Copious Incongruity

This is ridiculous. Near the end of this video Peter Hitchens makes the comparison that relative morals would be like if the magnetic north drifted. Surprise Peter! It drifts! In 2009 it was moving almost 40 miles per year! Does this make navigation harder as Peter claims? Well, not entirely: much navigation is far enough away from the poles that the exact location isn't too terribly important, but navigation relying on the magnetic north pole near the magnetic north pole will always be difficult—in very close analogy with moral orientation, which, in matters with poorly understood consequences or a poor sense of empathy, can be very difficult to resolve. 

In this analogy, obvious moral issues (like stealing & murder) are akin to navigation far from the poles (e.g. the equator), where the exact location of the magnetic poles is less influential on the resulting guidance, while morally controversial issues (like embryonic stem cell research or the creation of artificial life) are like trying to use a compass at the magnetic pole—it is not possible. In navigation we've overcome this limit by inventing artificial tools like GPS to take the place of the magnetic compass, in morals we've repeatedly tried to overcome this limit with new moral philosophies, but the moral landscape isn't a tiny sphere like Earth, it's an endless landscape largely unexplored. Technology and communication are constantly expanding the landscape we've explored, and relaying it back to the masses, where moral cartographers try to map out what is and isn't okay. Unfortunately for homo sapiens, moral cartographers are in constant conflict with religious zealots crying that all the answers were revealed to a handful of anonymous desert goat herders 2000-5000 years ago!

The real problem is that believing one has a black and white absolute resolution to every moral question interferes with actual progress in moral attitudes. As a shameful example, our nation, just a scant 150 years ago thought it was morally acceptable to own and treat human beings as property. Just try to comprehend that. Many southern baptists believed this was so acceptable they were willing to fight the bloodiest war of our history over it. Luckily another group of probably mostly religious people (as most people were and continue to be) felt strongly enough about human rights to fight such a terrible war in the name of equality.

Now I assume that most southern baptists today do not condone slavery, and would vehemently fight against it. Is that due to their immutable moral sense? Or is it because morals—like the magnetic north pole—drift over time, evolving as humankind comprehends more of reality, more of the pain of fellow humans, more of the similarities that cross skin color, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, and religious indoctrination? And if you are ready to admit that morals are indeed not absolute, the next step is to start seeing how the denial of that fact and the assertion of an absolute guide to morals is further inhibiting us—just as it did with slavery in the United States in 1860.

To a far lesser degree, we are witnessing this phenomena with respect to biological research. Religious dogmas are interfering with what should be a serious discussion about what is morally acceptable and what is not, but instead the whole discussion has been dragged into the mythical realm of books written by people who couldn't have dreamed of the slightest fraction of what the technology is capable of exploring.

Additional points that I don't want to bother describing in detail at the moment: he mentions consciousness as being a difficult challenge for atheists. I assure you, it's not. He also pretends as if his difficulty to imagine an answer were a sufficient reason for one to accept the introduction of magic into the explanation. This is silly, we're each born not understanding any phenomena, genetics, technology, physics, etc., are all intensely mysterious to the fresh human mind. It is only after many centuries of careful observation, analysis, hypothesis, and testing (i.e., science) that we have come to comprehend what powers the sun, why I look like my dad and so on. He mentions that if morality evolves, the things we strongly disapprove of now could be permitted later: yes! That is a good thing, that very process is the reason why it is generally accepted that enslaving human beings is morally impermissible. That is a wonderful thing. He asks if morals evolve than who evolves them? And the answer is obviously that we do. There is no grand hand to guide us, no stone tablet describing where stem cell research actually crosses the line. We are alone here, except for one another. And the sooner we all admit that, and accept it, and embrace it, the sooner we can make some real progress.

Finally (though this seems like a minor point in comparison to the horrifying topic of slavery), Peter says at the end that "morality is what you do when you think nobody is looking," and "theres a lot of things I would do if I didn't believe in god." Wow! I'd like to know what those things are. I suspect upon further reflection most people who make this kind of statement (and I assure you there are many) would realize that most of the things they would do aren't really all that wrong. I doubt any of them would confess desires to murder, rape, or steal from other people, abuse children, or most of the other things that most people think of as "wrong." But what would they do? Maybe drugs? Cursing? Take the lords name in vain? Maybe they would be more sexually "deviant"? or admit it more? Maybe they'd want to have a homosexual experience. I can imagine that being fairly likely, since many religious homosexuals have forced themselves to live a lie, choosing faith in their despicable book over a happy self-controlled life.


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