MOGUL-ADLIN: Harm and consent: morality without God

I am tired of hearing that I am immoral. It’s never said directly, just constantly insinuated by those hoping to frame the discussion as one in which I am always deviant, forever barred from the moral high ground. “Homosexuality is threatening the moral fabric of our society.” “Those liberals with their moral relativism.” “Atheists can’t have morals.”

No, actually, I have a pretty rock-solid moral framework. My atheism and my queerness together inform a morality that is, at its core, based in harm reduction and consent. It’s not relative, it’s not arbitrary and I am willing to bet that a society woven from my moral fabric would be a lot happier and more productive than one that spends its energies trying to deduce how millennia-old instructions should be implemented in modern public policy, contrary to evidence ranging from cognitive science to teen pregnancy rates.

I value evidence over belief because my community has been one of many persecuted by blind belief masquerading as virtuousness. Question: Is a politician who uses her religion to justify policies that have been driving queer high schoolers to commit suicide acting morally? And if you find that the fault lies in her interpretation of her religion, why is your interpretation is better, more correct, more moral? Is it because you perhaps find something objectively wrong with driving teenagers to suicide as a matter of public policy? It’s quite possible to get to the same position without a belief in God, and it’s only with a belief in God that one can tenably hold the position that such a policy is moral.

No, religion is not inherently moral, as victims of witch-burnings, caste systems, stonings, genocide and colonialism should remind us. Religion is dangerously divorced from reality, and observing reality is the only means we have to assess what harms are being done, to whom and in what context. In judging morality through a rational, evidence-based framework, rather than the self-contradictory and mutable frameworks provided by religion, what emerges is the fundamental importance of human dignity.

Respect for human dignity is manifested in our interpersonal relationships as consent. Consent is the cornerstone of any credible morality, and not just in the context of sexuality. More broadly applied, consent implies respecting the autonomy and agency of all people, respecting their right to participate in the decisions that affect their lives and judging policies and actions that would limit their autonomy or agency as immoral except when necessary to protect the autonomy and agency of others. These, of course, are some of the fundamental principles on which this country was founded, and unfortunately, they have never been fully realized. And they will continue to be realized only for the most privileged and elite of our society until we fully and completely reject irrational, arbitrary and faith-based moral frameworks in favor of those which protect the dignity of everyone, including those outside of the norm of white heterosexual cis male Christianity.

Both queerness and atheism, as political positions, reflect the process of relentlessly questioning society’s assumptions, and so rejection of the supernatural and of heteronormativity go hand in hand — both are constructs that seek to control human behavior and limit our possibilities. The only limits that are important are those that prevent actual harm to others. Neither my atheism nor my queerness are indicators of a lack of morality — on the contrary, they both affirm that morality is not relative to the instructions given by authority, but absolute: based on consent and the harm done to others. No one basing morality on religion, defined by its lack of evidence, gets to have a discursive monopoly on morality. Slippery slope arguments favored by religious conservatives are meaningless within a framework based on consent. If someone can’t see a bright, clear line between homosexuality and pedophilia, between uninhibited female sexuality and rape culture, it’s their moral framework that needs a checkup, not mine.

Hannah Mogul-Adlin is a senior in Trumbull College. Contact her at hannah.mogul-adlin@yale.edu .

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    > my community has been one of many persecuted by blind belief masquerading as virtuousness.
    > I am willing to bet that a society woven from my moral fabric would be a lot happier and more productive than one that spends its energies trying to deduce how millennia-old instructions should be implemented in modern public policy, contrary to evidence ranging from cognitive science to teen pregnancy rates.

    This writer gets the

    PK GAB (Guts And Brains) Award

    • LtwLimulus90

      I would give her the Brainless Guts Award

  • yellowasp

    Cool story bro. Question: What does this system of non-harm and consent rest on? Just because? We shouldn’t harm others because harming others is bad…seems like there’s something missing here. Where does the dignity of man come from?

    • liche

      We shouldn’t harm others because harming others is bad…seems like there’s something missing here. Where does the dignity of man come from?

      It comes from reason, logic, and humanity, not from a deity. I respect and treat others humanely because I recognize that, like me, they are living the only lives they will ever get. I don’t need the empty threat of punishment or the empty promise of reward to do good, I do good because I care about the world and the people around me.

      “If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.”
      ~Albert Einstein

      • devicus13

        Why should somebody have to treat others “humanely,” whatever that is, or recognize that just because they are a human being like to you, that you are required to treat them as equals? If you can get away with something that hurts others and helps you, why not? The author claims her morality is “not relative, it’s not arbitrary”. On the contrary, that’s exactly what it is: it is arbitrary, meaning that it rests on the subject choosing to embrace a morality based on something akin to the golden rule. There is no natural necessity to do so, as the the behavior of the animal kingdom, and as all of human history so manifestly show. One could just as easily choose another morality of the many others available, if it suits. Why not embrace “might makes right” morality if you are mighty? Both reason and nature would dictate that that would be the logical choice for a finite and mortal individual lucky enough to be mighty.

        • Goldie08

          I think evolutionarily speaking, it is in individual human’s best interests to treat others humanely, even if one is “mighty.” Collaboration furthers a species as a whole, while also helping the individual achieve more specific aims.

          Say you are mighty. You could take resources from the weak and outlive them, but that would only get you so far. With your help (in the form of protection from other mighty people) those weaker people may have ended up developing better irrigation, domestication etc. knowledge that would in turn help you live longer than you would have even if you had just killed them and taken all their extra food (without them having developed new technologies to increase that food yield or whatever you want to call it).

          Those weaker people (that weren’t killed thanks to our mercy in the name of collaboration) would also prosper, and have more offspring, representing additional mating opportunities for our original “mighty” person. So those are 2 ways that collaboration and humane treatment can directly help an individual in his lifetime (assuming a greater amount and variety of both food and mates are positive outcomes).

          • concerned

            Yes, it’s all about the gene pool. Without it, even the most robust specimens on earth will go nowhere.

          • LtwLimulus90

            I agree with you, but if murdering someone in cold blood were to have no negative repercussions for a person, that would be ok by that system. Most moral relativists are unwilling to admit that, which obviously suggests that they 1) aren’t really moral relativists and 2) don’t think hard enough about morality

          • liche

            Murdering someone in cold blood does have negative repercussions. This is why we have laws and law enforcement.

          • Gobias

            So no one has ever thought to commit murder because it would solve more problems than it creates?

            This just does not square with history. Thousands of tyrants have killed people because they could get away with it and had great fun doing it. Why should they stop?

        • Gobias

          If this is “the only li[fe I] will ever get,” then we can immediately discard the evolutionary impulse to further the species as irrational, at least when that impulse does not reflexively redound to one’s personal benefit. If my life is an accidental blip, here and gone, who cares what comes after, or how “society” gets on beyond what I can drink from it?

          I see this defense a lot but it all comes down to circumstance and probability. Yes, there are many instances where playing fair is likely to get you further than you would otherwise. On the other hand, imagine a tyrant powerful enough to execute gleefully his particular evil whims with impunity. Playing fair may be a decent heuristic in most cases, but we can easily conceive of scenarios where a tyrant can act wickedly and safely know, having weighed all the information at his disposal, and predicted the responses his act will generate, that there’s a slim-to-none chance he’ll pay for it.

          If that is even a possibility, then there’s a serious problem with the “rationality” argument. It only takes one counterexample–one case where there is no good reason to be moral–to blow up the idea that we are *bound* to morality by pure reason. Bad guys want to burn people and have fun. The smartest will know when they’re likely to get away with it.

          • liche

            If this is “the only li[fe I] will ever get,” then we can immediately discard the evolutionary impulse to further the species as irrational, at least when that impulse does not reflexively redound to one’s personal benefit. If my life is an accidental blip, here and gone, who cares what comes after, or how “society” gets on beyond what I can drink from it?

            If you believe that to be true, then you have a very self-centered outlook on life. I care about the lives my children will continue to live after I’m gone. Like many other animal species on this planet, I care about the future of our species regardless of the fact that I won’t be able to participate in it.

            In the grand scheme of things, if a meteor struck our planet and destroyed us all tomorrow, the universe would continue without a care. The other 7 planets in our solar system would continue to orbit the Sun and the 100 sextillion other stars in our universe would be unaffected. But as long as we’re here, as long as we live, we have an opportunity to make our lives meaningful to ourselves and to do great things.

            If you haven’t read it, I suggest you read Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot.”

          • LtwLimulus90

            But perhaps you only care about them because the society you grew up in has conditioned you to. We are all exposed to Christian-esque systems of morality living in America. Obviously, some of the tenets of a Judeo-Christian moral system predated either of those religions as present in society, but the system as a whole and the moral perspective and character are uniquely theirs. Many people grow up with what appears to be based on a “Christian” moral system but without a Christian religious belief or practice, or they forsake their faith in favor of something more “rational”, “logical”, or “realistic”. They then forget how intuitive our moral systems are as a result of irredeemable years of moral conditioning done by the culture we were brought up in. When people say they “reached” these conclusions about morality on their own outside of any religious (read: Christian) framework, they are often blissfully ignorant of the extent to which the work was already done for them. It’s ultimately very ironic. In my experience, many of these people are looking for secular ways to validate some version of the moral system they grew up with, rather than truly building a moral understanding from the ground up. I suspect this is the case for the author-especially since many of the explicit tenets of her moral system are completely compatible with Christianity (which is why Christianity is so difficult-it’s so often a paradox. This is precisely why it’s so fascinating and such fertile ground for those interested in moral philosophy).

            At the end, I am left completely unimpressed by this article and this author, who strikes me as more indignant and passionate than truly thoughtful.

          • CrazyBus

            What is your explanation for the moral state of countries that did not develop in a Judeo-Christian moral system?

          • liche

            Christian moral system? That’s laughable. There are 38,000 sects of Christianity. Christians can’t even see eye to eye on their own religious moral standards. Our overall ethics in this country are in spite of religious morals, not because of them. Many of our founding fathers vehemently opposed the Christian religion on a personal level, and they all opposed a government which entangled itself with religion. Our laws are our code of ethics, and they didn’t originate or stem from Christianity.

          • Gobias

            I think you’re missing the point. No, I don’t believe that for myself. I spoke as one embodying a premise I disagree with, and carrying the logic through to its conclusion.

            That you don’t believe that other people are worthless either is to your credit. I just think it is a belief held in spite of your metaphysics, not because of them. We can explain our concern for others by evolutionary advantage, but except for cases where these effect longer-term benefits for ourselves, this impulse is irrational. I am me, not any other: what serves my interest in being kind is only what bounces back to me.

            Now, being wicked might cause me to be unhappy because I have been programmed to value treating others well. But a self-aware and clear-thinking villain could recognize that whatever reflexive benefits originally formed our moral impulse to value others do not apply in all cases. So we are left with a residual moral tug even when it does nothing for us. All the villain has to do is suppress his conscience accordingly, and be good only to the extent it preserves his wellbeing in his very particular circumstance, and he become detached from any rational binding to moral law. In other words, he can go to town, and there’s nothing you or I can say to convince him it’s irrational to do so. In fact, he’s being eminently rational: embracing morality when it yields an advantage, and ignoring the empty sentiment when it doesn’t.

          • LtwLimulus90

            brilliant.

          • liche

            All the villain has to do is suppress his conscience accordingly

            That may be all he has to do to convince himself that he is acting ethically, but that does not allow him to circumvent law enforcement nor does it make his actions necessarily ethical.

          • Gobias

            I covered threats to self-preservation (“and be good only to the extent it preserves his wellbeing in his very particular circumstance”). You’re suggesting the existence of law enforcement is such a powerful and encompassing deterrent that in no case could it ever be to one’s advantage to break the law. I don’t know what to say to that.

            But again I fear you’ve missed the point. He’s not saying he’s acting ethically. He’s saying ethics is for suckers. Play the game when it helps; cut it loose when it doesn’t. You say morality developed from evolutionary advantage: more often than not, playing nice with others will increase your odds to surive and thrive. Wonderful! And now that we’ve learned this, how much smarter we are: we can spot where these genetically coded intuitions (“conscience”) overreach, prescribing behavior that not only falls outside but irrationally cannibalizes its sole original function: self-advantage.

            In order to ground any kind of moral obligation, the “pure reason” ethicist needs to demonstrate the constraining rational necessity of being moral. So again I ask: if I can wreak havoc, have fun, and get away with it–why not?

          • liche

            The answer to that question will vary from person to person. For me, I refrain from doing such things because I value the lives of others. For other people, the reason may be as simple as the fact that there is no guarantee they’ll get away with it. Sometimes people find nothing wrong with their unethical behavior and/or believe they can get away with it, but society does what it can in such circumstances to rectify such situations. Others still believe that their deity can wash away such behavior by groveling for forgiveness. Only you can answer for yourself the question, “why not?”

          • Gobias

            > The answer to that question will vary from person to person. For me, I refrain from doing such things because I value the lives of others.

            So human dignity doesn’t come from “from reason, logic, and humanity”: it’s a preference. Just as slaughtering is a preference. The most we could ever say to mass murderer is, “We don’t like it.” But try to explain why his view of things is worse and we’ve got nothing to argue—no reason why a free and mighty tyrant should heed our moral cries at all. We just think it’s icky.

        • liche

          Why should somebody have to treat others “humanely,” whatever that is, or recognize that just because they are a human being like to you, that you are required to treat them as equals? If you can get away with something that hurts others and helps you, why not?

          I am a good person because it reflects the kind of person that I am and want to be, and I want to encourage such behaviors in others. I don’t have to be a good person, I want to be a good person, I want to treat everyone equally. I don’t need to put others down to lift myself up, nor is that a strategy I would be interested in.

          The author claims her morality is “not relative, it’s not arbitrary”. On the contrary, that’s exactly what it is: it is arbitrary, meaning that it rests on the subject choosing to embrace a morality based on something akin to the golden rule.

          I’ll agree with that. In my opinion, ethics in general are predominantly subjective. What is generally considered to be ethical behavior and what is not evolves as we as a species evolve. We don’t have the same ethical standards today that we had 5000, 1000, or even just 100 years ago. Changes in generally accepted ethics don’t happen immediately, they happen over long periods of time and they start by shedding light on the inherent problems within long standing traditions.

          There is no natural necessity to do so, as the the behavior of the animal kingdom, and as all of human history so manifestly show.

          That is not entirely true. Many species in the animal kingdom (of which we are one) generally display certain ethical behaviors. There may not be a natural necessity to all ethical behaviors, but that doesn’t mean ethics is in any way unnatural or without benefit.

      • ldffly

        So in other words, you are advocating a natural law/natural morality theory. Right reason reveals basic tenets of morals as issuing from reality itself? Is there any chance that the philosophical issues with ethical naturalism could undo this whole project of being an atheist yet skirting around moral relativism? [Naturalistic fallacy--confusion of the meaning of 'good' with the set of its extensions.]

        • liche

          I’m not trying to skirt around moral relativism. As I stated above, morality is subjective and relative, as evidenced by the fact that we have different ethical behaviors today than we did just 100 years ago. I disagree with the author on this point.

          • LtwLimulus90

            So then you would acknowledge that you have no credibility in saying that your moral system is any better than anyone else’s, including, say, Adolf Hitler?

            You all are just making this easy…

          • ldffly

            Always remember that a moral relativist undercuts the grounds of criticism against alternative moralities. The “might makes right” position is as good as any other. That is a prudential reason to avoid relativism in morals.

          • liche

            No, I didn’t say that at all. You clearly ignored every other point I have made if that is the conclusion you’ve come to. Ethical behavior is determined by societies as a whole, not by a single individual.

    • anon82

      wherever morality comes from, I’m pretty sure its not some imaginary cloud man with a big beard

  • PMCcorn

    Charlotte Bronte summed some of this up with: “Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last.”

    Many religious-minded people erroneously believe that morality doesn’t exist outside of the framework of religion. The nature of secular morality’s framework, however, makes for an interesting discussion.

  • CharlieWalls

    I find this article and the comments remarkably good. Many years ago, I did Directed Studies there which contained two years of philosophy. Much of the reading dealt with moral philosophy — quite apart from religion. Kant left the strongest impression on me, with the idea quoted here from a web page: “‘Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law’.” And further, “His test is whether we could will for our personal maxim to be a universal law, not whether we’d like the results.” Religion seems exploitable to me and dangerous for that reason.

  • Dowager

    “If someone can’t see a bright, clear line between homosexuality and pedophilia, between uninhibited female sexuality and rape culture, it’s their moral framework that needs a checkup, not mine.”

    So says you. That’s the point. Without Judeo/Christian values that frame our laws, there are no guide posts. I am not willing to bet on my fellow man (murderer, pedophile, psychopath, sociopath, paranoid schitzo, etc…) to channel his or her “decent person”. Be my guest. I’ll go with God. The Ten Commandments seem like a great starting point.

    • labrys

      I’m not sure how you read this article and think that I’m advocating no guide posts. I am advocating guide posts, and I’m saying they’re better than yours. If you want to argue that using a framework that equates homosexuality with pedophilia is better than using a clear, absolute metric that can distinguish them (consent), I’d love to hear it.

      – Hannah

    • liche

      Without Judeo/Christian values that frame our laws

      Judeo/Christian values do not frame our laws. Our Constitution is entirely secular, and only 2 of the 10 commandments are law in America, both of which predate Judaism and Christianity.

      • Goldie08

        Your comments have steadily grown weaker since you joined this discussion. This is just plain incorrect

        • liche

          Would you be so kind as to provide some of these “Christian” laws, and cite where in our Constitution this argument is supported? Seeing as our First Amendment is in direct contradiction to the First Commandment, your argument is completely without merit.

        • liche

          Also keep in mind that our First Amendment strictly forbids religious laws:
          “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”

      • anon82

        good luck finding any useful prescriptions of morality in the old testament, actually you should be finding the contrary if you can read. might as well ask zeus to tell you how to behave.

  • The Anti-Yale

    > Without Judeo/Christian values that frame our laws, there are no guide posts.

    Do you mean the Judeo-Christian guideposts the Roman Catholic Church has used to cover up its century-old-priest-pedophlia?

    Or perhaps you refer to the Judeo-Christian slaughter of the “manifest-destiny” policies of the United States for the last 200 years?

    And then there is the guideposts of the barbaric U.S. Civil War whose oceans of blood Lincoln justified to himself and the world with this Judeo-Christian rationalization/fantasy about Divine will: “For every drop of blood from the lash a drop of blood from the sword’?

    Back to the Lawn Club Dowager, for more another Rum-Rickey and more Republican evangelical propaganda.

    Paul D. Keane

    M. Div. ’80

    M.A., M.Ed.

    • CrazyBus

      I’m starting to think that there is sometimes a method to your madness.

      • The Anti-Yale

        Wow. I’d drop dead of shock if somebody understood me !

    • xfxjuice

      I *really* hate to say it, but PK is right on the money….

  • SY

    If you speak of slaughter, you must mention the non-religion dead of just the last century–through Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Imperial Japan. As Stalin put it, one death is a tragedy; one million deaths is a statistic. Non-judeo-christian types are bigger on death by the (hundreds of) millions.

    I don’t get your point on the war deaths to end slavery. If Christians died to end slavery (even of perhaps other Christians), and later ended Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Imperial Japan, which culture works better merely from the examples in your life?

    • whatwhat

      you realize that almost the entire native american population was wiped out in the name of christianity right? and i hope that you are not trying to equate all of the non religious with people like hitler, stalin, etc. you cannot say “oh if these people were judeo-christian types, fewer people would have been killed.” crazy people exist in all populations. who knows- these people may have done the same crazy things in the name of christianity- the crusades all over again.

    • liche

      I always find it odd when people try to directly tie someone’s lack of religion to their actions. You could just as easily say that everyone on your list were non-believers in Santa Claus, but that doesn’t mean they did those horrible things because they didn’t believe presents would be waiting for them under the tree come Christmas morning. Thank you for demonstrating the ‘correlation does not equal causation’ fallacy.

      Also, I’m quite sure Hitler was Catholic, and he most definitely was not an atheist.

      • devicus13

        Hitler grew up a Catholic, but gave it up. The Catholic Church banned people from joining the Nazi’s until after an agreement in 1933 because they opposed the forced sterilization of “inferiors,” but many clergy in Poland were still persecuted. According to those who knew him, Hitler had privately negative views of Christianity. This is all available on Wikipedia after a two second factcheck.

  • dochollidae

    First off Hitler is where he should be dead and buried, and it’s unfortunate that his ideals weren’t all buried with him.

    Being Gay and Lesbian is a lifestyle choice, and between consenting adults it is one that should be free of outside interference.

    However, to deny that there is a God, is just plain ridiculous. But it is a free choice to believe as one does in this country.