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value, part 2

As I mentioned in my teaser a couple posts ago, we had had a discussion at work a while back about Michael Moore's "Final Thoughts on the Death of Bin Laden". I commented that I agreed with most of Moore's analysis, but that I took strong objection to his characterization of Bin Laden as "a multimillionaire crime boss" who simply used religion as a cover for his dirty operations. Quoting Moore exactly:

"For nine years I wrote and I said that Osama bin Laden was not hiding in a cave. I'm not a cave expert, I was just using my common sense. He was a multimillionaire crime boss (using religion as his cover), and those guys just don't live in caves. He had people killed under the guise of religion, and not many in the media bothered to explain that every time Osama referenced Islam, he wasn't really quoting Islam. Just because Osama said he was a "Muslim" didn't make it so. Yet he was called a Muslim by everyone. If a crazy person started running around mass-killing people, and he did so while wearing a Wal-Mart blazer and praising Wal-Mart, we wouldn't automatically call him a Wal-Mart leader or say that Wal-Mart was the philosophy behind his killings, would we?"
[Full text: http://www.michaelmoore.com/words/mike-friends-blog/some-final-thoughts-on-death-of-osama-bin-laden]

I commented at the time saying that I thought Bin Laden was sincere in his religious beliefs, and it was aweful that Moore tries to sweep the role of religious fundamentalism under the rug and instead draw attention to his wealth, in the interest of re-inforcing Moore's favorite narrative that rich people and their insatiable greed are the source of all problems in the world. Bin Laden attacked the World Trade Centers, which to me seemed like a symbol of American greed, indicating Bin Laden and Moore would have felt very similarly on that issue. A fact Moore would like to obscure. Bin Laden didn't make his fortune doing shady business deals and illegal activities, as Moore's words suggest--instead, he inherited his wealth and used that as a means of accomplishing his other goals. (And yes, he did run some businesses on the side, but that was never the primary source of his wealth.)

Since then I've thought about it more, and read more, about Bin Laden's motivations, and I've come to a somewhat different picture from what I had what I had initially thought. Although still very different from the picture Moore paints.

Earlier this week, I got into a debate with my neocon friend recently when I posted a link to a Foreign Policy article arguing that the most recent GOP debate is a strong indication that neoconservatism is now as good as dead. The debate was mostly about whether the US should continue to maintain a much larger military force than everyone else in the world and use it to "lead" the world and enforce its values on other countries around the globe. But at some point the discussion turned into a debate about what motivates Islamic terrorism. He argued that the kinds of things Westerners consider "legitimate" motivations for Arab anger against the West (things like our support for Israel or our invasion of Middle Eastern countries) was a minor gripe to them compared to what really fuels their hatred of us, namely that we treat women as equals and share our movies and culture with them. I was arguing that if we weren't so aggressive with our foreign policy that groups like Al Qaeda never would have formed, and they wouldn't be pissed off at us, while he was arguing that they are pissed off at us because they hate our secular lifestyle and see us as having turned our backs on God.

After his comment about "treating women as equals" being what really fuels their rage, I went and googled for Bin Laden's own words about why he planned 9/11. Sure enough, there wasn't a single word in there about how we treat our women. Not only that, but he didn't have even mention any complaint at all about our lifestyles--it seems that was not a part of it at all:

full transcript of Bin Laden's explanation of why he decided to attack the World Trade Center in 2001

The most important paragraph is here:

"The events that affected my soul in a direct way started in 1982 when America permitted the Israelis to invade Lebanon and the American Sixth Fleet helped them in that. This bombardment began and many were killed and injured and others were terrorized and displaced. I couldn't forget those moving scenes, blood and severed limbs, women and children sprawled everywhere. Houses destroyed along with their occupants and high rises demolished over their residents, rockets raining down on our home without mercy."
...
"And as I looked at those demolished towers in Lebanon, it entered my mind that we should punish the oppressor in kind and that we should destroy towers in America in order that they taste some of what we tasted and so that they be deterred from killing our women and children."


This served well to back me up on this argument, but after thinking about it, I realized that even I was a bit surprised at how little religion factored into it. Perhaps the 19 hijackers were in it more for religious reasons (maybe the only way he could convince people to be committed enough to take their own lives during the mission), but clearly Bin Laden was concerned more about human rights (even if he interprets events in the world very differently from how most people from the West would have, and "overreacted" from our perspective) than about what we do in our bedrooms or how we dress our women. The only reference to religion I see in the whole 18 minute speech he gave, explaining his motivations, is a few acknowledgements that God's will has been served, and that's pretty much it--nothing your average American wouldn't say in the same circumstance. The fact that he was caught hoarding porn during his last few years is more evidence that perhaps Moore was right that religion really was more of a cover than the main thing. But Moore was wrong to call him a "crime boss". That paints a picture of someone who is motivated by corruption and greed, and I see even less of that here than the religious aspect. Perhaps he enjoyed the fame and respect he got from taking on the most powerful country in the world, but surely he was intelligent and educated enough to realize how foolish that was. It seems clear from his statements that he was motivated mostly be a sense of revenge for perceived injustice.

This specific example, which I went into in a bit greater detail than I had intended, illustrates a more general principle that I think is true. Very often, when people appear to be motivated by religion, there is some more basic human drive that is motivating them (in this case, revenge) and religion is just an excuse. This explains why there are so many religions in the world, and so many interpretations of each religion. People need excuses for every possible action they might want to take, so they need religion to be flexible enough to be able to justify anything they need justified. Karl Marx had a name for this view of history, he called it "historical materialism", and of all the things Marx wrote about, I think this may be the one he was most correct on. Human actions are motivated by material, physical concerns, and yet our minds project all kinds of spiritual metaphorical meaning onto those base drives.

So in answer to the question of whether values can come ultimately from religion, I would say for the most part no. They are there inside us already, and religion is primarily something invented to try to justify them. Nevertheless, I also believe the opposite is sometimes true (although less so). Basic notions of fairness and justice can be affected a lot by what environment you grow up in, how you are raised, what early experiences you have, etc. They aren't all just hardwired by genetics. So to the extent religion represents a set of teachings about these kinds of things that are passed down from parent to child, I do think it can affect the values you have. It's in the larger scheme of things, looking at it from the point of view of multiple generations at once, where the purpose of religion is to justify whatever system of values seems to work well for that clan of people. It's a complex process where both can feed back into each other, which is one of the things I guess geheimnisnacht was getting at.

Another source of confusion related to this question (of whether values can come from religion) is when something looks like a values issue but it's really an issue of different people having different models of the world. Abortion is the most straightforward example that comes to mind. People often refer to it as a values issue, yet it's not. I've never met a pro choicer that doesn't believe in the sanctity of life, and I've never met a pro lifer that doesn't believe in the importance of freedom of choice. Where the difference comes in is in their understanding of the world. Pro lifers believe that there is a soul which God magically inserts into every fetus at the time of conception, and it is this soul that is the core of a person's being, not the body. Pro choicers, on the other hand, understand that this is a fairy tale, and that in reality consciousness grows slowly in all organisms from nothing into a full adult being. Which of these two models of the world you have will almost always determine your position on abortion. If there is a magical soul inserted at the time of conception, then abortion is no different than murder. If there isn't, then abortion is no different than fishing (killing a fish and eating it), since fish have roughly the same level of biological complexity (and presumably roughly the same level of consciousness) as a fetus. There is no difference between the values of one group and the other, it's not that pro choicers love to murder, or that pro lifers hate freedom. They both value the same things, they just see different ways to achieve those values because they have different models of the world. And a specific model of the world is something religion can influence directly, much moreso than values. So a lot of derived values end up being influenced indirectly by religion because it affects your "worldview". I tend to think this is the primary way in which values can be influenced by religion, and that a direct influence of values is a lot more rare. But I do think to what degree people feel comfortable or uncomfortable with certain behaviors (like say, taking someone else's toy without asking) can also be influenced by the culture someone is raised in, which goes hand in hand with religion. So in the end, my answer is "yes and no", it's a subtle influence and indirect in most cases, but it is still there.

Comments

( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
entomologist
Jun. 18th, 2011 07:42 am (UTC)
I suspect Bin Laden is less concerned with human rights than with Arab rights -- I think you underestimate the crucial importance of the words "we" and "our" in the paragraphs you quote from him. It's not an accident that in most tribal cultures, each tribe's name for themselves translates into other languages approximately as "the real human beings" or something to that effect -- and Saudi Arabia is still very much a tribal culture, it's established values those of the Bedouins. "How dare those alien, sub-human Jews and Westerners kill Arabs!? Why, it just goes to prove their brutal, animal nature."

Another complicating factor is that not all Arab/Muslim outrage is the legitimate anger of a people who have been oppressed and victimized; there is also a good deal of the far less forgivable outrage of former hegemons at losing power over those they conquered and oppressed in the "glorious" past. Al-Qaeda's motivations have at least as much in common with those of the Ku Klux Klan as they do with those of the Black Panthers.
spoonless
Jun. 18th, 2011 02:55 pm (UTC)
Good point. Certainly there is a strong Pan-Arab movement in the Middle East, (the worst of which is the Ba'athist parties in Syria and former Iraq), and that movement is very racist, anti-Semitic, and has a fairly widespread appeal, including influence on Al Qaeda.

My neocon friend also had an interesting response to my quote from bin Laden about his traumatic experience in Lebanon. He drew attention to the part where bin Laden says "rockets raining down on our home without mercy." He says that this is an indication that Bin Laden accepts the religious idea that the entire Arab world is and should be ruled and united by the Caliphate, and that individual boundaries between countries (like Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, where his actual home was) are illegitimate. I don't know enough about Islamist thought to judge how accurate that assessment is, but it's at least one way that both religion and the "restoring the glorious past" could factor in.
entomologist
Jun. 21st, 2011 07:32 am (UTC)
I think that is a factor for at least some Islamists, yes -- according to their interpretation of the Quran, any land that has once been under Muslim control is forever part of the Dar al-Islam, no matter how long it may have passed out of Muslim rule, and all Muslims have a religious duty to bring any such land currently ruled by Infidels back under their control. The most obvious place to which they apply this is Israel, of course, but in its most expansive form the claim also includes Spain, Portugal, all of the former Yugoslavia, and India.

Incidentally, the significance of the date September 11, and the reason it was chosen for the attacks on Washington and New York, may relate to this most expansive view of "Islamic land." Expansionist pan-Islamists hold September 11 as a date of mourning because it represents the high-water mark of the Dar-al-Islam's northward expansion. It was on that date in 1683 that King Jan Sobieski of Poland arrived outside the walls of Vienna at the head of 37,000 troops (the majority of them heavy cavalry, with infantry and artillery in support) to break the two-month-long Ottoman siege of that city. No Muslim army ever penetrated so far into Europe again.
easwaran
Jun. 18th, 2011 09:19 pm (UTC)
This reminds me of something I was reading last night. I was looking up the history of anti-miscegnation laws in the US and saw a speech that a southern congressman had given when he introduced a constitutional amendment trying to ban interracial marriage in 1912. He said

No brutality, no infamy, no degradation in all the years of southern slavery, possessed such villainious character and such atrocious qualities as the provision of the laws of Illinois, Massachusetts, and other states which allow the marriage of the negro, Jack Johnson, to a woman of Caucasian strain. ... ultimately this slavery of white women to black beasts will bring this nation a conflict as fatal as ever reddened the soil of Virginia or crimsoned the mountain paths of Pennsylvania.

It sounds like the thought was that in a marriage the woman is subservient to the man; non-whites are naturally inferior to whites; but if a non-white man marries a white woman, then the natural order will be inverted. (I don't know if the laws applied to white men who wanted to marry non-white women - I think Loving v. Virginia may have been about such a case though.)
geheimnisnacht
Jun. 25th, 2011 08:39 am (UTC)
> So in answer to the question of whether values can come ultimately from religion, I would say for the most part no. They are there inside us already...

I think I can demonstrate a fault with this notion, arising from the complexity of our values. When we talk about the values we have today, things like "liberty", how much could this actually be coded into us, given that it is perhaps a concept that we don't understand until we are taught it? If a human was raised to adulthood in isolation, say on a deserted island, what values would they have? Would they be sad if they hurt you? Would they steal your possessions? I do think that certain patterns may be encoded, such as recognizing emotions in other humans (through facial expressions, for example), and there is probably natural reinforcement not to make others angry around you--maybe this stuff has already been studied by experts. However, I would say that most of our values, anything involving more complicated abstractions, requires teaching, and thus will be mutable by whatever passed down value accompanies that teaching, as well as any world-view, false or not.

For example, the wide acceptance of slavery would seem to be against our natural values; however, as above, if the world-view passed down is that other races are inferior to your own, then one could believe it is just like domesticating animals.
spoonless
Jul. 7th, 2011 03:30 am (UTC)

However, I would say that most of our values, anything involving more complicated abstractions, requires teaching, and thus will be mutable by whatever passed down value accompanies that teaching, as well as any world-view, false or not.

I think I'm realizing a big thing that is very different about our approach to this issue, and I think it revolves around the meaning of the word "value" (or "values")

When I speak about values I'm thinking of value--namely, what sorts of experiences you derive value from. But when you (and others I think) say values you're thinking of very different things, more abstract things.

For me, some basic examples of things I value would be "food", "shelter", "social acceptance", "not pissing people off", "a feeling of belonging", "a feeling of accompishment", etc. More abstract things like liberty, yes those are values but they are derived values and much more dependent on my beliefs about the world. Liberty can be considered a basic value in that it derives from a feeling of agency, but I think the abstract principle of liberty is something a bit different that arises later when you combine your basic values with your understanding about the world. And since different people have different understandings of the world... and also since they often have different basic values, they can also come to different notions of liberty or place different weights on the importance of liberty.

I think I can demonstrate a fault with this notion, arising from the complexity of our values. When we talk about the values we have today, things like "liberty", how much could this actually be coded into us, given that it is perhaps a concept that we don't understand until we are taught it?

I think this is the key for me that indicates you're talking about a different kind of thing than what I'm talking about, namely--basic values. You're talking about derived values, that you get when you combine your basic values with concepts and other things you're taught about the world. Those can be referred to as values to, but they are not important if you're trying to look at basic values, and where value comes from.

For example, the wide acceptance of slavery would seem to be against our natural values; however, as above, if the world-view passed down is that other races are inferior to your own, then one could believe it is just like domesticating animals.

Whether you believe some races are better at specific tasks than others is an issue of facts, something science can measure at least in principle (to the extent that race is a fully coherent concept--which is to say, not that much). But whether that translates into a value judgment is another story, not something that science can settle at all. Some people may value other beings only for the labor they can produce as a slave, in which case whether they are inferior or not isn't relevant--the only issue is whether they can produce labor that you can harness and whether you can effectively keep them from escaping (although I suppose it is somewhat relevant in that, a vastly inferior being--such as an animal--might be very bad at trying to escape, and therefore easier to enslave). However, other people differ in that they value not only the person's labor, but also their existence as another conscious being. Perhaps a part of their basic values is not hurting other conscious beings--if so, then no amount of arguing that the other beings are not as good at certain tasks is going to make them think it's okay to enslave them.

So I could imagine some people supporting slavery purely because they differ on the facts--namely, because they believe or don't believe another being is conscious like themselves. And I could also imagine some people supporting slavery because they differ on values--although I suspect this is less common. I think most people have built into them a sense that other conscious beings deserve some amount of respect, even if they are for example--mentally retarded. The motivation for not hurting another being does not come from whether or not they are useful as a slave, but from a more innate sense that it's wrong to hurt other beings.
geheimnisnacht
Jul. 7th, 2011 03:20 pm (UTC)
Your post does help clarify things and I think we can make more progress because of it.

First, I think we should differentiate between the object/action that has value and the mental structure granting the value e.g. food vs hunger/taste. I say the latter is more accurately called the "value". Food may have value for reasons that aren't basic--a rare bottle of wine for example--and also the value itself is still important to consider even in the absence of things satisfying it--if you are presently hungry, the perceived value of other things may be affected.

Let's continue to hash out "value" and things connected to that. Perhaps we can go so far to say a person's "values" are anything that enter in at a fundamental level to their local decision-making. It's funny, but even many of the simple examples you mention could considered derived values: the desire for food, shelter, etc stemming from valuing your personal health. However, I think we have to consider the hierarchy in terms of biological function, and I would say hunger or sleepiness or others show up first in your mental decision-making, and can only be ignored via considering abstractions later. So yes, let's consider our basest "values" to be directly satisfying our biological imperatives--anything that can be described as a "feeling" or "emotion".

The reason I haven't really been considering those under the term "values" is that it just doesn't match with common usage. If someone asks you what your values are, you don't say, "well I enjoy food sometimes..." etc. Instead, I would have classified these as "needs". And I still think this is a relevant point, because I'll argue it's really not our base values that makes us do what we do, in the sense of differentiating from the mean. In other words, the interesting behavior, the stuff we actually want to argue about, doesn't derive from study of our base values. It seems to me our base values are relatively uniform, and because of this a given person's life shares a lot of rough details with another: eating, sleeping, loving, playing, etc. So it is when the world-view comes in and creates abstracted values that things start deviating wildly. In that sense, I see how religion creates values, such that we can easily see the differing patterns between devout religious and non-religious. (it's still not the strict source for morality, of course, but we can get to that later)

I'll let you stew over that for now...
spoonless
Jul. 9th, 2011 12:33 am (UTC)

First, I think we should differentiate between the object/action that has value and the mental structure granting the value e.g. food vs hunger/taste. I say the latter is more accurately called the "value".

Right, the actual value is in the experience of eating the food, or in feeling healthy and happy and awake once your body is supplied with the right nutrients. Rather than being intrinsically in the food itself. To me, this is the most important thing to realize about value--there isn't any such thing as an intrinsic value of something, there is only its value to some sentient being. This is what I meant when I say "value is subjective"--it would not exist without a subject, a valuer.

The reason I haven't really been considering those under the term "values" is that it just doesn't match with common usage. If someone asks you what your values are, you don't say, "well I enjoy food sometimes..." etc. Instead, I would have classified these as "needs"

Well, the concept of value is a lot larger than just "moral values". I do think people often use the term "values" as a shorthand for moral values. But to me, it's important to realize that moral values are simply one kind of a more general class of values. Yes, there does seem to be something that distinguishes them from other values--they seem to be the ones relating to how you treat other people. But I think they come from the same underlying kinds of things that any kind of value does. The things you value are the things you care about, for one reason or another.

Regarding "needs" I mentioned to the Marxist who commented in the post just before this one, that I didn't like the way Marx seems to reify "needs" and make them into something special that's fundamentally different from wants. To me, needs are just one kind of want, one kind of thing you can value. But something that you value a lot compared to other things.

And I still think this is a relevant point, because I'll argue it's really not our base values that makes us do what we do, in the sense of differentiating from the mean. In other words, the interesting behavior, the stuff we actually want to argue about, doesn't derive from study of our base values.

Well this is an interesting point, and I think that it does maybe get at where our disagreement is. Maybe we're just interested in different questions. My big complaint with what Sam Harris is saying is that he's looking at derived values and trying to use that as a way to argue that facts and values are the same kinds of things and that they can both be determined by science. I said in my initial response to him that I agreed with him that lots of values are derived, and that science often is what determines the answer to questions involving those derived values... but that I had a huge problem with him trying to use that to argue facts and values are the same thing (specifically, he's argues that value is a kind of objective fact). I think he's totally wrong about where fundamental values come from and what the nature of them is, compared to facts. But at the same time I agree with him on a lot of practical questions. For instance, I mentioned differences on abortion are usually a difference in understanding of the world, not really a difference in fundamental values. So if you're focus is on the derived values, and mine is on the fundamental values, then of course we're not talking about the same thing.
geheimnisnacht
Jul. 9th, 2011 02:31 am (UTC)
Yep, I agree with that. Here is an interesting article on primate behavior I just saw.

In short, I'd say the bulk of our simple, moral behavior comes from instinct: not needlessly hurting each other, helping those in need, etc. However, our basic values can be in conflict--should we steal food and rape each other? Also some situations are just more abstract, where nature couldn't train us--what is the appropriate morality concerning intellectual property? In these conflicting or abstract situations, we need a derived system of values.

At this point, it makes sense to link back to what I was originally saying: how do we best derive the system of values that best suits us? What is the metric for success? At first I was looking for one main input, such as "human survivability". Now, I would say the metric should be how well it satisfies our society-averaged base values. So a good system of derived values leads to a society that better feeds us, shelters us, etc. And these things are, in principle, measurable. This is where I think Harris and I are on th e same page, and I think he is using my definition of "values". I think you have to realize your definition is not the common usage one.

An example of how religion often proves to be a poor system is how it deals with sexual desire, one of the biggest sources of conflict. Many religions just try to strictly control it, which I think has led to a lot of unhappiness. However, due to the value system's dependence on the population itself, perhaps it could be argued that religion served well in the past where people weren't generally educated.

And then of course religion does horribly where it gets the world-view wrong, which is fairly often since most of the popular religions are founded on pre-scientific revolution ideas.
spoonless
Jul. 9th, 2011 12:47 am (UTC)
But getting back to this thread, which was more about how much religion can affect values.

I think that there are a lot of notions that people have, about fairness, justice, equality, liberty, etc. that are influenced by culture and by religion. But I also think that all of these ideas are at least somewhat hardwired into us. And religion has emerged as a way of codifying those instincts. If you look at chimpanzees, you'll see them punishing each other when they think something was unfair. You'll see them sacrificing themselves to help others or to punish those who they feel have violated their sense of justice. So when you learn about these things abstractly, it does influence how you behave, but I also think these things are there somewhat independent of culture. Of course, then you could also wonder to what degree the chimps behavior is really hardwired versus affected by culture. It makes me wonder if it would be ethical to do an experiment where you took a chimp and raised him by a bunch of other chimps, or by humans, who taught upside-down values or something. Like punishing chimps who treated each other fairly and rewarding unfairness. Probably not ethical but would be interesting to see the results!

I haven't felt like any of the things you've said regarding values and religion have been significantly different from my point of view, as expressed in this post. Our real disagreement is about whether values are subjective or objective, ie the argument we got into months ago.
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