Tag Archives: ethics

American holocaust: What would you do?

There are some excellent questions raised in this movie.

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Can atheism provide a suitable foundation for morality of any sort?

Can any sort of morality be sustained in the absence of a divine moral lawgiver from which an objective moral standard can be derived and to whom we are all accountable? Atheist philosopher Joel Marks argues in his piece that it cannot (part 2), that the best atheists are left with is the subjective dislike of certain attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors.

Here’s the conclusion for those of you who are pressed for time:

I conclude that morality is largely superfluous in daily life, so its removal – once the initial shock had subsided – would at worst make no difference in the world. (I happen to believe – or just hope? – that its removal would make the world a better place, that is, more to our individual and collective liking. That would constitute an argument for amorality that has more going for it than simply conceptual housekeeping. But the thesis – call it ‘The Joy of Amorality’ – is an empirical one, so I would rely on more than just philosophy to defend it.)

A helpful analogy, at least for the atheist, is sin. Even though words like ‘sinful’ and ‘evil’ come naturally to the tongue as a description of, say, child-molesting, they do not describe any actual properties of anything. There are no literal sins in the world because there is no literal God and hence the whole religious superstructure that would include such categories as sin and evil. Just so, I now maintain, nothing is literally right or wrong because there is no Morality. Yet, as with the non-existence of God, we human beings can still discover plenty of completely-naturally-explainable internal resources for motivating certain preferences. Thus, enough of us are sufficiently averse to the molesting of children, and would likely continue to be so if fully informed, to put it on the books as prohibited and punishable by our society.

As a side note; It amazes me that questions of moral grounding among mixed theistic/atheistic company generally trend towards the attack and defense of theistic morality. It is very rare to see any atheistic ground for morality along the lines of what Sam Harris attempted to do in his book “Moral Landscape”. Its very easy to throw mud at someone, but its a lot harder to bake that mud into bricks, form those bricks into a home, and attempt to live in it.

Bonus: Here is another helpful commentary from the perspective that love is the driving force behind morality.

Is God the only possible foundation for objective morality?

On Quora I was invited to help answer the question “Is God the only possible foundation for objective morality?”. The following is my contribution.

Yes, without an objective moral lawgiver the notion of an objective moral law is absurd.

The fundamental question when it comes to the establishment of any moral system is where obligation is derived. From a naturalistic perspective it appears that the best we can do is describe what is and can consequently never arrive at an obligatory ought. For that, it seems that a competent moral authority is required.

The formula goes like this (borrowed from notes on a recent debate):

Two claims

  • if God exists, then we have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties
  • if God does not exist, then we do not have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties

To further expand on the above two points:

  • Theism provides a rational ground for morality in the character of God who, properly defined, is the maximal being who is worthy of worship.
  • Atheism does not provide a sound foundation for objective morality and further fails to provide the ability to ground moral duty since it provides no rational basis for human freedom.

This topic has the propensity to produce many rabbit trails on related topics so to remain on this topic we need to keep in mind that the scope of this question is limited to moral ontology. What makes something good or bad. Not moral epistemology or how we know whether something is good or not. In a recent debate with Sam Harris, Bill Craig used the example that ancient persons knew what light and darkness was even though they had no knowledge of the physical properties of light.

Many times altruism is posited as a possible secular source for morality. The problem with that theory, though, is that nature’s propensity for cruelty and suffering shows that secular morality is a myth. In order for an appeal to altruism to be credible on a naturalistic account of the universe, the existence of a selfless gene would need to be established.

While it is possible for all humans to know, intrinsically, certain moral truths, the question of foundation requires that we not care so much about the specifics of morality and, instead, focus on whence they are derived.

Here are a few excellent resources on this topic:

Meet Blinky, the helpful robot

Blinky™ from Ruairi Robinson on Vimeo.

The above video is EXTREMELY well done for a 12 minute short. What makes it even more chilling, however, is how in a recent debate regarding the meaning of life, the question was asked about making sure Asimov’s 3 laws of robotics should be imprinted in all robotics. One of the responders, and it was left unchallenged by all, emphatically said “No!”.

The lesson is simple, morality does not come from within a being.

G.K. Chesterton on progressivism

In Heretics pg. 16-17 G.K. Chesterton writes:

Nobody has any business to use the word “progress” unless he has a definite creed and a cast-iron code of morals. Nobody can be progressive without being doctrinal; I might almost say that nobody can be progressive without being infallible at any rate, without believing in some infallibility. For progress by its very name indicates a direction; and the moment we are in the least doubtful about the direction, we become in the same degree doubtful about the progress. Never perhaps since the beginning of the world has there been an age that had less right to use the word “progress” than we. In the Catholic twelfth century, in the philosophic eighteenth century, the direction may have been a good or a bad one, men may have differed more or less about how far they went, and in what direction, but about the direction they did in the main agree, and consequently they had the genuine sensation of progress. But it is precisely about the direction that we disagree. Whether the future excellence lies in more law or less law, in more liberty or less liberty; whether property will be finally concentrated or finally cut up; whether sexual passion will reach its sanest in an almost virgin intellectualism or in a full animal freedom; whether we should love everybody with Tolstoy, or spare nobody with Nietzsche;—these are the things about which we are actually fighting most. It is not merely true that the age which has settled least what is progress is this “progressive” age. It is, moreover, true that the people who have settled least what is progress are the most “progressive” people in it. The ordinary mass, the men who have never troubled about progress, might be trusted perhaps to progress. The particular individuals who talk about progress would certainly fly to the four winds of heaven when the pistol-shot started the race. I do not, therefore, say that the word “progress” is unmeaning; I say it is unmeaning without the previous definition of a moral doctrine, and that it can only be applied to groups of persons who hold that doctrine in common. Progress is not an illegitimate word, but it is logically evident that it is illegitimate for us. It is a sacred word, a word which could only rightly be used by rigid believers and in the ages of faith.

I believe Mr Chesterton’s words are just as true today as they were nearly a century ago.

The problem with physical morality

If you suppose that you are nothing more than the molecules that make you up, then the only thing you can own are molecules. However that poses a problem since our bodies are constantly changing out molecules. In fact, 98% of the molecules in our bodies are replaced yearly.

There is not a core of molecules that persists, so the best we can say is that we are only leasing the molecules of our physical bodies. So when we talk about moral obligation, it seems dubious to center it on a physical object since that object does not persist. The molecules that made up Jeffery Dahmer when he killed all his victims did not make him up 2 years hence, so should we have released him since his “bad” molecules were now dissipated?

Calvin and Hobbes on moral relativism

[HT Stephen Notman]

Animal ethics

This is a long video but well worth it if you want to understand the secular left’s position on animals and their relationship with humans.

The key point, in my estimation, comes in during the Q&A at the end where one of the audience members makes the point that we have to come up with a way of determining the worth of an organism that is not based on that organism’s function or physical makeup because we want to also say that babies, mentally retarded, and physically deformed people posses value as well.

I heartily agree, but the problem on their part is that without an appeal to something metaphysical in our makeup, ie. the soul, there is no reason to think that a human (much less any other “animal”) is any more or less valuable or worthy of protection or consideration than any other physical object on this planet.

Is morality better grounded in atheism or theism?

Sean McDowell recently debated James Corbett on the question of whether morality is better grounded in atheism or theism. (MP3 here)

Some highlights include:

  • We require a transcendant source of morality in order to judge other cultures. We require a “Law above the law”
  • Objective moral standards require a God
  • Without objective moral standards, all we are left with are preferences.
  • Any valid explination of morality needs to account for free will. Where does it come from?
  • Materialism relieves us from all culpability

On the ethics, theology, and economics of copyright

Copyright has been one of the leading issues of the 21st century and yet surprisingly little has been written on it from a uniquely Christian perspective. The most one reads about it, for example, is that violation of copyright is akin to stealing and the treatment of copyright pretty much ends there. However I don’t think such a simplistic answer does the complexity of the issue very much justice.

Being a programmer I deal with copyright and intellectual property issues quite a bit. In fact, most of Americans today deal in some form of knowledge working or another1. Many (like myself) derive their entire living from their production of intellectual capital2.

So when we speak of copyright, we must first understand that it effects everyone. Even if you are not involved in the production end of intellectual capital, you are very likely to be on the receiving end of the purchase of a product based primarily on intellectual capital3. In fact, the US Chamber of Commerce has this to say about the intellectual property produced by the United States:

The intellectual property (IP) generated by U.S. companies is critical to America’s prosperity and leadership in the global economy. America’s IP-intensive industries employ nearly 18 million workers, account for more than 50% of all U.S. exports, and represent 40% of the country’s growth (Department of Commerce).

With this much riding on it, you would think that we had solved all the philosophical and legal questions surrounding intellectual property. However we haven’t. On the contrary, the merits and applications of copyright law are constantly being contested in court while, at the same time, the cultural understanding of intellectual property is constantly being fought in the court of public opinion.

In all of this, however, the Christian church has remained surprisingly silent.

But before we begin to delve into the philosophical and theological aspects of copyright and intellectual property, it would be helpful if we took a step back and examined how we got here.

History of copyright in America

Etymologically, the term “copyright” didn’t even exist until the 19th century. And then, it’s primary meaning centered around physical written works.

The United States was one of the first countries to ever address the issue of copyright. The copyright clause in the US Constitution (article 1, section 8, clause 8) in the section enumerating the explicit powers of the US Congress states:

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

We’ll come back to this in a minute when dealing with the philosophical and economic implications of copyright but before we do I want to point out that, at the time of the penning of the US Constitution, America was a major purchaser of books.

In Niel Postman’s book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” we are told that authors such as Charles Dickens were hailed as celebrities when they visited America and that they only realized a fraction of the proceeds from the sales (which were largely unauthorized) of their works.

Legal intentions

The initial legal intentions (at least from a US copyright law standpoint) of copyright are clearly stated in the copyright clause above. Those intentions were essentially to encourage the production of intellectual capital (creative works) by granting a limited monopoly on original intellectual property. After the limited time period, which was originally roughly 20-30 years, the capital was to be made public domain and freely available to all.

Unfortunately, successive extensions to US copyright law have increased copyright protections into the hundreds of years. And since corporations can now claim the status of individuals in many legal aspects, there is a real concern that copyright protections for some content has been effectively rendered indefinite.

Here is a helpful graph to illustrate how copyright terms have lengthened over time:

Theological treatment of copyright

Exodus 20:15 states “Thou shalt not steal.”

For many people, this is where the discussion of copyright ends. However I believe a closer comparison of the Biblical understanding of stealing, and particularly the restitution required if the command is broken, will quickly expose why, in my opinion, violation of copyright cannot be easily dismissed or characterized as stealing.

To begin with, the overarching theme of justice found in Scripture is that of restitution. In fact, the notion of “an eye for an eye”4 were quite unique to the Hebrew community at a time when most governments provided disproportionate and unequal punishments for varying crimes. In the middle-east today, for example, it is not uncommon to hear of a man loosing a hand for stealing a loaf of bread.

Leviticus 6:1-7 tells us

The LORD said to Moses: “If anyone sins and is unfaithful to the LORD by deceiving his neighbor about something entrusted to him or left in his care or stolen, or if he cheats him, or if he finds lost property and lies about it, or if he swears falsely, or if he commits any such sin that people may do- when he thus sins and becomes guilty, he must return what he has stolen or taken by extortion, or what was entrusted to him, or the lost property he found, or whatever it was he swore falsely about. He must make restitution in full, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the owner on the day he presents his guilt offering. And as a penalty he must bring to the priest, that is, to the LORD, his guilt offering, a ram from the flock, one without defect and of the proper value. In this way the priest will make atonement for him before the LORD, and he will be forgiven for any of these things he did that made him guilty.”

With physical objects such as clothing, food, cattle, etc. the application of this command is easily seen. If I steal a physical object such as a car, I have deprived the original owner of the use of the car. The object is now in my possession and not in the possession of the rightful owner. Thus it makes sense, with physical objects, “to look for them”5, to “preserve them”6, to “transfer them”7.

Comparatively, intellectual property is, by it’s very nature metaphysical like numbers and formulas in mathematics, ethical principals, laws of nature, etc.

Like information8, intellectual property cannot be created9, quantified, contained, or destroyed.

One could argue that loss of information due to memory or storage failures effectively destroys information. However I would simply point out that the information itself is not what was destroyed, merely the means of easily recalling that information. Mathematical principals such as long and complex quadratic equations would still exist even if the whole of the human race collectively forgot them. This is one of the reasons that scientists are credited with making “discoveries”. No one thinks that Isaac Newton created the laws of gravity, he merely discovered them.

Stifling effects of copyright overindulgence

There are very clear negative effects if a nation or culture does not limit the scope and application of copyright laws.

The first casualty of an overindulgence in copyright is the shrinking of the number of works freely available in the public domain. This not only means a famine by way of works that should have long ago made their way into the public domain for further development and innovation. But it also means that works that are no longer actively supported by their original copyright holder are left in a sort of limbo where they are not in the public domain but their licenses are not clear and so no one will risk doing anything with the work. This is a terrible waste and something that leads inexorably into the second causality caused by our current copyright laws.

The second, and arguably greater, casualty of an overindulgence in obtrusive copyright laws is a hindrance to innovation. The very thing copyright laws were designed to encourage in the first place!

Conclusion

In light of this, I am forced to conclude that violating copyright laws cannot be equated with stealing in the Biblical. Intellectual property is essentially a misnomer since metaphysical information cannot be quantified, contained, destroyed or created.

However, lest we fall into the trap of thinking that willful violations of copyright are Biblically sanctioned I want to hasten to point out that we are called in Romans 13 to be obedient to the laws of the land (no matter how absurd) and that in whatever we do we are to live above reproach10.

What this means from a practical point of view is that if you choose to violate another person or company’s copyright you are incurring the risk of that person or company taking you to court.

Additionally, if you decide to profit from your endeavors (the threshold for criminal prosecution is $250,000) you also run the risk of being prosecuted by the state.

Besides, why would you want to contribute to the problem?

Yes, even so-called piracy manages to perpetuate the copyright dilemma by signaling copyright holders of a demand for their content. The only thing copyright holders are likely to do in such an event is to find better ways of protecting their intellectual property, either via Digital Restriction Management, encryption11, or direct legal action12.

A much better approach is to deliberately choose to use free and open source software, specifically software licensed under the copyleft license where the creator has voluntarily relinquished any future claim on how their software may be used.

I would like to say that consuming content created under a creative commons license has made much of a difference but sadly it hasn’t. The biggest driver of positive change in terms of copyright law in America has been through rampant copyright infringement which has helped to dramatically change the business models of otherwise ardent copyright protagonists such as the MPAA and RIAA.

And contrary to the claims of pro-copyright proponents, there is good evidence that copyright infringement actually leads to higher sales.

  1. See this presentation for some fun statistics. []
  2. Here is an interesting article on how knowledge workers are changing the demographics of our cities. []
  3. Like music, movies, television, software, video games, etc. []
  4. Exodus 21:24, Lev. 24:20, Deut. 19:21 []
  5. Luke 15:8 []
  6. Deuteronomy 8:4 []
  7. 1 Kings 21:2-3 []
  8. Which is what I would argue is all that intellectual property amounts to. []
  9. At least not in the sense that one creates new objects where none had previously existed. []
  10. Matthew 5:16, John 15:8, 1 Peter 2:12, 2 Corinthians 9:13, etc. []
  11. which brings a whole host of other legal concerns thanks to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act or DMCA []
  12. Copyright infractions that do not involve the perpetrator profiting by $250,000 or more are considered civil offences. This generally means that if legal action is taken, the resulting court case becomes a contest of who has deeper pockets. And as the recent RIAA cases, not very many people are willing to go through the expense of proving themselves innocent. []