Monday, 3 November 2008

The Brights and Morality

I have been a member of the Brights constituency and have been active at Brights meetings in the UK. A bright is someone who has a naturalistic worldview, well I am a self-declared naturalist, so I certainly qualify. However a Bright - as opposed to a bright (lower case) - is some who self-identifies with the aims and principles of the Brights Movement and I have done that too - although there is scant reason, in the UK to date, to use the label Bright -well I have self-identified...till now. Anyway to clarify why I have been a self-identified Bright:

The aims, which I endorse are :
  1. Promote the civic understanding and acknowledgment of the naturalistic worldview, which is free of supernatural and mystical elements.
  2. Gain public recognition that persons who hold such a worldview can bring principled actions to bear on matters of civic importance.
  3. Educate society toward accepting the full and equitable civic participation of all such individuals
indeed you do not have a naturalistic worldview to endorse these, that is whether you beleive in god or not, have a religion or not, unless you are a bigot or uninformed, there is no reason not to support these aims, is there?

The principles include
8. The Brights movement is a positive force...The Brights movement is not by design an anti-religious force in society. The overall aim is civic fairness for all, which necessitates there being a place in politics and society for persons who hold a naturalistic outlook.
I wholly support this and, again, you do not need to have a naturalistic worldview to support this too, indeed what justifiable reason would one have not to?

So, as I see it, the Brights Movement is a civil rights movement and one that I have and hope to continue to support. However I see a problem beginning to occur. Just because you know that someone is a naturalist, just as if you know they were some sort of supernaturalist, one cannot logically determine what their politics or ethics is. Any could be left or right wing, a libertarian or authoritarian, a moral subjectivist or objectivist or something else. It is only from the specifics and details of their particular (super)naturalist worldview - apart from just being one or the other - that could tell you more. Just because some positions are more popular than others, such as the claim of some supernaturalists that also, optionally, believe in god and, again, optionally, tie this to morality, still there is no necessary connection between the two and the same goes for any other position.

Now today, as a Bright, I received the latest Newsletter and in it it mentioned a Morality Project Report. The first paragraph of the outline is spot on:
The idea of the “Reality about Morality” is to challenge the widespread presumption that ethical systems and morals are imparted to humankind by some form of divine being or power.
Indeed I have written about this in this blog on numerous occasions in many ways. There are two points here, first, I am espousing a version of moral realism - Desire Utilitarianism - a variant within the dominant consensus of Preference Satisfaction, which itself is derived from a variety of different bases, of modern moral philosophy. The second point is, contrary to academic and justified experts conclusions, that Divine Command and its variants is, in spite of having long been shown to be fatally flawed - not even wrong once could say - is unjustifiably popular and is a major source of bigotry against brights and as well as just Brights.

Now two consequential points result from these first two. Whilst I think that Desire Utilitarianism is the best available solution to date and am willing to discuss, defend, review and revise it on this blog, it would be naive in the extreme to impose this on all others who have a naturalistic worldview or, say, exclude them if they do not endorse this or at least some form of Preference Satisfaction. It seems that many with naturalistic worldviews are woefully ignorant of the latest thinking based on rational and empirical inquiry in ethics (i.e meta-ethics), still that does not excuse at all those supernaturalists who encourage or endorse bigotry against naturalists based on their ignorance too of meta-ethics and the unadmitted invalidity of Divine Command type theories.

The second consequential point is that I recognise that there are many methods using such means of persuasion including marketing and advertising to deal with the bigotry resulting from the promoters of Divine Command theories, which often relies on manufacturing moral cripples, who are unable to comprehend ethics without the artificial crutch of the church, synagogue or mosque. So, most definitely, this is one of the areas that the Brights Movement should be investigating and seeking solutions for, as a civil rights movement.

So what is my concern here? Well it is in the draft assertions of Area A of the project
Project Area A involves developing, in the form of a declaration, a scientifically defensible listing of statements regarding the naturalistic origins of morals. The declaration will be short, but it will cover the evolution of biological and social morals, starting from pre-human origins to the present.
Crucially it is the first draft - and I emphasize - it is a draft assertion:
A: Morality is an evolved repertoire of cognitive and emotional mechanisms with distinct biological underpinnings, as modified by experience. (23 studies)
Well I am sorry I totally disagree with this definition of morality. It is not a question of the number of scientific studies - in other words empirical inquiry - this is a matter of rational inquiry - philosophy - and, specifically, meta-ethics. Are the "evolved repertoire of cognitive and emotional mechanisms with distinct biological underpinnings, as modified by experience" to do with morality, I argue yes, as captured best, I think, in the neo-Humean beliefs and desires philosophical psychology approach. However it is a deep mistake to insist that this just is morality, whilst far, far better than Divine Command etc, it is still a mistake and not one I can endorse.

Now I am sure it is not just me but many, many others - all naturalists and all who support the underlying aims of the Brights Movement - whether they have self-identified or not - will also draw issue with this assertion. For sure, many of these would disagree with my own take on morality, buh that is exactly the point, we would still all be united, nonetheless, in disagreeing with this potential assertion becoming somehow part of what it means to be a Bright.

How does this actually relate to the aims and principles noted above? I do not know but if the Brights Movement is to thrive as a successful civil rights movement it needs to avoid the danger of alienating many of its constituents which is what this project will do. My tentative conclusion is that unless this is resolved I am no longer a Bright and will discourage anyone from being a Bright even as we still have the same aims in mind.


Sasha said...

Hi Martin,

Sorry for spamming your comments page with something OT, but I couldn't see an email link for you. This post looked as good a place to post as any.

I just wanted to invite you to join the Utilitarianism webforum I've recently set up at It's still tiny, since apart from a couple of personal invitations like this, we're deliberately avoiding promoting it until we've got a 'look' we're happy with. But meanwhile, it would be nice to get a get a few utilitarians (or similar consequentialists) along to start building a sense of community.

My ultimate hope for the forum is that while it will hopefully encourage discussion, it will provide, as the atheist forums have, a place to *eschew* discussing the subject matter in favour of relegating it to a background conclusion (or even people who find it so obvious that they have no desire to discuss it at all) that lets us meet people of similar mindsets and talk about whatever the heck we want.

To get that to happen though, we'll need to get together a bunch of willing posters, at least some of who are willing to defend utilitarianism to interested fence-sitters.

Can I interest you?

Sasha (aka Arepo on the forum)

martino said...

Well I have joined and no I do not consider this spamming my comments. Thanks for the heads up