In arguments between secularists and the religious the charge of moral relativism is quickly thrown as if it’s a QED that God exists or needs to. There are of course many on the non-theist side who subscribe to relativist doctrines providing fodder for the theists. These doctrines can take many forms and subtleties, postmodernism, deconstruction and pragmatism. There are many in the so called PC circles and academic institutions which hold such vaunted anything goes multiculturalism. I will show this idea as being both dangerously mistaken and naïve.
Later I will refute and find both religious and relativist morality (if indeed relativism offers any ethical insights). I will argue here that the above doctrines have done much to muddy our thinking on this issue and that we can have ethics and a civil society that is justified and whose ethical practices are warranted. I will outline four very simple tools that we as individuals and a society can use to explore, analyse and judge any number of ethical issues. I have decided to call this the Moral Method. I know that may sound a little clunky but I’m aiming for an analogy with the scientific method and approach ethics in a rational, evidence based manner. A logical method that when followed should yield the same results in Belfast as in Beirut and Texas as in Tahiti, Ireland as in Iraq.
Admittedly this is a bold undertaking. Many smarter men and women have before me tackled the question of objective ethics and perhaps have resolved it satisfactorily. I should note that what I will write here has been covered before and better. I will though advance two small claims.1. I have made a process, an attempt at an objective method to reach conclusions as to morality and ethics. 2. I intend to show via analogy with science and the legal system that the idea of having complete, unquestionable “proof” or complete certainty is unnecessary: Both to science and the legal system as well as to ethics. The meat of the undertaking though is putting the method into practice and I will tackle three divisive issues later on.
Ethics not Morality.
I have just finished a book by the Philosopher AC Grayling The Choice of Hercules. (which I intend to review.) It gave me the idea to do this and in particular the chapter Moral Attitudes and Ethics he argues for us to make a distinction between morality and ethics. For sure there is much interchange between the two terms and I will conflate them but I found his distinctions to be of some use. “Morality is about what is allowed and forbidden in particular realms of behaviour;” and “ethics is about character of one’s personality and life, and what flows from both in way of choices, relationships and action.” and “(ethics) are questions about human intelligence, human flourishing-which is to say: human well-being and well-doing. They therefore seek answers not only to questions about what sort of people we should be, but about what sort of society we should have”
I will go on to say that we should conceive of ethics as an attitude, a way of thinking and a method. Most people subscribe to a code of morality that was given to them by tradition, handed down by parents. Religion and its tight relationship to morality and tradition is clearly obvious and it helps explain why many in the west are so confused. Given however that religious morality operates mostly by commands which are to be followed there is scarce insight as to the why and every effort as to the must.
There is much to be said for the relationship between ethics, attitudes, consciousness and emotion, much of which is beyond the scope of this essay. Ethics should not just be concerned with the formal, surface level behaviours involving ourselves and others. At a minimum it is about cultivating emotional responses and attitudes of tolerance, compassion, empathy and generosity. How we use these emotions to ground our behaviours and reasoning is vital. We behave ethically not because we have to but because we feel we wish to act no other way. Though this is surely a rich and somewhat unexplored area, I will be chiefly focusing on reasoning and not cultivating consciousness and loving-kindness.
The Moral Method.
The first tool that I propose is reason. Specifically this covers three areas. Firstly that we avail ourselves of all the knowledge or evidence that we have on a particular issue, from science, history, sociology, psychology, economics and personal testimony. Of course knowledge itself does not directly lead one to form conclusions. It is though invaluable in making reasoned choices and decisions and as we shall see much of what we consider “moral” is simply bereft of evidence or in direct contradiction with reality. This leads me to my second point which is the opposite of reason, unreason. Unreason is superstition, supernaturalism and dogma. Dogmatic thinking is not just the domain of religion though but the fallacy can be neatly summed up as- assuming what needs to be proved: conclusions derived from unsound premises and the inability to change ones mind in light of new evidence. Thirdly the application of critical thinking, objective, dispassionate inquiry. Thinking for oneself and obtaining conclusions from evidence and not relying on faith, authority, wish-thinking and ungrounded emotional argumentation.
The second tool concerns questions of happiness and suffering. What practices bring about the most happiness and the least suffering. Some may wish here to interject with two rebuttals- we cannot define what happiness is and that there is no solid consensus on the issue. Secondly that the very act of individuals pursuing happiness can lead to others or yourself suffering. Firstly I define loosely happiness in a sense of well-being that transcends transient states so its not simply pleasure or enjoyment of experiences. The issue can be framed as such as a well-being that is both married to responsibilities and civil society. We should remember John Stewart Mill’s maxim “suffer other people to live as seems good to themselves not as what seems good to the rest.” The caveat being that they should not harm anyone or threaten anyone else. And as I suggest later in circumstances where they are doing harm to themselves and can be reasonably judged to not be in control of their selves we may prevent them. In essence a persons quest for well-being should not override or constrain another persons well-being. I do not want the discussion to go off in a tangent here and in my case studies later a practical conception of what happiness and well-being is becomes apparent. For people who wish to see my thoughts at length over well-being I invite them to read my posts the Garden of the Good Life.
The issue though of how to view and treat others is thrown in to clear focus when we consider what entails suffering and what it means for our method. I’ll offer a partial list that we can all agree on which are the main causes of suffering and the enemies which need to be defeated. Genocide, war and oppression are three of our most major concerns. Oppression can be seen as war crimes, mass rape, loss of liberty and security and living in fear. The idea of agreed and enforced universal human rights is a safeguard here for preventing these horrible conditions to arise. Some may argue and I will address it later that ideas of suffering is arbitrary or indeed even necessary for society. Or indeed some societies simply don’t consider suffering as relevant.
In essence this says that rape as a crime which causes suffering is socially constructed or that slaves can be conditioned say to enjoy being oppressed. There is some tacit support for this claim though. If we opened to polls to the Muslim world they would happily chose to live under Sharia, support suicide bombing and female oppression. Or North Korean citizens may very well support their dear leader who has derailed their country and their lives. Such reasoning though is gutted by my first principle which is reason. Sharia law is unjustified (it springs from divine warrant) and the citizens of North Korea have not had the ability to develop their minds, a unconstrained understanding of the world and the ability to form a critical analysis of their country.
It is clearly obvious that there is moral progress in history, that this progress can be seen in the creation of the UN charter of Human rights. The idea of rights being universally extended to everyone is unsurprising in that it arises from countries that are democratic, scientifically literate and secular and that have mostly thrown off the old enemies which is of course unreason played out through three mjor foes, nationalism, racism and religion.
There are two responses to people who think that suffering is arbitrary. Go live under Sharia law especially if your female, non-Islamic and educated. Or go live in China or North Korea and attempt to live the same way one would want to live in western democratic countries. Secondly one should read the testimonies and the ordeals of people who have suffered under such brutal regimes, who have endured holocausts, war, rape and violence. Suffering has a physical as well as a mental dimension. As I have said people can collude with their own oppression but always look to the beliefs which underpin them and you will find in every circumstance that the beliefs are utterly ridiculous.
The third principle can be conceived of as the golden rule. Do on to others what you would wish to see happen to you. Treat others as you would wish to be treated or how you would wish the ones you loved to be treated. Or we could go further and embrace the platinum rule. Treat others as they wish to be treated. This tool is useful for two main reasons. Firstly it exposes a contradiction and uncovers hypocrisy in a persons moral reasoning. Secondly it actively promotes empathy and with that compassion because the person sees the issue through the eyes of the other person or imagines himself in that scenario.
My forth principle or tool is really what vision of society we want to live in. This really is the first and last principle, which underwrites all the others. So what is a civil society? A society which guarantees freedom from oppression and a guaranteed quality of life. That a person should have access to healthcare, education, employment, rights which guarantees that one will not be discriminated against on the basis of gender, race, sexuality, etc. That one is free to criticize anyone or anything without the threat of violence or death. That one can vote and can help shape society to their vision so long as it does not violate the rights of others. There of course needs to be laws and enforcement of them. A fair and impartial justice system is required to arbitrate them.
There is of course no accident that Europe and America since the end of the second world war has emerged as the choice destination of immigrants and the place which has the best standard of living in the world. There is less war, less oppression, greater freedoms, better economic opportunity and living standards than anywhere else in the world. Secular European countries in particular have the highest rates of well-being. This of course comes as no surprise because whatever is the best way of living, the best way of achieving happiness and compassion and self fulfilment, it is going to be found in societies which are tolerant, liberal and stable. Which allow people to inquire the good life and to practice fruits of ones inquiry.
I recognise of course that much of what I wrote above may sound desirable, vague and not perhaps fully justified. The point of this though that I wish to illustrate, is that much of what we think is a problem is simply a non-problem. Common sense or good sense can take us far in this regard and that it is only in the domain of unreason or the piddling distraction of philosophical “problems” that we encounter so called difficulties.
I will now briefly consider the two main objectors to my vision. Religion and the doctrine of moral relativism. Religion is dealt with at the first principle. Religion, namely the main three monotheisms make propositional claims upon reality. In other words they are saying that 1.God exists. 2.The bible is the word of God. 3. God wants you to behave a certain way. 4. Heaven and hell exist, failure to obey will result in going to hell. Religious morality and its subsequent authority is entirely derived from supernatural, unproven and unrealistic claims. The religious do not argue that their moral commandments produce happiness or lessen suffering. Indeed they are unconcerned with it. They simply call for obedience. Questions to what is good is irrelevant, it all resides in what God wants you to do.
Without greatly rehearsing any of the arguments of the untruth of religion or the (non)-existence of God. Let me outline. There is no evidence for God and no good reason to think that any of the metaphysical claims of Religion are true. Since this is so its authority for behaving in a certain way loses it force. This is of course not to say that there is nothing in religion that is not of interest. Its usefulness though lies in its ability to be relevant to modern day questions of human welfare. If it is then it ceases to be religious and becomes secular. Christians invented physics but we don’t talk about Christian physics the Muslims made enormous contributions to mathematics but we don’t talk of Muslim mathematics.
For a lengthy discussion of religious falsity and the improbable nature of God please see.
Just a few more things though on religious morality. Religion has been on the losing side of every argument concerning human rights. Its proscriptions have the very opposite effect of producing a happy, civil, compassionate society. The problem of sin is never far from its considerations. In short its not concerned with the welfare of humans only that they conform to dogma. It hardly needs mentioning the historical damage and ongoing malaise that it wrecks. As well as this its been well pointed out that just because something, a God say wants you to behave a certain way does not mean that it is good. Forcing people to behave a certain way is also not a logical reason to follow its commandments not to mention the unpleasant quality of being threatened.
The general criticism labelled at moral relativism is that it contains a self evident contradiction. It makes the claim for itself that all morality is subjective and open to question. That there is no way of claming that morality is either “true” or justified. This view though can be said to be relative itself. Ie that your opinion that morality is relative and subjective is itself relative and subjective.
The main problem as I see it with this doctrine, is that it is useless when we want to build a civil society and that it offers no defence of our way of life. It contains no insights as how to answer moral problems and help us promote healthy flourishing communities. In actuality it is perhaps even worse and certainly less curious than religious morality.
There is a more sophisticated from of attack the relativists would use. This would be claims that inferences, justifications and reasoning itself is all relative. There is esoteric arguments to be had for sure though I deem it irrelevant here. The assertion that justification, knowledge and inferences is all relative is to state that it purports to be an accurate and true representation on the world. Relativism is the opponent of realism but by making a realistic claim though a hidden one it tacitly embraces it.
Time for Clear Thinking.
In effect what my method calls for is a practical, rational “common sense” approach to ethics. The problems or moral relativism are thrown into sharp relief when we consider two institutions
Firstly lets consider science. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of science and technology to our society. Science is our greatest tool for uncovering the facts about our world and for explaining away mysteries. Few except philosophers of science and theologians worry over the fine points of scientific methods and reasoning. In short the scientists simply get on with the job. They experiment, test hypothesis, weight evidence and make inductive inferences. The assumptions that underlie science may not be able to be “proved” or its conclusions made totally infallible. As ample demonstration has shown though this is irrelevant for science and its discoveries it makes. Evidence, reason and reasonableness are what is important, the same is true of my next example.
For centuries we have happily sent convicted people to jail. No realistic grown up would think that an effective criminal justice system is not needed for the maintenance of society. For sure there is much that is imperfect and that could be improved but its founded upon two practical, reasonable foundations. One is that a person is to be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and two that in light of new evidence, a conviction can be overturned. No one, not even the guilty turn round and challenge the courts ability to “prove” his guilt with watertight certainty. There are no pedantic discussions of “Truth” there is no sophist arguments about robbery or gang-rape or murder being a crime. I’m not talking about lawyers but rather jurors. They convict if the evidence and the explanations of the evidence is such that the accused is guilty without reasonable doubts.
Mistakes do happen of course but the practice itself is the best method we have of arbitrating criminal justice. It is based on weighting evidence, reasoning to the best explanation of the evidence and making a decision that is beyond a reasonable doubt. One makes the best decision that one can with the evidence available and should new evidence come to light that contradicts old decisions then they will have to be undone. This is of course the scientific method and what I have wrote so far shows we can have a similar method for ethics. I think it is because of religion and faddish relativist thought that what was in front of our eyes has been obscured. God given morality is a non-starter for someone who does not believe in a God and this method gets us out of the mire of moral relativism.
So let me recap. First we have the use of reason, which is knowledge, collecting facts and information. Disregarding unreason and subjecting our ideas and attitudes and received wisdom to critical and objective thinking. Secondly we have to consider questions of happiness and suffering. What lessens suffering and what promotes the well-being and stability of individuals and communities. Thirdly the golden rule. Lastly does our proposals and views fit with a 21st century idea of civil society.
Stem Cell Research.
Human embryonic stem cell research is regarded by medical experts and scientists as being one of the most important areas of medical research in a generation. A number of stem cell treatments already exist. It has the potential to treat such diverse diseases and problems as spinal cord injury, Tissue damage and Lou Gehrig’s disease along with MS. It could yet provide the most potent treatment for cancer by specifically targeting the cancer cells. It may even be able to treat deafness, blindness and baldness.
So what is Stem cell Research or rather what is a stem cell. Specifically the research is carried out on 3-4 day old collection of cells called a blastocyst. Each blastocyst contains somewhere around 50-150 cells. The research sees the destruction of these cells and that is what has exercised people over it. Let me outline the arguments against stem cell research.
1. Life begins at the moment of conception or ensoulment take places. The cells along with growing embryos in a mothers womb say should be treated as humans and as such given the same rights.
2. That each blastocyst has the potential to become a human and as such needs to be protected. Their destruction violates human dignity.
3. Slippery slope argument. This research will lead to genetic cloning, and more importantly eugenic selection and the possibility of genetic screening laws ie like race laws or the Nuremburg laws.
US President George Bush blocked federal funding for the research and has thrice voted against using research on stem cells, including cells collected from surplus in vitro fertilization clinics. There is some federal funding and New Jersey has passed a state bill that legalised the experiments. Many states though in America have not followed suit and have either put restrictions or have banned it eg Michigan, Nebraska, North and South Dakota.
United Kingdom is one of the leading countries in the Research and has far less restrictions than the US though it faces a challenge this autumn.
Lets subject the objections to facts and critical thinking. Firstly lets consider the idea that human souls exist in Petri dishes containing cells. This is of course a metaphysical claim and it should come as no surprise that Religion underwrites much of the opposition to the research. As I have wrote above there is no validity to its propositional claims and there is no evidence to think that even fully formed humans have a soul or a ghost in the machine never mind a blastocyst. I mean a soul where the self resides, that floats off somewhere to meet Jesus once brain death has occurred.
That blastocysts should be treated as fully functioning human beings is another bizarre claim. There is no brain present which would mean no consciousness, no neurons and hence no reason to think that the blastocysts suffers (neatly flows into principle number two-suffering) the blastocysts has no hopes, no dreams, no identity unlike a fully formed human who is sentient. 150 cells might sound a lot but consider that in a fully formed sentient human being contains over a trillion cells and one hundred billion neurons in their brain.
The human potential argument though is where objectors turn to. This is in many ways an incredible claim and I will return to it again in my second principle but for now lets subject it to reductio ad absurdum. Every part of our body contains cells which could potentially be used to form new human life, so every time you cut your hair, pick dead skin of your feet or blow your nose you have committed an atrocity against the potential for new human life. Considering the line of reasoning further every time a mans commits and act of masturbation he has wasted potential human life or a woman who takes contraceptives methods or refuses to have sex. According to wikipedia 18 percent of zygotes are lost dew to chance rather than the proposed destruction of blastocysts. Even consider this shocking number that an estimated 60% of all people are killed in spontaneous “natural” abortions 8-10 days after conception.
As for the slippery slope argument, no scientist is calling for forced sterilization laws. Even if some people were we could simply implement legalization that would simply outlaw such practice. We have the technology now to wipe out the entire human race and induce unimaginable horrors yet safeguards and ethical considerations have mostly kept them in check. The slippery slope or rather catastrophic collapse of society argument holds no water.
Of course the above facts could be re-written if new evidence was uncovered. Ie that souls exist or that 3 day old blastocysts suffer.
2. Happiness and suffering.
Once one has jettisoned the unreasoned dogmas and coolly addressed the facts of this issue the opposition to human stem cell research becomes untenable. It becomes hideous though in the consequences that the dogma reaps. Even if the pay-offs for the research in considerably lower than expected and not all the diseases are treated effectively. The possible reward for such endeavour which would mean nothing less than saving the lives of millions of people and reduce mountains of human misery is worth it. There would be serious objections if fully sentient humans were being experimented on and destroyed or even new born babies. Such objections would be fully justified. Even the suffering endured by animals such as primates and mice can be reasonably questioned. The truth is that there is no evidence of any kind, of suffering wrought by the destruction of blastocysts and plenty of undisputable evidence of human suffering.
3. Golden rule
Consider the golden rule which grants further force and conviction to supporting the research. The simple question: what if it was you or your family suffering? No doubt some people bite the bullet here and would accept the situation. An example of such is the Jehovah’s Witnesses aversion or rather strict refusal of blood transfusion. There are numerous examples of such people dying when a simple transfusion could have saved their lives. JW’s who are expectant mothers are at considerable risk and many have died in childbirth depriving their newborn baby of a mother. Everyone including most Christians consider this practice beyond the scope of rational behaviour and doctors can override the parents wishes in the treatment of a child. Their lunacy on this issue though is only one of degree. Their arguments and evidences though are similar to the ones advanced by the pro-lifers. If the JW’s had the same political and financial clout as do “mainstream” fundamentalists there can be no doubt that something as simple and critical as blood transfusion would be stymied. Everyone bar JW’s including Christians would balk at such restrictions. Yet the people who criticise this while failing to support stem cell research are hypocrites.
Needless to say they are also guilty of a colossal failure of compassion and empathy. We should also remember the platinum rule as well (treat others as they wish to be treated) so they are also guilty of intolerance. They can remove themselves from treatments based on stem cell research if they want but why does the rest of society have to suffer because of their irrational metaphysics.
If anyone cannot see the points that I am making then they are beyond the scope of rational discourse. For the people who do, obviously they can detect the redundancy of my argument here. This is a fair point. Perhaps many of our so called problems are in actual fact not difficult issues to decided but all that they require is a simple change of perception. Once again its not what you think its how.
So lets view this issue through the prism of history. The objectors are on the losing side of history. Like objections to contraception (though still a problem) Racism (ditto) or other great medical advances which save lives (it interferes with Gods plan or is wasted on the hoi polloi-Social Darwinism ) The opposition shows a rude intrusion into human autonomy and welfare. It is an absurdity that they proclaim themselves the defenders of dignity when their actions continue the suffering of millions of people. Indeed it is monstrous that civil society is retarded by nothing more than credulous ignorance and superstitious dogma.
Example Two Homosexuality.
There is perhaps nothing other than racism that can produce such hatred and venomous unreason than homosexuality. I have of course picked another “problem” that exercises religious people. Perhaps some may find this unfair. Part of this essay though is to show how religion has retarded our perception of what is good. There can be no question though that there is plenty of non-religious hatred of homosexuality going around. It would be interesting to quantify the level of intolerance set among the background of Judaeo-Christian-Islamic culture against ones that do not have those beliefs entrenched. My theory though is that religion well particular religions exacerbates the problem. Ancient Greek and Roman cultures were comfortable with it. Stephen Pinker in his book How the Mind Works has noted foraging tribes who’s adolescent boys get younger ones to perform fellatio on them. We also have the prison system in particular the US system and its rape culture and comfort with homosexuality. I do not have enough information either way and is incidental to my treatment of it here.
Let me state the oppositions to homosexuality very clearly. Funnily enough you see the ridiculous and dubious nature of the claims once they are dragged out of the murk of implicit objection.
1. Homosexuality is wrong because the bible says so.
2. Homosexuality is wrong because man was made for women or sex is for procreation.
3. Homosexuality threatens the nuclear family.
4. The presence of homosexuality encourages other men to be homosexual.
5. Homosexuality threatens society. Ie catastrophic collapse of society.
6. Homosexuality is a secular conspiracy to undermine religion.
7.Homosexuality is a disorder that makes men suffer.
8. Homosexuality is a threat to children.
Well that’s a good stab at them anyway. I particularly like proposition six-haven’t seen anyone else mention it explicitly. They are kind of saying that some men are gay to simply annoy Christians. Readers by now know my position to religion and well know what objections I would raise. I will consider though the secular objections to homosexuality. Namely it threatens society, the family, children and makes men suffer and is a disorder.
Firstly lets consider the facts. The current scientific and medical evidence and theories all point to the conclusion is that we are born with our sexuality hard-wired into us. Homosexuality is of course a mistake in Darwinian terms and current theories suggest that oestrogen and testosterone in foetal development determine a person sexuality. Neuroscience studies have produced some interesting data which show the similarity of male homosexual brains with female heterosexual brains and vice-versa. There is of course lots of people in between and who even claim to be “cured”. look to the beliefs though-always look to the beliefs. Perhaps this is a gross generalisations but perhaps gay men and gay women are men/women trapped in each others bodies. They are different but it does not follow that there is something morally wrong with them. Talk about procreation and Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve commit the naturalistic fallacy and the moralistic fallacy simultaneously. It should also be said that there is plenty of animals that engage in homosexual practices.
Arguments that homosexuality only became “popular” when secular society decreed it acceptable is simply untrue. This is a argument in stunning ignorance of history and human nature in general. It commits the fallacy of Post hoc ergo prompter hoc, or simply correlation not causation. Needless to say homosexuals can come out since they will no longer be prosecuted and jailed. If support for Manchester United were outlawed and its supporters imprisoned we would rather quickly see the conspicuous absence of boisterous United fans walking the streets.
Same counter-arguments can be made against the charge of destroying the family. I would also ask for evidence as well. The charge of corrupting children is a serious one but how? It assumes that homosexuality is bad to begin with and ignores the evidence that sexuality like eye colour is something that has been determined for you. The retort though that you don’t have to act on your sexual impulses is something I’ll deal with later in the second principle.
The idea that homosexuality- what two men or women get up to in the privacy of their own home could contribute to our societal downfall is hilariously misguided when set against global warming, war, chemical weapons, food shortage and economic instability. Once again show us the evidence…
Happiness and Suffering.
So we can conclude that a persons sexual orientation is largely beyond their control. Initially this would mean that they are condemned before the day there were even born. The other conclusions is that homosexuality contributes neither to the corruption of children and the destruction of the family and society. So by using the method could we state that homosexuality is wrong? Only if it caused suffering to homosexuals and non-homosexuals and did not improve peoples welfare.
Some would say ok your gay but keep it too yourself don’t tell anyone and don’t engage in it. This is likely more than anything to produce states of suffering and despair. Homosexuals want love and companionship just the same as everyone else they are equally capable of doing every other human activity so why should they not be allowed to find similar minded people? Only if they cause suffering to themselves. Well this appears illogical. If a homosexual act is freely engaged and both parties consent and enjoy themselves and do not harm any unwilling parties then what can be the problem? There is no retort to this.
There is no evidence that anyone suffers from either homosexual practices or causes other people to suffer (heterosexuals). There is plenty of evidence that suppression and discrimination does. Consider the people who had to be jailed, castrated, beaten, killed, and oppressed because of something that was beyond their control and whose practice did no harm just offend others peoples prejudices.
The Golden Rule
The golden rule beautifully illustrates the point. Consider if the shoe was on the other foot, if heterosexuals were being discriminated against. What would happen to the mental welfare of young men if they were told from birth they were simply not to express their heterosexuality indeed even their desire was wrong? What if the age of consent was raised to thirty years of age? What if sex before marriage was criminalised? What if mixed-race couples were criminalised? Would you like to live the rest of your life alone because of what some books happen to say?
Finally let me deal with the slur that homosexuals are akin to paedophiles. Firstly paedophiles frequently abduct, molest, torture and kill children. Children are deemed by society as unable to look after themselves or make decisions that can effect their welfare and others in short they are not competent. This is why we do not allow them to drink, drive, vote or work and likewise engage in sex. Paedophilia is a crime that causes much suffering including suicide in the victims and much pain in the families. It is obscene that it is considered analogous to homosexuality.
Finally as for considering civil society. Once again, tolerance, freedom and right to flourish is a must. Criminalising homosexuality is a invasion of the state in a person autonomy. Private interest groups such as religion should not be allowed exemption from the call to treat everyone as equals.
3. Drug Legalisation.
I think that in good time the battles and controversies over stem cell research will subside and will be a historical curiosity. As for homosexuality, it has achieved quite a lot in a very short space of time. Unless a theocracy emerges or some new devastating consequences of homosexuality occur (AIDS can be spread by needles and heterosexuals as well so that point is moot) then it will continue to benefit from Western tolerance. These battles have been largely won, though there is still work to be done. My final study though is perhaps, indeed it is an even greater problem that shows no sign of being resolved. To be honest my first two studies are not problems but are problematic because of the consequences of dogma. The third-the criminalising of drugs is a problem created where one wasn’t. Politicians, the media and the police have dug a hole for themselves that they cannot escape from. If drug legalization were to realistically take place then it would have happened. It has been forty years since the drug culture of sixties. The men and women who were part of that movement are at the top of public life. Needless to say our attitudes to drug policy is more or less exactly the same now as it was then.
Firstly let me outline the reasons for drug criminalisation.
1. Its immoral for people to alter their states of consciousness and personality.
2. Drugs are dangerous and should be banned, to save lives.
3. Drugs destroy communities and fund criminals.
4. Drugs feed terrorism.
Lets explore some facts about drugs. I will primarily answer proposition 2 in this section. Some drugs are of course dangerous, death or near lethal states can occur with their abuse or even occur to people taking “normal” quantities. To ban something because of its lethality is to base the reason on the strength of evidence, so lets look at that evidence. When we look at the charts of the most dangerous drugs, MDMA, LSD and cannabis are not at the top indeed class A MDMA and LSD are not even close. Alcohol is the most dangerous by some considerable distance and tobacco is close behind it. The absurdity of the argument for public protection is further belied when we see that criminalisation is simply arbitrary in the face of history. Alcohol and tobacco have been available for much longer than LSD and MDMA and attempts to regulate them have either fallen flat or would now be disastrous to do so. Consider today if alcohol were to be criminalised-there would riots in the streets indeed I would bet that the civil disobedience occurring would be so great as to be an onset for a violent, purposeless revolution
It is impossible to overdose on cannabis and hence die. No one has ever died from the effects of cannabis but the lethal dangers from alcohol and tobacco are clearly obvious. MDMA or ecstasy can kill but the chance of dieing on it are slim. Its lethality as been estimated to be akin with other legal prescription drugs. likewise with LSD.
There are even medical and practical uses of these drugs that have been constrained because of their ban. Cannabis use for people who are undergoing chemotherapy is peerless for countering the effects of the treatments sickness. It can also treat glaucoma and help suffers of Parkinsons. There is also the possibility of it being a natural kind of anti-depressant. LSD and MDMA before it was banned was being used by therapists as treatments for PTSD, marriage counselling and helping the terminally ill accept their deaths. Methamphetamines can give people extraordinary cognitive powers, it is frequently used by students cramming for exams etc.
Happiness and Suffering
It is seldom mentioned in debates and arguments that the chief reason why people consume drugs or simply intoxicants is for pleasure. Most people do not purchase Valium though it’s a prescription drug and hence difficult to get. Society does however consume thousands of MDMA tablets a week though. Drugs is as one character on The Wire says “a force of human nature”. Humans will continue to pursue things that they enjoy like sex and music, indeed sex, drugs and rock n roll is the epitome expression of a hedonistic pleasure seeking life. Some things however can be too good to be true and this is where the suffering element in drug abuse comes in.
Consider the above notes on the lethality of certain drugs and our cultures hypocrisy on alcohol and tobacco. We can afford to be actuarial about this. Drug related death and illness pale into comparison with drink and cigarettes, car deaths and obesity. It should also be taken into account the lack of good information regarding drug doses and the purity of the consumed narcotics a indirect result of their criminalised nature.
Many will say that the causing of crime and funding of terrorism are greater ills and cause more suffering and are greater evils than allowing people the autonomy to consume narcotics. This is to read it backwards. Prohibition is a criminals dream. Deaths related to gang warfare say are a result of a “business” having to settle disputes and problems in the manner of the law of the jungle. If someone’s stash gets stolen they cant go to the police. If someone wants to take over a territory they cant involve lawyers and buy the rival out. Resorting to violence is the only way of resolving problems. Needless to say the prohibition in America involving alcohol is generally credited with creating the organised crime problem. That saw deaths and corruption on a scale that was not seen before. The Mafia were able to build itself into a national then international empire because of the ban.
The same applies to terrorism. Afghanistan is were the poppy is grown which can be turned into opium and then heroin. It is largely the only viable crop that Afghan farmers can grow and since the invasion the allies have spent considerable resources attempting to destroy the chief export of the country. This has driven the farmers into the hands of the Taliban and hence gives support for Islamic fundamentalism.
Needless to say this large scale global scandal of suffering could be significantly reduced if decriminalising was enacted, government regulation set up. Gangsters and criminal importers would be brushed aside along with much of the violence. The profits could take care of any unfortunates caught in the trap of abuse, fund proper drug education to the young and to the public at large. The vast surplus of money could then be supplied to vital public services such as schools and hospitals. The money, indeed billions spent in America and internationally regarding drug enforcement could be put to better use. Police rather than focusing on what is largely a victimless crime could tackle terrorism, organised crime and violent crime in particular more effectively.
There is more though. People who have taken drugs and been caught or who have supplied drugs to their friends have been sent to jail is another scandal. Frequently especially in America violent offenders are paroled to make way for drug convicts. In America again properties can seized to swell departmental ranks adding a unprincipled financial incentive for targeting easy drug dealers. The dealers families are left homeless and children have frequently been made wards of the state. A person arrested and charged with possession can not only lose their job but the offence stays on their record and can stop them from obtaining new work.
To conclude the question of drug prohibition loses all force when one considers the pernicious damage that criminalising it does against legalising it. Societies do not self destruct as witness Holland and its cosmopolitan Amsterdam. The policy of legalisation can be tested- consider if for two years in one city drugs laws were relaxed and properly ran. This would give quite good evidence either way of the affects of drugs use on society.
This is of course to say nothing of the personal testimonies of people who take drugs and enjoy it and do not abuse it. Along with testimonies that it has fundamentally improved their life for the better. The final answer is that though drug taking can be dangerous and can cause suffering, greater ill is caused by banning something. Until desire for such things are absent people will continue to pursue the things they want.
The Golden Rule.
This is actually the easiest to answer. A person contradicts themselves when indulging in alcohol and tobacco while fulminating against drugs. Indeed how would they feel if the government decided to ban these. Much the same can be said for junk food or even in this eco-friendly age driving. Or any pleasurable activity. Music, reading, films, football.
I will now cover the rest of the arguments that are advanced in supporting drug criminalisation. Lets consider the first one which is that inducing transient states of pleasure and singular changes of ones personality is immoral. That’s an odd argument and really its left behind quite properly at principle one which is reason. Its perfectly obvious that people do experience these things without ever harming anyone not even in ways such as giving money to suppliers who engage in crime etc. The principle of harm is central to my method and if no harm is present or if the benefits far outstrip the dangers (subject to the other three principle) then why either withdraw from doing something or do it? Religious morality raises itself again here. Though subtle in this regard as it has achieved the goal of getting other people to think like it in matters of pleasure. Though the link has no been fully substantiated it is easy to see why religion which is in many ways inimical to anything pleasurable outside strict heterosexual marriage and the steep and narrow confines of the church. As Sam Harris rightly states in The End of Faith that this idea of victimless crime which can also be viewed as homosexuality as well is nothing more than a reprise of the Christian idea of sin.
There is nothing immoral about pleasure itself nor changing ones personality. Indeed prayer and meditation would need to be criminalised along with reading, love, sex, indeed life itself. The drug debate really goes to the heart of what is a civil society. Is it one that interferes in peoples lives, punishes people because of something they do at home and which is largely harmless? Should our society not be open minded? Fair? Tolerant? A society which once again “allows others to suffer as sees good to themselves not what seems good to the rest”. A thought experiment sees that if a drug was invented that was so pleasurable but it killed 95% percent of people who took it, there would be rational reasons to outlaw it and spend considerable amounts of money educating people to its dangers. Keeping this in mind and see that our approach to a rational drugs policy is scarcely negligible at the moment and will no doubt continue. I believe the real target of opprobrium is politicians and the right wing media. Though one can reasonably suspect the pernicious role of big pharmaceutical companies and the billion dollar industry of drug enforcement in America.
Secular humanists are of course quite capable of rational ethical inquiry as are I would think a good proportion of people. The method takes on board all the important concepts that we use to make our decisions and ground our views. Emotion, Empathy and compassion. Welfare and suffering. Reason and logic, and most importantly evidence.
The method is practical like science and the jury approach in the legal system. It makes decisions to the best of our reasoning ability and it can be justified. Some people worry that its not permanent and concrete. Is this a bad thing? If we really wanted ethics to be unchanged we would still have divine right of kings, slavery, female oppression and child exploitation. Indeed the ability for ethics to be re-written is a good thing-it is essential. It does not mean though that things like murder, rape and robbery are going to be rewritten as examples of ethical excellence. I believe this method can be used against any such problem facing us today and like scientific investigation can produce very counter-intuitive positions or conclusions contrary to “common sense” morality. Such is the case when we think for ourselves unconstrained by tradition, parents, church and political and social orthodoxy. Voltaire remarked “think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too.” and when we do the results are surprising and important.
Best and be Well