Your Atheism is (Somewhat) Irrelevant

If you pay attention to what goes on in the world of atheism/humanism/secularism, you’ve probably seen scuttlebutt about a number of accusations of sexual misconduct by Big Names in that corner of the world. There has also been some significant worry about what these accusations and the response to it mean for the future of these movements. Questions like, “Why is it that the population of conferences on secularism are overwhelmingly male?,” and whether some Big Names who aren’t accused of misconduct are making matters worse by minimizing the problem and engaging in casual sexism and victim-blaming.

There is also the on-again, off-again furor Sam Harris creates every time he talks about Islam. Harris seems to me to have taken up the mantle left behind by Christopher Hitchens as a kind of gadfly, poking at the ability of any form of religion involving any kind of belief in any kind of divinity to be “good.” (For the record: I loved how Hitch wrote, but often hated what he had to say.)

I’m not going to talk directly about any of this–not because I don’t think these questions matter, but because they are symptoms of another problem: secularism has taken on a reactionary color that sometimes makes secularists a mirror image of those whom they cast as their enemies. The reactionary problem drags along with it gender and sexual issues, and issues about talking about religion, and it is biting the secularist movement in the ass.

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Fitness, Ethics, and Humanism

It’s been a while since I’ve done any significant ethical navel-gazing here, so the time seems ripe.

Actually, it’s not too navel-gaze-y.

Over at Kyriolexy, there’s a post about a supposed moral requirement that individuals be physically fit. The author points out that, broadly, society uses the sometimes-compatible languages of virtue and pathology to talk about physical fitness, and criticizes the combined use of that language because of how it intersects with how we also talk about (especially) perceived mental disability.

As the parent of an autistic child, I’m sympathetic with the author’s account. At age 9, we really don’t know where our son will end up, how, and even what his capabilities are now because of his limited speech and self-expression compared to his neurotypical peers. And so, we’re reluctant to put demands upon him when we don’t know what he is capable of.

I do differ from the Kyriolexy post as it relates to the virtue–talking in philosophical ethics mode, that is–of physical fitness. And I think that difference comes because I am the father of an autistic child. But I think my objection to the Kyriolexy post would exist even merely as a parent. But that difference led me to think about what it is, exactly, motivates ethics in humanism. I have long thought that the more Platonic views of ethics (e.g., Kant, or others who posit absolute universal duties, with or without certain requirements for intent along with the action) are troublesome because they posit universality–of both place and time–of things that are essentially contingent, that is, conduct in dependent upon places and times.

This is a roundabout way of saying that I think, from a humanist perspective, some combination of utilitarianism and virtue ethics is probably appropriate. And I would point to the physical fitness question as an example of this.

Do I think all persons at all times and in all circumstances must necessarily be (or endeavor to be as though it’s required of them) physically fit? No. I don’t even think that all persons who are physically capable of doing so must necessarily be or endeavor to be physically fit. That is, I don’t think there is an ethical duty to do this.

But I do think that doing so, if you can, is virtuous and maximizes utility. Virtuous because it has the capacity to make the person happier (in the philosophical ethics version of happiness). Maximizes utility because the costs of being unfit reduce one’s own happiness and also impose upon other persons more broadly the costs of being unfit.

We know, for example, that obesity is associated with widespread inflammatory processes, which appear at least to correlate with increased morbidity and mortality from medical conditions associated with inflammatory processes: heart disease, hypertension, some forms of cancer, diabetes, etc. In epidemic levels, obesity that results in increased morbidity and mortality from inflammatory process-related diseases imposes significant social costs. For those who can be physically fit, doing so reduces the imposition of the associated costs–in very incremental fashion–upon others. It also reduces the imposition of the associated harms upon oneself.

When one is a parent, the costs of unhealthiness are also imposed upon children who have no capacity to address the problem themselves. So, if a parent is capable of reducing her or his own level of unhealthiness and increasing her or his own level of fitness, doing so maximizes utility not only for society broadly in reduced cost, but children in terms of parents who are able to be around, on the whole, longer, provide better care, and provide examples of the sort that will encourage health among their children. That, in turn, can compound the benefits.

Do I think that there are valid ethical claims upon me, as someone who is capable of being more fit, more healthy, and therefore less costly both to society and my son, to become healthy and/or fit? Yes, both from a utilitarian perspective and from a virtuous perspective. But I don’t accept that there is some universal maxim that imposes that upon me; I should do these things, but I need not.

Nevertheless, and pace Kyriolexy, I think there are some normative claims that can fairly be put upon some individuals to be more fit.

Discourse about that is another matter. I think the problem Kyriolexy addresses arises, in part, when we speak in unqualified fashion about things like not having an excuse for being unfit. It’s about broad social messaging; we speak in deontological terms, particularly in mass media but also in more individual-level discourse, and assume others to be similarly situated. I think, from the perspective of Kyriolexy’s hypotheticals, broad discourse fails to properly take into account exceptions and the very real limitations of each situation.

I’m not sure what the solution to that would be for the broader forms of discourse that trouble Kyriolexy. Clearly broad forms of discourse need to take into account the need not to shame, and they need also to be careful about what they convey about ability. Ideally, this would affect how individuals speak, too.

I’m not optimistic about the latter part. Because unless one very carefully and intentionally crafts their discourse, it will almost always be overbroad and transgressive. Most people–including Maria Kang, I suspect–don’t craft their discourse to exclude from its normative scope those individuals who, if pressed, the speaker would not have intended to include within the statement.

How do we fix that? I would turn to Greg Epstein’s book, Good without God, as a guide. Epstein’s view of ethics starts with the proposition that we should act from love–love for our fellow persons, in whatever their state. And I think that absolute moral propositions in the Platonic/deontological mode–which make sense when we talk about law–don’t proceed from love, but from judgment. And they largely fail to be persuasive as a result.

August and Everything After

Hopefully after next week I’ll be able to write more openly on the blog about who I am/why I’m writing/what I’m doing. (Thus, the title of this post.)

Aside from the chaos of ordinary life (and, let’s be clear, it is chaotic right now), I’ve spent some time thinking more about the balance among the secular, humanist, and Jewish pieces of things. And while I recognize the importance of reason, observation, fact, etc., in the mix–I don’t think you arrive at the positions I’ve arrived at without these–I continue to be concerned that the secular and humanist portions of things are, to be blunt, off-putting to outsiders.

This isn’t to say that I reject the principles; rather, we need to do better at the branding of things if we want to be truly attractive to those outside our community. The problem we face by emphasizing reason, fact, observation, science, etc., is that we make humanism too hard, and that risks losing people who would at least be allies.

It’s difficult to be humanist as humanism is presented and as it exists. I think Epstein backs into this insight in Good Without God when he discusses what he expected to find as opposed to what he actually did find when he traveled in Taiwan and China, namely, that people who were ostensibly Buddhist were not actually focused on the formal teachings of Buddhism as we learn them in religious studies classes. It’s not that those individuals didn’t self-identify as Buddhist, at least in a nominal way–it’s just that they lived differently, secularly.

Circling back to humanist Judaism, I wonder if we face a problem that might, in some ways, be similar to that faced by Reform Judaism in the early- and mid-1900s.  As envisioned, Reform Judaism was difficult in the sense that its leaders and its early adherents were often Jewishly well educated and knew, often intimately, what they were rejecting. Later generations did not.

If history is repeatable here–and that’s not necessarily a given–my concern is that humanist Judaism might be “too hard” for many people unless we can moderate the need for the level of education required to sustain things. At the same time, the difficulty associated with humanist Judaism might be a deterrent to new members because while humanist Judaism’s approach to matters of observance quite nicely comports with how most modern Jews live their lives, the intellectual demands may not play so well, and the humanistic emphasis on reason, etc., may heighten this difficulty.

I have no solution to this problem, if it exists; just another thing for me to think about in August–and after.