Morality: Action vs Identity

There is an interesting step some religious folks take when arguing over questions of morality. They make the jump from discussing moral action to moral identity. I think this jump plays into how people vote, act, and speak, and would like to delve into it a little further.

In the comments of my post “We Don’t Need God to be Good“, Bill writes:

I would say a liar is a bad person. I would also say that if you’ve ever told an immoral lie, you’re a liar. How many murders do I have to commit before I’m a murderer? When you lied you had free will, and you chose to deceive another person.

So if you commit a single immoral act, you become defined by that act. This cannot also logically apply in reverse. Otherwise in committing a single good act, along with a single immoral act, one would be both good and evil, by definition.


It gets more interesting if we take a look at two particular examples. If we look at the Biblical God’s destruction of entire cities, God might be defined as immoral. After all God killed a mass of people (including children). Who would think every single person in said city was truly guilty and deserving of death? Worse, why couldn’t an omnipotent God act in a more compassionate way to achieve the same end? Justice is the tool of the weak by nature, humanity. Surely God can be greater than merely just?

A second example is one of redemption. One of the most powerful moments in the biographical movie “Gandhi” was when a man approaches Gandhi who is fasting in protest. The man laments that he is going to hell, since he murdered a child of a different religion (to gain revenge for what had been down to his child). Gandhi calms the man, saying we are all going to hell, and then asks him to find and raise an orphaned child of that same hated religion, in that religion. This is a beautiful example of redemption. Can the essence of the man himself still be said to be that of a murderer? Why is he a good man who became irreversibly corrupted by the act, rather than a good man who committed an evil act?

What compelling reason is there for determining that identity follows the act?


Violence Resolution: Faith vs Reason

There is a fascinating debate over religion and violence going on at Rescuing Reason’s place:

I’ll pop out of retirement for a moment to make sure that more people see this story.

Who’s the conflict between? Hindus and Muslims. Tell me, without religion, would these train bombings have occurred?

While the post starts on the question of religiously motivated violence, the debate shifts to a discussion over whether faith-based belief systems are even conducive to conflict resolution. If two sides believe absolutely that they are right, as a matter of faith, is it possible to bridge that gap?

The argument is against a way of knowing. Reason is valued more than faith in this approach, since reason by its nature will adapt to changing input whereas faith will either remain obstinate (or indulge in apologetics).

Negotiation between two faith-based opponents becomes a tricky matter of relating the dispute to fit the “facts” of two faiths, rather than bringing the two sides together over the existing facts of a situation.

Faith based belief systems create an additional reality that needs to coexist with actual reality in order to achieve a resolution. A prime example is the faith-based politics of some Bush supporters, who support the President as a matter of faith. The criticism of the “reality-based community” is actually quite biting.

In this view, is faith utterly incompatible with reason?

Consistence on the War

When a progressive takes a stand against the war, not serving in that war is as essential and consistent a stance as speaking out against it. By the same token, young republicans who assure us that this is the conflict of our generation while refraining from serving smell of hypocrisy. August Pollack has been acutely aware of this in his writing, as has Glenn Greenwald.

Joining them is the voice of a conservative blogger who laments the rise of the neo-conservatives in his party:

I put the demise of my beloved GOP squarely on the shoulders of the Neo-Cons. I have previously discussed this in Warning Conservative Republicans.

I wonder about his judgment in placing the neo-con movement at the hands of “former Democrats/Socialist”, but the subject of his post is what intrigues me.  It is a bold challenge to the hypocritical wing of the Republican party:

Although I don’t fault our young Republicans, I do challenge them. They yell and scream Madison Avenue catch phrases like “cut and run”, instead of taking definitive action.

The pressure on those who support the war has been growing at a heartening rate over the past few years.  Pundits who blindly supported the war are being revealed:

Establishment Washington really is not interested in how to end this horrendous and despicable debacle we unleashed in Iraq. They are not interested in how to maximize U.S. interests. They are only interested in how to find a way to bring this disaster to some sort of slow resolution that looks as though it is a respectable and decent outcome — anything that makes it seem like it wasn’t a horrendous mistake in the first place.

The pundits and the college Republicans are playing the same game.  They are using their positions on the war to make themselves appear serious (even formidable!) on foreign policy.  When conservatives like Joe join progressives like Glenn and August in calling the neo-cons on their game, I start thinking crazy hopeful thoughts.

Like maybe this will bubble up through enough media sources in time to stop a dangerous game of chicken with Iran.

The people selling us this war, from neo-conservative activist to pundit all the way up to President, have zero credibility.  Yet time and time again the press treats them as experts.  We argue against their positions seriously, rather than against the game of positioning they are playing.

It is time to add our voices to the growing chorus calling them out.

We Don’t Need God to be Good

Why do we need God to tell us to be good?  Why can’t we be ethical creatures without an eternal father figure to keep us in line?

Organic Faith has another view on the time article on teaching the Bible in schools:

I guess all the violence, drug and alcohol abuse, teen suicide, and discipline issues in schools has convinced some journalists that a godless education may not produce the best students.

The driving reason cited for is about as wrong headed as one can get.  After all, we can teach ethics without relying on an endless appeal to authority.  There are far more moving reasons to be a good person than “Because God Said So”.

When I wrote about the Time article itself, I thought that schools should consider teaching all religions.  Not as fact or history but as interesting sets of beliefs.  Beliefs that move people to do beautiful and horrible things.

The idea that people so strongly equate morality with religion is troubling.  In this view, bringing morality back into the schools could simply be code for bringing Christian beliefs into the schools.

The fact is a secular nation has no business appealing to a single religion as a political prime mover or a knowledge authority.  Religion should not decide when life begins.  Religion should not dictate who we have sex with, or what position we enjoy.  Religion should not determine where we send our military, or tell our children what is right and what is wrong.

The separation of Church and State should stand firmly in the way of all this nonsense.

Exploring Religious notions of ethical behavior is all well and good (and provided there is no obvious bias for a particular system, an excellent addition to our schools).  However schools should go well beyond that.

Besides, one can find plenty to admire (and ponder) looking at systems of ethics that do not boil down to religious appeals to authority.  I’d argue potentially superior ethics are to be found within such systems.  How ethical is a person who only acts out of fear of being punished?  That’s just pragmatism.

Never Back Down

Compromises are hidden behind closed doors with the other undesirables: rational people. There is a good reason for this. Confidence is sexy, and nothing exudes that raw political attraction like sticking to your guns and firing like mad.

The Bush administration has this down a science and an art. Every policy move is a feint, part of a larger political theater designed to move the American public closer to a right wing authoritarian utopia.

David Neiwert discusses the adminstration’s attempt to weaken the Endangered Species Act in the context of the November ’06 elections:

Now, it’s unlikely that anyone views the larger election outcome to the Republican record on environmental issues, but the larger picture from the vote — a rejection of conservative malfeasance on many fronts, including the war, the economy, and the environment, including global warming — suggests at the very least the public was demanding accountability from an administration that to date has behaved like a power-mad elephant rampaging through the global china shop.

Power-mad describes the administration perfectly. It is using the goal itself as a method to reach the goal. By simply ignoring the law with wiretapping, leaking intelligence, firing attorneys, etc, the Bush administration has become (if only for the moment) above the law. The best we can do is take down an official with a perjury rap, and even then he may be able to appeal and delay himself into a Presidential pardon.

The war provides the most devastating example of this strategy. Right from the start it was a zero some game with morality thrown right out the window. Congress and the American public where lied to. Our national security threatened by diverting military resources from the campaign to bring down Osama, and by the Plame leak. Thousands of US soldiers dead. 600,000 Iraqis dead. And after the mission was accomplished and we were greeted with roses, after a series of “just another 6 months and another surge”, we are still at what can only very generously be described as a dead lock.

And yet, at every turn, this administration has defied this message and refused to shape its behavior or its policies in a way that acknowledged any kind of accountability whatsoever, whether on the war, the economy, or the many investigations into its malfeasance. These pending regulations reflect just how broadly Bush and his cohorts intend to take this damn-the-voters mentality.

Broadly is just the start.  The administration will continue to head down this path at every opportunity because it has a one issue platform:  Power.  Every move is calculated to shift more power into the hands of the executive.

I’m left wondering why they are so persistent if they will be out of office in 2008.

The Democrats, Congress itself, and progressives everywhere can do no less in our own strategies if we are going to compete.  We can never back down.  Every move must be made with a single purpose.  The defining difference is our goal.  Where the administration seeks power for the few, we will seek power for the many.

If we craft our policy and mold our speech to create empowerment, we can find and use a power even greater than that sought by Bush and his executive branch.

We can do this.