Tag Archives: morality

The season for reason

By, Adam K. Fetterman
This Season, Celebrate REASON”, reads an American Atheists billboard by the Lincoln Tunnel. This is another in a long line of billboards and signs reminding people that atheists are out there. The apparent goal of this campaign is to let “closeted” atheists know that they are not alone. This seems particularly necessary during the holiday season as atheists may feel more like they are in the minority than other times of the year. For some, this time of the year requires them to pretend to be religious for fear of social reprisal. Therefore, being reminded (e.g. by billboards) that they are not alone can definitely have positive effects. However, as to be expected, the religious community (mostly Christian) is not responding with acceptance and positivity (though some are). Some have said the billboards are disrespectful and attacking. So, in response, religious organizations are putting up billboards of their own. According to the New York Times, there appears to be a quite interesting sign battle going on in Texas. The atheists’ sign reads “Millions of Americans are Good Without God” on the side of the bus, followed by a truck with a sign reading “I Still Love You – God” and another claiming “2.1 billion Christians are good with God”. While it would be a fairly funny scene to witness, it hits on an old argument about where morality comes from.

For many years, many have assumed that religion is the foundation or source of morality or pro-social behavior. In a recent review, Preston, Ritter, and Hernandez (2010) indicate that religion does not have a monopoly on morality and pro-social behavior. In fact, they indicate that religiosity only predicts moral or pro-social behavior in specific contexts and can actually predict increased anti-social behavior in certain contexts. The authors go on to discuss the differences between religious and supernatural beliefs in regards to moral and pro-social behaviors.

Another researcher arguing that religion is not the ultimate source of morality and pro-social behavior is Sam Harris. He has found (as well as others) quite compelling evidence of naturalistic or evolutionary foundations of morality and pro-social behavior. In fact, I have made arguments about certain motivations that would lead all people to be moral, in previous posts. In the end, it appears to be pretty clear that one can be “Good without God”. With some of the reactions to these billboards (e.g. defacing and anger), it seems apparent that religiosity does automatically make one moral.

More Sacramento-area atheist billboards are vandalized. By, Bill Lindelof, Sacto 9-1-1

Dueling billboards face off in Christmas controversy. By, Laura Dolan, CNN

Atheist bus ads rattle Fort Worth. By, James C. McKinley Jr., New York Times.

Sam Harris’ Website

Preston, J. L, Ritter, R. S., & Hernandez, J. I. (2010). Principles of religious prosociality: A review and reformulation. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4, 574-590.

Read all of Adam K. Fetterman’s posts here.

The Moral Universe of Role Players in Genocide

Just after the Rwanda genocide broke out in 1994, white expatriates were speedily evacuated from the place. Adam Jones (2006) wrote of a video record at the Caraes psychiatric Hospital in Ndera Kigali showing white individuals being evacuated while Hutus were almost outside the gates, and the Tutsis begged the military men for protection. One soldier yelled, “Solve your problems yourselves!”

The UN Genocide Convention has defined genocide as “acts committed with the intent to destroy in part or whole a national, ethnic racial or religious group as such.” Staub (2000) provides the social context which makes genocide of one group by another likely—difficult life conditions and group conflict. Cultural differences also come to play such as blind respect for authority, inflexible stratification within classes, and a history of devaluation in a group.

Not all members of the dominant group become perpetrators. There were the ‘ordinary Germans’ who did nothing while the Holocaust happened, while there were also countless Germans who defied authority and managed to rescue Jewish families in peril. In a genocide setting, there are the perpetrators, bystanders and rescuers. These categories can also be fluid, as noted by Monroe, when constant bystanders turn into rescuers, or when perpetrators who have engaged in massacres, rescue an individual from the other group. Monroe defines six critical aspects gathered from summaries of reports of these three groups which play a part in the role a group or individual makes: self image, personal suffering, identity, relational identity, integration of values with the individual’s sense of self, and a cognitive classification of the other. Perpetrators may perceive of themselves as victims and justify causing harm to the other group. Bystanders and perpetrators may hold greater value for community, and authority, rather than self-assertion. Personal suffering may also cause a group or an individual to empathize with the aggrieved group, but it may also heighten fear and defensiveness. While cultural and social aspects are important in determining attitudes and behavior, self images can also determine if people will act or remain passive in the face of genocide. Individuals who feel they have control over the situation may be forced to do something about it, as opposed to bystanders who, even if they also empathize with the aggrieved group, may feel helpless over the situation.

Jones A. (2006). Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction

Monroe K. R. (2008). Cracking the Code of Genocide: The Moral Psychology of Rescuers, Bystanders, and Nazis during the Holocaust

Staub, E. (2000). Genocide and Mass Killing: Origins, Prevention, Healing and Reconciliation

Photo: “#46/365” by Leonie, c/o Flickr. Some Rights Reserved

State militias and individual rights: The strength of moral convictions

On the eve of the fifteenth anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing there is talk of developing a state-supported but privately run militia group to protect citizens from “an overreaching federal government” recently epitomized by the passage of healthcare legislation. Talk of a militia group stokes emotional fires on either side of the debate. With recent militia busts in Michigan where plots were underway to attach law enforcement many argue that forming a separate militia group is going too far. Others, harkening to Confederate-era rhetoric of state’s rights, suggest that the individual citizen deserves a guarantee of protection from a federal government that is increasingly interfering in individual lives and state rights.

Indeed, so-called “Patriot” groups are on the rise. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that since 2008, the number of patriot groups has risen from 149 to 512. Of these groups, 127 are militias. Though these groups are becoming more popular and anti-government rhetoric is on the rise, the concern is less with the formation of the groups than the way in which they may harbor lone extremist individuals seeking a forum for their anger and justification for violent acts. In a recent Christian Science Monitor piece, a member of the Hutaree militia is reported as apparently helping in the bust of the plans against law enforcement. The article argues that militias are acutely aware of the dangers that single rogue members can pose and how these members’ actions can hurt the message of the groups.

Any group risks its own identity — and indeed has to be flexible in this regard — when growing its base, militias would be no different. But impassioned arguments mixed with the right to bear arms could be a bit more concerning. A recent article in the Social and Personality Psychology Compass suggests that when it comes to morality, the psychological stakes are much higher than other attitudes or motivations. “Moral convictions” the author argues, are psychologically distinct from other attitudes and are more likely to compel a person to become politically involved but to also be more accepting of violence as a means to an end. The outcomes of such convictions are simultaneously reassuring and troubling. While organizing to protect rights is an activity that activists across the political spectrum engage in, it raises the question as to how we possibly begin to find a common ground or make progress on issues that register at such personal levels. As the author points out, moral convictions give us the courage to act, but they have also been used to justify heinous crimes. The cases of proliferating militias will force us to consider the nuances of moral convictions and the complicated nature of defending the rights of the individual (or, in this case, states). This reminds me of two of my favorite sayings by my high school government teacher: “I may not agree with your opinions but I’ll defend til death your right to say them” which was often shortly followed by “your rights end where mine begin.” Gray areas are, indeed, quite gray.

Skitka, L. (2010). The psychology of moral conviction. Social and Personality Psychology Compass.

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