First thoughts on Letter to a Christian Nation

I was challenged a few weeks ago on Reddit to read Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris, amongst 1-2 other atheistic books. The assumptions were 1) that a Christian would never read anything that challenged their faith because they feared challenges, and 2) that if a Christian did read these atheistic books and gave them an honest reading, they would surely ditch Christianity because it’s just so stupid.

I’m about halfway through Harris’s letter and, so far, I’m not terribly impressed. I’m taking notes and I’ll write a response/critique once I’m done, but he’s certainly not selling me on anti-Christianity. I appreciate some of his points, but by and large, I feel his grasp of ethics and logical arguments is shaky at best. His arguments aren’t unsound, per se, they’re just… shallow and generally rely on straw men. They’re not false, they’re just not always applicable to the point at hand.

That’s fine, really, given his goal with the book. I look forward to seeing what the second half says and to begin writing my own thoughts in more detail. I don’t know if I’ll have enough material to form my own book, as one man has, but it’ll certainly be a post or series of posts here. From reading the reviews on the existing replies to Harris’s book, it looks like I have my work cut out for me. There are two (I just found a second) and they both sound like rubbish. Since I’m writing on the Internet in favour of Christianity, I’ll probably come across as similarly terrible, but oh well. We do what we can.

Going to play a game and unwind for a bit before bed. I have a new book to read (Elantris by Brandon Sanderson) but so far it’s depressing as hell. Really morbid, and not something good to read before bed. Maybe some DDO? It’s hard to pick between games these days ^_^

Moral Evolution

Last month, April and I joined FnC in watching the movie Expelled (I would have linked directly to their site, but it’s an atrocity of Flash and nothing else). During the movie, Ben Stein conducts an interview with a historian at a concentration camp, and is essentially attempting to link Darwinism, or the concept(s) of survival of the fittest, to the Nazis. The movie acknowledges that Darwinism is not to blame for Nazism, but it does make the claim that Hitler’s mission was based strongly on the concept of “survival of the fittest.” That the Rom, Pols, Jews, et. al. were weaker than true Germans, and that by allowing them to exist, we were harming the human race by weakening it through interbreding. Therefore, such peoples must be exterminated to preserve the human race, ensuring that the fittest survive.

Hitler argued that we had been violating the natural laws of Darwinism, and must forcefully reverse such mistakes. As the movie progressed through this argument, I began to wonder about what constituted “fitness.” There are obvious traits one might note, such as physical strength, stamina, or mental acuity. A genius will more likely survive than an ignoramus, just as a track athlete has a greater chance to survive than a parapalegic. Despite this, most humans would not argue in favour of the extermination of those who are not as “fit” as other people; we recoil at such horrors, and maintain that “all people are created equal.”

Obviously, not everyone feels that way, or someone like Hitler would neither have arisen nor would have gained support. The same goes for some of the programs of the early 1900s. It made me wonder about what separates humanity from other animals, though, and whether there might be more traits than just physical and mental when considering the evolutionary stepladder.

What I’m getting it, if I may be brief, is the consideration of a moral code common to all humanity. This isn’t a new idea, by any means, but it was the first time I really thought seriously about why we don’t abandon the weaker to their fate. Why do we protect those weaker than us?

I have religious answers of obligation, mission, and duty, but without my faith and the words of my God, I don’t know that I could come up with a feasible answer. The best I can come up with, without resorting to religion, is to fall back on the foundational concept of our social contract, and the recognition that everyone is weaker than someone. Therefore, we agree to protect the weak so that someone stronger will agree to protect us in a somewhat feudalistic way. I find this answer a bit of a stretch though, especially because our thoughts and responses on this subject seem to be unconscious. No one really consciously agrees to this structure, but we also don’t steal or beat the poor just because we can.

And the idea of morality gaining primacy through survival of the fittest doesn’t seem to work either. Outside of fairy tales and Bible stories, the immoral often win the day through backstabbing and trickery. If one person is honour-bound and attempting to not hurt the other, the other will probably win because their job is simply easier. Then again, if there is some sort of “morality gene,” it would make sense that members of the opposite sex would be attracted to those who treated them well, thereby increasing morality’s prevalence… but there’s no real evolutionary reason to justify morality, that I can see.

Regardless, I find the subject challenging and worth further consideration. What are your thoughts? Plesae join in the conversation by commenting.

Moral Permissibility

Last month I had the honour to judge at the Hillcrest High School Speech & Debate Tournament (yay for long titles!). I couldn’t judge finals of policy (CX) debate because I had already judged one of the teams earlier in the day, but I was able to judge finals of Lincoln-Douglas Debate. LD differs from CX in that it focuses on values and morals rather than legislative or policy changes/solutions.

The topic for the debate was as follows

Resolved: It is morally permissible to kill one innocent person to save the lives of more innocent people.

There are two debaters in each LD round, an affirmative and a negative, with one defending the resolution and the other attacking it. The affirmative had some fairly common sensical arguments, mostly centered around utilitarianism, or doing the greatest good for the greatest amount of people. She maintained that it was inarguably better to sacrifice one person to save five, and that we must weigh the greater good in all circumstances. That sometimes sacrifice was necessary to preserve more lives.

I felt like the negative debater made a much more interesting argument, however. He claimed that the resolution was specious in its very wording, and that the affirmative’s argument of necessity (her value was “harm” but her focus was that it was sometimes necessary to sacrifice an individual) was flawed. Just because sacrificing an individual was sometimes necessary, the negative argued, that didn’t make it moral. His value was that of deontology, or “A non-consequential approach to evaluating ethics, whereby the degree of ethicalness depends on the intentions behind the decisions rather than the outcomes or actions that result.” (Esomar Research).

The negative went on to say that we simply cannot view human life as a means to an end, and that by the value of deontology we must evaluate the means rather than the ends. If it is immoral to kill one innocent person (as he convinced the affirmative to admit), then it does not magically become moral just because more people might be saved. Both options (letting the majority die or killing the single innocent person) are immoral. Necessity does not equal moral permissibility.

I voted for the negative, first because I felt like he made a strong argument that was correct, but also because the affirmative never replied to his attacks. I won’t debate for someone, so if she’d made a good response, the round would have gone to her, but she didn’t. Regardless, after reading a blog post about Jack Bauer from the hit TV show 24 and his willingness to kill, it got me thinking about this topic of moral permissibility again.

This blog entry is, essentially, by way of introduction; it’s already long enough as it is. Chew a bit on it, and I’ll extend tomorrow to discuss the valuation of different human beings, comparing the hale and healthy to the mentally or physically ill or impaired.