The Problem With a Terrifying and Loving God

One of the first things that caused my religious faith to waver was the paradoxical way in which the Christian God was conveyed (at least by my particular Catholic church): infinitely loving yet presiding over a cosmic system whereby sinners and nonbelievers suffer for eternity without pardon (a punishment that is literally unsurpassable in its harshness).

Now of course, there were always caveats, namely that God does not want anyone to end up in hell (despite first creating and still maintaining such a system), hence Jesus, the work of the church and its missionaries, etc.

Setting aside the ethical and theological scruples, I also took issue (and still do) with the way that Christians themselves use this contradictory nature as some sort of stick and carrot to cajole their opponents (be they nonbelievers, adherents of other religions, or even more liberal Christians).

Captain Cassidy over a Patheos captures this approach perfectly:

When a Christian says something like “You should convert because Jesus loved you so much he died for you, but if you don’t then you’ll suffer unspeakable torment forever and ever and ever”, I’m left wondering just what is being said here. Am I supposed to convert out of awe for this supposed act of love? Or am I supposed to convert out of sheer terror and a desire to avoid torment? Because I honestly can’t tell which tactic the Christian is going for. It doesn’t seem loving to torment people.

And the really bad news for Christian zealots is, you can’t really mix and match when it comes to love and terror. I’m not sure it’s even possible to love that which terrorizes us, or (to be more accurate) that which is used to terrorize us. If you want to go with the lovey-dovey stuff, then terror destroys it; if you go with terror, then it’s hard to squeak about lovey-dovey stuff after threatening someone with lurid torture and pain. That so many Christians seem perfectly content to do exactly this mincing dance seems downright grotesque to me. If they described a real person that way, as a man who would physically hurt me if I refused to do what he wanted but who loved me and wanted my love in return, then I’d tell them to stuff it and keep their abusive asshole of a buddy far away from me. The split-second that violence enters the equation, love leaves it–unless of course someone has internalized violence so effectively that it no longer disqualifies a being from slavish devotion.

When Ken Ham ominously threatens people with “God’s judgment” and says, regarding the possible destruction of Earth by a meteor strike, that “unbelievers should be afraid of Jesus Christ’s judgment instead”, it’s hard not to wonder if he’s saying that people should convert because of their terror of this “judgment”–in other words, out of fear of going to Hell. But which is it? Is his god loving, or is he a sociopathic monster? Which gear is he picking here?

Now obviously, many Christians reject both this tactic and its theological underpinnings. Many religious people are genuinely loving and either downplay or outright repudiate the terrifying nature of God.

But in the United States especially, many people prescribe to this notion and utilize it in their preaching, proselytizing, or apologetics. It represents a cynical and totalitarian mentality that seems less concerned about others’ salvation and more focused on manipulating people: to use my earlier analogy, if the carrot of God’s love does not work, than the stick of His fear just might.

Now that I’m out of Christianity and have been for a while, I can see these fearmongering, terroristic tactics for what they are: attempts to strong-arm compliance and force obedience. If you want to see what a Christian really thinks is persuasive, wait to see what that person’s big guns look like. Look for what follows the “but” in their proselytizing. If you let people do it, they’ll tell you exactly what’s really important to them. “He loves you, but if you don’t obey him then you’ll suffer mightily” is the message of way too many Christians.

Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent, as Isaac Asimov put it long ago. Threats are what bullies use when they can’t get their way any other way. When someone can’t win by reason or logic or facts, and that person lacks a moral compass and has no empathy or compassion for others, then such a person will use force to try to win by any means possible. If Christians actually had a good reason to fear the threats they make, they’d already have given us the goods.

Once you’ve identified the threat being made, then you can ask for evidence that it’s a threat you really need to fear. If Ken Ham really thinks that his god’s judgment would be scarier and worse for humanity than a meteor hitting the Earth, but can’t come up with anything solid and credible to explain why his threat is something anybody needs to fear, then I’m safe in dismissing what he blusters as the bombast of a bully angry that he can’t get his way any other way. And I call shenanigans on him claiming that Christians aren’t scared at all of catastrophes; I was a Christian myself for many years and can absolutely tell him that why yes, a great many Christians are downright terrified of the end of the world. He’s talking out of his ass, but what else is new? His followers will eat it up with a spoon and parrot it, many hoping that their own fears will be allayed if they do.

For me, this strain of Christianity says more about the psychology and personality of its adherents than about the religion as a whole (though insofar as Christian doctrine gives fuel to such a common approach, it definitely has its problems).

Just as I have met many friendly and compassionate people who prescribe to a more friendly and compassionate form of Christianity (which in some forms seems more Deistic or New Agey than anything), so too do less than kind people, often with an aggressive and domineering streak, just happen to apply their Christian faith in that way.

Quite a few non-believers and even many Christians have already abandoned threats and the very idea of Hell as incompatible with the idea of a loving god. But to those Christians who use their religion as a way of expressing aggression and dominance, those threats are their primary tools, and they’ve got all kinds of rationalizations already made up in their minds about why they can’t possibly stop threatening people. Phrases like “for their own good” figure prominently here.

The funny thing is that all we’d need is one single credible piece of evidence supporting their threats. Just one. That’s all. But they can’t do that. Instead, they are content to keep issuing threats. And if someone vulnerable happens to fall for the threats and converts on the basis of them, then these Christian bullies will feel 100% justified in continuing to use threats and bullying to get their way. But even if the threats don’t work, they’ll keep using them because threats are what they, personally, think are compelling–as I’ve mentioned before, these threats overshadow even the very best intentions for many Christians.

If the fear of God’s wrath and punishment is the strongest incentive you have, or think others should have, for believing in your religion, you need to reevaluate the basis and sincerity of your faith. Most of these individuals would never accept fear as a legitimate reason to trust or follow political leaders, or any human being. Does God’s divine nature and / or status as our alleged Creator make him immune to such reasonable considerations? Are we supposed to cower in fear of a loving, fatherly creator and use that terror — in some bizarre combination with love and awe — as a basis to believe in Him? It sounds like an abusive relationship more than anything. How can genuine love be compelled by threat of violence of the worst kind imaginable?

What are your thoughts?

Living the Stoic Life

Over at the New York Times, noted Italian philosopher Massimo Pigliucci shares his experiences with stoicism, an ancient philosophy and way of life that has deeply impacted him, as well as myself.

The foundational view of the stoic mindset and approach can best be summarized by a quote in the article:

What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.

Like many philosophies, stoicism is timeless in its wisdom and application, especially in a modern world rife with overstimulation, business, and subsequent stress and turmoil. No wonder it is getting renewed attention over 2,000 years after it was first propagated by the Greek Zeno of Citium.

Thousands of people, for instance, participated in the third annual Stoic Week, a worldwide philosophy event cum social science experiment organized by a team at the University of Exeter, in England. The goal of Stoic Week is twofold: on the one hand, to get people to learn about Stoicism and how it can be relevant to their lives; on the other hand, to collect systematic data to see whether practicing Stoicism actually does make a difference to people’s lives.

Stoicism was born in Hellenistic Greece, very much as a practical philosophy, one that became popular during the Roman Empire,and that vied over centuries for cultural dominance with the other Greek schools. Eventually, Christianity emerged, and actually incorporated a number of concepts and even practices of Stoicism. Even today, the famous Serenity Prayer recited at Alcoholic Anonymous meetings is an incarnation of a Stoic principle enunciated by Epictetus: “What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.” (“Discourses”)

From there, Pigliucci cites his own inspiration for pursuing stoicism, which is not all different from own.

As a scientist and philosopher by profession, I always try to figure out more coherent ways to understand the world (science) and better choices for living my life (philosophy). I have for many years been attracted to virtue ethics — a core of Stoic philosophy — as a way to think about morality and a life worth living. I have also recently passed the half century mark, one of those arbitrary points in human life that nonetheless somehow prompt people to engage in broader reflections on who they are and what they are doing.

Lastly, Stoicism speaks directly to a lifelong preoccupation I’ve harbored that is present in nearly all forms of religion and philosophical practice — the inevitability of death and how to prepare for it. The original Stoics devoted a great deal of effort and writing to what Seneca famously referred to as the ultimate test of character and principle. “We are dying every day,” he wrote to his friend Marcia in consolation for the loss of her son. Because of this confluence of factors, I decided to take a serious look at Stoicism as a comprehensive philosophy, to devote at least a year to its study and its practice.

Although not a scientist myself, I came to stoicism following my drift from religion and the subsequent search for new ways to seek truth, purpose, and moral living. I turned to science and philosophy as my guides to the world and the foundations of my ethical framework, and stoicism was among the schools of thought that most stood out to me as both relevant and useful.

And like Pigliucci, for as long as I can remember, I have always had both a fascination and fear of death, which only worsened with time regardless of my religiosity. So stoicism (among other philosophies, like Epicureanism), helped me come to terms with this reality and how to cope with it. I found comfort and solidarity in the fact that humans the world over have historically struggled with and reflected upon these same issues, devising all sorts of solutions grounded in both secular and spiritual thought. (Buddhism, which shares many parallels with Stoicism, emerged in the East around the same time, while various other world religions have developed particular doctrines or lifestyles that take a similar approach to moral living.)

After reflecting on the empirical results of Stoic Week — namely that participants saw a significant increase in their positive mood and overall life satisfaction — Pigliucci weighs in with his own approach to living stoically. It is an informative model to consider.

Nonetheless, I think it is worth considering what it means to “be a Stoic” in the 21st century. It doesn’t involve handling a turbulent empire as Marcus Aurelius had to do, or having to deal with the dangerous madness of a Nero, with the fatal consequences that Seneca experienced. Rather, my modest but regular practice includes a number of standard Stoic “spiritual” exercises.

I begin the day by retreating in a quiet corner of my apartment to meditate. Stoic meditation consists in rehearsing the challenges of the day ahead, thinking about which of the four cardinal virtues (courage, equanimity, self-control and wisdom) one may be called on to employ and how.

I also engage in an exercise called Hierocles’ circle, imagining myself as part of a growing circle of concern that includes my family and friends, my neighbors, my fellow citizens, humanity as a whole, all the way up to Nature itself.

I then pass to the “premeditatio malorum,” a type of visualization in which one imagines some sort of catastrophe happening to oneself (such as losing one’s job), and learns to see it as a “dispreferred indifferent,” meaning that it would be better if it didn’t happen, but that it would nonetheless not affect one’s worth and moral value. This one is not for everybody: novices may find this last  exercise emotionally disturbing, especially if it involves visualizing one’s own death, as sometimes it does. Nonetheless, it is very similar to an analogous practice in C.B.T. meant to ally one’s fears of particular objects or events.

Finally, I pick a Stoic saying from my growing collection (saved on a spreadsheet on DropBox and available to share), read it to myself a few times and absorb it as best as I can. The whole routine takes about ten minutes or so.

Throughout the rest of the day, my Stoic practice is mostly about mindfulness, which means to remind myself that I not only I live “hic et nunc,” in the here and now, where I must pay attention to whatever it is I am doing, but, more importantly, that pretty much every decision I make has a moral dimension, and needs to be approached with proper care and thoughtfulness. For me this often includes how to properly and respectfully treat students and colleagues, or how to shop for food and other items in the most ethically minded way possible (there are apps for that, naturally).

Finally, my daily practice ends with an evening meditation, which consists in writing in a diary (definitely not meant for publication!) my thoughts about the day, the challenges I faced, and how I handled them. I ask myself, as Seneca put it in “On Anger”: “What bad habit have you put right today? Which fault did you take a stand against? In what respect are you better?”

As Pigliucci cautions (and I concur) Stoicism is not for everyone: it can be demanding to put into practice, and for some lifestyles and personalities, it may seem untenable or even undesirable. Plus, given its ancient origins, some Stoic concepts are dated or fail to take into account the findings of modern science or psychology.

Of course, no philosophy is intended to be a catch-all on all matters and concerns of human existence. Stoicism still offers a lot of salient quotes, perspectives, and ideas well worth taking into consideration, at the very least. It can be tweaked, added upon, or altered to suit our own individual goals and worldviews. As Pigliucci rightly observes:

In the end, of course, Stoicism is simply another path some people can try out in order to develop a more or less coherent view of the world, of who they are, and of how they fit in the broader scheme of things.

I think just about anyone who is concerned with living a just and purposeful life would share in that sentiment. This philosophy has greatly influenced my life, not only in giving me purpose and ethical grounding, but  in helping to minimize my anxiety and depression. Of course, applying it correctly and consistently is a continuous process, but one that is well worth pursuing.

If you are interested in learning more about Stoicism, read the works of Marcus Aurelius (namely Meditations, which I have written about here and here), founder Zeno of Citium (what little of it survives), Seneca the Younger, and Epictetus. Best of luck on your journey to a stoic life.

Twenty Inspiring Atheist Quotes

One of the most pervasive misconceptions about atheists is that we lack any purpose in life by virtue of not believing in a higher power (be it a monotheistic God, transcendent spiritual force, or some other supernatural entity or concept). Moreover, this lack of belief is said to not only deprive us of meaning, but also leaves us devoid of morality, happiness, and self-fulfillment — e.g. the angry, nihilistic atheist trope.

As an agnostic atheist myself, I can certainly attest to this not being the case. Not only do I adhere to the values of secular humanism — which include a firm, universal commitment to promoting the flourishing of the human species — but I find purpose in the beauty and experience of life itself: art, love, discovery, creativity, compassion, and more. The joys of connecting with people, improving the lives of others, broadening my sensory and intellectual horizons — these are what drive me to enjoy every day of my finite but fortunate experience.

Of course, I am but one person, so thankfully, an enterprising photographer named Chris Johnson has taken the stereotype to task by directly asking 100 atheists from where they derive joy and meaning in life. He plans to compile these answers in a book, A Better Life:  100 Atheists Speak Out on Joy and Meaning in a World without Godwhich will hopefully go a long way to dispelling this widely held notion.

Salon has highlighted 20 of these inspiring quotes, which I have listed below.

“Knowing there is a world that will outlive you, there are people whose well-being depends on how you live your life, affects the way you live your life, whether or not you directly experience those effects. You want to be the kind of person who has the larger view, who takes other people’s interests into account, who’s dedicated to the principles that you can justify, like justice, knowledge, truth, beauty and morality.”  – Steven Pinker, cognitive scientist

“In the theater you create a moment, but in that moment, there is a touch, a twinkle of eternity. And not just eternity, but community. . . . That connection is a sense of life for me.” – Teller, illusionist

“We are all given a gift of existence and of being sentient beings, and I think true happiness lies in love and compassion.” – Adam Pascal, musician and actor

“Being engaged in some way for the good of the community, whatever that community, is a factor in a meaningful life. We long to belong, and belonging and caring anchors our sense of place in the universe.”  – Patricia S. Churchland, neurophilosopher

“For me the meaning of life, or the meaning  in life, is helping people and loving people . . . The real joy for me is when someone comes up to me and they want to just sit down and share their struggle.”  –Teresa MacBain, former minister

“Joy is human connection; the compassion put into every moment of humanitarian work; joy is using your time to bring peace, relief, or optimism to others. Joy gives without the expectation—or wish—of reciprocity or gratitude. . . . Joy immediately loves the individual in need and precedes any calculation of how much the giver can handle or whom the giver can help.”  – Erik Campano, emergency medicine

“Raising curious, compassionate, strong, and loving children—teaching them to love others and helping them to see the beauty of humanity—that is the most meaningful and joyful responsibility we have.”  – Joel Legawiec, pediatric nurse

“Anytime I hear someone say that only humans have a thoughtful mind, a loving heart, or a compassionate soul, I have to think that person has never owned a dog or known an elephant.”  – Aron Ra, Texas state director of American Atheists

“I find my joy in justice and equality: in all creatures having opportunities for enjoyment and being treated with fairness, as we all wish and deserve to be treated. . . . While I enjoy the positive feelings of self-improvement, this fire pales compared to the feeling of joy that comes from having contributed something to the greater good.”  – Lynnea Glasser, game developer

“You’re like this little blip of light that lasts for a very brief time and you can shine as brightly as you choose.” – Sean Faircloth, author, lawyer, lobbyist

“Play hard, work hard, love hard. . . .The bottom line for me is to live life to the fullest in the here-and-now instead of a hoped-for hereafter, and make every day count in some meaningful way and do something—no matter how small it is—to make the world a better place.”  – Michael Shermer, founder and publisher, Skeptic Magazine

“I hope to dissuade the cruel parts of the world from their self-imposed exile and persuade their audiences to understand that freedom is synonymous with life and that the world is a place of safety and of refuge.”  – Faisal Saeed Al-Mutar, writer

“I look around the world and see so many wonderful things that I love and enjoy and benefit from, whether it’s art or music or clothing or food and all the rest. And I’d like to add a little to that goodness.” – Daniel Dennett, philosopher and cognitive scientist

“I thrive on maintaining a simple awe about the universe. No matter what struggles we are going through the miracles of existence continue on, forming and reforming patterns like an unstoppable kaleidoscope.”  – Marlene Winell, human development consultant

“Math . . . music .. . starry nights . . . These are secular ways of achieving transcendence, of feeling lifted into a grand perspective. It’s a sense of being awed by existence that almost obliterates the self. Religious people think of it as an essentially religious experience but it’s not. It’s an essentially human experience.”  – Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, philosopher and novelist

“There is joy in the search for knowledge about the universe in all its manifestations.”  – Janet Asimov, psychiatrist

“Science and reason liberate us from the shackles of superstition by offering us a framework for understanding our shared humanity. Ultimately, we all have the capacity to treasure life and enrich the world in incalculable ways.”  – Gad Saad, professor of marketing

“If you trace back all those links in the chain that had to be in place for me to be here, the laws of probability maintain that my very existence is miraculous. But then after however many decades, less than a hundred years, they disburse and I cease to be. So while they’re all congregated and coordinated to make me, then—and I speak her on behalf of all those trillions of atoms—I should really make the most of things.” – Jim Al-Khalili, professor of physics

Note that most of these statements are hardly exclusive to atheists; I am sure many spiritual and religious folks can relate with the sense of wonder that is inherent in the world around us, and derive their purpose from the pursuit of knowledge, experience, and a better world. But for atheists and others who do not find meaning from a higher power , these motivations and activities are potent enough in themselves, in essence taking the place of any religious or spiritual prescriptions.

I could go at length about this complex and personal topic, but as always these days, time is short, so I will leave you all to reflect on these quotes and perhaps share your own thoughts and motivations. As always, thanks for reading.

My Ambivalence on Human Nature

It is astounding how just a cursory glance of the human condition at any given moment can simultaneously yield so much good and evil. Browsing through one day’s worth of news, I can find such a mixed bag of humanity’s best and worst tendencies. It puts my mood in such a flux.

I will read an article about an altruistic act, a peace accord, the lifting of millions from poverty, or some other event on either a micro or macro level that demonstrates moral and social progress. Then right after I see some stomach-churning demonstration of cruelty, whether it is a heinous crime, warfare, or the immiseration of millions by a seemingly impervious regime.

After so many weeks, months, and years of taking it all in, both academically and autodidactically, it is difficult for me to be consistently cynical or optimistic about the course of humanity. Perhaps this is to be expected, since our thoughts and worldviews are shaped by our experience and knowledge, both of which are continuously changing.

As it stands, I suppose I am currently cautiously optimistic, because we have nonetheless come a long way as a species, even if innumerable vices and problems remain. I see the potential for progress and prosperity, even amid so many reminders of our proneness to fallibility, apathy, and hatred.

I think it is worth acknowledging that suffering would remain even with the best intentions. There are still the vagaries of natural disasters, disease, and simple misfortune (accidents and what not). The impact of all these factors can and have been reigned in, but I feel it is only up to a point.

Sorry if my thoughts seem all over the place, this was sort of a stream of consciousness. It goes without saying that I am fortunate to have the luxury to pontificate on such things in so much comfort, largely by an accident of birth.



Why Even the Smartest People Fail at Reason


Being reasonable isn’t easy. Heck, for all our intelligence, it doesn’t even come natural, as more and more studies are demonstrating:

One provocative hypothesis is that the bias blind spot arises because of a mismatch between how we evaluate others and how we evaluate ourselves. When considering the irrational choices of a stranger, for instance, we are forced to rely on behavioral information; we see their biases from the outside, which allows us to glimpse their systematic thinking errors. However, when assessing our own bad choices, we tend to engage in elaborate introspection. We scrutinize our motivations and search for relevant reasons; we lament our mistakes to therapists and ruminate on the beliefs that led us astray.

The problem with this introspective approach is that the driving forces behind biases—the root causes of our irrationality—are largely unconscious, which means they remain invisible to self-analysis and impermeable to intelligence. In fact, introspection can actually compound the error, blinding us to those primal processes responsible for many of our everyday failings. We spin eloquent stories, but these stories miss the point. The more we attempt to know ourselves, the less we actually understand.

I think this ultimately (and obviously) validates the importance of engaging in dialogue with others and leaving yourself open to criticism.

But then again, our own biases make it hard to accept criticism of our deeply held beliefs, which is where science, reason, and other methodologies come into play. Yet even these can be misused or misunderstood.

So basically, trying to figure out the world and what is true is very, very hard and constant vigilance…go figure.

Two Disparate Views of Free Will

Why Evolution Is True

Here are two disparate takes on free will by Susan Blackmore and J. P. Moreland.  What they have in common is that both speakers conceive of “free will” in the same way: as dualistic, libertarian free will (Moreland buys it; Blackmore doesn’t). Now that’s the form of free will—the “ghost-in-the-machine” free will—that many readers here either say isn’t widely held, or isn’t the kind of free will we want. I still maintain that libertarian free will is species most people think they have, but that most folks haven’t thought much about it or the implications of determinism. And how many people know about the Libet-type experiments showing that actions precede conscious decisions?

And I maintain, too, that philosophers are better employed telling people that they don’t have libertarian free will, and are ruled by the laws of physics, than by confecting bogus brands of free will that are at odds…

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An Interesting Rebuttal to a Concept of Free Will

Pretty interesting discussion on free will.
I’ve been pretty busy lately, so enjoy these debates in lieu of my own musings!

Why Evolution Is True

Just when I think there’s nothing more to be said about free will—after all, we’ve hashed over most of the points here—a new piece comes along with yet another take on the issue.

The latest slant, written by Dr. Peter Tse, is either deeply misguided or, less likely, profound in a way I don’t understand. I suspect it’s the latter, an essay that, in the end, is just a “deepity.”  Tse, a cognitive neuroscientist at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, has written a 1200-word defense of free will in New Scientist called “Free will unleashed” (unfortunately, it’s behind a paywall, though I give the reference below).

Although Tse doesn’t define free will, he appears to conceive of it as the condition of human behavior when, in a given situation, with all else equal, you could have done otherwise if you reran the tape of life. I used to hold…

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NPR is on a roll with secular topics lately! I’m glad to see them give rare attention to “The Great Agnostic” Robert Ingersoll. More people should know about the eloquent Ingersoll, who was considered one of the greatest orators of his time, if not in American history.

His insightful observations and brilliant arguments – often done with both humor and courtesy towards believers – are still relevant to this day. The man was a dedicated humanist well ahead of his time in terms of his ethics (for example, his attitudes on women’s right were more progressive than even his contemporary free-thinkers). I highly recommend you give this program a listen, as I think anyone can appreciate Ingersoll’s sincerity, wit, and moral clarity.

The US has a long and fascinating history of secular freethought, beginning with many of our own founding fathers, yet the average American still sees irreligion as a recent, and often frightening, development.

Why Evolution Is True

From yesterday’s National Public Radio’s “On Point” show, Tom Ashbrook discusses The Great Agnostic, Robert Ingersoll, whom you surely know by now.  Ashbrook has two guests (Susan’s book is new, and she’s quite eloquent about the man):

Susan Jacoby, author, “The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought.”

Dale McGowan, writes the secular parenting blog “The Meming of Life.” Author of “Parenting Beyond Belief” and the upcoming “Atheism For Dummies.” (@memingoflife)

The show is 47 minutes long, and I recommend it. At 5:20, you can hear a rare recording of Ingersoll’s voice!

h/t: Kurt

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A Short Overview of Kantian/Deontological Ethical Theory

Kantian ethical theory is one of several moral/ethical theories that provide the following: 1) a method for deriving moral rules and guidelines and 2) a justification and criteria for evaluating the moral value of particular human actions.

So like cultural relativism, which was discussed beforehand, the Kantian theory of ethics seeks to establish an organized approach to how morality is formed and how various actions can be judged and analyzed in terms of their moral legitimacy. As we will see, however, there are vast differences between the two methodologies.

Kantian ethical theory is named after its founder, Immanuel Kant, an 18th century German thinker of the Enlightenment Age. It is important to keep in mind the context in which Kant formulated his ethical theory. During this optimistic time period, there emerged a strong belief in the ability of human reason to help understand the world and solve its various problems – including ethical ones.

Thus, Kant sought to establish an approach to morality that would be reason-based. Indeed, Kant believed that to be ethical is to be perfectly rational, and that the most rational behavior is naturally the most ethical one. He also believed that behaving morally was a matter of obligation for which there could be no exception or loophole – hence the emphasis on rules rather than on consequences.

For this reason, the Kantian approach to morality is classified as a type of Deontological ethical theory. Derived from the word deon, which is Greek for duty, this ethical theory holds that there is an innate aspect to a given moral rule that makes it either good or bad. Put another way, it judges the morality of an action not on, say, its consequences or utility, but on said action’s adhere to a rule or set of rules.

Thus, Kantian/Deontological ethical theory is based around established rules and guidelines, and as such, considers morals to be unconditional, obligatory, and universal. So it is best defined as a rules-based or duty-based system of ethics. For a Kantian ethicist, the ends of an action never justify the means; rather, it is the action itself that is intrinsically good or bad. We can’t control consequences anyway, since there is no telling whether a particular action will lead to the intended results.

Categorical and Hypothetical Imperatives
But what does it mean to have a moral system that is obligatory and rules-based? Keep in mind that Kant is not trying to create any moral rules himself. He’s not directly telling us what is good or bad. Rather, he wants to establish a universal method for determining what is moral. Basically, he’s giving a way to test the legitimacy of other moral rules and actions.

The core of this approach is something known as the categorical imperative. This is a command or recommendation of action that is completely absolute. For example, “you should never lie” or “you should always keep your promises.” Kant contrasts this with the hypothetical imperative, which is a dictate that is based around certain conditions or desires. An example of this would be, “you ought to tell the truth if you want people to trust you, or if you want to be a good person.” A hypothetical imperative usually contains keywords such as “ought,” “should,” or “if” in order to connect the command to a particular condition or motive; categorical imperatives have no such considerations: basically, it’s “you ought to do something, period.”

Intuitively, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with believing that you should tell the truth for the sake of winning people’s trust. After all, this appears to be a perfectly rational expectation and motivation, and Kant was all about basing morals on reason. So why does Kantian ethical theory hold that rules must be unconditional in order to be legitimate and rational? What’s so irrational about conditional morals?

The problem is that having one’s actions contingent upon particular conditions builds into them a loophole: if you don’t care about the conditions, you have no reason to follow through with the moral action. If I don’t care whether or not people will trust me or see me as a good person, I have no reason to tell the truth. I’ll only be moral insofar as doing so meets certain relevant desires, circumstances, or environments.

Thus, the categorical imperative obliges us to behave a certain way out of duty, with no other external or ulterior factors in mind. This makes for a more reliable moral system, since it ensures that we do indeed always tell the truth or behave justly no matter what. But what compels us to follow these categorical imperatives? Why should we be good for the sheer sake of it? And how do we determine what should be a categorical imperative?

The Formulations of the Categorical Imperative
Kant’s answer to these questions is based on an appeal to reason: just as hypothetical imperatives ought to be done for certain desires, categorical imperatives ought to be driven by rational considerations. The first formulation, or principle, for determining whether an act is morally permissible is as follows:

Act only according to that maxim by which you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law

In other words, when you’re considering doing something, ask yourself the following:

1)      What rule would you be following were you to go through with the act? This would be the “maxim” or guideline for said action.

2)      Would you be willing to have this rule become universal law, to be practiced by everyone else around you at all times?

If the action you’re considering meets these requirements, then you’ve devised a categorical imperative – a sound moral rule for which you must oblige yourself to follow absolutely. If not, however, then this action is not moral and therefore not permissible. So if I’m thinking about making a categorical imperative that states “you ought to lie,” I must measure it against the first formulation: would this be a maxim that I’d want to become universal? Would I want to live in a world were everyone has a duty to be dishonest in every circumstance? If I’m a reasonable person, I would most certainly be opposed to this.

The second formulation of the categorical imperative states the following:

Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.

What this basically means is that we should treat people as intrinsically valuable. Indeed, Kant held that human beings are valuable “above all price,” because unlike objects, a person is irreplaceable. Furthermore, objects can only serves as a means: a car is only valuable insofar as it serves its purpose as a form of transportation. People, however, have an inherent value to them that is beyond serving anyone else’s means. Humans have dignity.

But more importantly, they’re autonomous moral agents: they have free will and the ability to guide their actions. Because we humans are rational agents capable of making our decisions and setting our own goals, we are innately valuable. After all, without humans, there would be no conception of either morality or reason.

It is because of this that we should never be used as mere instruments for another’s ends. People must be respected as the rational, independent actors that they are, and must not be reduced to the roles of objects. Thus, a proper moral action must preclude manipulating someone for the sake of self-interest, or forcing them to commit actions against their will. Hiring someone to fix a problem wouldn’t be a problem given that they’re doing so knowingly and willingly; using a slave to do the task, however, would no doubt violate this formulation and make for an unacceptable moral maxim.

It is interesting to see how Kantian ethical theory would apply to the justice system. Kant would be opposed punishing someone to deter criminal behavior because he doesn’t deal in consequences and hypothetical scenarios. Recall that for the Kantian, morality is based solely upon the intent of a particular action and whether it comports with a rule – thus, consequences or other considerations don’t matter.

Instead, Kant would approve of punishment for the sake of retribution; rather then correct a criminal’s behavior, this sort of punishment simply addresses a wrong that has already been committed (albeit proportional to the crime, as Kant was keen to clarify). Furthermore, punishing a criminal treats them as an autonomous moral agent – i.e. ends themselves – and to not punish them would treat them as objects that have no self-guiding morals. In a sense, retributive justice acknowledges the criminal’s human dignity.

Pros and Cons of Kantian Ethical Theory
Kant put a lot of thought into his ethical theory, and he established a rather sophisticated universal methodology for determining proper morality. Even so, like any ethical theory, it has its strengths and weaknesses.

Among the greatest attribute of Kantian ethical theory is its consistency: because this theory is rules-based and absolute, it requires us to be consistent in our morality. Recall that the first formulation of the categorical imperative obliges us to follow rules only if we’d want everyone else to do so too. Similarly, if one accepts considerations as reasons to do (or not do) something in one case, then you must accept those reasons in others. To quote James Rachels, “moral reasons, if they are valid at all, are binding on all people at all times.” All this makes for a moral system that is as stable as it is rational.

On the other hand, this same absolutism is a major weakness as well, for it leads to a possible conflict of rules. What happens when we face a scenario that forces us to choose between two or more obligatory moral rules? Consider the two imperatives “never tell a lie” and “never allow innocents to die if you can help it.” Within the Kantian framework, both these moral rules would be unconditional.

But what happens if, during Nazi-era Germany, you’re secreting harboring Jews and the Gestapo come knocking on your door? In this instance, you’d be forced to choose between lying or letting innocent people die, thereby violating one rule by virtue of choosing another. Absolutism in such circumstances can be very troubling and arguably irrational: shouldn’t a rule be broken if following it would lead to harmful consequences?

Furthermore, Kant underestimates the importance of taking consequences into account when considering an action. He believed that we could never be certain of the results of our actions, whether they’re well-intended or not. But is this realistically applicable to all scenarios? Aren’t there certain cases where we could be pretty sure of the consequences? Moreover, Kant suggests that regardless of the consequences of our actions, what matters is our intention and adherence to an unconditional rule. But could we really be blameless if we commit an act that we’re reasonably sure would lead to more harm than good, even if we were being consistent in our morality?

Ultimately, while Kantian ethical theory provides some crucial moral insights, it also seems ill-suited to deal with the complex reality of many ethical problems.


In Defense of Scientific Inquiry

A frequent and erroneous criticism of science is that because it has been used for evil, a scientific worldview is foolish if not dangerous. Commonly cited examples of this abuse include eugenics, social Darwinism, and weapons manufacturing. As the argument goes, being too scientific – be it individually or as a society – will lead us down a corrupt path, perhaps as extreme as the Nazi regime’s goal of a racially pure utopia. Science is cold and calculating, and those who put too much stock into will end up eroding their own moral and ethical fiber. Additionally, this is often presented as the reason why religion is vital, if not superior, to science.

There are many problems with this perception, particularly the notion that science and religion are on the same spectrum (more on that later). While it’s certainly true that science has been manipulated to serve dark ends, those objectives were not the product of scientific inquiry. Racist, murderous, and totalitarian ideologies have always existed, and evil people will always co-opt any institution or system they can to further their aims, whether its religion, politics, or science.

Furthermore, these ideologies tended to be rather unscientific, regardless of what their proponent claimed. Social Darwinism, if one bothers to look at the history of it, was hardly backed up by any scientific evidence (Darwin himself never proposed such a thing, despite the name association). Nazi and eugenicist concepts of race were similarly unscientific, and were at best the product of a misunderstanding of scientific conclusions (and at worst outright nonsense that merely cloaked itself in science for legitimacy).

The most important refutation, however, goes back to my previous mention about science and religion not being comparable. Science is a methodology, not an ideology: there is no creed or dogma from which scientifically-minded individuals can commit atrocities. Science is an instrument, not an institution or belief-system. Plenty of tools are used for evil, but the fault lies with their wielder, not the mechanism itself. We don’t discount the value of automobiles, rockets, or planes just because they’ve been used in warfare.

Non-scientific and irrational motivations are what lead to the misuse of science, not “too much science.” There is simply no such thing. Humans derive their values from all sorts of other places, since science is absent of any principles besides the importance of reason, empiricism, and falibilism (although if we construe it broadly, science can better our values: a commitment to rational thinking, for example, can inform our ethics and morals).

Regardless of how it’s been abused, there’s no denying that scientific inquiry has proven to be the only reliable method of gaining knowledge about our world and universe. The fact that it’s been misapplied or misunderstood is a problem of human nature, not science. Science is constantly evolving, just like the rest of us. Scientists have been wrong plenty of times, and they’ve been guilty of as much immorality and incompetence as anyone else. But the beauty of science is its ability to explore, ask questions, and seek to improve upon itself. Given all the problems our planet faces, we could use more scientific thinking, not less.