Friday, September 04, 2015

Pragmatic Progressive Ethics and Penny-wise Issues

by Gary Berg-Cross

The observation of being penny-wise but pound foolish probably covers lots of example of poor reasoning, some of it public that misses the big picture because of things like niggling adherence to narrowly interpreted dogma. We don’t conduct witch trials anymore, although there is still a non-enforced, minority belief that the devil is abroad and the anti-Christ may be with us.  It is reassuring to observe that we’ve slowly come to the realization that religious beliefs, such as from the Hebrew Bible, change as our knowledge and understanding of reality advances. Religious prescriptions, such as women’s rights or the inherent evilness of people, are not anchored in granite; and thus do not provide an ethical basis for establishing just & durable laws. Instead a good portion of society has come to understand that ethics and morality can be and are best
separated from religion. There is a pragmatic element to laws which are based on experience with lessons than come to be rationalized and mutually accepted.  These are then empirical, rational and institutionally vetted beliefs that in turn ground ethics and morality. As Ron Lindsay (A featured speaker at our regional WASHcon15 in Lynchburg, VA., October 2-4, 2015.) put it in Future Bioethics: OvercomingTaboos, Myths, and Dogmas  we want 
"a well-reasoned, pragmatic approach" with substance.

One might talk about this in terms of pragmatic ethics , a theory of normative, progressive philosophical ethics going back to ethical pragmatists, like John Dewey. The idea is that some societies have progressed morally in a way that is similar to scientific progress. Progress is based on inquiry into testing ideas.  Is no fault divorce a good idea?  Let’s test it and if it proves useful future generations can refine, build on or replace is as social principle.

So as we still find enemies enough and have institutional cruelty in some areas of society there is preponderance of pragmatic sense and we’ve seen some cultural progress on a large scale.  One example is growing acceptance of gay marriage.  But bucking the trend are some penny-unwise spots of resistance on very narrow symbolic grounds provided by a blend of religious, emotional and ideological roots. 
In the gay marriage case it is some free floating belief in the idea of the “sanctity” of marriage. Exhibit A might be from fundamentalist Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis (she had served a deputy role in that office for many years) who pitches a penny-narrow definition of a religious, civil right. Indeed the Davis family has a long history in Rowan County, Kentucky.  She ran her election campaign to replace her mother who was Rowan County Clerk before her.  Among Kim’s arguments for the office was efficiency - the public needed a seamless transition from mom Davis and Kim could provide uninterrupted services including for things like marriage licenses. This sounds ironic now, but daughter Davis was (narrowly) elected in 2014 to be County Clerk.

Now in office, rather than keeping her “civil (religious freedom) rights” to herself, she seems to feel privileged as a public official to pick and choose from ancient prescriptions as her guide to public behavior.  This seems surprising since she was elected to a public, secular office she know well and there are laws governing behavior. We expect that public officials will understand that to operate efficiently we have a pragmatic, modifiable Constitution that is not based on faith this side of the Enlightenment.  Our founders themselves realized that basing laws and governmental practices on religious beliefs would be ultimately unworkable at the public level. But Kim’s penny foolishness, like others, anchors itself in frozen, fundamentalist ethical judgement on things like marriage.  And as Ron Lindsey points out they can defensively externalize their own real dogmatism to attribute righteousness on others:

"Any attempt by humans to control and shape their lives in ways not previously contemplated by some religious tradition results in the claim that we are trying to 'play God.'"

Projection may not be the only psychological process going on here. Pragmatic agreements take time, effort and compromise.  They require "thinking slow" and critically and taking many things into account.  It is not at all playing God to do the hard work and getting agreement. So one suspects that selective “articles of faith” provide an unreasoned rationalization for "believer's"  distaste for things just can’t relate to and don’t like. It’s part of the take back America and “making America great again” slogan we hear as part of the cultural wars.

Unfortunately articles of faith, such as the earlier belief in witches, provide ready-made, emotion-laden explanations rather than reasoned one for when “bad” things happen in the new America. Recently we had Bill O’Reilly explain away the phenomena of mass shootings. It’s not guns or mental illness he argued but atheism. This taps into a cauldron of witchy beliefs common among fundamentalists and perhaps Kim— that morality derives from religion. It follows that: "Bible good", "atheists bad", since they lack any real basis for ethics or morality and live empty lives in pursuit of pleasure in this world.

Not all religious folk are like that and at least think through what is ethical for them and could step aside if religious values kept them from doing their jobs.  United Church of Christ's Rev. Emily C. Heath described how she handled the dilemma of private belief vs public service. She decided not to apply for a job with the Federal Bureau of Prisons because she of the death penalty, which went against her religious beliefs. As she observed:

"Religious liberty is guaranteed in this country. But that does not mean that every job needs to bend to your particular interpretation of your faith....If you really believe doing your job is violating your faith, then stepping aside would be a small price to pay for the love of the Gospel." 

But, unfortunately a rational stepping-aside approach is not what we see as faith intrudes into our civil processes.

You could hear more pragmatic takes from the WASHcon15 speakers:
·                     Ron Lindsay, Center for Inquiry President and CEO , 
·                     Julien Musolino, author and scholar 
·                     Tom Flynn, Executive Director Council for Secular Humanism 
·                     Dr. Andy Thomson, author and psychiatrist
·                     Dr. Jason D. Heap, United Coalition of Reason Executive Director , and 

·                     Linda LaScola, author and researcher .

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