The source of morality

Over at David Marshall’s blog he has another response in our ongoing conversation about the origins of morality, modern perspectives on slavery, and the roles of Christianity in it all. In this latest reply he brings in a large amount of global history that I simply cannot comment on.  I am not nearly as well read in those issues. However, this provides an opportunity to address another problem that comes up in many of these conversations: how do you deal with claims that you can’t track down yourself? Perhaps there is not enough time to track them down, or it is too technical for you to understand, or some other reason. I’ll deal with that issue at the end.

First, I want to comment on this from Marshall:

Brian argues at a lower decibel level.

Thanks! I’m not sure if everyone agrees that I operate at low decibel, but I do try to be civil (most of the time!).

Sam Harris thinks it is obvious that owning slaves is wrong. Brian Blais thinks it obvious that gay marriage is OK. I think it is obvious that both beliefs are formed in a particular culture due to that culture’s heritage, pulled in certain directions by particular lines of thinking, and would not likely take the same form in, say, Aztec or Wahhabi societies so readily.

Again, I draw a distinction between the cultural bias that each of us have and the more objective perspectives we can obtain through rational discourse.

There are two moral issues, here: (1) Why should we care about “increasing suffering” that is not our own suffering, or (a Confucianist may ask) of that of people we are intimately related to? (2) Why should we assume that in fact, these particular “evils” really do cause more suffering? (More than, say, pornography? Or growing up with Dad? Or abortion? Or intellectual arrogance?)

  1. If you read Sam Harris’ book, or see some of his lectures on this issue, he deals with it far more eloquently than I. In a practical way, we care about the suffering of others because it is directly tied to the suffering of us. Further, we must care about the suffering of conscious creatures because this is the moral thing to do. I don’t want to repeat all of Harris’ theses here, however.
  2. Why should we “assume” these particular “evils” do cause more suffering? Actually, we do not simply assume it. We marshal (no pun intended, David) the evidence for it. This is what separates a rational basis for morality and a religious one – there are no dictates from “on high”. I could be wrong about it, but from what evidence I can see, depriving the rights of a minority that most enjoy causes needless suffering. This applies to slavery and it applies to the rights of consenting adults to marry.

How does Blais know his own set of values is superior to all those others

I guess I don’t, except in cases where someone is making a moral claim and cannot justify on the basis of decreased suffering. It’s like scientific knowledge that way – how do I know that my knowledge is better than another? I don’t, until they make specific claims and I see their justification. I could be wrong about it. I could be corrected, and convinced of a perspective I don’t currently hold. I don’t see a problem with this.

Finally, one might argue, from a utilitarian point of view, that the Athenians increased total happiness by enslaving half their population, so that free men could sculpt, debate, write philosophy, and invent science. Might there not be a larger total sum of happiness in such a Republic, than among a people that is all free, but fails at such achievements? Or would the Athenians have increased the world’s total future happiness without those slaves?

This is indeed possible. No one ever said that the moral calculus would be easy.

Marshall continues…

But the Gospel does say, very clearly, that we are to care even for our enemies, return good for evil, and love our neighbors as ourselves. There’s nothing “vague” about that: it’s repeated hundreds of times, in different ways, and as eloquently as anything ever written.

It also says:

Do not think that I came to bring peace on Earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household.


But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them–bring them here and kill them in front of me.

The recurring problem is that there are good things there, but also bad things there. Given the history of Christianity, and the current divisions between different groups of Christians, I am not simply picking things out of context.  Intelligent, well-meaning people draw opposite messages from the Bible.  If this were, say, the works of Shakespeare I’d have no problem with it. We’d simply take the lessons we like, and call the rest of it anachronistic. This is what moderate Christians do with much of Bible. Even conservative Christians do it with at least the brutal dictates in the Old Testament.

Even the New Atheists are waging verbal civil war on one another, based on different ethical positions they take in regard to feminism.

Atheism is simply the label we give to people who are not convinced by the arguments of theists on the narrow question about the existence of God. After that, there needn’t be any agreement. That atheists disagree on feminism is perfectly fine. If they disagreed on the existence of God, then there would be a problem.

But I don’t think educated Christians are so starkly divided, compared to the various schools of atheism.

Really? You think that, say, educated Baptists and Catholics really agree on core interpretations of the divinity of Jesus? What about with Universalists? These are divisions about core beliefs, not tangential topics like feminism.

Dealing with claims beyond ones ability to check

In Marshall’s post, he says

My impression is that it is also rather hard to find early reform movements within Hindu culture that challenged caste. Mohandas Gandhi came at the tail end of reform inspired by outside forces (Christian missions), as John Farquhar shows in Modern Religious Movements in India. In China, while some ethnic groups refrained from binding the feet of women, like the Hakka, it took an outside agent – Christian missions, again – to challenge it inside the Han Chinese culture as a whole.

I don’t have the expertise in history to really comment, nor can I make an authoritative judgement on it. However, I am skeptical of it nonetheless. Why? If someone makes a claim about the rise of Napoleon, beyond my ability to confirm, I will tend to believe them – unless I suspect that this claim supports some other strongly held belief of the person. In that case, I would be skeptical of it.

In the case of this description from Marshall, it sounds too much like the claim that started this discussion, that somehow Christianity was the source of “separation of church and state”. A claim that I believe is biased in the direction of Marshall’s personal beliefs in the tenets of Christianity. It seems, although I can’t demonstrate it conclusively without a lot more work, to be of a similar flavor.  I ran into the same problem with UFO sightings.  I can’t investigate every single UFO claim, but every one that I did have time to track down turned out to be mundane.  The same with faith-healings.  This one deals with the force of history, and I simply don’t have the time to corroborate the facts, but I am still left unconvinced.

Perhaps that puts this conversation at an end, with all of the issues pretty much on the table for others to read and react to. It has certainly been an interesting and challenging exchange.


About brianblais

I am a professor of Science and Technology at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, and a research professor in the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, Brown University. My research is in computational neuroscience and statistics. I teach physics, meteorology, astonomy, theoretical neuroscience, systems dynamics, artificial intelligence and robotics. My book, "Theory of Cortical Plasticity" (World Scientific, 2004), details a theory of learning and memory in the cortex, and presents the consequences and predictions of the theory. I am an avid python enthusiast, and a Bayesian (a la E. T. Jaynes), and love music.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to The source of morality

  1. Brian: All right, I won’t respond on my blog again. Your instincts seem generally sound, and I have no trouble with your not accepting claims on my say-so. But let me make three brief further points here:

    #1 “Bring those enemies over here and kill them” is not Jesus’ teaching about how one should treat our neighbors, these are words spoken by a character in one of Jesus’ parables, a king who takes revenge on his enemies. Admittedly, this is a tough verse, since the king represents God. But this in no way represents “the ethics of Jesus.”

    #2 There is such a thing as a forest, and such a thing as a shrub in that forest. Jesus himself gave “love God, and love your neighbor as yourself” as the heart and soul of his ethics, and the trees affirming that tower all around in the NT. Anyone who fails to see that, and finds some outlier verse to see it as arbitrary whether one reads Jesus as teaching liberation or oppression, is not playing fair with the text. Hector Avalos’ claim that “Jesus commands hate” should be taken as a cautionary tale:

    #3 You are right to be cautious about my biases, as with the biases of any scholar. To be clear, though, I do not make a strong claim about Jesus being the “source of separation of church and state:” I see that as a very complex issue. (Brian Tierney’s The Crisis of Church and State: 1050-1300, with selected documents, is a good source on this.) I do claim, however, and this may be even bolder, that many, probably most great reforms over the past 2000 years can fairly strongly be traced to the teachings and influence of Jesus. There is no reason for you to accept that claim on my say-so, which is why I argue for it historically, and welcome attempts to rebut or more deeply inform my arguments, especially by those who work in related fields.

    • brianblais says:

      only time for a very quick reply (haven’t read all of your comment yet), but this: ” Admittedly, this is a tough verse, since the king represents God. But this in no way represents “the ethics of Jesus.”” is contradictory. If Jesus=God, then he is endorsing this behavior. You can “reinterpret” it all you want, but then you’d have to admit it is at least unclear.

  2. John Smith says:

    Heh, heh. Luke 27:19. I think I’ve seen that before somewhere!

    “But this in no way represents ‘the ethics of Jesus.”’

    Apparently Marshall’s position is that the Bible doesn’t mean what the Bible says, rather it means what Marshall says. That kind of subjectivity badly undermines any claims for objective morality arising from the Bible.

  3. John Smith says:

    But of course, I called it Luke 19:27 before. Sigh.

    I type the way I live. Fast. And with a lot of mistakes.

  4. John Smith says:

    Christianity seems to have a somewhat similar relationship to the abolition of slavery as the MMR-vaccine has to the abolition of autism.

    There are huge populations of both vaccinated and unvaccinated people in the world, and the incidence of autism seems to be essentially the same in both populations. The obvious conclusion is that former Playboy bunnies might not be the most reliable source for information about the alleged connection between the MMR-vaccine and autism.

    Now it’s true that some kids who get vaccinated also develop autism. But that’s almost certainly just an accident, not a caused event.

    Similarly, there were huge populations of Christians in various parts of the world and huge populations of other religious groups in other parts, and slavery was widely practiced among many, if not all, groups. There was also a large percentage of Christians in the abolitionist American North and perhaps an even larger percentage of Christians in the slave states of the American South. The conclusion that religious preference in general and Christianity in particular have little or no necessary impact on the incidence of slavery seems quite plausible.

    And yet the incidence of slavery has declined in many places over the past couple of centuries. How did that happen? Economics may provide a much better explanation than religion.

    Slavery is obviously an economic activity. Slaves provide muscle power. When the steam-engine was invented, steam became a cheaper source of power than slaves. Historically, it seems that it wasn’t until the economic need for slave power decreased, that abolitionism really took root. The rise of steam-power began in Northern Europe. Early abolitionism was also strong in Northern Europe. But it was probably the steam-engine, not religion, that was pulling that particular train.

    The economic laws of supply and demand seem a likely, perhaps even inevitable, explanation for the decline of slavery. And economic laws do not seem to depend on religious preference.

    The presence of Christians during the rise of abolitionism seems about as meaningful as the presence of the MMR-vaccine in a child who develops autism.

    • brianblais says:

      That’s a very interesting analogy. Similarly, I find the argument that Christianity is responsible for modern science because “all the early scientists were Christians” equally uncompelling for the same reason.

    • Bloody nonsense. First I made no argument about “necessary impact.” On the contrary, I have admitted repeatedly that of course many Christians have owned slaves.

      But impact, there clearly was. The abolitionists themselves explain their own motives — all you have to do is read what they say. And that’s how history is done, “John Smith.”

      The abolition of slavery was enormously costly in England, as has been repeatedly demonstrated. That’s why it was fought, tooth and nail, by those who profited by it. See Rodney Stark’s overview in For the Glory of God. Or here, from Seymour Drescher’s Abolition: The History of Slavery and Anti-Slavery (245):

      “In terms of tropical production, the combined impact of British abolitionism on the Atlantic slave trade, revolutionary emancipation in the French colonies, and legislated emancipation in the British colonies, altered the distribution of slave-produced cash crops in the West Indies. The Anglo-French colonies had produced 89 percent of the value of Caribbean exports in 1770, compared with 1 percent for the Spanish colonies. But 1850, the now free labor Anglo-French colonies share of output had decreased to 35 percent. The Spanish share had risen to 57 percent.”

      Slave labor in Brazil and America was also thriving, economically. And no, this does not depend on Christian scholars. The fact that evangelical Christians led the fight against slavery is known by every historian of the period.

      Again, armchair neo-Marxist clap-trap is no substitute for actual historical research, and observing who actually did what to change things, and why.

      • brianblais says:

        Just to add to the fray here. 🙂 I found this interesting post:

        He admits that Christians has a major impact in the abolishment of slavery. However, he raises two points that I don’t think have been dealt with here. He asks the question, “Who were the people who instituted slavery in the Western world in the first place?” (clearly, the Christians) And he adds “freethinkers played a role as well,” and references some of them. Both of these point in the direction *away* from the claim that Christianity is inherently anti-slavery.

        There is some interesting info about the Christian organization, the KKK, which adds something as well. Of course, I would imagine that the response would be “they aren’t ‘real’ Christians,” or “they weren’t really following the teachings of Jesus.” I’m sure they would disagree with that…which I’ve pointed out before – as an outsider, there isn’t an obvious way to resolve the he-said-she-said problem on this topic.

  5. Both of Lee’s points are overblown. He describes William Garrison as a “free-thinker.” This seems apt to mislead readers: Garrison seems to have been pious literally to his dying day, like his mother who deeply influenced him, and (more relevantly) to have converted to abolitionism by Christians making religious arguments. And of course abolitionism was more than a century old by that time, and the ancient movement against slavery in Christendom much older still:

    What Lee appears to mean by saying that “Christians began slavery” is that Europeans who considered themselves Christians began the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Of course that’s true, though probably a larger number of people were enslaved by the Muslim empires beginning well before that, including millions of Africans, so it’s a little odd to call that the beginning. In both cases, of course, the motive was profit, as it always has been. That’s the norm. But abolishing slavery against financial interests, that’s what’s unusual. And no, it didn’t begin with Robert Ingersoll, a bit player in the abolition of slavery at best, who caught his abolitionist sentiments from his father, who was a Christian pastor. (And friend of Charles Finney, the great abolitionist and revival preacher, whom Lee has apparently never heard of.)

    All in all, Lee appears to have little real grasp of the historical issues; you are leaning on weak reed, here.

  6. John Smith says:


    Your response seems problematic for several reasons.

    First: “Bloody nonsense. First I made no argument about ‘necessary impact.’”

    Before you go into attack mode, you might want to read what it is you’re attacking. I never said that you *had* made an argument about “necessary impact.” In fact, I was probably responding to Brian’s post, not to yours. And I don’t think there’s a law anywhere that requires me to avoid making new points in any case.

    Second, if Christianity didn’t have any “necessary impact,” that seems to reduce pretty significantly the importance of Christianity’s role. Is that really what you meant to say?

    Third, “The abolitionists themselves explain their own motives — all you have to do is read what they say. And that’s how history is done….”

    You make it sound like history is done by reading only one side. I disagree with cherry-picking the data like that. If you really want to “do history,” I think you should read both sides. In this case, history shows the slavers explained their justifications too, and a large part of that consisted of Bible-quotes.

    Fourth, the idea that the abolitionists were describing their true motives is a bit dubious. Abolitionism was largely a political movement, and politicians are likely to say just about anything to attract supporters. Hitler, for example, repeatedly appealed to Bible-based themes. Are you willing to concede that Christianity was an important motivating force for the Holocaust, in light of Hitler’s pandering? If not, then I think you’ve got some problems. The Greater Faith Baptist Ministry also appealed repeatedly to New Testament themes. Are you willing to concede that Christianity was an important motiviating force for one of the greatest financial frauds in the ’90s? If not, then I think you’ve got some problems.

    Fifth, the statistics you cited were also of dubious relevance. If you want to use statistics to show that Christians did some particular thing, then you probably need statistics that specifically identify the actors. I don’t think your statistics did that.

    Sixth, your comment about “armchair neo-Marxist clap-trap” is badly misguided. Supply and demand and the laws that relate to them are not specifically Marxist concepts. As a financial planner, I read a bit in that area. I can recommend some books on the history of finance, if you’re interested.

    Hmm. A Marxist financial planner. That has an interesting ring to it 😉

    • brianblais says:

      All good points, thanks! I particularly like “if Christianity didn’t have any “necessary impact,” that seems to reduce pretty significantly the importance of Christianity’s role.”. That’s been my point throughout – just because Christians did a particular thing doesn’t necessarily imply that it was a result of their Christianity. We can get a clue that it isn’t the Christianity when significant number of Christians do the opposite, when Christians don’t do the thing at a time when they had significant influence and power, and when non-Christians also do that thing.

      As to a Marxist financial planner, that reminds me that when my children were younger, we played essentially communist monopoly. 🙂 as you went around, you could buy anything (from the bank), and all of the fees went to the bank, etc…. It was more a game of counting than of property.

  7. John Smith says:


    I saw a report once about the KKK being the largest Protestant social club in the entire world during its heyday. If they weren’t “true Christians,” then we should get the Guiness people to give the KKK an award for being the largest fake Christian club in history!

  8. John: Sorry, I may have mistaken you for another fellow who sometimes goes by the name of John Smith, among his many other aliases — which may explain my pique.

    No, I don’t think the impact of an idea has to be historically necessary to be hugely important. What great reforms are necessary? That’s not really how history works. Jesus inspired Francis of Assisi, but Francis could not have been predicted.

    “You make it sound like history is done by reading only one side. I disagree with cherry-picking the data like that.”

    But the question is, what inspired the abolitionists. We are not even talking about what inspired the slavers. That’s a simple enough question, though, once raised: profits. The rest is easily explained as rationalization. Anyway, that question interests me less than the real novelty, which was the abolition of slavery.

    “Fourth, the idea that the abolitionists were describing their true motives is a bit dubious. Abolitionism was largely a political movement, and politicians are likely to say just about anything to attract supporters. Hitler, for example, repeatedly appealed to Bible-based themes. Are you willing to concede that Christianity was an important motivating force for the Holocaust, in light of Hitler’s pandering?”

    Sorry, that argument is specious nonsense. Not all politicians are the same, and the force behind abolition did not come mainly from professional politicians. Benjamin Lay, John Wesley, and William Wilberforce were consumed with the call of Christ, not with politics for its own sake. By contrast, read Mein Kampf: Adolf Hitler most obviously was not a follower of Jesus, or motivated by his love of Christ.

    “Fifth, the statistics you cited were also of dubious relevance. If you want to use statistics to show that Christians did some particular thing, then you probably need statistics that specifically identify the actors. I don’t think your statistics did that.”

    I don’t know what statistics you’re referring to. My post on the early history of proto-abolition does name names.

    “Sixth, your comment about “armchair neo-Marxist clap-trap” is badly misguided. Supply and demand and the laws that relate to them are not specifically Marxist concepts. As a financial planner, I read a bit in that area. I can recommend some books on the history of finance, if you’re interested.”

    Reducing the abolitionists to economic expediency is ahistorical “clap-trap,” as Stark shows in For the Glory of God, and the quote I give above also briefly indicates. The economic motives, in fact, were on the other side, and were the force against which the abolitionists pushed. I recognize that Marxists aren’t the only ones to reduce motivations to economics in that way, but they are the biggest party guilty of that error in modern times, and ironically the party that ought to have disproven it best, since the communists created societies where money was a minor consideration.

  9. John Smith says:


    Christianity was around for 1700 years before abolitionism gained any real traction. The steam engine was around for less than 100 years, and abolitionism soon followed. Given that timing, Christianity looks more like the caboose than the engine.

    And the idea that the Bible was an **objective** motivator for abolitionism seems especially problematic, since slavers used the same book to justify their beliefs. You claim that rationalization is an easy way to explain the slavers’ justifications, but rationalization can probably be used just as easily to explain the abolitionists’ justifications.

    The Bible’s objectivity seems pretty dubious. It is used today — and with quite some vehemence on both sides — to justify both harsh and relaxed immigration proposals, both activist and isolationist foreign policy measures, both young-Earth and old-Earth creationism, competing economic measures, competing views of homosexuality, competing views on the separation of church and state, competing views on the role of women both in society and in church, competing education measures, competing health care measures, etc., etc., etc. In short, the Bible doesn’t seem to be very objective at all, rather it seems to be used first as an inkblot for individuals to project their pre-existing opinions onto and then as a bludgeon to persuade their neighbors to follow their lead. Where, exactly, is the objectivity in that?

    You say you are interested in explaining the real novelty, but provide no justification for what appears to be a question-begging assumption that slavery was “the real novelty.” How do you know that the steam engine wasn’t the “real novelty” and that it wasn’t the steam engine that played the crucial role in producing the second novelty? Evolutionary ethics would probably be very comfortable with the idea that one feature of society, like slavery, could change as a natural adaptive response to a significant change in another feature of society, like power generation. How do you know it wasn’t natural, evolutionary processes that guided behavior?

    It is probably true that, as you say, not all politicians are the same, but I have no reason to rely on your ability to read minds and tell who’s sincere and who isn’t.

    Regarding Adolf Hitler, he was certainly popular among mainstream Christians back then, including some very prominent Christian leaders. Why should I rely on your interpretation and not on the interpretation of people who were much closer to Hitler than you?

    I read Mein Kampf years ago and was struck by how many of his ideas looked like something a Christian creationist would write. Whatever the specifics of Hitler’s religious beliefs, a lot of his ideas would certainly fit in with popular Christian beliefs, both then and now.

    The statistics I found unconvincing are those in your June 14 post.

    I read Stark’s “For the Glory of God” long ago, and his comments about evolution were so goofy that I’m not inclined to trust him on anything else. If you want to repeat Stark’s data, I’ll be happy to consider it, but Stark’s opinion, by itself, is not very convincing to me.

    As for slavers having more at stake economically than abolitionists, I didn’t mean to imply that they didn’t. What I did mean to imply is that most Christians – or perhaps more specifically, most of the Christians in positions of authority — apparently didn’t think Jesus was really all that opposed to slavery until the steam engine reduced the economic benefits of slavery. In short, it looks like economics guided people’s view of Jesus, not Jesus who guided people’s view of economics.

    As for economic reductionism, I didn’t mean to imply that economic considerations were the only factor involved, but only that economic factors may have been a far more effective instigating agent than **objective** religion. Economic activity is complex and dynamic, so I’m very comfortable with the idea that inkblot-bludgeon religion may well have been important too, but that kind of religion doesn’t seem very inspiring to me.

  10. John Smith says:

    Oops. The “real novelty” discussed above was abolition, not slavery. Or did you know that already?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s