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Stealing, slavery, and stop signs May 8, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Day-after comebacks, Ethics.

After starting this blog and ceremoniously writing the first entry, I thought that I would probably not have anything more to say before studies begin in October. However, I just realized an ideal use for a blog: day-after comebacks! You know how you always think of the perfect reply that you should have used in an argument once there’s no one listening any more? Well, the Web is always listening!

It all started with the Amish.

At dinner last night, we were talking about whether parents have the right to deny their children an education. Somehow, the Amish were mentioned, and one of the diners, let’s call her Snowdrop, called them “cute” and claimed that at age sixteen all Amish children are sent out “into the world” for a year, after which they must choose whether they wish to return to the Amish way of life. It turns out that this is not actually true, but even if it were, I claimed that this would be insufficient to assure us that no indoctrination or mistreatment of children was going on. A child who has spent his first sixteen years in an isolated community, denied anything more than a primary education, and taught to believe that the biblical God is waiting for him in the afterlife (and dislikes electricity), is hardly “free” to make his own informed choices. We must also consider the consequences facing those who make the “wrong” choice – and the Amish are known to practice excommunication (or “shunning”) of those who break church rules.

Another of those present, let’s call him Vandelay, then pointed out that everyone is taught something by their parents. Is it all indoctrination? No, said I, there is a clear distinction between explaining to a child the reasons behind your beliefs and encouraging him to think about it on his own and eventually make up his own mind, on the one hand, and authoritatively telling a child what he should believe while discouraging criticism and independent thought, on the other hand. Those who are in positions of authority over children, like parents and teachers, should make a special effort not to unduly influence those children into automatically accepting what they believe.

That may be true in some areas, said Vandelay, like politics, but surely when it comes to really important moral issues there is no room for making up one’s own mind. Children must be told that stealing is wrong, for instance, and not encouraged to think about it and come to their own conclusions. Well, said I, why is stealing wrong? Why do you refrain from stealing? His first answer was: because it is so commanded. When pressed, he went on to speak of the existence of a Rulebook, containing a set of Instructions for building a just society. He implied that it is necessary for us to commit to accepting the Rulebook in its entirety, and that the Rules are not open for modification based on our own judgment. While he admitted that there are actual reasons behind some of the Rules, he claimed that those reasons are insufficient to cause people to behave morally and not go after “their own self-interest” (which apparently includes stealing).

The discussion degenerated rapidly after this point. I tried to talk about how there are, in fact, very good reasons to help others and treat them honestly, rather than cheating and swindling them. I tried to point out that teaching people to blindly follow a set of Rules is not a recipe for morality but for dogmatism and evil. I can’t say that it went very well. Here’s what I should have said:

Day-after comeback #1: Where did this Rulebook of yours come from, and what makes you think we ought to obey it? Even if we were to admit that we needed a Rulebook, the problem is that there are many different Rulebooks on offer, containing vastly different Rules. The Taliban, for instance, have just as much faith in their Rulebook (sample rule: women should not be taught to read) as Vandelay does in his. How are we supposed to decide which Rulebook to follow? Surely, it makes no sense to automatically adopt whatever Rulebook was used in the house we happened to have been born into. Surely, there are some criteria for evaluating Rulebooks that we should apply. But then, those same criteria can be used to evaluate each of the individual Rules in the Rulebook, to be accepted or rejected on its merits – and the whole concept of an eternal, static Rulebook breaks down.

Day-after comeback #2: How about slavery? Is slavery wrong? If so, how do you know it? Slavery is condoned rather than condemned by Vandelay’s Rulebook. Vandelay would have apparently supported the slave-owners of the South, and if we had listened to arguments like his we would still be owning slaves. Likewise, the Rulebook treats homosexuality as an abomination, and women as the property of their fathers or husbands. We can all be glad of the de facto changes undergone by the Rulebook in the past few centuries, but we should be honest about where that change came from, and it did not come from Vandelay’s way of thinking. Moral progress stems from reevaluating the norm and being free to discard old beliefs and practices that do not stand up to scrutiny – not by following tradition automatically.

Day-after comeback #3: Is there any evidence to support the claim that commitment to the Rulebook actually produces especially moral people and just societies? I’m not aware of any. We all know that there are plenty of people who profess commitment to the Rulebook, and still lie, cheat and steal. In fact, the evidence seems to go the other way. Countries like Norway, Australia, Iceland, Canada, Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, Japan, and Finland have relatively low popular support for eternal, unquestionable Rulebooks (including Vandelay’s own book). Are these societies breaking down into moral chaos? Quite the opposite: these are among the healthiest societies on Earth, as measured by the UN Human Development Index (which measures things like life expectancy, adult literacy, educational attainment, gender equality, homicide rate and infant mortality).

One final comeback: Vandelay brought up the example of road traffic laws – we have laws forcing everybody to stop at stop signs, whether they want to or not. At the time I dismissed this example as irrelevant, but the truth is that it actually supports my side of the argument. Ask yourself: Where did stop signs come from? A century ago, there were no stop signs anywhere. At some point, smart people got together and thought that it would be a good idea to pass laws protecting the safety of our roads. They didn’t need to be commanded to do so, it wasn’t in any existing Rulebook. In the future, stop signs may again become unnecessary, say if all vehicles are connected to a network which keeps track of the location of all other vehicles. In such a case, smart people could reevaluate the issue and come to the conclusion that stop signs can be discontinued. Vandelay would probably oppose such a move, since stop signs are now in the Rulebook! We might end up seeing vehicles of the future stopping at street corners for no reason at all, other than because they had done so in the past.

I feel much better now, thanks for listening. If Snowdrop, Vandelay, or anyone else has day-after comebacks of their own, or thinks I have misunderstood or misrepresented their views, please leave a comment.

How about slavery? Is slavery wrong? If so, how do we know that? Slavery is condoned rather than condemned by the Rulebook. The Jabberwock would have been on the side


1. Amichai Schreiber - May 9, 2010

Firstly, assuming that said Rulebook is the Old Testament, then it does not condone slavery; it merely permits it.

More to the point, regarding the priming of minors to their teachers’ beliefs: Though I agree that it is best to let children find their path, as much as possible, there is still not much real difference between the Amish way of education (or the way that we imagine it for the sake of this discussion) and modern Western education. The Amish also explain to their children the reasons that underlie everything they do: God said so. In a similar manner, I would teach my kids not to steal. I could give the good reasons for it, but the first thing I would be doing would be telling them my simple opinion. Justifying would be the second thing.

Looking at it another way: Supposing that I *do* believe that God exists and that He said all manners of things. Surely, I am not supposed to *hide* my beliefs from my children (or pupils). How do you propose I should convey my beliefs to them, without biasing them in my direction?

Ezra Resnick - May 9, 2010
  1. “condone” and “permit” are nearly synonymous in this context, and my point remains the same: the supposedly inerrant word of God permits buying and selling human beings as slaves, and permits beating them (so long as we do not put out their eyes or teeth and do not kill them on the spot – if they die a few days later, no problem). Assuming we agree that slavery is immoral, we must conclude that (a) the Bible was wrong about slavery, and (b) we do not get our morality from scripture.
  2. Regarding indoctrination, it all boils down to good old intellectual honesty: not pretending to know things you are in no position to know, and not feigning more certainty than the evidence supports. These principles should be applied to all areas of discourse, but we must be especially careful when dealing with children. We must teach our children to demand good reasons before believing something, and it should be obvious that “because God said so” is never a good reason – it is simply an appeal to authority, no different from “because I said so”. (Note that even if there were good reasons for believing that God exists and that we know what he wants from us, which there are not, it still would not follow that all God’s commandments are moral and we must obey them.) The whole point of education is to teach children not to be satisfied with answers like “because God said so”.
  3. There is no need to hide your beliefs from your children, as long as you encourage them to evaluate all the evidence for themselves and make up their own mind. Consider the issue of political allegiance. I assume that while most of us are aware of how our parents vote, we do not necessarily vote the same way, and feel no obligation to do so. Presumably, our parents realized that although they might be happy if we ended up voting as they do, they have no right to expect it of us, and should be ashamed if they used their influence over us while we were young to make us believe it is our duty to vote like them. Parents should be just as ashamed for encouraging their children to accept their own religious beliefs on faith, and for not being honest about the lack of good evidence to support those beliefs.
2. Ezra Resnick - May 18, 2010

Another day-after comeback, for the record:
We should all be insulted by Vandelay’s suggestion that we wouldn’t know right from wrong without a Rulebook to set us straight, or that there’s no good reason for us to care about the well-being of others and to want to help them and deal with them honorably without a divine order to do so. Clearly this is not the case, since virtually all human societies throughout history have managed to come up with the basic principles necessary for living in a community, including laws against theft, murder, etc. Can Vandelay really be implying that if his Rulebook was suddenly discovered to be a forgery, he would be out there lying and stealing with no concern for others?

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