Kitcher on how moral progress means overcoming religion

I just read the article in which this extended quotation occurs and thought this was an interesting, eloquent summation of many recurring thoughts on secular morality. Philip Kitcher writes:

The overwhelming majority of the world’s moral practices are intertwined with religious views. One of the ways of making moral progress consists in freeing ourselves of the need for this system of enforcement, in rejecting the false religious presuppositions, and in disentangling and dismissing the special injunctions that the religious framework has introduced. In part, this is simply a matter of replacing superstition with true belief (or with the absence of judgement) – and notions of truth and falsity apply directly here because of the religious claims purport to describe the decisions and volitions of person-like entities. It’s also a matter, however, both of reinforcing our altruistic dispositions, preventing irrelevant moral commands from interfering with the plans and interests of our fellows, and of expanding the range of opinion available to people. We should think of our moral system as a spare and streamlined device for developing the dispositions that first made social beings of us, unfortunately overlain with excrescences that were once useful in ensuring conformity, but that can now be scraped away to benefit effect.

The last part reminds me of the famous Heinrich Heine quotation, from his Gedanken und Einfalle  (that also appears in Hitchens’ god is Not Great)

In dark ages people are best guided by religion, as in a pitch-black night a blind man is the best guide; he knows the roads and paths better than a man who can see. When daylight comes, however, it is foolish to use blind, old men as guides.

I’m currently busy exploring how sanctity was used in Western society as method of latent social control, thus becoming equated with the “highest good”. One of the arguments I am making is that we are better off without sanctity and Kitcher has attempted to formulate a normative reason for this – as the quotation highlights at least.


Kitcher, P. (2006). Biology and Ethics. In D. Copp (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 178-179

Opening Quotation for My Thesis

I am, I think, late in handing in my thesis proposal. Anyway, I am in the middle of preparing it. The most wonderful thing was finding my opening quotation, from the great James Rachels.

The great man himself. Click to visit his website where you can get three of his wonderful books for free, including the one referenced here.


It is appropriate on a personal level, since the late Professor Rachels ‘got me’ into applied ethics. The quotation encapsulates much of, if not most of, my research for my thesis. I will be unpacking it for several hundred pages, but also developing an answer I think deserves more attention: rational pessimism. What that means I will have to fully flesh out; needless to say, I am drawing from Schopenhauer, Harris, Mill and Kant to formulate some kind of synthesis that can be applied in practical ethical dilemmas, especially when it comes to medical ethics. We’ll see how that goes.

Here is the wonderful quotation. (References at the end)

Although it may seem a surprising thing to say, the Western tradition places too much value on human life. There are times when the protection of human life has no point, and the Western tradition has had difficulty acknowledging this. The noble ideal of ‘protecting human life’ is invoked even when the life involved does its subject no good and even when it is not wanted. Babies that are hopelessly deformed, and will never mature into children, may nevertheless be kept alive at great cost. Euthanasia for persons dying horrible diseases is illegal. St Augustine called respect for animal life ‘the height of superstition’; in these cases, it is respect for human life that seems to have degenerated into superstition.

– James Rachels, The End of Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 24.

New 3QD Column: Mob Morality

Larry Tate, from ‘I Hate What You Said’, has summarised my latest column in what 3QD editor, Abbas Raza, has indicated is a wonderful and humourous summation. It’s only a paragraph long and, actually, does a good job of posing the right questions.

From my column:

What is it about topics like incest,bestiality, necrophilia and cannibalismthat urges us to pick up pitchforks and torches? A more important question, however, is whether these topics automatically or necessarily should elicit outrage enough for us to target those who perform these acts. I think not.

Continue reading at

I was expecting more trolls, but the discussion actually seems fairly inviting.

Surfing the Slippery Slope of the Abortion Debate

UPDATE: The irritatingly sober Blaize Kaye, mentor and mitrailleur of all fuzzy thinking has written a brilliant post, which raises points I did not. Look there before. You probably won’t need to read mine anyway.

When people strap on boots of “moralising” and start raging through the territory of ethical debate, many things get crushed in the process. Spurned by emotion, people often overlook arguments that have refuted their own ones or, more importantly, improved on them. I’m an advocate of clarity and openness in the academic world, especially in philosophy; this is not an attempt to tell “laypeople” – for I am also a laypeople – to shut their traps about moral philosophy. Indeed, in many instances it is philosophers making boring noises about moral philosophy that should quiet down. Nevertheless, with that disclaimer out the way, I want to point to an instance where muddled-thinking, combined with the tightly worn boots of moralising, are seen in full display. Columnist Khaya Dlanga, at, has made some silly noises regarding abortion that deserves scrutiny.

Continue reading

Sunday Sacrilege: 09/01/2011

Today I will recommend some incredible stories, but it seems to be a week for sceptical/skeptical triumph (yes, a jagged red line suddenly birthed itself beneath itself beneath the ‘c’ sceptical. Tut, tut.)

As usual, in no particular order:


We have the ‘Skeptic Detective’, Angela Meadon, finally (!), writing something along her usual trajectory of informative, in-depth and clear explanations of supernatural claims. My pick has to be her latest focus on rhino horns as an aphrodisiac. The title is bit misleading, I think, but her article is short and excellent, containing the necessary links for further investigation. The word ‘aphrodisiac’ itself comes from the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, who was widely desired. Similarly, the purpose of an aphrodisiac is “to enhance … sexual virility”, as Meadon says; yet it does not necessarily make the user more desirable to the desired person. It can but it doesn’t necessarily mean it will.

What’s more problematic in the whole affair is the typical human assumption that we can use non-human animals for our own benefit. As Meadon puts it, summarising some scientific articles which investigated the claims made of rhino horns’ efficacy, “They all arrived at the same conclusion: rhino horn is of no use to anyone except the original owner.” (Original emphasis.)


Another post, is my friend Dr Kenneth Lipp, at Cambridge who is spreading the word for Paul Kurtz’s new society: the Institute for Science and Human Values. The Institute’s mission, as Lipp had indicates, states:

“We are committed to the enhancement of human values and scientific inquiry. This combines both compassion and reason in realizing ethical wisdom. It focuses on the principles of personal integrity: individual freedom and responsibility. It includes a commitment to social justice, planetary ethics, and developing shared values for the human family.”

Whilst I am, um, sceptical of things like niceness, optimism, happy toleration, etc., I am very glad for the Institute’s existence. It is certainly an honour to be mentioned in this post, and I will gladly help out where I feel comfortable. Considering my enormous respect for Paul Kurtz, it is certainly an important institution to keep an eye on.

Lipp’s other posts somehow manage to weave a comfortable thread through WikiLeaks and AIDS policies in Africa, with the same encyclopaedic and clear command of insight that can only come from the Dark Lord Cthulhu. How else Lipp manages this, whilst studying as a Cambridge Fellow, I cannot fathom. Whilst he has an overblown perception of my abilities – I’m struggling to keep up with him as it is! – he is incredibly important to all interested in the culture wars, of science, religion and human rights (the latter, an idea I’m not 100% sure about at least as stated by most bodies).

As atheists often say about Hitchens, I say about Lipp: I’m glad he’s on our side.


The great Steven Novella provides a brilliant summary concerning the ongoing battle between reality and Power Balance™. The company is (in)famous for producing wrist-bands which supposedly enhance active performance. It is endorsed by top sportsmen and, therefore, it must work. Because, you know, sportspeople can’t be wrong! They’ve been backpedalling and retracting, like a bear with a broken arm circling a recently killed prey. Here in South Africa, the FSI has drawn up its own offensive against the company, spurred on by the victory in Australia.


Christian Munthe is a philosopher who represents everything I want to study (and do and teach), working as: “Professor of Practical Philosophy at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.” His “[c]hief interests are ethics/moral philosophy, political philosophy and their applications to practical issues.” He thankfully maintains a blog which keeps us all on top of his areas of focus and interest. Not satisfied with being a top-class academic, Prof. Munthe decided to steal more from the talent barrel and become an excellent musician.

I want to recommend his analysis of a recent farce, in a journal concerning bioethics. Drawing from an important friend of mine, Udo Schuklenk, Munthe describes “a threat against the integrity of bioethics research … exemplified in the form of a multi-layer scandal in relation to a paper published in the ‘open access’ journal”. What everyone else is calling plagiarism, the authors and editor of the journal calls unintentional mistake. Read on to find out more about this silly but highly unethical  conduct,

Munthe, as here and elsewhere, provides a helpful insight into what happened, why, and further insight into the workings of an rapidly expanding field. Also, read his follow-up article concerning Udo’s excellent journal, Bioethics.


I must, must recommend my favourite Ben Goldacre blogpost from last year. Yes, it’s late but this is such an important part of what will inform my thesis, that I can’t leave it out. Goldacre’s article talks about excellent research that went into studying people’s responses to empathy.

“60 students were given a vignette to read about a case of fraud, where either 3 people or 30 people were defrauded by a financial advisor, but all the other information in the story was kept the same.”

Which group do you think conveyed the most empathy: that is, wanted the harsher punishment, conveyed a harsher sentence for the perpetrators? It is not what most would expect: “participants who read the story with only 3 victims rated the crime as more serious than those who read the exact same story, but with 30 victims.” That is, the fewer people affected by the same crime, the more empathy is conveyed. Goldacre refers to another study that found similar results.

This tells us what only science can tell us: reality and the world, and even our fellow human, do not operate as we want or expect. In an ideal world, Goldacre says, it would not be this way. Goldacre ends this post powerfully to illustrate the moral lesson behind this, also implying why the fight against AIDS and poverty in general never receives the emotional impact as a crime against fewer people. There of course many other factors to consider, such as the spatial and personal relation of the affected, one’s own abilities, etc. But it is one of the best posts, if not the best post, I’ve read for some time.


That’s it for this week. Please leave other interesting links in the comments.