Black and white thinking

Imagine if you were a movie critic who could only describe movies as “good” or “bad”. You’d probably feel like a two-year-old. Which is fine when you’re two. But adults use bigger vocabularies than that. Not everything is either “yucky” or “yummy”.

That’s the feeling I have as someone who “does ethics” when people insist on reducing our rich moral vocabularies down to “right” and “wrong” or “good” and “bad”. I do use those terms on occasion. But I’ve got a whole host of other ones in my arsenal, and you do too. I’m happy to call Moonrise Kingdom “good” if I’m short on time, I suppose. But in calmer moments, other words come to mind. “Funny”. “Quirky”. “Brilliant”. And so on.

In a variety of contexts, I’ve called myself a pacifist. I’ve called myself a vegan. Those labels are shorthand for some of my moral commitments. But I don’t think violence is always and everywhere “wrong”. And I occasionally consume (some) animal products. This confuses people. I suppose I could steer clear of the labels. But this would only trade one kind of confusion for another. People would get the impression I don’t think there’s something wrong with the military-industrial complex. With agribusiness. With how we treat other sentient beings. And so the labels at least have the virtue of getting the ball rolling, of communicating a moral stance on an issue. My moral stance is typically more complex than the label itself, but labels are always misleading at the edges. And so I continue to use them.

Black-and-white moral thinking is, on my view, a holdover from moral infancy.

It is also the kind of moral thinking encouraged by certain religious traditions (not all). And so an added benefit of offering a sustained critique of religion is the possibility that richer moral thinking might be cultivated. Think about it. If the will of God is what makes something “right” or “wrong”, then “right” and “wrong” are truths that float out there, so to speak. The religious believer insists on calling something (abortion, homosexuality, war, etc.) “wrong” because that allows her to communicate the absoluteness of God’s edicts. Fancy versions of religion temper this urge with the acknowledgment that it can be hard to discern the will of God, of course. But that doesn’t really get at the heart of the issue, namely, the fact that God has a black-and-white moral will that can in principle be apprehended.

From a humanist perspective, we owe it to ourselves to grow up. To grow out of black-and-white moral thinking. To grow out of religion. It’s just us. We have to figure out how to get along. I’d be nice if we could get along well. Figuring out how to do that is hard enough. It will be harder still if we insist on restricting ourselves to binary moral categories. The world ain’t so simple.


Homophobia and the oppression of men

Men sometimes resent feminism for being primarily about women. And feminists (mostly women but also some men) are quick to point out the ways in which the emphasis on women fits the facts: masculinity continues to carry with it social privilege; femininity, not so much. But feminists also insist that rigid gender norms (e.g. the assumption that certain behaviors and forms of dress are “for” men and others “for” women) hurt women and men. So I thought I’d say a little something about the oppression of men.

Many straight men despise homosexuality or even the hint of homosexuality. This is why the label “homophobia” gets at an important truth: rejection of the social acceptability of same-sex attraction is often (not always) rooted at a deep, nonrational, visceral level (see my discussion here). In the small town where my in-laws live, my long hair invites odd comments, even though my gender performance is mostly, boringly even, masculine. If I wore heels, had a more “feminine” figure, spoke with a higher-pitched voice, didn’t have facial hair, and so on… I would honestly feel unsafe. I would feel unsafe in my in-laws’ town. I would feel unsafe outside certain bars. At night. Out running. And probably in a variety of other situations too. I would feel as unsafe as many women feel, every day of their lives (perhaps more so?–I don’t know).

Let’s be clear, it is one thing to be non-conforming–to be goth, punk, or whatever, even to walk around barefoot–and it is quite another to be gender-non-conforming. Walk around barefoot or dressed in black, and you will probably get strange looks and funny or rude comments. Some businesses might even kick you out. This is especially true in non-urban settings, but city dwellers have their prejudices too. But cross-dressing takes it to a whole new level. So rigid conceptions of masculinity are enforced to a greater degree than other social conventions. Of course, being a gay man is not the same thing as being a man dressed like a woman. But being a man dressed like a woman nevertheless invites (in our culture) homophobic violence. And gay men who aren’t “visibly” gay in virtue of their gender performance are still only safe in such contexts to the extent that they refrain from “acting” gay (flirting with that cute guy at the coffee shop, say, or holding hands with their partner).

And so the conception of masculinity that prevails in American culture is rigid. Stifling. And, as far as I can tell, what keeps the box so narrow and confining is homophobia. I don’t think it’s misogyny, at least not in any clear way, because straight men have their ways of appreciating women (provided they act straight enough, I suppose). But if a man acts or talks or dresses like a woman, all homophobic hell breaks loose.

Well, as a humanist, I find narrow conceptions of masculinity oppressive, stifling, and wholly unnecessary. And I’m a straight, cisgendered dude. The oppressiveness of this box is all the more evident, I suppose, to men who are less conventional than I am.

So let’s all do humanity a favor. Let’s chill out about gender norms. Deal?

The problem of divine goodness

In the philosophy of religion, the Abrahamic God is typically thought to be omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent (i.e., all good). Of course, what it means, concretely, to be all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, is up to interpretation. But the three “omni”s are a good starting point for philosophical discussion of theism and atheism. My own atheistic convictions connect most fundamentally to the third “omni”–the claim of God’s omnibenevolence. And this isn’t surprising, since God’s power and knowledge are nothing without his (alleged) goodness. If God were bored, disinterested, or apathetic, being powerful and knowledgeable would be pointless as far as human beings and human affairs are concerned. And so God’s being good is very important. If God is not good, then God is not God.

As I see it however, God is not good. Or, to put the same thought in a different way, there is no good god (and therefore no “God”, as conceived by the major monotheisms). Or, in yet another idiom, I cannot make sense of the affirmation that God is good. Why not?

Well, God is first and foremost (if you believe the stories) the creator of all that is. God is the maker or architect of the cosmos. God’s goodness is therefore reflected in the goodness of “Creation”–of the world. But is the world actually good? In and of itself, I think not.

You see, goodness and badness are evaluative terms that have their home in a basically functional context. A watch, for instance, is defined by its function. Therefore a watch that performs its function well is a good watch, and a watch that does not, is a bad watch. So also a good friend is a friend who does what friends do (listen, hang out, whatever) well. A friend is functionally defined (which is not to say that there’s complete agreement about what friends are for–which is also why there’s disagreement about who counts as a good friend). At the outer edge of this perspective, we can also talk about good people. A good person is a person who does whatever it is we think a person ought to do, and does it well. At the most general level, many of us (humanists, at least) will agree that a good person is a person who is a good citizen, friend, lover, etc. (or whatever other social role we happen to think is important). There’s a decent amount of disagreement about what it matters for a person to be, and so we disagree about what counts as goodness in a person to the same extent. None of this problematizes my key contention that goodness is defined in, and is intelligible in, an essentially functional context.

What of it? Well, in order to speak of God as good, we must find a way to speak of the world (“Creation”) as good–insofar as God’s goodness is supposed to be revealed in the world. But the world revealed to us by the natural sciences (and evolutionary biology in particular) is notoriously amoral. It is neither good nor bad. The physical forces that “create” biological life care nothing for pain or pleasure, for goodness, cruelty, or anything of the sort. Those who survive survive, and those who don’t, don’t. That is all. And evolution is not guided. There is no point to evolution–no direction. And so talk of the purpose or function of evolution is meaningless. For these reasons, I cannot make sense of talk of the universe’s function or purpose. And so I can’t make sense of claims of the universe’s “goodness” either. The universe beyond the realm of the human is neither good nor bad. It just is.

The universe is amoral. What claim then does its supposed “Creator” have to “goodness”? None, as far as I can tell.

I suppose many theists sense this and for this reason claim that God’s goodness is revealed (most fully) not in Creation but in his “providence” or in the Incarnation. Of course, those claims are problematic for different reasons (there is no way to distinguish providence from luck; and there is no evidence for the Incarnation–just off the top of my head).

But anyway, there you have it. I suppose this is my version of the “problem of evil”. Except, my claim isn’t that the existence of evil makes the existence of an all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing God improbable. It’s that we have no meaningful basis for speaking about goodness when it comes to the universe as a whole. And therefore none for speaking about goodness when it comes to the universe’s creator.

And if God is not good, then God is not God. I conclude: there is no God.