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Doing the Right Thing (book review)

Dateline: September 2, 1998

What does it mean to be moral? Can I, as an atheist, have a reasonable foundation for my morality? And how will I be able to instill a sense of morality into my children without the traditional framework of religion?

These are questions which I often hear from people in atheist discussion forums and in private messages to me. I'd like you to take a few minutes with me as I explore those issues briefly in a reivew of a new book: Doing the Right Thing: Cultivating Your Moral Intelligence by Aaron Hass. I am particularly interested in addressing the latter question dealing with children. I am actively looking for books which will assist non-religious parents in teaching their children about morality and religion. I'm not sure that this is quite it, but it would definitely serve as a good start.

 

Moral Reasoning

Theists of all stripes - and in pariticular conservative evangelicals - are eager to tell us that without their religion and without belief in their god, it is not possible for us to be moral. Only dictated rules from an all-powerful authority are a sufficient basis for being moral. Dr. Hass wants us to cultivate a "moral intelligence" alongside our intellectual intelligence - and for him, this encompasses not only the ability to behave morally, but also the capacity to reason in a moral manner. So, right from the beginning, we observe that Hass values one of the primary components in humanistic ethics: the use of human reason in making moral decisions, as opposed to blindly following imposed rules.

He specifically denigrates the type of parenting which includes stiffling a child's natural propensity to reason morally, as when a father says to a child: "Don't ask me why, just do it!" Although he does not say so, it seems clear that this is exactly the sort of father-figure morality which religionists would have our society follow. Traditionally, conscious analysis of moral dilemmas has been more the purview of dedicated philosophers - but Dr. Hass would change that. It is his opinion that we can no longer affored that luxury and that we all must join the wider moral discussion in order for us to improve not just ourselves, but our society as a whole. It is vital for us all to practice mature moral-analytical reasoning and avoid simply following the rules handed to us by self-appointed authorities.

When facing a moral decision, it isn't enough to blindly ask "What Would Jesus Do?" and abdicate our own responsiblity for making a mature decision. Instead, he wants us to ask "What's the right thing to do?" and figure out what we would do and what we want to happen.

 

Morality: imposition or natural?

Conservative evangelicals are also quite happy to inform us deluded, godless atheists that we humans, each and every one of us, is a degenerate sinner deserving only of everlasting punishment in Hell. Human passions and desires are of Satan, and only their god's grace can save us. Of course, it doesn't hurt if you experience a considerable amount of guilt about this, and impose their god's laws upon your life in an effort to repress your evil desires.

It's not at all uncommon for people to perceive morality as something which must indeed be imposed upon an individual from the outside, something which serves to repress and restrict innate selfish tendencies. However, as Dr. Hass points out, a tremendous amount of evidence from sociology, psychology, and sociobiology indicate that moral behavior is in many ways hard-wired into us through millions of years of social and biological evolution. This would mean that a human being is born ready to act in a moral manner commensurate with the needs and expectations of their society. This view was already common thousands of years ago, as Plato and Aristotle taught that morality was something we created out of our own desires and that it was not imposed upon us by gods or other people. Cultivating moral tendencies was keeping in line with our own needs as human beings and social animals, not an effort to please supernatural forces.

What are these moral tendencies? There are two principle tendencies which form the foundation of the rest of our morality; both of them can be observed not only in our nearest primate relatives, but also in very young children: empathy and fairness. Spontaneous and unsolicitied sharing of pain, an unconscious and unreflective empathy, can be observed in very young toddlers and even infants who observe another person in distress. Behaviors in the earliest ages begin with whimpering or crying, and eventually progress into active efforts to provide some sort of solace, like touching or offering an important possesion. All of this appears naturally, none of it the result of indoctrination on the part of parents.

 

Empathy

This empathy is what is required for any of us to act in a morally mature manner. We need to have a personal understanding of the feelings, thoughts, needs, and distress of the other human beings around us in order to adequately take them into consideration when making our decisions. We need to share the pain of other people, not run from it or rationalize it away. Clearly the ability to empathize occurs naturally in children, but we cannot leave it at that. We need to encourage it and help it grow because, in the long run, it still takes some effort. But how? Hass offers a number of things which parents can do, such as providing yoru child with contact with the less fortuante, like helping out in a soup kitchen.

A very important idea which he outlines is that of not attempting to instill morality by simply teaching them rules, but instead by helping them understand the emotional consequences of their actions. Although rules are important, at least as important is for them to really and personally understand why it is that they follow those rules and what happens to others when they do not.

 

Fairness

The second important principle underlying our morality and originating in our earliest years is that of fairness: justice based upon reciprocal consideration rather than on the use of superior and/or arbitrary power. Fairness is not something which parents may create by proding or ordering children - instead it is something which they manage to work out among themselves in cooperative play in cultures the world over. Our kids work out rules of play and sharing which will prove most mutually beneficial to them. It shouldn't be surprising that this will happen - humans have evolved over millions of years not as solitary hunters, but as social animals living, surviving, and reproducing together in necessarily cooperative environments. Those groups which can most quickly and easily work together for the benefit of all will, in the long run, survive best. Habits of fair play should then be expected in the children of animals such as ourselves which depend so much on mutual assitance in order to survive.

Dr. Hass also speaks forcefully against unnecessary guilt. He does advocate that guilt can be good when it serves to prompt you to do better after a mistake - and it certainly serves as testimony to one's ability to properly empathize with those who have been harmed. However, guilt can be tossed around needlessly and unproductively, as with the sort of guilt evangelicals attempt to inculcate in others. The guilt of evangelicals is a guilt of having been born and of merely existing - existing as a sinner and condemned to hell for the "sins" of Adam and Eve. This is guilt for things not truly the fault of the individual, and this abandonment of the concept of personal responsibilty serves no one. It certainly doesn't aid in the development of genuine morality.

This only breaks the surface of Dr. Hass' treatment of developing and maintaining a moral character - he continues on to describe the value and necessity of principles like Duty, Dignity, and Self-Control. At all times, he balances his treatment between anecdotal stories and philosophizing.

Quote of the week:

The foundation of morality should not be made dependent on myth nor tied to any authority lest doubt about the myth or about the legitimacy of the authority imperil the foundation of sound judgment and action.

Albert Einstein

Taken from the
Internet Infidels Quote File.
Of very practical importance are his two sections devoted to exercises for "strengthening moral muscle" - the first for adults, the second for children. In both he discusses how one can go about analyzing a moral problem and utilizing basic principles in the effort to come to a reasonable solution. Then, he presents a series of difficult moral dilemmas where easy answers are not forthcoming - genuine problems. I think that this would be an excellent tool in educating children, although I would also caution against relying upon it too much. Moral dilemmas are difficult to deal with, and they may very well overwhelm some children. Dr. Hass might also recognize this as he spends time emphasizing how parents should serve as role models and teach by example, and how good behavior, whenever observed, should be acknowledged and rewarded.

 

Morality: Dependent upon God?

So, do we need religion or a god to be good? I say no, and judging from the above, it doesn't appear as though Dr. Hass would disagree. However, that conclusion isn't definite. Even though he devotes an entire chapter to this pertinent question, he never quite comes right out and says yes or no. He says a number of things which would lead one to conclude "no," like

    Just as there is no necessary relationship between intelligence and morality, there is no inevitable connection between degree of religiosity and sensitivity to others. "Religious" people steal, commit adultery, and gossip. But they find a way to rationalize and compartmentalize their behavior in order to maintain their "religious" self-image.

But not a word about wholly non-religious people acting in a moral way.

He later asks:

    Why be moral if there is no God? Secularists would offer many reasons: (1) They would point to the spontaneous caring in very young children as evidence of our true nature. (2) They would argue that living morally and creating a just universe, in and of themselves, can provide their past, present, and future with life-affirming meaning. (3) They would insist that morality is simply necessary in order to prevent social chaos and mutual destruction, and that human beings have the capacity to understand their dependence on one another.

All of these are good reasons - and he himself provides excellent support for them in this very book - but he doesn't bother to say whether or not he agrees that any of them are indeed adequate. Instead, he goes on to explain how religion serves to help people be more moral and more focused. In the end, he advocates a view of a friend, to live life imagining as if "God is always looking over my shoulder." The idea of directing your actions upon the premise of having an absolute authority watching you at all times runs completely counter to the principle of conscious moral reasoning.

If you can properly exercise the principles of fairness and empathy in your decisions through moral-analytic reasoning, then why do you need to think that someone is always watching you? He also makes other statements which appear to be at odds with the basic premise of individual moral reasoning, like that people cannot be allowed to decide for themselves what is moral since they will "inevitably be swayed" by their emotions and individual needs. This certainly may be true of some people at certain times, but our common humanity and common ability to empathize should allow us to cooperatively produce common moral principles. This already happens - they're called societal mores. They aren't perfect, but we shouldn't expect imperfect humans to produce a perfect morality.

Despite these and a couple of other minor problems (like the lack of a bibliography and references), I can endorse this book as worth looking at not only for individuals wishing to explore morality on a practical and useful level, but also for (prospective) parents interested in raising their children to be moral, caring, and responsible adults without relying on authoritarian religious traditions. It is indeed possible to make moral decisions while not also believing in an all-powerful, ever-watchful god, and this book could serve to help people reinforce their own innate moral tendencies. After all, everyone at times needs to be reminded about the best ways to act.

 

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