Posts Tagged ‘morality’

Catholic bishops fail on basic morality


I need to open by saying that all of the people I know who identify as Catholic are compassionate, thoughtful people. Nothing I say below is meant to be an attack on Catholics as a group. Clearly, some of the bad dogmas driving this insanity are “Catholic” dogmas. But just as there are plenty of Catholics who have forged ahead of their would-be “leaders” on issues like contraception and abortion rights, there are plenty who can think compassionately about end-of-life issues.

Okay. Now that we have that out of the way …

Here is something the Catholic bishops of Alberta said in a joint statement:

The decision of the Supreme Court of Canada makes legally permissible in some circumstances what is morally wrong in every circumstance: the taking of innocent human life.

They are referring, of course, to the historic ruling last February by the Supreme Court that it is not criminal to provide physician-assisted death to “a competent adult person who clearly consents to the termination of life and has a grievous and irremediable medical condition, including an illness, disease or disability, that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition.” The ruling was to come into effect on the sixth of February this year, but the Supreme Court has given the government four more months to come up with legislation related to the ruling.

The bishops are ignoring every very good, very moral reason why this ruling was reached.

There are people who suffer because of the existing law.

There are people who suffer intolerably because of the law.

Read some of the testimonies at the Dying With Dignity website. The lives of many terminally-ill people are made worse because of how things stand. The lives of their families are made worse because of how things stand. They are made worse because of an inability on the part of the law (and people like the bishops) to accept that sometimes death is a more humane option than suffering.

We do not live in a Catholic country. We live in a secular country – a country where everyone has the right to their own beliefs and values, as long as they don’t act in a way that hurts others or impinges unduly on their freedom.

Nobody – nobody – is saying that anyone should have suicide forced on them. Nobody is saying that anyone has to participate in it. All that is being asked is that a certain very vulnerable set of people is not forced to suffer needlessly if they don’t want to.

There are people who live out the last weeks or years of their lives in excruciating pain. The bishops are saying that these people’s suffering is acceptable, and that giving them release from that pain when they ask for it is unacceptable.

Anyone who can say that with a straight face has lost any claim to moral authority. This is a big fail on the part of the Catholic church. My great solace is that, as I said at the outset, most Catholics are pretty good at ignoring the moronic positions of their “leaders” and doing the right thing anyway.

[Edited 2016 Feb 13, changing “physician-assisted suicide” to “physician-assisted death”, to bring language in line with what seems to be emerging as the standard language around this issue – see for example this article.]


Love and machines


I recently listened to the Tapestry episode about the human tendency to get attached to robots. It was very interesting.

The episode covers various things – including repeated references to hitchBOT. No, not a robotic reincarnation of the Hitch. It was a hitch-hiking Canadian robot that was destroyed (some say “murdered”) by someone in August 2015.

One point made in the episode is that humans’ emotional reactions to robots makes them valid objects of ethical consideration. I’ll mention a couple of things that came up. Let me know what you think.

First, consider Paro, a robot seal designed for therapeutic use with elderly people. It is used in the way that pet animals are sometimes used. It is not alive in the same sense, but it also avoids problems of hygiene and allergies that may make live animals inappropriate for use in some situations.


Now, is it problematic to use robots in a way that is designed to get people to form emotional attachments to them? Is there something wrong with using them as a replacement for live animals? On that note, is there something wrong with using non-human animals as a replacement for human companions?

I don’t think so. These all seem okay to me. But I can see how these applications may make some people uncomfortable. And of course, there is the potential to abuse that emotional connection. You could program the robots to gather personal information or to encourage excessive attachment. A really unscrupulous company might even use the robots to manipulate elderly customers to pay more money to keep the robot alive and happy, or to upgrade it, etc.

So, while the basic idea is fine, I think this is something we should keep an eye on (as with any technology, new or old).

Now, what about Spot, a robot that walks like a dog? Here is a video of Spot being put through its paces:

At a couple of points, people test the robot’s stability by pushing it with their feet. Kicking it. It is remarkably good at staying upright, but its dog-like scrabbling with its feet reminds us of a live dog that is being kicked. Check out the comments on the to see how some people react emotionally to seeing this.

Without going down the (fascinating but fraught) rabbit hole of “can machines feel pain/pleasure”, there are still some interesting moral questions here.

For example, if someone kicks a robot (or vandalizes one, as happened to hitchBOT) with malicious intent, is this just abuse of property, or is it a more serious problem? One researcher interviewed on the Tapestry episode pointed out that willingness to destroy a robot is correlated with low empathy scores overall.

I don’t think someone should be jailed for attacking a robot in the same way they should be jailed for attacking a person. But willingness to attack a human-like robot is evidence of the same antisocial character traits that make someone willing to attack an actual human. Surely we shouldn’t just ignore the risk such people pose.

What do you think? Is this still just the fevered dreams of science fiction fans? Or do we need to consider these issues now, before the corporations and other unaccountable entities decide for us how these things will work in our lives and our laws?

Can you tell up from down?


Secular morality is relative.

Therefore, there is no ultimate, absolute, universal right and wrong in secular morality.

Because of this, there is no reason for anyone to follow secular moral rules.

It amazes me how often I hear something like this line of reasoning trotted out as a defeater for secular morality. I have long seen that it’s a completely vacuous argument, but I haven’t been able to articulate the problem with it.

Now I think I have a nice illustration that can demonstrate why it fails.

Consider the concepts of “up” and “down”.

These are obviously very useful concepts. They are important directions when dealing with actions like standing, lifting, dropping, flying, etc. They also serve as anchors for other concepts like “above/below”, “top/bottom”, “upside-down”, and so on.

It is often very important for someone to be able to identify which direction is “up” and which direction is “down”. To pilots, for example, it is regularly a matter of life and death.

But “up” and “down” have a dirty little secret: they are relative. “Up”means “away from the centre of the Earth”.

But no, even this is too geocentric.* If you’re on Mars, “up” is “away from the centre of Mars”. And if you’re in space … well, it becomes muddier. Does an astronaut experiencing microgravity in orbit around the Earth consider “up” to be “away from the Earth”? What about if you were orbiting the Sun away from any planet? What about the Voyager probes, shooting away from the Sun in orbit around nothing (except, perhaps, the galactic core)?

You see, the concept of “up” is relative. Even if you’re just on Earth, “up” is a different physical direction for someone in Ghana than for someone in Siberia.

An obvious and necessary corrolary of this is that there is no ultimate, absolute, universal “up” or “down”.

So far, “up” and “down” are the same as “right” and “wrong” in a moral system with relative underpinnings (such as one that is based on the shared psychological underpinnings of human nature – ie, relative to the species): they work only within the local frame of reference.

So, is the idea of “up” basically meaningless? Does it have no bearing on individuals? Do we have any way of deciding whether one direction is objectively “up” in a given situation?

Of course, the answer is obvious. If I am in Edmonton, Canada, then “up” is (objectively) the direction that points away from the Earth’s centre at Edmonton. If I am in Kumamoto, Japan, then “up” is (objectively) the direction that points away from the Earth’s centre at Kumamoto.

Similarly, for many secular moral systems, even if there is a relative element in them, it is still relative to something concrete. For example, my current inclination is to base my moral reasoning on principles that I think most people would share, such as valuing individual freedom and preventing harm. So, although my moral system is relative to these human values, the reasoning works as long as I’m talking to people in the same location: that is, as long as the people I’m speaking to share these principles.

This is not proof that secular, relativist morality is superior to theistic alternatives. I don’t know if one can prove such a thing about moral systems (except in cases where a moral system is inconsistent with itself, of course – that is a mark against any set of ideas).

But I hope that the “up/down” analogy will help people understand the faults with the most common objection to relative systems of morality.


* It’s also very imprecise. Due to gravitational effects of mountains and other stuff, the gravitational pull at any particular point on the Earth’s surface isn’t necessarily straight toward the Earth’s centre.

Relative and subjective, pot and kettle


There are a few things that seem to be jumbled together in people’s minds – including my own – on the subject of morality. I’ll try to tease apart the relationships here, both to develop a more coherent picture myself and to communicate that perspective for others to inspect and critique.

Now, some people object to non-religious morality because it is subjective and relative, and therefore not as compelling or defensible as the alternatives. What they seem to mean by subjective is that it is chosen by the individual, rather than imposed from outside. What they seem to mean by relative is that it changes from person to person, depending on their preferences, tastes, and whims.

The alternative that many people offer is a morality based on a god. This sort of morality is thought to be objective, not subjective, because it is imposed from outside rather than being chosen by the individual. It is also thought to be absolute rather than relative because its source is a single unchanging, universal god rather than a myriad of individual, mercurial humans.

This account is simplistic and hides a startling fact about all these moral systems. Let’s dig deeper …

For one thing, there are many types of non-religious morality: utilitarian, virtue-based, social-contract, hedonistic, and others. Not all of these systems are equally subjective – they do not all posit moral rules deriving from the individual. Similarly, not all of them are equally relative – they do not all change from person to person.

My own moral system is based on trio of values which are, I think, fairly common to all humans: value for people’s well-being, value for people’s individual autonomy, and value for true understanding. Most common moral rules fall out of applying these three basic values. It is absolute rather than relative, because it is derived from a shared human nature which changes little over any one lifespan, or even over the course of recorded human history. It is also objective rather than subjective, to the extent that it draws on values that all people share, rather than values particular to certain individuals or groups.

However, I recognize that others might not see it that way. What’s to keep the next person from choosing a different set of basic beliefs from mine? I only have my own sense that these three are basic to defend them as the core of my moral system. So the source of this system may be my particular choice of core values, not some pan-human value set, making this system more relative and less aboslute than I would like. As for being objective, it falls short there too, doesn’t it. After all, it’s just me, a human, declaring it as a moral system, rather than it being imposed from outside.

Now, let’s compare this against religious alternatives. I will take Christians as an example, but I think the following would work for any other god-based morality out there.

Let’s take objectivity: is it imposed from within (ie, by humans) or from without? Well, in principle at least, Christian morality derives from their God – either as part of his nature, or as commands from him, or something else. So in principle it’s quite objective. Only … well, there’s no good reason to think the god has actually communicated any rules. Looking across Christian history, the rules people have ascribed to that god have run the spectrum on virtually every important moral issue, from slavery to homosexuality to abortion to monarchy to women’s rights. The rules that are actually articulated to human communities on behalf of that god show every evidence of coming from people. So, while there may in theory be objective moral rules that God would have us follow, the ones we have before us almost certainly came from humans. That is, they are subjective.

What about relativism: does it change from person to person based on their preferences, or does it apply to everyone regardless of what they want? Again, in principle, God’s wishes would be the same for everyone. They would be absolute, not relative. But again, in practice, we see Christians resolving disputes more often by switching denominations or splitting into separate groups than by rationally compelling assent to one clearly superior position. So, to the extent that we can say anything about Christian morality by looking at the behaviour of practicing Christians, we must conclude that it is highly relative.

I want to stop here to point out a parallel that the more attentive reader will already have spotted. The particular non-religious moral system that I espouse above is both objective and absolute from my perspective: it is imposed from outside any one person by human nature, and it applies to each individual’s actions regardless of whether they wishes it to apply. But in practice, I have no way to rationally compel assent to it, making it relative to my own interpretation of human nature; and to anyone else it would clearly appear to be imposed by me, a human, rather than from outside, making it subjective. On the other hand, religious moral systems are both objective and absolute from their own perspectives: they are imposed from outside by a poweful god, and they apply to everyone regardless of whether they want it to apply. But in practice, religious apologists have no way to rationally compel assent to their systems, making them relative to their particular interpretation of human nature; and to outsiders they appear to be imposed by the human believers, not their chosen gods, making them subjective.

I see two key differences. One is that religious moral systems are more popular and familiar. This makes their claims seem more plausible on the face of it (independent of their actual merits). The other is that I acknowledge the limitations and potential flaws of my system. This makes my claim seem less compelling (independent of its actual merits).

Dirty relativist that I am, I leave you to decide for yourself. Please do drop me a note to tell me what you think – constructive praise or constructive criticism are both welcome.