The Last Superstition: Pie in the Sky When You Die

Chapter 4: Heaven and whatnot

Continuing his exploration of “natural law”, Feser “reminds” us that

First of all, since knowing God is our highest end, our moral duties include, first and foremost, religious duties: duties to pursue knowledge of God, to honor Him as our Creator and the giver of the moral law, to teach our children to do the same, and so forth.

This is another of Feser’s non sequiturs: even if we accept that humans are supposed to know God, how does it follow that we’re supposed to worship it? The goal of nuclear physics is to thoroughly know the atom. Does that mean that physicists shoud worship it? Do literary scholars worship Shakespeare and Cervantes, and teach their children to do likewise? Feser hasn’t even demonstrated that God is intelligent, let alone that it wants or deserves honor or worship.

He then tells us that if you don’t think there’s an afterlife,

This life, in both its good and bad aspects, takes on an exaggerated importance. Worldly pleasures and projects become overvalued. Difficult moral obligations, which seem bearable in light of the prospect of an eternal reward, come to seem impossible to live up to when our horizons are this-worldly. Harms and injustices suffered in this life, patiently endured when one sees beyond it to the next life, suddenly become unendurable. This is one reason secularists are often totally obsessed with politics and prone to utopian fantasies. They do not see any hope for a world beyond this one

This fits well, I believe, with one of Karl Marx’s more famous quotations:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

But I think Greta Christina put it better than I could in “Why Are You Atheists So Angry?”:

If people believe they’ll be rewarded with infinite bliss in the afterlife — and there’s no way to prove whether or not that’s true — people will let themselves be martyrs to their faith, to an appalling degree. More commonly, if people believe in infinite bliss in the afterlife, they’ll be more willing to accept an appalling degree of oppression and injustice in this life. From anybody.

Oddly, this is often framed as a plus. “Religion gives people hope in hardship.” It gets presented as a feature, not a bug. But I fail to see how encouraging oppressed people to suck it up until they get pie in the sky is a good thing. (For the oppressed, anyway. Why it’s good for the oppressors is crystal clear.)

[Chapter 3, “Succumbing to political oppression”]

It’s also worth noting that Feser mentions “an eternal reward”, but nowhere has he attempted to justify this. He has argued that some ill-defined thing he calls a “soul” survives people’s death (perhaps in the same way that “triangularity” persists after you’ve erased an individual triangle), but nowhere does he argue that souls are conscious, or that the afterlife can be pleasant or unpleasant, or that this is in any way connected to a person’s actions in life. In other words, the word “reward” here slips in an awful lot of presuppositions through the back door, with no justification. This seems to be part of Feser’s modus operandi: start by making and defending a weak claim (e.g., there is something worth calling “soul” that persists after a person dies), digress for a few pages or chapters, then claim that he has successfully demonstrated a much stronger claim (souls are conscious and enjoy eternal bliss or suffering).

Series: The Last Superstition

Why Is Universalizability a Good Thing?

Back in 2010, Greta Christina wrote about liberal and conservative moral systems. At the core was a set of studies showing that while everyone shares the same core values — fairness, minimizing harm, authority, purity, loyalty, and a few others — that liberals and conservatives prioritize these values differently: liberals tend to put a higher value on fairness, for instance, while conservatives tend to put a higher value on authority.

She then argues that “liberal” core values like fairness and harm-reduction are better than “conservative” ones like purity and authority, because the liberal ones are universalizable: they aren’t parochial, and apply to every human being (and possibly animals and extraterrestrials) equally.

That explanation is okay, but I’m not quite satisfied with it. I kept asking why the fact that a value applies to everyone is a good core value. And that led me to the open marketplace of ideas.

And to do that, let me step back and look at the open marketplace of, well, markets.

Everyone in a capitalist society understands why, say, $3.79 is a fair price for a bag of chips: thousands of sellers pick prices at which to sell their goods, and millions of buyers make decisions as to whether to buy at that price or not. Of course I’d prefer to buy chips for a nickel, and of course the store would rather charge me twenty bucks. But I understand that that wouldn’t cover manufacturing costs, the store understands that if their price is too high, I won’t buy it, and out of many such interactions, of people either buying or not buying, a consensus emerges: $1.00 is too low, $10.00 is too high, and that something like $3.50 is a price that everyone can live with.

There are also times when prices can be tilted to favor or penalize some group of people or set of goods, such as “Buy American” campaigns or boycotts, or when a designer like Louis Vuitton convinces people to pay extra for goods that have a particular logo on them.

Over time, we will act as both buyer and seller, comparison shopper and haggler, and can appreciate at least the rudiments of everyone’s views.

Now, since morality is a way of regulating interactions between people (if it weren’t for the fact that we live together, we’d have no need for morality), I claim that a similar calculus takes place: that we are constantly negotiating The Rules in a corner of the marketplace of ideas.

Just as the store would love to charge me $20 for a bag of chips, I would like for everyone to call me “Your Highness” and let me skip ahead in line at the store. The problem is persuading people to treat me that way.

I also know that if someone else wanted to be treated that way, I’d resent and resist it. Nor can I come up with a convincing argument for why I should get special treatment, one that I would accept if the shoe were on the other foot. And so collectively we negotiate a compromise that we can all live with, in which nobody gets called “Your Highness” and we wait in line in first-come, first-served order.

And gosh, it sure looks as though this sort of free negotiation favors those rules and compromises that everyone can agree on. That is, universalizable values.

Now, unlike the economic marketplace, where I will by turns take the role of buyer or seller, in the marketplace of moral ideas, I will never be a woman, or Asian, or left-handed, or gay. But I do interact with people who are. Even if we ignore for a moment the effects of sympathy, and consider that everyone just wants the moral rules that most favor themselves, men will argue for rules that privilege men, and women will argue for rules that privilege women, and over time, they ought to compromise on something that isn’t what anyone wanted, but that everyone can live with, like equality.

In this analogy, asking why one group gets special privileges is like asking why one brand costs more than another. Sometimes there’s a good answer (“Brand L jeans are more durable than brand X”, “You should give up your subway seat to older people because they need it more”), and sometimes there isn’t (“Brand A costs more because we just redesigned the label”, “Men should be in positions of power because they have a Y chromosome”).

And yes, this process takes far longer than anyone would like, partly because (for the vast majority of people) it’s not a conscious process: we don’t set out to figure out what moral rules are best for us, for our loved ones, for the rest of society; we just sort of go along with what’s around us, and either complain when we don’t like something, or adapt when other people complain about our behavior. There are many other complicating factors as well.

But on the whole, this semi-conscious marketplace should favor those values that apply to everyone with a voice, or at least an advocate. That is, things like fairness and harm reduction.

Pursuit of Happiness

Greta Christina
makes a great point:
if conservatives want to argue that gay marriage goes against the
principles that America was founded on, remind them of that founding
principle explicitly spelled out in the declaration of independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are
created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain
unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit
of Happiness.

If marrying the person you love isn’t pursuit of happiness, I don’t
know what is.

But don’t take my word for it. In the
Loving v. Virginia
decision, SCOTUS chief justice Warren wrote:

The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of
the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of
happiness by free men.

Putting Money on the Races

I’ve just chipped in to two more races:

  • No on Prop 8, against California’s proposition 8, which would amdend the state constitution to ban gay marriage.
  • Kay Hagan, who’s running for Senate in North Carolina, because Elizabeth Dole is a loathsome bigot.

Because when a woman who knows how to use a whip and handcuffs
tells me to,
I must obey.

Great Christina

Allow me to pimp Greta Christina’s Blog, for no other reason than that she’s worth reading, including a few articles that I wanted to write, but she beat me to it:

Why Religion Is Like Fanfic compares religious apologetics (why does the Bible say that Judas hanged himself in one passage, but that he exploded in another?) to fans coming up with explanations for incongruities in their favorite TV shows and book series.

On The Amazingness of Atheists… And Why It’s Doomed is about why the contemporary atheist movement will blow over, and why this is a good thing.

Go and show her some love.