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Why secular ethics is superior to religious ethics

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on March 12, 2010

As an atheist I usually have to face an iteration of the without-god-there’d-be-no-morals argument. My usual tactic in handling such arguments has been based on Hitchens famous challenge: show me one moral action that an atheist cannot engage in. Now, I’m taking a bit of a different approach. While sticking to the challenge, I take it a step further, by not only asserting that secular ethics is in fact attainable, but by stating that it is superior to its religious counterpart.

There are some schools of thought in moral philosophy that judge moral actions by their consequences only. I partially endorse this thinking, by merging it with the other schools of thought that judge the morality of an action also by the intentions behind it. Consequences and intentions, in my opinion, are both necessary to determine the moral standing of an action or principle.

Based on this I assert that secular morals, derived from our adherence to a set of principles are superior to religious ones, derived out of fear of punishment or promises of rewards in the afterlife. Why? Instead of writing out the theory, let me illustrate through a simple example.

Imagine, if you will, two persons which are presented with an opportunity to steal something in a store. Neither chooses to steal. The first does so because he’s afraid he’ll get caught and punished. The second does so because she believes that stealing someone else’s property is wrong. Both people engaged, or more precisely failed to engage, in the same exact act with the same exact result. They did not steal. However,  we’d all intuitively say that the second person’s act is more moral than the first person’s act, who did not steal only because he was afraid of punishment, if caught. It is a conclusion that requires no discussion; I’d say almost all of us would instinctively deem the second person as more moral than the first. I mean, given a choice of having either one of them as a roommate, who would you choose? I for one would go with the second, and not only because she happens to be female in this example.

The point of this little exercise is that intentions matter in morality. They can add, or take away, from the total moral “score” of an action. Good intentions add to it; bad ones take away points. As such, a set of morals based on principles, will always be superior to a set of morals based on fear of punishment/promise of reward, even if both moral sets are exactly the same and result in identical actions. The former is descriptive of secular ethics; the former is descriptive of religious ethics. As such secular ethics is superior to religious ethics.

QED

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Putting God out of the ethics business

Posted in News by Skepdude on November 6, 2009

READ THE REST OF THIS ARTICLE AT PSYCHOLOGY TODAY

By now you may have heard about or seen the “good without God” posters in the subways of New York City and elsewhere. Media outlets from the New York Times to Fox News have characterized them as ads promoting atheism. Yet while the campaign aims to reach out to nonbelievers, it also raises a broader issue–something most people seem to have missed.

The obvious meaning of “good without God” is that atheists can be good people. But a closer look reveals a more universal message: people can be good regardless of their beliefs about God. From this perspective, the ad was not about atheism, but about the nature of morality. (I’m writing this blog post along with Michael De Dora, Jr., a spokesperson for the New York City campaign.)

When we act ethically, our reasons are usually nothing transcendental, just simple respect and compassion for others.

With split seconds to save a stranger from death on the tracks at the 137th Street subway station, Wesley Autrey didn’t pause to seek divine guidance or reflect on his reward in heaven. That would have been one thought too many, as the moral philosopher Bernard Williams would say. As Autrey later explained, “I just saw someone who needed help. I did what I felt was right.” The exact words that went through his head were, “Fool, you got to go in there.” Responsibility is like that. No one else can claim it for you.

Moral choices are not always as clear-cut as Autrey’s. The solution to complex ethical debates is seldom as clear as a stone tablet or a voice from a burning bush. One problem with stone tablets is that there is only so much you can fit on them. Lists of shalts and shalt nots in and of themselves can never be comprehensive and precise enough to render right answers on borderline cases and contemporary issues. “Shalt not kill” does not resolve whether one-week old embryos count as the kind of thing that may not be killed; “shalt not steal” does not explain when derivatives trading becomes stealing.

READ THE REST OF THIS ARTICLE AT PSYCHOLOGY TODAY

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Stand up, stand up, against Jesus

Posted in News by Skepdude on November 6, 2009

READ THE REST OF THIS ARTICLE AT THE GUARDIAN

Religious teachings promise us much — eternal life, spiritual salvation, moral direction, and a deeper understanding of reality. It all sounds good, but these teachings are also onerous in their demands. If they can’t deliver on what they promise, it would be well to clear that up. Put bluntly, are the teachings of any religion actually true or not? Do they have any rational support? It’s hard to see what questions could be more important. Surely the claims of religion — of all religions — merit scrutiny from every angle, whether historical, philosophical, scientific, or any other.

Contrary to many expectations in the 1970s, or even the 1990s, religion has not faded away, even in the Western democracies, and we still see intense activism from religious lobbies. Even now, one religion or another opposes abortion rights, most contraceptive technologies, and therapeutic cloning research. Various churches and sects condemn many harmless, pleasurable sexual activities that adults can reasonably enjoy. As a result, these are frowned upon, if not prohibited outright, in many parts of the world, indeed people lose their lives because of them. Most religious organisations reject dying patients’ requests to end their lives as they see fit. Even in relatively secular countries, such as the UK, Canada, and Australia, governments pander blatantly to Christian moral concerns as the protection of religiously motivated refusals to provide medical professional services demonstrates.

In a different world, the merits, or otherwise, of religious teachings might be discussed more dispassionately. In that world, some of us who criticise religion itself might be content to argue that the church (and the mosque, and all the other religious architecture that sprouts across the landscape) should be kept separate from the state. Unfortunately, however, we don’t live in that world.

READ THE REST OF THIS ARTICLE AT THE GUARDIAN

Moral DNA?

Posted in Pharyngula by Skepdude on April 24, 2009

Please, someone, tell the priests to go tend to their rituals and quit pretending to ha have any understanding of reality. A new archbishop has tried to use biology to argue for his archaic moral position, and I just want to slap him.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan yesterday said advocates of gay marriage “are asking for trouble,” arguing that traditional, one-man/one-woman marriage is rooted in people’s moral DNA.

“There’s an in-built code of right and wrong that’s embedded in the human DNA,” Dolan told The Post in an exclusive, wide-ranging interview, a week after becoming the New York Archdiocese’s new leader.

“Hard-wired into us is a dictionary, and the dictionary defines marriage as between one man, one woman for life, please God, leading to the procreation of human life.

Every word an ignorant lie. There is no genetic basis for a moral code except, perhaps, in the broadest sense of intrinsic rewards for social behavior — Catholicism is not biologically heritable.

READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY AT “PHARYNGULA”

Why would there be morals in a Godless world?

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on March 10, 2009

The answer to me is simple. It is more beneficial for humans to be organized in societies (tribes, villages, states, etc etc) than to live alone in the midst of the wilderness. I submitt that it is impossible to have a functioning society without moral codes. What kind of society could exist if everyone would have the inclination to kill the other, steal/rape their women and steal all their provisions. The only way we can have a functioning society is if we put some limitations on such animalistic drives, and thus morals. Some morals are so crucial that they have been codified into law in many societies. Some are less crucial and are only enforced by a collective wagging of the society’s finger or scorn. God did not give us morals. We created morals in order to create a union that would benefit all of us more than if all of us lived on our own. In other words, collaboration is the reason for our species’ success. Collaboration is impossible without morals. Thus the need to collaborate and live close to each other gave us morals. It is preposterous to say that the only source of morality is a God, when I think it is clear that our own need for survival mandates moral behaviour.

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Do You Have Biblical Morals?

Posted in Unreasonable Faith by Skepdude on February 3, 2009

Old BibleChristians love to claim that their morality comes from the bible. And they do — to an extent. But they often forget about or ignore the evil examples and commands of their holy book.

Here’s a quiz to see if you have biblical morality. It asks questions like:

Two strangers visit your home, and you are kind enough to provide them with accommodations for the night. They tell you they are angels appearing on behalf of the Lord. However, later in the evening, an angry mob turns up seeking to sodomize your guests. What do you do?

If you buy a Hebrew servant, how many years must he serve?

READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY AT UNREASONABLE FAITH

Vatican issues major new bioethics document

Posted in Uncategorized by Skepdude on December 12, 2008

VATICAN CITY – The Vatican raised its opposition to embryonic stem cell research, the morning-after pill, in vitro fertilization and human cloning to a new level Friday in a major new document on bioethics.

But in the document, the Vatican also said it approved of some forms of gene therapy and encouraged stem cell research using adult cells. And it said parents could in good conscience inoculate their children with vaccines produced with cells derived from aborted fetuses.

The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued “The Dignity of a Person” to answer bioethical questions that have emerged in the two decades since its last such document was published.

With it, the Vatican has essentially confirmed in a single, authoritative instruction the opinions of the Pontifical Academy for Life, a Vatican advisory body that has debated these issues for years.

The Vatican’s overall position is formed by its belief that human life begins at conception, and must be afforded all the consequent respect and dignity from that moment on. The Vatican also holds that human life should be created through intercourse between husband and wife, not in a petri dish.

As a result, the Vatican said it opposed the morning-after pill, even if it doesn’t cause an abortion, because an abortion was “intended.” In the use of drugs such as RU-486, which causes the elimination of the embryo once it is implanted, the “sin of abortion” is committed; their use is thus “gravely immoral.”

READ THE REST OF THIS ARTICLE AT “YAHOO NEWS”

In the Bible, women sing songs about godly murder

Posted in Evolved and Rational by Skepdude on September 2, 2008

CLICK HERE TO GO TO THE ORIGINAL ENTRY AT “EVOLVED AND RATIONAL”

Theistarded Christians often blabber about how reading the Bible makes them feel good about humanity and things they pull out of their asses. Christians also froth about how reading the Bible keeps them close to their invisible sky-god, helps them know the mind of their imaginary friend, and somehow helps them through their daily lives.

Leaving aside the fact that feeling good about believing in something does not make it true by default; let’s take a look at some of the things in this great book that makes millions of people feel better about their lives.

In the Bible, women sing joyful songs about god-endorsed murder. Not only does god endorse, encourage, and participate in murder, people were expected to greet the slaughter of thousands with laughter, joy, and music. All that was apparently standard stuff in the Bible, and Christians don’t seem to be having any trouble with reconciling any of this with the bullshit they spew about a ‘loving god that sent his son to die on a cross, yada, yada…’.

1 Samuel 18:6-7 (KJV) And it came to pass as they came, when David was returned from the slaughter of the Philistine, that the women came out of all cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet king Saul, with tabrets, with joy, and with instruments of musick. And the women answered one another as they played, and said, Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Saul was displeased as the crowd only ascribed thousands of murders to him, not tens of thousands. This was apparently too much for poor Saul to bear.

1 Samuel 18:8-9 And Saul was very wroth, and the saying displeased him; and he said, They have ascribed unto David ten thousands, and to me they have ascribed but thousands: and what can he have more but the kingdom? And Saul eyed David from that day and forward.

If you want to feel good about humanity, the Bible is not the first place to look.

Christians, do you actually realize what your Bible actually says? Are you aware of the parts of the Bible that are not cherry-picked by your pastors while preaching to you theistarded flock of sheep? Do you know about the vile things are in the book you so proudly thump? Who are you to rant about the erosion of ‘morality’ when your own holy book clearly states that god endorses the slaughter of thousands, including innocent children? How dare you even claim that we should base our morality on the Bible?

A lot could be said about the indefensible cruelty, violence, and psychopathic mentality we see in the Bible, but all that is obvious to people who have not been brainwashed or deluded into believing in the Christian cult’s pack of lies.

Anyone who believes in this shit is either deluded, ignorant,…or sick.

CLICK HERE TO GO TO THE ORIGINAL ENTRY AT “EVOLVED AND RATIONAL”

Conscientious objector or deserter?

Posted in Denialism, Medicine by Skepdude on August 4, 2008

CLICK HERE TO GO TO THE ORIGINAL ENTRY AT “DENIALISM”

The discussion we’ve had since Friday regarding the Bush administration’s latest foray into theocracy brought up some interesting points. We discussed implications of the draft regulations including likely limitations on access to safe and effective birth control. But there is another issue here that disturbs me greatly.

Last week we talked a little bit about medical ethics. I’m not an Ethicist (Mike! Are you reading?), but I am a “practical ethicist”, as are all health care providers. How do ethics inform the discussion of what care we can or cannot provide?

First, let’s take the gloves off for a moment. What is a “pharmacist”?

A pharmacist is a trained professional with an expert knowledge of medications. In the retail setting, their primary role is to dispense medications, but their actual role is far greater. Pharmacists check patients’ records for drug interactions, counsel patients on how to properly store and take medications, and communicate with doctors regarding potential problems with prescriptions. Pharmacists are not, in most settings, the patient’s clinician, and do not have the same type of (ethical) relationship to their customers as doctors do with their patients. They are, at the simplest level, technicians and scientists who help maintain the safety and integrity of patients’ medications. It is a great responsibility—one small mistake on the part of a pharmacist can kill, and one small mistake caught by a pharmacist can save a life.

When a pharmacist receives a prescription from a physician that they believe may pose a threat to a patient, they call the doctor. For example, if I were to write a prescription for levothyroxine 125mg daily, the pharmacist would call me up to see if I meant micrograms rather than milligrams (125 mg is a helluva lot of this drug). If I tell the pharmacist to shut up and dispense the damned drug as written, they might refuse to pending further research, discussion, etc. This often happens with opiates. I may prescribe a cancer patient a very large dose of morphine and the pharmacist will call me to confirm. I’ll explain that they have been on this dose and tolerated it well, and the pharmacist will likely be satisfied that I know what I’m doing.

A pharmacist that receives a properly written prescription for a medication that any reasonable doctor would consider safe may not ethically refuse to fill it. The doctor and patient are the ones who make the decision on what meds are proper. In this case the pharmacists only remaining job, after checking for allergies and drug interactions, is to fill the legal prescription. If they don’t wish to do that, they should be fired, just as the check-out clerk would be fired for refusing to ring up a candy bar (and no, it doesn’t matter how fat the customer is). It has come up frequently that pharmacists sometimes refuse to fill birth control pills. This is unconscionable. The doctor and patient have a clinical relationship; the pharmacist in this instance is an intermediary, and could theoretically be replace by a sophisticated vending machine. Hmmm….

__________

The relationship between physician and patient is a bit more complicated. There is an asymmetry in the power relationship—anything the doctor says and does is potentially coercive. The doctor and the patient both count on this asymmetry—a patient goes to the doctor for advice, a doctor hopes their position of authority will help persuade the patient to do what is necessary (more on this issue of autonomy vs. paternalism here).

If a doctor tells a patient that smoking is dangerous, the patient is likely to believe them and will treat the words differently than if they had come from someone else. The same goes for a doctor’s opinions. If I tell my patient that I love Obama and that voting for McCain would ruin the American health care system, I’m probably using my influence in a bit of a shady manner. If a young woman comes to me wishing to terminate a pregnancy, and I tell her it is tantamount to killing a child, it means something very different to her than if she sees it on a billboard. If I oppose abortion, and feel I wish to be a “conscientious objector”, to share that with the patient is no longer an act of conscience, but an act of coercion. It is a desertion of my duty as a physician. I have patients who are Jehovah’s Witnesses. I give them very detailed information about the medical (not moral) consequences of their beliefs, but I stop there.

Doctors are activists—activists for the rights and needs of our patients, to which we subsume our own values to a great extent. This is one of the great challenges of medicine, and if you’re not up to the task, it’s time to get out.

CLICK HERE TO GO TO THE ORIGINAL ENTRY AT “DENIALISM”

Theocracy in action—HHS proposes to limit birth control

Posted in Denialism, Medicine, politics, Religious Extremism, Sexism by Skepdude on August 2, 2008

CLICK HERE TO GO TO THE ORIGINAL ENTRY AT “DENIALISM”

I’m so angry I can barely type coherently. I have very strong feelings about abortion, but I believe it is possible to respectfully disagree about the ethical issues involved. I have an obstetrics colleague who does not perform abortions, but refers patients needing this service to others. That’s the ethical way for a doctor to oppose abortion—don’t do it, don’t prosteletize, refer out. My personal feeling is a woman has the right to control her body and all that dwells within, but I can see why others would disagree.

All that being said, if you chose a profession that will, by its very nature create an insoluble ethical conundrum, you need to get a new job. Pharmacists who refuse to dispense birth control when given a lawfully written prescription should be fired immediately and consider a change in careers.

The Religious Right is trying to protect these types of “acts of conscience.” Traditional passive resistance in the model of Thoreau and King emphasized the breaking of unjust laws and the acceptance of any punishment that goes with it. The religious right in this country is not content with this model—they would prefer to allow for acts of conscience without consequences. In this vein, the Church Amendment was passed. This amendment protects professionals who are trying to impose their values on others by mandating that health care providers who receive federal funds not require providers to provide services that to which they morally object. This has not been widely enforced apparently, because a draft is circulating at the Department of Health and Human Services that would step up enforcement, and broaden the services to which people could object, even protecting them if they refuse to refer to an alternate provider. This document terribly flawed for a number of reasons.

This draft misunderstands fundamentally the nature of health professionals. We serve patients, not ourselves. The draft document equates providers who refuse to provide or refer for services with conscientious objectors in time of war. This is patently ridiculous. We have a volunteer military. When we had draft, it was possible for someone who would normally have nothing to do with war be forced into a moral dilemma. The way out was CO status, which would allow pacifists to serve without taking life. Service wasn’t a choice—killing was.

I chose to be a physician, knowing full well that medicine is fraught with moral ambiguities. I could have opened a coffee shop instead. Professional organizations recognize the primacy of our patients’ needs over our own—our obligations are not to our own morals but to our patients. It’s part of our ethical code.

The HHS draft makes a mockery of this. It quotes a study that states that many physicians feel that they are obliged to present all options to patients regardless of their personal objections. The draft points out that this may be contrary to law. This may be true, but the fact is that WE ARE ETHICALLY OBLIGED TO PRESENT ALL MEDICALLY APPROPRIATE OPTIONS. No law changes these ethics, and in fact, it might be argued that any laws that directly conflict with our ethical obligations to our patients are immoral and require us to speak and act in opposition to these laws.

The draft attempts to create a conflict where none exists. Health care providers do not need their morals to be protected from discrimination. If we object to standard medical practices, we can find a position where our morals aren’t challenged (but that’s hard to find in medicine).

The draft seeks to more strongly enforce the Church Amendments. To justify this invasion of the doctor-patient relationship, it makes some very dubious claims. One is that Plan B, the pill that prevents embryonic implantation, is an “abortifacient”. More on this shortly.

Another claim is that forcing doctors to subsume their beliefs to their professional obligations will cause a shortage of health care professionals. What unmitigated bullshit.

But then comes the really sinister bit. They wish to redefine abortion for the purposes of the statutes. In order to do that they invoke a Zogby poll of American values, and two medical dictionaries. They mention the British and American Medical Associations’ definition as pregnancy occurring after implantation, and then toss away the professional definition for two dictionaries and a poll. They also propose to determine what constitutes abortion by the individual’s conscience “within the bounds of reason”. In other words, any health care professional can call anything an abortion and be legally protected from providing medically and ethically appropriate care. Let me quote the report:

“Abortion” means any of the various procedures—including the prescription, dispensing, and administration of any drug or the performance of any procedure or any other action—that results in the terminatino of the life of a human being in utero between conception and natural birth, whether before or after implantation.

Your federal government is giving doctors, nurses, and pharmacists the freedom to deny you anything they don’t like, including most forms of birth control. Heard of Griswold v. Connecticut? Forget about it. The government has decided that with regard to health care, the Establishment Clause is irrelevant, and the Free Exercise clause is more important than the rights of patients. You should be very afraid for your personal freedoms.

The theocrats who are attempting to make this law are too cowardly to give up their comforts for their beliefs. Rather than engaging in passive resistance, they wish to legislate their religion. If this becomes the law of the land, expect to see some real passive resistance from the health care community. Keep your eyes open, and vote wisely.

CLICK HERE TO GO TO THE ORIGINAL ENTRY AT “DENIALISM”