Sunday, 10 January 2010

I'm moving

I am moving this blog to "". This is partly to improve the blog (WordPress has better features), and partly to appease my own ego (I wanted my own domain name).

The new blog has already been populated with all the old posts and comments. I even think I can set things up so this old address will automatically redirect to the new one.

But, for those of you using feed readers, you'll need to subscribe to the new feed (and unsubscribe from the old one). This will be the last post I put up on Blogger.

Feel free to take this opportunity to let me know (on the new blog, preferably) what works, and what doesn't. On a technical level, what would you like me to change on the blog? On a content level, is there anything you'd like to hear more about? Less?

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

On moral obligation

One complaint levelled against entirely naturalistic worldviews is this:
What is the basis of morality? By what right can you expect anyone to follow moral rules, if there is no transcendent reality to ground them in?
I have had a very engaging discussion of this (and related issues) with Ken Brown and other commenters on his blog, and have posted some of my own thoughts here. Ken and colleagues are coming specifically from a Christian perspective. (I have yet to see them give a satisfactory justification for how a "transcendent reality" solves the problem - but that's a topic for another time. As is the whole burden of actually demonstrating that such a reality exists - which would seem to be a prerequisite if one is to pin one's entire moral philosophy on it.)

I thought I might pick out the key points of my answer here.

First, I come back to a very pragmatic position: most of the key elements of morality (love, fairness, honesty, nonviolence, etc) are built into most humans. (This fact has very interesting naturalistic explanations in the context of evolution as a social species, but that too, is a topic for another time.) So we have a useful basis for discussing moral issues without either an esoteric knowledge of the philosophical underpinnings of morality or a belief in a transcendent basis for moral claims. This is the basis of secular government: we build our society on the foundations we all share.

Second and more important, how I can derive another's obligation from my "relativist" moral stance? Very cautiously and humbly. For most cases where someone says "there ought to be a law", there probably oughtn't. Law - the formal, coercive expression of our shared moral principles - is a blunt instrument that should not be used to solve all problems.

But even aside from the law, I do expect people to act morally, and I reserve the right to hold them accountable when they don't. How do I do this? What gives me, a relativist with no ultimate explanation for right and wrong, the right to project my moral judgments on others? Why should someone else do the right thing rather than some other thing? The most honest answer I can give is very simple:
People should do the right thing, because it's the right thing to do.
I know that's not very philosophical or subtle. But, so long as we all share a basic sense of right and wrong, it's sufficient for the vast majority of life's decisions.

And for those issues where we don't instinctively agree on the right answer - abortion, euthanasia, drug control, etc - pretending that a hypothetical transcendent realm holds the answer does not seem to solve things. It may give some people a sense of self-righteousness to bolster their support of one position, but it is useless in seeking a practical solution or persuading people who believe in a different hypothetical set of transcendent moral truths (or folks like me who doubt such a set exists at all). In these cases, we have to fall back on the nasty, brutish, fallible strategy of using rhetoric and reason to pursue the best solution and persuade each other of it.

Photo credits:

Justice statue on Old Bailey, London: from Wikipedia, shared by user Erasoft24 under Creative Commons Attribution licence 2.5.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Foundation Beyond Belief

I am delighted to announce the launch of a new humanist-driven charity initiative, the Foundation Beyond Belief. Go to the site itself for full details, and to sign up.

I'm just going to point out some of the things about the Foundation that I find particularly awesome:
  • Though it is explicitly modelled on humanist values, religious individuals are explicitly invited to participate.
  • Social networking will be a key part of the Foundation's interaction with members - this is not just a conduit for money, but a place to build community around shared values and actions.
  • Members can choose where their donations are spent, among ten categories (education, peace, health care, environment, and others).
  • Charities will be selected not just on the values they profess, but on efficiency and effectiveness as well.
  • Religious charities are not explicitly ruled out, but charities that use their funds for proselytizing are (regardless of the worldview they promote).
  • Though based in the US, the Foundation explicitly looks to support charities with an international reach.
  • Two of the key people involved in the Foundation - Dale McGowan and Hemant Mehta - were instrumental in my decision to become a blogger (though I have yet to meet either of them in person).
I look forward to seeing the Foundation help people around the world, and I'm excited to participate in it. I'll close with words from the Foundation itself: a mission statement, a launch blurb, and a video:

Mission statement:

To demonstrate humanism at its best by supporting efforts to improve this world and this life; to challenge humanists to embody the highest principles of humanism, including mutual care and responsibility; and to help and encourage humanist parents to raise confident children with open minds and compassionate hearts.

Launch blurb:

Beginning on January 1, 2010, Foundation Beyond Belief will highlight ten charitable organizations per quarter -- one in each of ten categories. Among other considerations, beneficiaries will be chosen for efficiency, effectiveness, moderate size (annual budget <$10M), compatibility with humanist focus on mutual care of this world and this life, no direct promotion or proselytizing of a particular worldview, and geographical diversity.