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Ch. 7: From Beliefs to Behavior 
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 Ch. 7: From Beliefs to Behavior
Ch. 7: From Beliefs to Behavior

Please use this thread to discuss the above section of Lex Bayer and John Figdor’s “Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart: Rewriting the Ten Commandments for the Twenty-first Century.”

You’re also welcome to create new threads however you see fit.



Mon Nov 03, 2014 10:30 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 7: From Beliefs to Behavior
Happiness and Ethics

In this chapter, the authors express a pure utilitarian ethic, arguing that we should behave in ways that maximise our personal happiness.

I have a few problems with this theory. This chapter weighed on my heart when I was listening to a rather wonderful radio discussion the other day about suicide. http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/pro ... on/5030840

A theme in this program was that we are not simply individuals, but are enmeshed with others. This was one of Heidegger’s existential arguments which his British utilitarian critics found so offensive. There is a culture of English individualism epitomised by Bentham, which this chapter celebrates and which I find rather loathsome, due to its bad effect on mental health and indifference to belonging to a community as the framework of identity.

In explaining why individual pleasure is not a good criterion for morality, the argument in the next chapter that there is no valid objective morality is also worth addressing. My own view, which I have expressed here before, is that human flourishing is good. I consider this idea to be a foundational axiom for systematic ethics. The implication is that to be ethical, we have a duty to maximise human flourishing, and to analyse the evidence regarding how to go about this task.

What it means is that ethics is hardly about personal happiness, which is just an incidental result of ethical action. Ethics is about making the world a better place, and recognising that human flourishing involves deep scientific understanding of nature.

There is something deeply flippant about arguments in this book about such questions as why Pete likes cheesecake. I feel there are very big ethical questions, poverty, climate, war, economics, politics, which are just sidelined by their emphasis on personal feelings.


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Post Re: Ch. 7: From Beliefs to Behavior
I was a little surprised that they seemed to go with straight-up utilitarianism, but then they make it clear that they're trying to be purely descriptive in this chapter. I have to withhold judgment until at least reading the next chapter on how you "ought" to behave.

As for this chapter, I think you run into the danger of just defining everything as pursuing "life-happiness" so that you can explain all behavior (aside from making mistakes), e.g. the ascetic who gets "pleasure" from his asceticism.



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Post Re: Ch. 7: From Beliefs to Behavior
And Chapter 9 on social ethics also clarifies things a bit.


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Post Re: Ch. 7: From Beliefs to Behavior
YOu two got ahead of me. I read the chapter and I share some of Robert's dismay about it. B & F begin by asking, "How should we behave?," but by the end they haven't hinted at an answer. That awaits us in the next chapter, they say.

Interesting to me that if we compare this next non-commandment with the original 10 Cs, this one is diametrically opposed to what Yahweh would have wanted. That character did not want the Hebrews to use their own happiness, short term or long, as any sort of commandment. It made them happy to worship idols and party on Saturdays. If we convert Yahweh to the collective unconscious of the old Hebrews, what we have is a societal mandate for keeping the group intact and pure, for social survival in other words, according to an ethical code. B & F have in mind another path to an ethical code, one that doesn't rely on top-down moral commands but is naturalistic, an outgrowth of our evolutionary past.

The authors sidestep the problem of implying that hedonism equals happiness by stipulating that often we make short term sacrifices in happiness in order to establish a more durable happiness over the long haul. They call this life-happiness. What they don't say is that this wiser way to happiness isn't natural but is normally a result of acculturation and teaching. Plenty of us get into trouble precisely because we don't operate with a long time horizon, which prevents us from making goals oriented toward achievement.

B & F say we might put off our immediate happiness in order to have it at a later time in our lives. What about putting it off for our whole lives, so that generations after us could achieve happiness? Is that type of sacrifice necessary sometimes (for example, to confront climate change)?

Should B and F also give more attention to recent literature that indicates we are not so good at knowing what will make us happy in the first place? They also ask us to "consider how much rational thought is involved in how we make decisions." Should they consider other literature that casts doubt on our reliance on rationality, Daniel Kahneman's research, for example? The unconscious is more central to our actions than they seem to admit.

Are we headed down a sort of libertarian path here with regard to ethics, reliant only on our individual perspectives of what makes us happy?



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Wed Dec 17, 2014 6:52 am
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Post Re: Ch. 7: From Beliefs to Behavior
Unfortunately, I haven't started the book yet, and sorry if this isn't relevant, but I'm reading about Herbert Spencer, who argued that "new" morality is built on a biological foundation (in contrast to his contemporaries like Huxley and Tennyson who said that nature exalted brutality and cunning rather than justice and love.) Spencer said that we are guided on a basic level by pain and pleasure. Normally, pleasure indicates biologically useful, and pain indicates biologically dangerous, activities that translate into what's good for the group. Ultimately our individual conduct is moral in terms of how it helps us integrate and cohere with the larger group. "Morality, like art, is the achievement of unity in diversity; the highest type of man is he who effectively unites in himself the widest variety, complexity, and completeness of life."

It will be interesting to see if the authors of Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart come to some of these same conclusions.


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