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Dave Muscato on Dr. Andrew Bernstein, Religion, and Morality

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Hello all,

I gave a talk, “Why Blasphemy Matters,” at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg on Monday (90 miles from Columbia). I look forward to giving the talk to more campus groups in the future. This was only the second time I’ve given that particular talk, and although I think it went well, I also think I can improve it. More about that another time: I found out that a philosopher named Andrew Bernstein would be in town the following evening giving a talk called “Religion vs. Morality.” I decided to stay in town an extra day so I could attend.

As it turns out, the Objectivist Club at UCM had scheduled a dinner with Dr. Bernstein before his 8 PM lecture, and I had the fortune of sitting next to him while we all ate. Dr. Bernstein, or Andy, teaches philosophy at SUNY Purchase. He is an objectivist and proponent of Ayn Rand’s work, as well as a philosopher (and novelist) in his own right. He’s written several books about capitalism, philosophy, and objectivism, lectures internationally, and he also wrote the Cliff’s Notes for Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.

Me with Andrew Bernstein (on left)

At dinner, topics ranged from the current crop of Republican candidates (he plans to vote for “whichever sorry candidate the Republicans nominate”) to how to get into grad schools (his advice: Where you studied isn’t as important as what you have to say). I told him that although one of my majors is economics, I really know relatively little about market forces, capitalism, international trade, finance, etc, compared to most econ majors. I’ve taken a few required courses in those sorts of things, but my interest is game theory. I study altruism and the evolution of morality, especially its interplay with the history of religion, using the tools from behavioral economics & economic modeling. I admitted that this was my first real exposure to what objectivism is all about. He told me that his talk is not about religion AND morality, but more specifically religion VERSUS morality: in his estimation, an either/or proposal. I thought, this should be interesting!

At 8 PM, I joined an auditorium of people on the UCM campus as Angel Munoz Gomez Andrade, the president of the Objectivist Club, introduced Bernstein. Watching Bernstein speak is a real treat: He has a thick New York accent and a raw, passionate tone. Throughout his speech, he spoke with his hands as much as with his voice. The way he rapped his fingertips on the podium, shifted his weight when weighing what to say next, and stood on his toes to emphasize his points immediately brought to mind Al Pacino’s passion and mannerisms. An audience member, during the Q&A, said that he, lacking a philosophy background himself, had trouble following Bernstein on some of the more complex philosophy, but I found myself having the opposite experience: I think Bernstein has a remarkable ability to take complex philosophical ideas and illustrate them with digestible examples in such a way that they are readily understandable [disclosure: I’m minoring in philosophy].

The purpose of Bernstein’s talk, as stated above, is to argue that religion and morality are fundamentally at odds. Religion, because it is necessarily founded upon faith, requires irrational thinking, which Bernstein argues necessarily leads humans away from our values, and results in nothing short of death. There are certainly historical examples of this — he mentioned faith healing a few times, and the abysmal life expectancy of the third-world versus the first-world today. He argued that morality is, in so many words, whatever helps living things achieve their values, which (objectivism argues) are necessarily dictated by nature. These values are neither subjective in the social-consensus sense, nor the individual “whim” sense, nor the religious sense (via sacred text or divine revelation). According to objectivism, we need only look to the facts of what nature has presented to us in order to determine our values: There is, in fact, no need for subjective disagreement on what we “should” value or strive toward, because nature has already spelled out for us what is good and what is bad, whether we consent to it or not. We are living creatures, and what is “good” is whatever promotes life, and what is “bad” is whatever does not.

Dr. Andrew Bernstein presenting on "Religion vs. Morality" at the University of Central Missouri

I’m reminded of Craig Palmer (Mizzou anthropologist) and Lyle Steadman’s (ASU professor emeritus) definitions concerning moral behavior for humans living in groups: Morality is roughly synonymous with pro-social behavior, and immoral behavior is roughly synonymous with antisocial behavior (see their 2010 book The Supernatural and Natural Selection: The Evolution of Religion). A human being in complete isolation is incapable of moral or immoral action, following this line of thinking: Anything s/he does is morally justifiable if it’s a means toward the end of his survival, by virtue of the very fact that lacking are any other living things to harm in the process.

Objectivism, as I understand it, has this to say about the matter: Natural selection has provided every living thing with some sort of tool (insofar as it is necessary, given its biological niche) to aid in its survival. For an elephant, that might be its massive size, thick hide, tusks, etc. For an elk, this might be its antlers and speed. For a tiger or wolf, claws & teeth. Nature has also “provided” (selected for) fur coats to protect some animals from cold climates. In the case of elephants, huge floppy ears are very important for temperature regulation: They have lots of surface area and LOTS of blood volume, such that the elephant can flap its ears to cool down the temperature of its blood, as another example.

What is “good” or “bad” when we’re talking about these animals behavior? Well, what’s “good” for a tiger or an elephant or mushroom or mosquito or bacterium is whatever aids it in its “mission” to survive and reproduce. Moral reflection or indeed consciousness at all is actually unnecessary for this. Any living thing will, quite naturally, do whatever it needs to do in order to survive and reproduce (else go extinct). What’s “good” is what leads toward this, and what’s “bad” is what leads away from this.

In the case of humans, natural selection actually took away our survival mechanisms (claws, sizable canine teeth, fur coats, etc) some time ago. Ancient primates gave up claws for nails a very long time ago (65-85 million years), and we still have a hint of canines and body hair, though nothing even close to that of our ancestors. What we do have, what nature has provided to us via selection, is something far more interesting, and far more useful, in exchange: rational, thinking brains. These are our survival tools. They allow us to innovate, to invent technologies, and to increase our efficiency. We don’t need claws; we have hand-axes (for an EXCELLENT discussion of the importance of hand-axes to human evolution, see Matt Ridley’s beautifully-written The Rational Optimist). As time went on, ancient humans further innovated to produce hafted axes (axes with handles), spears, arrowheads, and much later, metal bladed weapons, etc.

We don’t need costly (in terms of energy input/output and time invested) guts & digestive systems; we have fire. In fact, we are the only animals that cook our food: By doing so, we are basically outsourcing a large fraction of our ancestors’ digestive process. By investing fewer calories (less energy) in growing and maintaining a complex gut, natural selection was able to divert that energy into growing more complex brains, instead, and the process went ’round and ’round in a magnificent evolutionary upward spiral of exponential innovation. From controlled fire (and therefore bigger brains) came an increased ability to ward off predators and stay warm, especially at night (meaning even less need for caloric investment in muscle mass and large, powerful jaws, and less need for temperature regulation via thick body hair), which led to even more freed-up calories for investment in bigger brains, and so on and so on, until we get to anatomically modern humans some 200,000 years ago.

What’s “good” when it comes to humans specifically? According to my understanding of objectivism, it’s not determined by a god (divine command theory), nor by societal consensus (moral relativism), nor by the individual: Values are dictated to us by nature, intrinsic in the fact that we are living things. What’s “good” is whatever helps us get closer to living up to those values. Except for rare suicidal cases, humans (like all living things) naturally value survival, and except in (relatively) rare cases, humans (like all living things) naturally value reproduction. This is more-or-less a restatement of the biological imperative. According to objectivism, as I understand it, this is sufficient to resolve Hume’s is-ought problem. There are other proposed resolutions to this problem, for example, Sam Harris also claims that science [the application of reason to evidence] can answer moral questions in The Moral Landscape.

The argument for reason as the best tool for achieving human values (or any living thing’s values, for that matter), therefore, neatly falls into place. By rejecting all forms of irrationality — religion included — we are necessarily left with the path of least resistance toward the end of attaining that which [nature has determined] is of value to us. The application of reason, Bernstein argues, is the most efficient, healthiest, and most direct way to reach our goals. Since these goals are dictated by nature and emphatically not subjective, it is an open-and-shut case.

Religion, because it embraces faith (and is, by definition, irrational), is therefore directly at odds with life itself. According to Bernstein, “Religion is a philosophical system based in faith, not reason,” and it necessarily includes an unquestioning obedience to God. Religion views humans as sinful, and a failure to obey God is at the very core of what it means to be immoral, from the perspective of religion. This is so fundamental to the Abrahamic religions that it’s in fact the very basis of sin itself, illustrated by the Fall of Man.

As a student of anthropology, I strongly disagree with this definition of religion, although admittedly “religion” is notoriously difficult to define, and Bernstein was upfront about this being a purely working definition. Some religions (e.g. theistic Satanism) place zero emphasis on obedience to God or indeed encourage disobedience as permissible behavior. Note: I’m not talking about LaVey Satanism here; LaVey explicitly denounced “devil worship” or the idea of praying to Satan, and LaVey Satanists are generally atheists. In fact, atheistic Satanism can, I think, rightly be called “ethical egoism with ritual.” Other examples of religions lacking a necessity of obedience to “God” are Buddhism, Taoism, and many American Indian religions. In the case of Buddhism, the Eightfold Path is a rough stand-in for a revealed text from a god, and in the case of Taoism, the idea is to live in harmony with reality through compassion, moderation, and humility. Although supernatural elements are present in each system, a rule-giving god is conspicuously absent, and disobedience is not immoral per se.

Bernstein’s working definition of religion is sufficient for the Abrahamic religions in this context, but I don’t think he adequately makes the case against all religion, just religions that require obedience to a god (which, admittedly, is most of the ones we’re worried about in practice).

During the Q&A, an audience member asked if there was room for faith in any of this. He said that he is a farmer and gave the example of having faith that it will rain within a certain window of time when choosing exactly when to plant his crops. He cited weather patterns over the last few decades as informing his choice of when to plant. Bernstein rightly pointed out that the farmer, then, is not depending on faith — there is no supernatural element present there. I wanted to add to this that perhaps a better way to word it might be that the farmer doesn’t have faith that it will rain: He has confidence that it will, in the scientific sense (evidence informing probability). This is very, very different from trust (an emotion) and faith (non-evidence-based belief), and we should take care to correct people who use the word “faith” when they mean “confidence.” If evidence is leading to your belief, you are, by definition, confident. There’s a big difference, and I applaud Bernstein on pointing this out.

My other main objection is that Bernstein, while simultaneously praising Scandinavia’s rational, secular approach to the rejection of irrationality, doesn’t seem to give credit where credit is due with regard to the success they have had in the application of liberal-leaning public policy. Denmark, Norway, Sweden, etc has some of the healthiest people on the planet in terms of nutrition, lifespan, and other factors for which he earlier criticized the Dark Ages for lacking . Phil Zuckerman, in Society Without God: What The Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment, makes strong arguments for why life in Scandinavia is downright heavenly (har har) for rational people, and atheists especially: Aside from long lifespans, they have some of the lowest abortion rates, divorce rates, murder rates, illiteracy rates, corruption rates, etc. Yes, they have very high tax rates, but health care and college is accessible to anyone who wants it (as I understand it). Looking at GDP per capita, a favored metric by Bernstein (who quoted these figures several times throughout his talk), is not necessarily an optimal way to compare the living conditions in one country versus another. While after-tax income of course measures “lower” in countries with high tax rates (and I of course admit the obvious role Pigovian taxes play on disincentivizing innovation), if tax-funded services are provided in lieu of direct income, if this is not accounted for in one’s metric, an individual’s actual standard of living may be more-or-less unaffected, even as the GDP per capita falls. This is why other metrics have come into favor over GDP per capita, which is easier to calculate but provides less information about the overall picture. More informative metrics are, for example, the Gini coefficient (based on the Lorenz curve), the Human Poverty Index (a composite index which accounts for literacy, unemployment, probability of falling below the poverty line, and the probability, at birth, of surviving to age 60), among others. GDP per capita as a metric, perhaps most importantly, only very weakly accounts for life satisfaction and experienced utility (see my previous article on welfare economics here).

I strongly agree with Bernstein’s overall message that religion and morality cannot peaceably coexist. In the words of Sam Harris, “The problem of faith is that it is a conversation-stopper. As long as you don’t have to give reasons for what you believe, you have effectively immunized yourself against the power of human conversation. You hear religious people say things like, ‘There’s nothing that can be said that will change my mind.’ Just imagine that said in medicine. If there’s nothing that can be said that will change your mind, if there’s no evidence or argument that can be educed, that proves that you are not any state of the world into account in your beliefs. The problem with this is that when the stakes are high, we have a choice between conversation and violence.” Bernstein made essentially the same point in his talk, that giving credibility to faith necessarily results in an irreconciliable struggle for (theoretically!) rational animals like us.

Bernstein is a strong public speaker, a good conversationalist, and extremely knowledgable in his field. I recommend him to any campus group interested in guest lectures about objectivism, reason/rationality, or why religion is harmful to societies.

Until next time!

– Dave

mail@davemuscato.com

(573) 424-0420 cell/text

Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com.

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Godisimaginary.com
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Skeptics’ Annotated Bible / Skeptics’ Annotated Qur’an
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About Danielle Muscato

Danielle Muscato is a civil rights activist, writer, and public speaker. She has appeared on or been quoted in Rolling Stone, People, Time, The New York Times, SPIN, Entertainment Weekly, Billboard Magazine, and on MTV News, VH1, NPR, MSNBC, ABC, "The Real Story" with Gretchen Carlson, The O'Reilly Factor, Huffington Post Live, Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Raw Story, CNN, CBS, and Howard Stern Danielle is the former Director of Public Relations for American Atheists. She is also a board member of MU SASHA (University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists & Agnostics). Her website is http://www.DanielleMuscato.com. Follow her on Google+ Follow her on Twitter @daniellemuscato Subscribe to her on YouTube at www.youtube.com/davemuscato

8 comments on “Dave Muscato on Dr. Andrew Bernstein, Religion, and Morality

  1. rocket kirchner
    March 7, 2012

    Is not clinging to some biological imperative to establish some propped up ideal of morality just the same as the self rightiuos religousity of the rick santoriums of this world ? i mean really ..what is the diffeence ? moralizers , be they atheists or theists are boorish , boring , and deadly . Oscar Wilde said that morality is ”something we make up to use on people we personally dont like ”. never truer words were spoken .
    i would ask Dr. Bernstein a question that would leapfrog over the false dualism of morality and religion this: ” if you were in pain and beaten by the side of the road , who would you think would really help you –Ayn Rand or Jesus of Nazareth ?

    as far as the Sam Harris qoute of faith being a conversation stopper , i think that that is not accurate , given the fact that it implys that it is a depressent rather than a stimulant . i find at many partys i hang out at , and the night clubs i perform at that some of them are so boring , that actually introducing a curve ball such as faith by virute of the absurd Keirkegaardian style has shown itself to me more of a stimulant , and many times can rescue an evening from being a very dull time . For at least it causes people to think and react ..be it hostile or not .

  2. Alex Papulis
    March 7, 2012

    Did anyone bring up Mackie in the Q&A? Defining morality as “whatever helps living things achieve their values” is a redefinition, and that’s not dealing with the issue. My guess is that Bernstein’s position is going to fall prey to the same objections that I raised in my presentation a few weeks ago against Harris’.

    • Angel
      March 8, 2012

      Alex,

      In Objectivism the “whatever” part is not arbitrary, commanded or subjective. Rand’s view is different. Traditionally, you have the intrinsic view of morality “God says so, therefore is so, or things are good in themselves” the subjective “whatever I feel or whim,” the skeptical etc etc . By objective moral values, we do not mean “intrinsic moral values” or things as valuable in themselves without any regard to the subject that values them …(as objectivity is commonly defined by most scholars). The objectivity lies in the relation Subject-Object. Rand’s view is unique in this regard.

      you can get a quick view of her views:

      http://aynrandlexicon.com/

      but If you are interested enough, I suggest you read the Virtue of Selfishness.

      Cheers!

      Angel M.

      • Alex Papulis
        March 8, 2012

        Angel, it seems like whatever the relation of subject to object, it won’t fall within the scope of morality in the appropriate sense. Someone valuing something, i.e. having a desire for it, does not create an obligation, requirement, normativity, to-do-ness or whatever you like. I grant that people value things, but I don’t see how that gets us to morality.
        I have no problem acknowledging that certain behaviors and beliefs, say communism, won’t get us to an economically well-off society, or that certain behaviors result in shortened life span. But that’s just a descriptive statement. If we mean by “right” what makes me live the longest or something like that, then we’re redefining the word and not dealing with morality. That would just be medicine or anthropology or something like that.
        Why not think that we are simply out to get what we want (and that what we want is determined by nature), and stop using words like right and wrong?
        Alex

    • rocket kirchner
      March 9, 2012

      Alex , the valueing things ( thingification )that leads to so called morality in Randian philsophy was already anticipated and dealt with by Adorno ‘s work in the Frankfurt school in 1924 as nothing more than fetish culture. America being a prime example of this in all its materialism and bogus morality .

  3. Angel
    March 8, 2012

    Rocket – To answer your question. They will both help you, I fail to fully understand the instant dismissal of Ayn Rand’s ideas before even trying to understand what they really mean. Ayn Rand’s egoism does not tell you “if you see a man beaten and in pain by the side of the road, leave him there because you have to be selfish” If you are really interested in Ayn Rand’s ideas, I would refer you to her article “the ethics of emergencies” in her ethics book “the virtue of selfishness.” Ayn Rand always held a benevolent universe premise and a general niceness towards people, just like in law “innocent until proven guilty,” objectivism does not see strangers as enemies or threats, we see them as potential values until they prove to us that they are somebody that is going to damage us. It is much better and psychologically healthier to think that your fellow man can be of potential value to you than to think that they are either your enemies or somebody you ought to care for as a matter of commandment.

    Dave phrased Ayn Rand’s view of man’s nature as a biological imperative, and although I understand what he means by that, it is not a dogma because you see the word imperative (objectivism does not use that term). The “biological imperative” here refers to the fact that man is alive and that his survival is not granted or given. He needs values in other to maintain his life and flourish. Ayn Rand’s ethics offers a general guide, IN PRINCIPLE, as to HOW to achieve values by means of reason. It does not tell you (like a religion) what to value or what to do. It merely tells you that you have to obtain your values by means of using your mind, it tells you to think for your self and to recognize the basic nature of things. There is an objective principle – that which enhances your life and your happiness based on your nature, is that which is good and worth achieving; that which destroys it is evil.

    I can go on and on … but if you are really convinced that Ayn Rand is wrong and she has absolutely nothing to offer you … perhaps it would be better to read at least some of her works before. If you do, I have no doubt they can bring some value to your life.

    Cheers!

    Angel M.

    • rocket kirchner
      March 8, 2012

      Angel , thank you for your reply to my reply . i am familiar with the works of Ayn Rand , or else i would not have criticised her . Her ”ethics of emergencies ” in the ”virtue of selfishness”, is akin to Humes peice ”on human sentiments”. There is some wiggle room in both , but a flawed premise to their basic paradigmns . In other words i view foundational problems here that need to be dealt with .

      the whole notion of achieving the intrinsique value of the good by means of reason is nothing more than the Sophist maxim given by Protagoras ”Man is the measure of all things”. It assumes much . it is an extrodinary claim that not only has never been proven with extraordinary evidence , but it has proved to be a disaster in human history . Now , if one would say qoute Anarchist Kropotkin’s ”Mutual aid ”theory , then i think that there could foster a dialogue between the spiritual and the secular. But i see Rand;’s work as being Sophistry ( though she is a great writer –The Fountainhead –as an example ) … that is divisive on the reductionist scale ala A.J.Ayer , as much as Religion is . both miss the mark .

      One must realize that when dealing with me , that i am cynical Christian practioner that sees religion and secularism as different sides of the same coin. So when i start hearing people talk about being good , moral , just , ethical , etc…. i reach for my Oscar Wilde/Mark Twain Aphorisims .

      all the best ,

      Rocket

  4. Angel
    March 8, 2012

    Dave,

    Thank you for this wonderful review. I believe your review of the talk captures the essence of what Dr. Bernstein intended to leave the audience with. I understand you this is your first exposure to objectivism; there are some terms and some things that we will not really say or use; however, under this context is secondary, I believe (we can discuss more privately if you are interested). Thank you for writing such an HONEST and CLEAR review. Much appreciated! 🙂

    Cheers!

    Angel M.

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