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Yes, you do look fat in that dress September 24, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics.
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In a new essay entitled “Lying”, Sam Harris argues that lies are “the social equivalent of toxic waste”, and that we must commit to avoiding them — even so-called “white” lies:

When we presume to lie for the benefit of others, we have decided that we are the best judges of how much they should understand about their own lives — about how they appear, their reputations, or their prospects in the world. This is an extraordinary stance to adopt toward other human beings, and it requires justification. Unless someone is suicidal or otherwise on the brink, deciding how much he can know about himself seems the quintessence of arrogance. What attitude could be more disrespectful of those we care about?

Moreover: even seemingly harmless lies undermine trust, foreclose opportunities for deepening relationships, and generally have unforeseen and unintended consequences. Hard as it might be, we must learn to tell our friends and loved ones when we don’t like a gift, when their spouse is cheating on them, when they can’t act or sing, and when they look fat.

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In Mississippi, common sense isn’t September 9, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Freedom, Religion.
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The Mississippi Supreme Court has allowed a “Personhood Amendment” to appear on the state ballot this November:

Voters in Mississippi will be given a chance to decide whether life begins at conception, a controversial abortion-related ballot initiative that the state’s highest court has refused to block…

The measure would amend the constitution to extend “personhood” to the unborn, likely rendering abortions illegal in the state if upheld…

“Although our opponents were beaten in this lawsuit, we know that they will not stop in their desperate attempts to deny the obvious truth that life begins at conception and that every life deserves to be protected in the law,” said Steve Crampton, general counsel of the conservative legal group Liberty Counsel. “Not only Mississippians, but all Americans, should support this commonsense amendment.”

Really? Every life deserves to be protected in the law? How about cockroaches? Or spiders? Or bacteria? Their lives aren’t protected in law — nor should they be, because (as far as we can tell) they lack the cognitive complexity necessary to make them worthy of our moral concern. I challenge the Liberty Counsel (which apparently doesn’t care about the liberties of pregnant women) to provide an empirical criterion for “personhood” that applies to human zygotes but not to insects. This is no more a matter to be decided by popular vote than whether women or blacks or gays are to be considered full-fledged persons (irrespective of some people’s so-called “common sense”).

Now, where did the Liberty Counsel get the idea that zygotes are persons? Is it a result of extensive research in embryology and neuroscience and psychology? Hint: the Liberty Counsel’s board of directors has adopted a “Christian doctrinal statement.” As 9/11 approaches, we should remember the consequences of basing one’s worldview on dogma.

All right, then, I’ll go to hell July 30, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Literature.
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In Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck faces a difficult dilemma when his companion, the runaway slave Jim, is betrayed and caught. Huck considers writing to Jim’s owner Miss Watson (“I said to myself it would be a thousand times better for Jim to be a slave at home where his family was, as long as he’d got to be a slave”), but realizes that it wouldn’t turn out too well for Jim (“everybody naturally despises an ungrateful nigger”) — or for himself, either:

It would get all around that Huck Finn helped a nigger to get his freedom; and if I was ever to see anybody from that town again I’d be ready to get down and lick his boots for shame. That’s just the way: a person does a low-down thing, and then he don’t want to take no consequences of it. Thinks as long as he can hide, it ain’t no disgrace. That was my fix exactly. The more I studied about this the more my conscience went to grinding me, and the more wicked and low-down and ornery I got to feeling. And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, whilst I was stealing a poor old woman’s nigger that hadn’t ever done me no harm, and now was showing me there’s One that’s always on the lookout, and ain’t a-going to allow no such miserable doings to go only just so fur and no further, I most dropped in my tracks I was so scared. Well, I tried the best I could to kinder soften it up somehow for myself by saying I was brung up wicked, and so I warn’t so much to blame; but something inside of me kept saying, “There was the Sunday-school, you could a gone to it; and if you’d a done it they’d a learnt you there that people that acts as I’d been acting about that nigger goes to everlasting fire.”

It made me shiver. And I about made up my mind to pray, and see if I couldn’t try to quit being the kind of a boy I was and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn’t come. Why wouldn’t they? It warn’t no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from me, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn’t come. It was because my heart warn’t right; it was because I warn’t square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write to that nigger’s owner and tell where he was; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie — I found that out.

So Huck sits down and writes a letter to Miss Watson, telling her where to find Jim. At first he feels “good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life,” but then he gets to thinking about all the kindness Jim had shown him along their journey, and how he is the only friend Jim has.

It was a close place. I took [the letter] up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell” — and tore it up.

So Huck decides to take up wickedness again — and steal Jim out of slavery…

Religion has doomed Shmuley Boteach’s mind July 6, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Religion.
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In the Jerusalem Post, Shmuley Boteach claims that “Godlessness has doomed Britain”:

British influence in the world […] has gone off a cliff over the past century. I would argue that the new, militant atheism that is becoming characteristic of Britain is a key reason. Atheism is a philosophy of nihilism in which nothing is sacred and all is an accidental.

While it has some brief, flashy moments, life is purposeless and meaningless.

There is no soul to illuminate and no spirit to enliven — just decadent flesh. Human love is a prank played by our genes to ensure the propagation of the species, and poetry and faith are shallow distractions masking the inevitability of death. Men are insemination machines incapable of ever being truly faithful, and women are genetically programmed to seek out billionaire hedge-fund managers, the better to support their offspring.

Boteach’s ratio of stupidity to word count is so high, it’s hard to know where to begin. For starters, what exactly is “militant” about characteristic atheism? Atheists are not threatening anyone with violence or impinging upon anyone’s rights (which cannot be said of many religious activists). Why are atheist critiques of religion any more militant than Boteach’s critique of atheism?

Boteach’s screed is a textbook example of the straw man fallacy, with a generous sprinkling of non-sequiturs thrown in for good measure. Atheism is not a philosophy: it is merely the position that since there is no good evidence for the existence of any deities, there is no justification for believing in them. Apart from wishful thinking, does Boteach have any evidence for the existence of a god, or an immaterial soul that survives death, or purpose in nature? I don’t think so.

But of course, the fact that there is no god or soul or cosmic purpose does not entail that our lives are meaningless and not worth living; and I’m unfamiliar with any atheists who claim otherwise. I, for one, think that the opportunity to live in this amazing natural world and to understand it scientifically is quite precious and wonderful — in fact, I think life is far more wonderful for not being part of some cynical game set up by a dictator god. So who exactly are these nihilist atheists Boteach is talking about?

Boteach also commits the familiar fallacy of assuming that if we are the possessors of selfish genes evolved by natural selection (which is a fact), then we ought to respect our genes’ priorities and obey all our biological impulses. But we are clearly capable of making value judgements and taking actions that contravene the interests of our genes — has Boteach never heard of birth control, for instance?

After utterly misrepresenting atheistic worldviews, Boteach goes on to claim that religion is necessary for a moral society. For example, he tries to credit Christianity with abolishing slavery:

Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 […] with Christian abolitionists like William Wilberforce taking the lead against that abomination.

If slavery is such an abomination, why doesn’t the Bible condemn it instead of condoning it? Incidentally, William Wilberforce’s evangelical Christianity led him to support politically and socially repressive legislation, impinging upon free speech and workers’ rights; and here’s what he thought of women anti-slavery activists: “for ladies to meet, to publish, to go from house to house stirring up petitions — these appear to me proceedings unsuited to the female character as delineated in Scripture.”

Finally, Boteach asserts that the decline of religion in Britain is to blame for its contemporary social woes — “football hooliganism, the gratuitous degradation of women in its most-circulated publications, and one of the highest out-of-wedlock birthrates in the world.” Obviously, we would never see such horrors in a highly religious society, like the United States (where 92 percent of the population believe in God). Right?

True, America has many of these same problems, and a great deal more of its own. But the spiritual underpinnings of the American republic ensure that values are constantly debated, and that soul-searching is a never-ending element of the national discourse.

Never mind that the teenage birth rate in the U.S. is the highest in the developed world — about ten times that of predominantly secular Switzerland and the Netherlands; never mind that forty percent of Americans believe the ludicrous proposition that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so”; at least America has “spiritual underpinnings”! Somehow, though, all that never-ending debating and soul-searching leads to completely warped positions on issues like gay marriage and stem-cell research and abortion…

By the way: even if it were true that religious societies are the healthiest (which it isn’t), that still wouldn’t give us any reason to think that God really exists or that any religious doctrines are actually true.

So, was any critical thinking at all employed in the writing of Boteach’s column? One might almost be forgiven for thinking that religion dooms its followers to a life of sloppy reasoning and bad argument.

Radical, blind, fanatic, distorted May 30, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Language, Religion.
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In an editorial about the San Francisco initiative to make male neonatal circumcision a misdemeanor crime, The Jerusalem Post uses (or rather, abuses) language in order to disguise bad moral argument. They begin by proclaiming that we are facing “a case study of what happens when a radical interpretation of human rights combined with hatred of tradition can blind better moral judgment.” Here, on the other hand, is their own “better moral judgment”:

By marking his most impulsive organ, man makes the unequivocal statement that he is not an animal governed by the laws of nature. Rather, man is a creation whose horizon of aspirations lies far beyond the satisfaction of his natural impulses. The right of San Francisco’s Jews to pass on this religious message to their children, in a practice that experts say does not cause undue pain, has not been proved to dull sexual enjoyment and which might have medical benefits, should be carefully safeguarded against anti-religious fanatics with a distorted conception of human rights.

Notice the contrast between the extreme, decisive words they use to characterize the other side — radical, hatred, fanatics, distorted — and the lame weasel words they use to make their own case: Does not cause undue pain? Has not been proved to dull sexual enjoyment? Might have medical benefits? That hardly sounds encouraging when considering cutting off parts of one’s body — but that is not even the point, since we’re not talking about an adult circumcising himself: we’re talking about forcing an invasive procedure on another person, without his informed consent. So pretending that the issue is about man marking himself in order to make a (silly) statement about his aspirations, or about passing religious “messages” to one’s children, is disingenuous and contemptible. Appeals to tradition are irrelevant here; and opposing the imposition of medically unnecessary surgery on infants is not radical or fanatic. The Post’s moral judgement has been blinded by religious dogmatism, and they’re using duplicitous language as a smokescreen.

Never let logic and science interfere with your gut April 22, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Freedom.
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In Haaretz, Anshel Pfeffer discusses a recent San Francisco initiative to criminalize neonatal circumcision — the proposed ban would make it illegal to remove the foreskin of a boy under the age of 18 on the pain of a $1,000 fine and a year’s imprisonment. Well, perhaps “discusses” is too generous: Pfeffer apparently doesn’t think that the genital mutilation of children is a subject that calls for careful reasoning and sound argument — he offers us puns and sarcasm and appeals to emotion instead.

Pfeffer admits that circumcision cannot be justified merely because it’s tradition (“just use your imagination and think of the long list of atrocities and crimes against humanity that come under the heading of ‘coveted rituals'”), and that there’s no compelling medical rationale for it either; but apparently none of that matters, because:

This is not a debate for logical or scientific arguments. I find it hard to articulate a sound moral justification, but I know that if I will again be blessed with a son, he will be circumcised.

Well, then, case closed. Still, you might be wondering why Pfeffer is so intent on circumcising his sons, and why he is against the San Francisco initiaitve. He does eventually attempt to make an argument:

My real objection to the intactivists [those opposing neonatal circumcision] is not based on reason or religion, it is my gut feeling that they are infernal busybodies. They are the kind of people who under the guise of liberal values, want to invade my home, family and dinner plate and I feel it is our duty to stand up to them. No infant genitalia were harmed in the writing of this column, but I did go through half a pack of Marlboros, sitting and writing at an outdoor table of my local Jerusalem cafe.

All the butts were responsibly deposited in an ashtray and the second-hand smoke wafted harmlessly into the spring sky. Such conduct would have cost me a $500 fine in San Francisco. I’m sorry if that’s the best argument I can come up with, but I want to live in a country where I can choose to kill myself slowly with nicotine ‏(financing the health system with my cigarette taxes in the process‏) and be allowed to responsibly continue whatever family tradition I prefer.

Didn’t Pfeffer previously say that tradition was not a sufficient defense? In any case, I agree that Pfeffer should be free to kill himself in any manner he chooses — so long as he doesn’t harm anyone else.  If Pfeffer would try thinking with his brain instead of his gut, he would realize that neonatal circumcision is not analogous to an adult choosing to smoke; it’s more like a parent jamming cigarettes into his infant child’s mouth and forcing him to inhale (in the name of family tradition). While doing so might provide more taxes to finance the health system, I doubt Pfeffer would want to defend such a practice. But then, why bother to defend your views at all, when you can just follow your gut?

Responsible rituals April 21, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Ethics, Religion.
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Rituals can be very powerful, and it’s no surprise that they play a central role in human culture — and in religion particularly. Indeed, I think that for many people, rituals are at the core of what their religion means to them. Most religious people don’t care much about theological arguments, scriptural scholarship, etc.; they associate their religion with a set of traditions which they find meaningful, and which have become a part of their identity. Therefore, critics of religion are often treated like the Grinch who wants to steal Christmas: it is imagined that a secular world would be bland and joyless, that those rationalists won’t rest until they’ve canceled every song, every celebration, every holiday.

This is, of course, untrue. I have nothing against rituals in principle: they can serve many positive functions, like strengthening communities and families, celebrating shared values, dealing with sorrow and loss, expressing gratitude, marking life’s milestones, and just having fun. Even if the particulars of some rituals are arbitrary or have superstitious origins, they can still take on whatever meaning we give them and become cherished parts of our culture and of our lives.

The problems begin, however, when rituals are given a hallowed status; when they become ends in themselves; when traditions are preserved just because they’re traditions. We have a responsibility to carefully consider all the consequences of our actions — especially those that affect children — and traditions are no exception. Some traditions that made sense in the past may need to be changed in order to remain relevant in today’s world. Some traditions may be found, upon reflection, to cause more harm than good, and ought to be modified or discontinued. Some traditions, such as neonatal circumcision (not to mention atrocities like female genital mutilation), are downright immoral and should be opposed and eradicated.

Even if a ritual is apparently innocuous, it may still be problematic if it’s used to support indoctrination — to inculcate beliefs for which there is no good evidence. While temporarily playing along with a fiction (such as the tooth fairy) can be fun and harmless, we must be aware that children cannot always tell the difference between mythology and reality. Religious people often hide (disingenuously) behind this ambiguity. At the end of the day, we must make it clear to our children which stories we consider historically accurate and which are just stories. Is Moses like George Washington or like Apollo? Does heaven exist in reality or only in our imaginations? We shouldn’t assume that children understand what is meant to be taken literally and what is not. (Even some adults don’t seem to be too sure about that.) Beliefs have consequences: there really are people killing each other over fictional characters.

It’s also important to be aware of the values that are promoted (explicitly or implicitly) in our rituals. Unsurprisingly, ancient traditions often reflect ancient worldviews that we should not be eager to endorse: the subordination of women, the celebration of violence, and so on. Many rituals seek to strengthen in-group loyalty and cohesion by demonizing outsiders — for example, the Passover Seder includes a prayer for Yahweh to pour down his wrath upon those nations that do not worship him. When such attitudes are professed repeatedly and without criticism, children will inevitably absorb them into their worldviews.

Rituals are powerful, and can therefore cause harm as well as good — so they must be used responsibly. We must not forget that our rituals are meant to serve us, and not vice versa. Traditions should not be perpetuated automatically and mindlessly: they must be reexamined critically by every generation. No ritual is set in stone. We have the right and the duty to reshape or replace the rituals we have inherited, so as to leave better ones for our children. Let that be our tradition.

A rabbi’s odd relationship with morality March 26, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Evolution, Religion.
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In The Huffington Post, Rabbi Adam Jacobs proclaims that atheists have no basis for condemning immorality, and he doesn’t understand why they would even care:

In fact, the most sensible and logically consistent outgrowth of the atheist worldview should be permission to get for one’s self whatever one’s heart desires at any moment (assuming that you can get away with it). Why not have that affair? Why not take a few bucks from the Alzheimer victim’s purse — as it can not possibly have any meaning either way. Did not Richard Dawkins teach us that selfishness was built into our very genes? To live a “moral” life, the atheist must choose to live a willful illusion as the true nature of the world contains, as Dawkins suggests, “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” It boggles the mind how anyone with this worldview even bothers to get up in the morning only to suffer through another bleak and meaningless day.

Oh, is that what Richard Dawkins taught us? If Jacobs had actually read The Selfish Gene, he would have come across this:

I am not advocating a morality based on evolution. I am saying how things have evolved… I stress this, because I know I am in danger of being misunderstood by those people, all too numerous, who cannot distinguish a statement of belief in what is the case from an advocacy of what ought to be the case… If you would extract a moral from [this book], read it as a warning. Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature… Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to.

Some of us, who prefer not to “live a willful illusion,” begin by trying to understand what is true about our world, and then we deal with reality as it is. The rabbi’s feeling that life would be “bleak and meaningless” if we aren’t part of some grand cosmic plan says absolutely nothing about whether such a plan really exists. But why would anyone think that the lack of an ultimate purpose in nature makes our lives meaningless? We are conscious beings, capable of appreciating our amazing good fortune in having the opportunity to live in this awe-inspiring universe. We can cooperate with each other in order to achieve far more than we could on our own, leaving the fruits of our efforts for future generations to enjoy and improve upon. We have the ability to understand the consequences of our actions on the happiness and suffering of ourselves and of others. So what truly boggles the mind is Jacobs’ implying that the only reason to refrain from cheating and stealing is because God said so.

But wait, the rabbi has more conclusions to draw from his deep understanding of biology:

Survival of the fittest does not suggest social harmony. Furthermore, doesn’t Darwinism suggest that certain groups within a given population will develop beneficial mutations, essentially making them “better” than other groups? It would seem that racism would again be a natural conclusion of this worldview — quite unlike the theistic approach which would suggest that people have intrinsic value do [sic] to their creation in the “image of God.”

Again, Jacobs is confusing what natural selection cares about (reproductive fitness) with what we ought to care about. But the irony here is simply breathtaking: it’s the secular worldview that is racist, while the theistic is not!? The Bible repeatedly and unequivocally supports slavery, tribalism and discrimination, and commands the destruction of entire nations including women and children. The idea that all people have intrinsic value and ought to be treated equally — regardless of race, gender, or religion — is a modern, secular value, resisted mightily (to this day) by traditional religion.

Of course, the rabbi realizes that nonreligious people are not in fact more likely to behave immorally than the religious. How does he explain the observation that most of the atheists he has met are actually “very good people”?

At the end of the day, the reason that I can agree with many of the moral assertions that these atheists make is because they are not truly outgrowths of their purported philosophies, but rather of mine. I would suspect that the great majority of the atheistic understanding of morality comes directly or indirectly from what is commonly referred to as the Judeo-Christian ethic.

Seriously!? What about all the Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, etc. — how did they ever figure out not to steal and murder without Yahweh telling them so? And what about all those Judeo-Christian pearls of ethical wisdom that the rabbi simply ignores, like executing homosexuals, women who are not virgins on their wedding night, and disobedient children? If Jacobs were not so arrogant and ignorant, he would realize that whatever parts of his own ethics are defensible are products of human rationality and secular thinking. And if he cares more about obeying the purported will of God than about the actual well-being of people in this world, then his morality is a disgrace, and he might stand to learn a few things from some atheists.

(via Butterflies and Wheels)

Worship is immoral March 8, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Ethics, Religion.
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Religion is not only false; it’s immoral. One reason it’s immoral is because it’s false: holding beliefs for which there is no good justification is irresponsible, since actions guided by false beliefs often have disastrous consequences. Of course, even if one of our religions were true, that wouldn’t mean that all its precepts and commandments are moral: even if the Bible was authored by the creator of the universe, executing homosexuals and blasphemers and adulterers would still be wrong.

Apart from all this, however, even if some religion’s doctrines were true and all its rules were ethical, it would still be intrinsically immoral — because religion requires worship. As pointed out by Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse:

The thought is frequently associated with Bertrand Russell: The worship of anything is beneath the dignity of a rational creature.  That is, we argue that worship is immoral.  Consequently, for any type of religious belief, if it requires one to worship anything, then it is intrinsically immoral.  The argument turns on the claim that any conception of worship that’s worth its salt will involve the voluntary and irrevocable submission of one’s rational faculties to those of another.

If there did exist a being vastly more intelligent, more powerful, and more moral than us (and the Biblical God certainly doesn’t meet that description), it might merit gratitude, admiration, respect — but never worship. And what kind of supreme being would want to be worshiped, anyway? Or glorified? Or obeyed blindly? The best humans we know never seek such things.

Just like religious faith, worship is inherently immoral, and encouraging it causes much evil in this world — whether the object being worshiped exists or not. There’s always some human authority happy to step in and take advantage of the religiously cultivated inclination towards submission, obedience, and servility.

(via Butterflies and Wheels)

Saints and heroes February 8, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Philosophy.
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Is it possible for an action to be morally good but not morally obligatory? In other words, is there such a thing (in ethics) as going beyond the call of duty?

In his 1958 paper “Saints and Heroes”, philosopher J. O. Urmson brings the example of a doctor who volunteers to join the depleted medical forces in a plague-stricken city (whom we would call a “saint”), or a soldier who throws himself on a grenade in order to save his comrades (whom we would call a “hero”). Such actions are considered morally worthy, but are they obligatory? Urmson maintains that while moral obligations “can be extracted from a man like a debt,” we could not say that a doctor who didn’t volunteer for a plague-stricken city, or a soldier who didn’t throw himself on a grenade, has failed in his duty; and no one could ever tell someone else he ought to do such a deed. Therefore, ethical systems must allow for actions that are morally praiseworthy but optional.

Urmson thinks it is essential to distinguish, in principle, between those minimum requirements necessary for us to live together in a society (like keeping promises and refraining from stealing) — which may be grounded in self-interest, or a desire to avoid the worst possible outcome for everyone — and actions inspired by a positive ideal. He offers an analogy to membership in a club: the club rules are basic requirements that are a condition of membership, but there is an important distinction between those members who merely follow the rules, and those who go beyond the call of duty and contribute to the club by doing things that are not (and could not be) demanded in the rules.

According to Urmson, moral obligations must conform to restrictions similar to those we would place on a legal system: moral duties must be “within the capacity of the ordinary man,” and must be “formulable in rules of manageable complexity.” Passing a law which most people are incapable of obeying merely serves to weaken the general respect for the law (as was the case with the prohibition of alcohol in the Unites States in the early twentieth century); and the “ordinary man” must be able to understand and apply the laws on his own — precluding laws that require complex judgment calls (i.e., that do not concern behavior which is almost invariably good or bad). These considerations would seem to bolster Urmson’s argument that saintly and heroic acts cannot be considered moral obligations.

Elizabeth Pybus, however, rejects the analogy between moral duty and legal systems. She argues that the set of obligations we have as moral agents — as people — is not readily codifiable as a list of simple rules. For example, even relatively absolute moral precepts, like keeping promises and avoiding murder, clearly admit of contextual exceptions that may require nontrivial judgment calls — like not returning a borrowed weapon to someone who intends to misuse it, or killing a robber who threatens to shoot a hostage.

Moreover, why should our determination of what is morally right be dependent on how difficult it may be for some people to do it? Pybus maintains that any moral commendation of an action (including the heroic and the saintly) commits us to the view that others ought to do the same in similar circumstances, and that those who do not should be regarded as falling short of the moral ideal. Contrary to Urmson’s assumption, however, it does not follow that we must always go around demanding that other people perform such actions — just as we do not do so for some of Urmson’s “basic rules,” like honesty (though we may still be silently judgmental).

Pybus argues that morality is not a set of socially or legally imposed rules, but a realization of attainable values that we ought to strive for. Morality is a matter of “evaluation and action intertwined,” where our moral evaluations commit us to actions, and our moral actions are an attempt to bring about what we regard as worthwhile. If saints and heroes have done something morally good, then we all ought to be like them.

This does not mean that everyone must do exactly what they have done. It is not necessary (or desirable) for all soldiers to throw themselves on grenades or for all doctors to go to plague-ridden cities, and most of us will never find ourselves facing those specific dilemmas anyway. But if we think that certain acts of self-endangerment or self-sacrifice are good, we must believe that we too ought to perform self-endangering or self-sacrificing actions, in whatever way is appropriate to our own circumstances. Different things are difficult for different people. By praising saints and heroes, we are actually praising certain dispositions or virtues — having the courage to do what is morally necessary. And that is required of everyone: someone who goes through life fulfilling only the most basic moral requirements can be faulted. “Keeping the basic rules is not enough.”

Still, it might seem that an ethical system where every morally worthy deed is obligatory is somehow impoverished. Urmson fears that under such a system, the value of people’s most charitable and courageous acts is diminished, since they are reduced to mere fulfillment of demands. While we have no choice but to force compliance with the basic rules, free choice is generally better than constraint. It would be preferable for goodness to be encouraged rather than demanded, so that virtuous acts are done for their own sake and not from a desire to avoid condemnation.

But this concern seems misplaced. Performing an action that you deem to be morally obligatory does not amount to doing it because others demand it — presumably, you consider the action obligatory because you recognize its value. (And as previously mentioned, judging an action to be a moral duty does not necessarily require public condemnation of those who don’t do it.) Pybus argues that in distinguishing between a morality of duty and a higher morality of aspiration, Urmson unnecessarily lowers the concept of duty, while putting his ideals outside morality altogether: “I cannot at the same time say that something is a moral ideal, and feel that I have no sort of obligation to pursue it.” Moral commendation of an act implies that it exemplifies a morally worthwhile ideal; in which case it follows that we all ought to act in pursuit of that ideal.

So it seems to me that all morally relevant actions fall on a single continuum: there is no principled distinction between basic duties and the actions of heroes and saints, since they all derive their value from the same standard. We can still give special praise to those individuals who managed to do the right thing in especially difficult circumstances where many others might not have; but in doing so, we are recognizing that those saints and heroes have succeeded in being what we all ought to be.