek and Roman days.

He said ancient Greek and Roman philosophers described monogamous marriage as “natural and necessary” to foster mutual love, respect and companionship among husbands and wives.

In contrast, he said the Roman emperors who established the first anti-polygamy laws in the third century denounced the practice as “unnatural and dangerous,” placing it in the same category as rape and incest. In some cases, polygamy was punishable by death.

Witte said those early beliefs about marriage have informed every Western culture since, from early Christians, the Catholic and Protestant churches, the Enlightenment— which eschewed religion and Christianity — and modern-day England and America.

But that says nothing about the current rate of divorce between men and women who married for whatever the hell reason and have since changed their minds about mutual love, respect and companionship with those people. Divorce has been morally taboo in the past, too. Henry VIII had to declare England to be Protestant just so he could get around the Catholic ban on divorce, recall. That maybe wasn’t the best idea he ever had, but he was king. Who was in a position to stop him?

So yeah. Morality at The Refinery tonight. Be there, or be a rectangular thing. A part 2 to this topic will likely get posted on the morrow once I’ve heard Professor O’Hagan’s views and her answers to the questions that will follow.

edit Jan 13/2010: fixed pronoun for Professor O’Hagan. Whoops is all I say about that…

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Canadian Atheist Basically ordinary Library employee Avid book lover Ditto for movies Wanna-be writer Procrastinator
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