Thursday, November 10, 2005

Deaf and Dumb

Somehow I missed Ernie's last post until today.

For tonight, I am going to leave the epistemology part alone; that will have to wait for a night where I have more time. Instead, I want to address Ernie's closing question: "by what moral standard do you judge Christianity?" He could just as easily asked by what moral standard we can judge any action. There are a few ways I would like to examine the question.

While reading a book about ancient Mesopotamia, I came across this quote, written roughly 4000 years ago by an anonymous scribe:

Mankind is deaf and knows nothing. What knowledge has anyone at all? He knows not whether he has done a good or a bad deed.
Morality is tied into both the intent and effect of our actions. If I intend good (according to my definition of "good") and good results (according to the definition of "good" held by those affected by my action), then my action was moral. If I intend evil and evil results, again according to the definitions of those involved, then my action was immoral. But those are the easy cases. What if I intend good and evil results, according to my definitions? What if I intend "my" good, but it is "your" evil? When the actor and those affected do not agree on what is good and what is bad, I am not sure how to speak sensibly about morality.

If I had to pick a standard, the Golden Rule would come pretty close: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Or perhaps, as Confucius wrote: do not do to others what you would not want done to you. This captures the intent and effect criteria fairly concisely.

Richard Carrier, whom I referenced earlier, has written an essay titled What an Atheist Ought to Stand For. The section titled "The Ethics of Ethics" covers this topic better than I can. (The whole essay is well worth reading.)

I also want to mention a book I recently read that beautifully illustrates the problem of differing standards. The book is Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card. It is one of several sequels to his most famous book Ender's Game, which he wrote specifically to lead into Speaker for the Dead, and the message he has to share is very much in line with what we are talking about here.

(Warning: spoilers ahead.)

The main character of both of these books is Ender Wiggins, who starts in the first book as a child genius, recruited by the military to lead Earth's forces against the "buggers", an alien race that had previously attacked and nearly defeated Earth. In the first book, Ender leads Earth's forces to victory and the complete extermination of the buggers, but Ender was deceived into doing this; in fact, he did not know what he was truly doing. (Was Ender acting morally?) Ender is overcome with guilt at his unwitting role in the deaths of so many, and eventually becomes the first "Speaker for the Dead", a title he gives himself to describe his role in trying to explain things from the buggers' point of view, for they were not really so terrible after all, just terribly different, and when they realized too late that humans were not mere animals, they themselves grieved for what they had done to man, and could not blame men for counter-attacking, even to the point of extermination.

In the second book, titled Speaker for the Dead, another alien race, the "piggies", has been discovered. The piggies are still rather primitive, and over the course of many years, some of the piggies and then several of the human scientists studying them are found tortured to death by the piggies. Men generally write this off to their primitive nature, but in the end, Ender uncovers the true explanation: that for the piggies, the torture was a necessary step to the next phase of their own existence, and it was in fact a great honor among them. In the cases where the humans were tortured and killed, the humans had volunteered to be thus treated, in order that one of the piggies that they loved would not be, not understanding that this was considered an honor among the piggies. So the men acted according to the noblest moral standard in their own eyes, but in the piggies' eyes, the men acted selfishly, and it was the piggies that acted most nobly by allowing the men that they loved to receive the honor. Who was right? Who acted morally? I think they both did. And yet pain and suffering resulted.

It's late. That will have to be all for tonight. I will try to get back to the epistemological bits this weekend.

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