Blog Site

Sunday, May 3, 2009

More on beliefs, torture, complexity: reader feedback

Juliette Rousselot opposing torture, AP
I've been so happy for the responses I've been getting to this blog. There are two lists I am able to see, which show top five visited blogs on One is the top five Examiner blogs in Houston (out of 127), and the other is the top five for the Religion & Spirituality section (out of 274, regardless of city). Thanks to readers, I have several times seen Houston Humanist Examiner appear on both of these lists. We passed 1,000 unique hits sooner than I thought we would, which substantially exceeded the average for a little over 1 week being active.

Along the way, I have received many excellent comments from you all (some of them have been directly or in other venues than the comments sections you see here at Please know that I read every one of them and give them all careful consideration. I decided that I'm not going to comment in the comments section below the articles, but rather leave that as a place for you all to have your say. However, I do plan to make a post every so often where I answer reader feedback. I've tried to answer the most interesting or pertinent questions, or one's where you've put me on the spot. Many I have not answered, but it isn't because I don't think they were good comments, or that I don't appreciate them. It's just that many of them speak well for themselves, or I'd have little to offer. So, without further ado, let me address some of your wonderful points!

From "Torture: what's the answer?"

Nathan: "how can any immoral action be justified using the logic in this article? If it is wrong to torture, regardless so of the circumstances, then how can it ever be considered right to kill somebody because "it's war", or imprison somebody because "they broke the law and must learn their lesson". How do you distinguish something like torture which you seem to say is wrong in all cases) from something like imprisonment (which we view as wrong to do to somebody - unless they deserve it). How do you define which actions merit the "it's ok if the person deserves it" tag, and which merit the "wrong in all cases" tag?"

You win the prize for deepest and most difficult question of the month! I think your question is essentially one of ends vs means. Despite my admonishment of an 'ends justifies the means' mentality produced by consequentialism in my article, I actually believe that sometimes the ends do justify the means. Usually when we face and ends/means question, it's because two principles are at odds. The 'weight' or importance of those principles relative to one another will determine whether the ends justifies or does not justify the means (for more on this, please see my essay "2.13 The Means/Ends Principle").

However, in this case - the main point I make is that, in looking only at outward consequences, we are not weighing the value of "not torturing" correctly, in proportion to the value of the information we might glean, or even the lives saved from it. Instead, when we consider how being a 'torturing people' will effect us, our society, and the kind of world in which we live, I believe the consequences are so substantial, that were we to measure these things properly, we would find torture not to be worth it.

Many times in our individual lives, when we go through our various tumultuous dramas that cause us so much distress, we see a person who is trying to play the puppeteer, crunching the numbers, looking at what will happen and when, and imagining that if they take certain actions at certain times, they can orchestrate events to come out as they desire. To a degree we can influence things like this, but the operation is always more daunting than we first imagined, and more complex and out of our control than we perceive. So, it's easy to get caught up in that and think of ethics as 'general principles that work most of the time, but not in this case'.

However, what really leads to a lasting, deep, happiness and contentment is not outcomes - but the nature of our character, and that is formed only by being virtuous. So, what we must do is rely on that wisdom, even when our machinations can't always calculate just how they will result in good outcomes. That will build a fortitude that will carry us through all outcomes.

Sam: "I consistently see the statement that we prosecuted Japanese soldiers who used waterboarding during WWII. The reality is that we DID prosecute them, and in fact executed some. But it is always framed as if waterboarding was the sole or main offense. Waterboarding might as well have been 'boogie-boarding' compared to the types of torture done by the Japanese. (Starvation, Electric shock and cannibalism to name a few) To use this, in my opinion, muddies the conversation.

It is certainly true that Japanese were not executed solely or even mainly for waterboarding. Some people may sometimes veer into framing it that way in order to emphasize their point and when they do so they are wrong. After being criticized by Mark Hemmingway in the National Review, Paul Begala justifies his point in this article but Hemmingway answered the next day here.

As Hemmingway notes, Begala smudged the line when he said on television, "We executed them for the same for the same crime we are now committing ourselves". Actually, we charged them for the crime as though it were a war crime and torture, and they were charged with a lot of other stuff and eventually executed. So, technically Begala oversteps a little here - something that should be important to we who care about intellectual honesty. But it's also important to know that the fudge isn't where it counts when it comes to the point of contention. Remember that the argument isn't that waterboarding deserves execution, or that the U.S. should execute waterboarders if it is to be consistent. Rather, the argument is that, to be consistent, the U.S. should consider waterboarding torture and a war crime in the same way it did when it included that in the charges against Japanese soldiers.

Hemmingway concedes that his argument doesn't mean waterboarding isn't torture, and he notes that McCain's original statement (which Begala was referencing) was correct as McCain phrased it: "The Japanese were tried and convicted and hung for war crimes committed against American POWs. Among those charges for which they were convicted was waterboarding." I was careful to use similar wording in my post when I wrote, "the United States tried and executed Japanese personnel after World War II for war crimes, specifically including waterboarding." Although we risk muddying the conversation if we suggest the waterboarding was the main charge, I think it is so important to know that the U.S. at one time saw fit to include waterboarding among war crime charges, that we should carefully continue to make that point.

From "Why do my beliefs not match my religion?"

Sam: "I don't believe that any one person's beliefs can be 100% orthogonal with the 'published' beliefs of a religious group."

I'd definitely agree with that, I think most people would. What I found fascinating about the recent population of those identifying as Christians, is just how enormous and 'foundational' many of their beliefs are to traditional Christian doctrine.

Sam: "This article is a fine example of what we need more of. The more we think about our beliefs and better establish our values, the better off we will be. Excellent job."

Thanks very much! This kind of feedback gives me an indication of what people are interested and will effect what I offer readers.

Michel: "My issue with local Humanist/Atheist groups is their focus on debunking OTHER religions, rather than providing a rational approach to addressing the big questions that those religions answer."

I couldn't agree more Michel. As former president and long time member of local Humanist organizations, keeping the focus on the positive aspects of Humanist values is a constant challenge. Throughout the country, the Humanist movement has its share of hard-line atheists who are really just concerned with bucking the religious majority. I think it's fine for specifically atheist organizations to meet those needs, and to do important things like keeping a check on church/state mingling. But Humanist organizations should emphasize Humanism. It also doesn't help that the national level Humanist organizations have become very political in their focus. But I always tell people this: if you don't like what your local Humanist organization is, it's only that way as an emergent property of the current participants and their actions - jump in, get involved, and help to change and direct it where it needs to go, because if people like us don't, then the community will only do the opposite. In a way, my own efforts here at are all about quitting my complaining about what Humanists should be doing, and being an example of it. As Marcus Aurelius wrote, "Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one." The same could be said of being a good Humanist.

Arthur: "DT- You said: "...the barren meaningless landscape of Wal-marts, iPods, and materialism plaguing our society." Why on earth do you consider these three items barren, meaningless, and a plague?"

First, two linguistic points about that sentence that lacked clarity...
The grouping of items as I was thinking of them was:
barren meaningless landscape of:

1) Wal-marts
2) iPods
3) materialism plaguing our society

So, the "plague" part referred to the materialism.
The second linguistic point is the definition of "materialism". Here I am not referring to the philosophy which excludes the supernatural. For that, I use the term naturalism (to which I ascribe). Materialism here refers to an unhealthy focus on material possessions, greed, and jealousy - the "keeping up with the Joneses" mentality.

There's nothing wrong with iPods (I have one myself), or with retail stores per se, or with material possessions. But, within the framework of writing about deeper purpose and values in life - they truly are 'barren and meaningless'.  Things which are meaningless with regard to 'ultimate values' and barren of 'deep meaning' are not evil or wrong - in fact, they can be fun and add spice to life. But they are wholly insufficient as a means to a true contentment and real happiness and long term satisfaction in life. Therefore, any philosophy which seeks to remove the current basis of those values without replacing it with something, imagining the three items listed above to be enough, will absolutely fail.

Bill: "No matter where America goes, doesn't go, or the world for that matter, there will always be a few who continue to recognize Jesus as 'the way, the truth and the life.' Narrow minded to many perhaps, but faithful nonetheless."

Bill, I hope going forward we live in a world where people have even more freedom across the globe to believe and practice their faiths (or secular philosophies) peacefully and without oppression, in the open marketplace of ideas, wherever that leads. I think this can only happen when we have societies that are free, tolerant, respect free speech to the fullest, and the free exchange of ideas and opinions. I personally suspect this will have a diversification effect on the global population, which may even lead to an increased secularization. For Christianity and other mainline religions, that would probably mean a shrinkage - however, I'd only tolerate such a thing if it were a naturally occurring evolution of the population's demographics and free beliefs, and never if it were being enforced by others. All in all, I think you're right that we're likely to see some version of Christianity hanging around for a long, long time to come.

From "Swine flu, recession, terrorism, & Houston traffic: connection?"

smijer: "When I was a kid, they called this thing 'chaos theory'."

I think they still do actually. The book I mentioned refers to chaos theory quite a bit, but I think they are slightly different things. As far as I can tell as a layman, it seems to me that chaos theory is one part of complex systems theory. In other words, chaos is an element that plays out within complex systems, but (a) not all examples chaos pertain to a complex system, and (b) there are many other apects to complex systems besides that which chaos theory covers.

tbrucia: "It's fascinating how some people find the complexity we swim in endlessly fascinating and refreshing, while others find it threatening."

True tbrucia. I have had 'profound experiences' in learning about these things, which is why I wanted to see what implications complexity might have for naturalistic spirituality. As you likely know, the Buddhists would say that distress to which you refer is a result of the delusion of ego. We fail to perceive that what we think of as a unified continuous self, is actually an amalgamation of interacting parts in an impermanent pattern which flows seamlessly with the other patterns around it. Accepting this fully is part of acheiving the detachment needed to appreciate the beauty and wholeness of Nature. It involves letting go of that instinctive drive we have, understanding it is only there because of the natural selective processes which bred it into these bodies - letting go of things over which we have no control, and acting without fear or desire but rather from understanding. What a silly thing for me to try and communicate this in a single paragraph! We'll have to disuss more in coming posts :)

Thanks again to everyone, and if you like what you've read here so far - please consider subscribing to ths blog. By the way, I don't get to see your personal email addresses when you subscribe, that stuff is all secure and automated. But I do get to see how many subscribers I have and that tells me if I'm doing something right.

No comments:

Post a Comment