The Dawkins Occlusion
Second Anniversary

Ethics of Metaphysics

Universal_pathsshoshanna What is ethical behaviour in respect of metaphysics – those untestable beliefs, both religious and scientific, that we must decide upon for ourselves? Does freedom of belief allow for aggressive evangelism? Or is it child abuse for parents to raise children in religious traditions? These questions fall into the realm of the ethics of metaphysics.

We must begin by asserting once again that freedom of belief is the bedrock upon which all other freedoms rest. Religious traditions grant this freedom on account of the necessity of free will (which is God-given in theistic traditions), while secular traditions provide it as a matter of common agreement – as embodied in article 18 and 19 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As a result, when we talk of ethics of metaphysics, we are considering the ethical consequences of metaphysical choices, but we are not denying people’s freedom to choose their own metaphysics.

Problems arise chiefly when one’s metaphysics result in a denial of this right to other people. This, I contend, is the primary issue in the ethics of metaphysics – and one that requires urgent attention.

Prioritising a Metaphysical Future

One particular problem in the ethics of metaphysics is easiest to observe in the Abrahamic traditions, particularly Christianity. This is the tendency to place excessive focus on a future state which is metaphysical in nature, and thus to overlook the importance of the world around us. We see this most commonly in certain strains of evangelical Christianity (most commonly found in the United States) which are so obsessed with “saving people from hell” that they appear to have lost all perspective on compassion, despite the vital importance of this to their religion.

This is a strange situation for Christians to find themselves in, as it seems a highly restricted interpretation of Jesus’ teachings. Jesus ministry was focussed on how to make the physical world “a kingdom of God”; his parables and teachings reflected how people should behave towards each other in this world. Conspicuously absent from this teaching were constant threats of the form “repent or die” which emerged considerably later in the Christian traditions.

Much of the modern evangelical Christian viewpoint rests upon matters recorded solely in the Gospel of John (the only gospel with a decisively cosmic, and hence metaphysical, flavour), which offers eternal life to those who believe in Jesus. Absent in the verses that espouse this view are the threats of eternal torment to the unbeliever which have become synonymous with certain strains of evangelical Christianity. In fact, Jesus does not talk much of hell. As Samuel Dawson has observed, the idea of hell in its modern form originates in later Catholic theology, and does not have a sincere basis in the source texts for the Bible at all.

Irrespective of these issues, the fact remains that there are people who have chosen to believe that the threat of eternal damnation is the key message of the Bible, and they are entitled to these beliefs. It becomes problematic when the behaviour of such people towards others becomes so abusive that their ethical behaviour in this world has become inconsistent with Jesus’ teaching of compassion. This includes tactics designed to terrify children not only into maintaining their own faith, but into urgently attempting to convert others. These behaviours cannot be considered ethical by Kant’s yardstick or by any ethical system except the Consequentialist (outcome-focussed) view that “the ends justify the means”, which it is a virtual certainty that Jesus would (or, depending upon your perspective, does) condemn.

The tragedy of modern Christianity is that its public face – the side of Christianity the media most often chooses to portray – are those Christians who seem the most confused about the metaphysics of their own religion, and in doing so frequently behave in an manner ethically inconsistent with their own religion’s teachings. By prioritising the importance of a metaphysical future state over the need to act for the good in the present world, such Christians commit ethical infractions (by the standards of their own values) on behalf of metaphysical justifications. This behaviour is not only unethical, it is distinctly unchristian.

Kierkegaard_2 Because our modern society does not prioritise philosophy, a great volume of valuable discussion on metaphysics and ethics is effectively lost to common culture. Evangelical Christians could gain a great deal from study of the great Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, for instance, who berated the “devilish wisdom” that would seek salvation in single-minded willing, irrespective of what is being willed. Exploring the idea of double-mindedness (developed from James 4:8, “purify your hearts, you double-minded”) he asserts that when one fails to take the moral action because of subordinating the good to extra-moral goals (i.e. the reward for doing so, or avoidance of punishment for not doing it) one is double-minded, precisely what James warns about. Kierkegaard insists we should will one thing, and that (for Christians, at least) what must be willed is the good, and it must be willed for its own sake – never for the fear or promise of a metaphysical future reward or punishment. 

It is worth remembering that Christianity is by no means the only belief system to produce problems in respect of a metaphysical future. For instance, the nonreligion (secular ideology) of Marxism has issues in regards to its belief in a metaphysical future – in this case, a communist utopia that is alleged to be the result of the abolition of social classes. It may be less immediately clear that this is metaphysical, but since it holds beliefs about future political consequences (issues which are untestable), it is clearly not an empirical matter. Regardless of the motivating belief system, the same kinds of problem can occur if an individual prioritises their metaphysical future vision over the freedom of the individual.

Behaviours which place a metaphysical future end (or goal) above mutual respect can never be ethical by Kant’s yardstick; we must respect what other people have chosen as their ends, and by asserting the dominance of our belief as to what the future holds we fail to do so. Such behaviour cannot be universalised, since it denies the autonomy of will which Kantian ethics consider foundational – in effect, we are foisting our own metaphysics onto other people, and this is not and cannot be ethical behaviour.

It follows from this that any aggressive form of proselytising is unacceptable behaviour in ethical terms, although peaceful expression and teaching of ones beliefs is acceptable. The desire to convert everyone to the same ideology (whether religion or nonreligion) can only be justified by an appeal to the principle that what is judged the correct end (a solely metaphysical decision) can be pursued by any means necessary.

In fact, any ethical system which allows that “the ends justify the means” in this way falls prey of prioritising a metaphysical future – since this maxim assumes our ability to accurately predict the future consequences of our actions, and the ultimate beneficence of the end in question. This is not a plausible state of affairs. We may be able to estimate some of the consequences of our action, but we cannot see the future with perfect clarity, and to behave as if we can is therefore unethical. An outcome-based ethical system is not wholly untenable, and indeed may occasionally be a necessary resort when other ethical systems are indecisive (consider the Trolley Problem), but we must not use our commitment to a particular cause as justification to overrule the autonomy of others. To do so cannot be considered ethical behaviour.


Confusing Metaphysics and Science

A second problem in the ethics of metaphysics is treating matters of belief as matters of fact – that is, confusing metaphysics and science. The domain of science is the empirical – the testable – and this domain is separate from the domain of religion, which is not in any way empirical. Nonetheless, conflicts between these two types of tradition do occur, with the most famous examples being Creation Scientists, on the one hand, and certain Neo-Darwinist atheists on the other.

While it is certainly a scientific error for Creation Scientists to use theological beliefs as premises in their scientific literature, it is also trivially easy for anyone to recognise that the papers published by such people mistake metaphysics as matters of fact – in this regard, Creation Scientists do not represent a plausible threat to science as a tradition since the only people who will take their “research” seriously are those with the same metaphysical stance. Everyone else is more than capable of dismissing any such papers on the basis that they are not empirically grounded. Freedom of speech allows them to have their say, and arguably little harm would be done if that was where the matter ended. 

However, the Intelligent Design furore brings the issue into a political context. It is worth noting that Intelligent Design is not science, but metaphysics, but that this is not an argument for not teaching it in schools – why should we not teach philosophy in schools? If we did, political conflicts such as this one would likely become unnecessary! The issue at task is whether the political pressure to add Intelligent Design to school curricula represents movement by a minority to impose their metaphysics on a majority – if this is the case, then the movement is unethical in Kantian terms.

To understand why Intelligent Design has become such a sensitive issue it is necessary to look not only at the intrusion of metaphysics on science, but also at the intrusion of science into metaphysics. It is arguable that the reason for the Intelligent Design proposal in the first place is a tendency for certain prominent scientists to behave as if science could “disprove God” – another absurd metaphysical confusion. Science as a method can only be agnostic about metaphysical issues, as all that science can offer in this regard is the assertion that the truth values of such matters are either unknown or unknowable. 

Richard_dawkins Most attention has been focussed on Richard Dawkins in this context, since he established himself as a lightning rod for the issue by publishing his inflammatory book “The God Delusion”. In this book, Dawkins claims that God is a legitimate area for scientific investigation, and that the conclusion in this regard would be that “God almost certainly does not exist”. The logic behind this conclusion is quite flawed, however; Dawkins demonstrates that Intelligent Design is not science, and then attempts to use this as proof of the invalidity of all notions of God without actually exploring the relevant theology. As Alvin Plantinga shrewdly observes, Dawkins presumes materialism (the idea that only matter exists), and then deduces that God does not exist – circular logic, since the conclusion is inherent in the premise.

Dawkins position becomes unethical in Kantian terms when he denies the right of parents to raise their children in their own religious traditions, calling it a form of “mental abuse”, and thus denying mutual respect. What kind of society would it be if parents did not have the right to raise their children in their own cultural traditions? This suggests a world in which the State has the right to interfere in the freedom of belief. In fact, what Dawkins proposes seems to violate article 18 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of religion. While this agreement is by no means universally accepted (some Muslim countries refused to ratify it), it is troubling to find a secularist who denies certain human rights on the basis of his personal metaphysics. 

Stephen_jay_gould The great evolutionary essayist Stephen Jay Gould proposed a solution to these “territorial disputes” between science and religion, which he termed Non-Overlapping Magisteria, or NOMA. He contended that science’s proper subject was the empirical, while religion’s proper subject was the ethical, and that these “magisteria” did not overlap.

Dawkins disputes Gould’s suggestion, claiming it is an attempt to shield religion from criticism and scrutiny, and even going so far as to suggest that Gould did not believe in his own suggestion! That certain individuals, such as Creation Scientists and Dawkins, do not respect the distinctions between religion and science cannot be used as evidence against Gould’s proposal, however, as the proposal is not a matter of fact, but a suggested “peace treaty” to put an end to this kind of squabbling. 

Gould’s model of Non-Overlapping Magisteria is, however, fundamentally in error. While it is reasonable to say that the domain of the empirical is the proper object of science, and that the domain of the ethical is a proper object of religion, there is still one domain that both science and religion occupy, namely metaphysics. However, the metaphysics of science is not science, per se, but merely “thinking outside the box” in the hope to further science. (Evolutionary theory was, as Popper noted, a metaphysical research program before it became legitimate science). Conversely, metaphysics of religion is an intimate domain of religion. It is this conflict that requires resolving, but since metaphysics are untestable, the only reasonable course of action is to allow each individual to believe what they like in the domain of metaphysics. If we do not extend this freedom of belief to everyone, then there is no freedom of thought and all our other alleged freedoms are empty. 

This idea of separating metaphysics from science was proposed by myself as an extention of Popper’s philosophy, and contrasted to the alternative: Feyerbend’s suggestion that there are no lasting boundary conditions to science, and thus that policing science to eject “what is not science” is a fool’s errand. Either solution is acceptable, but one or the other must ultimately stand if this conflict is ever to be resolved.


Realism is Unethical

All of the examples thus advanced have one thing in common. Whether we are dealing with evangelical Christians abusively enforcing their metaphysics, or bigoted atheists advocating religious intolerance on the basis of theirs, all of the belief systems that lead to a violation of the ethics express a particular form of philosophical realism. ‘Realism’, in this sense, means that reality is mind-independent; this is generally contrasted with anti-realism, with individuals taking more-or-less realist or anti-realist positions with respect of specific issues, such as aesthetics, science and ethics. 

This is, alas, a complex philosophical issue with troublesome overloaded terms and hopelessly convoluted debates. Let us therefore define a new term for clarity – arrogant realism – by which we shall mean behaving as if one’s own belief system is the only accurate portrayal of reality. 

The tendency towards arrogant realism is quite natural, and I will not argue that such a position is disallowed – freedom of belief allows people to hold whatever belief system they choose. But in treating metaphysical issues as objective truths, arrogant realists risk creating situations that breed intolerance and bigotry, which denies mutual respect and is therefore unethical in Kantian terms.

Religious realism, when it falls into arrogant realism, denies free will by not openly permitting the adoption of alternative theological or metaphysical models. When one approaches religious metaphysics with humility, one comes to accept that our religious metaphysics are, at best, our attempts to grasp in words immensely abstract issues that perhaps are inherently beyond our capacity as mere humans to fully comprehend. Our metaphysical models are therefore always imperfect, and there may well be (as the Sufi believe) inherent truths in all religions – the apparent incompatibility of different religions being a product of our human imperfections. To put this in theological terms is to claim that no-one understands the mind of God, and to behave as if we do is hubris. 

Scientific realism, when it falls into arrogant realism, confuses the explanatory and predictive value of scientific theories with descriptions of objective reality, and then proceeds to deny any metaphysical idea incompatible with the particular theories the individual upholds. Because scientific theories by definition describe empirical phenomena, non-empirical concepts are summarily rejected, or constrained to more palatable formulations. The confusion that results comes from mistaking science as something that produces a specific epistemological position (that happens to correspond with one’s own beliefs) and not as a method of investigation. This view has decreasing significance within philosophy of science (instrumentalism and confirmation holism being increasingly more relevant), but alas scientists are not taught philosophy of science, and are frequently ignorant of its implications. Matthew Cromer sums this issue up neatly: science is a method, not a position.

It is overstating the matter to suggest that “realism is unethical”, but arrogant realism logically leads to bigotry – since to be a bigot is to be intolerant of differing beliefs and cultures – and it is hard to see how someone whose own beliefs tend towards arrogant realism can behave reasonably towards others when they know with certainty their belief system is correct. 

The alternative need not be a collapse into relativism or solipsism, but rather the acknowledgement that humans are biologically incapable of ascertaining Truth perfectly, and that when it comes to metaphysical matters, a vast array of different approaches and opinions exist; we have no reason to presume that our choices in this regard are in any way superior to other people’s. If we must judge a person’s metaphysics, it should be by the behaviour of the individual – two Christians are no more likely to share the same beliefs and behave in the same way as two scientists, and when we assume otherwise we have succumbed to prejudice. 



Ethics of metaphysics must rest upon freedom of belief – not only must we extend the right for people to choose their own metaphysical beliefs, but if we wish to be ethical (in Kantian terms, at least) we must not abuse others by enforcing our beliefs upon them, nor fail to respect their ends by prioritising our vision of a metaphysical future above their own wishes. 

Confusing science and metaphysics seems to lead to further problems. It is unethical for a minority group to enforce their metaphysics on the majority in the teaching of science (if this is indeed the situation with Intelligent Design), and equally unethical to do so in the teaching of religion (as Dawkins seems to demand). As parents, we have the right to raise our children in our own cultural traditions; we do not have the right to enforce our cultural traditions on others against their will.

Arrogant realism – the belief that one’s own nervous system is better tuned to the universe than other people’s – leads to intolerance and bigotry, and it scarcely matters if this realism is of a religious or scientific flavour when the result is grossly unethical behaviour. If we wish to behave ethically in respect of metaphysics, it will be necessary to accept diversity of belief. Our best hope for the future manifests only when this freedom is honoured.

The opening image is Universal Paths, by Shoshanna Bauer, which I found here, and is used with permission. "Universal Paths" 2007 (c) coypyright Shoshanna Bauer All Rights Reserved.

I encourage other blog-authors interested in these issues to trackback this post so we can take the debate further afield and, as ever, I welcome thoughtful discussion in the comments.


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your arguments plus the ones Platinga puts forward would form a good basis for media people (like Aronson?) to start from, to outline the intellectual standards for an attempt at meaningful discussion - I just now wonder what such a panel discussion would like, say on BBC or CNN ? ;)

translucy: finally, a comment! I was starting to worry. :D I was really pleased with this piece, hence a bit disappointed at the lack of comments, but I guess the Second Anniversary post stole its thunder...

Is it possible for us to get a meaningful discussion on this topic on a reputable news service? I'm not sure, since the key players are pretty entrenched and the actual issues are abstract and philosophically complex. I think this might be beyond the capacity for the news services to tackle, alas.

Best wishes!

Thanks for the plug, Chris.

I have to admit it though, I adapted the quote from Shermer whose version was "skepticism is a method, not a position".

I felt it applied even better to science, and chose it for my blog's appellation.

"In fact, what Dawkins proposes seems to violate article 18 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of religion."

I think that Dawkins' point is that if your parents choose and impose a religion on you, you don't really have freedom of religion yourself. Freedom being a two way street and all that...

Olivier: raising a child in a religious tradition is not forcing them to follow that religion. My family were raised as Christians, but my brother is not a Christian, for instance. It was always our choice, and we were never made to go to church or participate in any religious activity against our will.

If my parents were not allowed to raise me in a religious tradition until I was 18, who has freedom of religion in this scenario? Not me, I have to wait until 18 to be granted this right (whilst in the meantime being forcibly excluded from my own family in certain contexts!) and not my parents who are forced to exclude me from their religious practices against their wishes. This is a horrifying scenario for anyone except a person with a prior grudge against religion, such as Dawkins!

It is unreasonable to ask parents to raise their children in a different culture to their own - that is a direct interference in freedom of religion. Dawkins' proposal amounts to asking that we raise all children in a secular tradition, on the grounds that this is not a religion i.e. on the basis of Dawkins' metaphysics. This is insisting that all children are raised in a cultural tradition of Dawkins' choosing and not of the parents' choosing. This is not only unreasonable, it is a violation of article 26, section 3 of the Human Rights declaration cited:

(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Parents must be free to raise their children in their own cultural traditions. That Dawkins dislikes the vast majority of the cultural traditions of the world because they include religious elements he finds offensive is insufficient cause to override basic human rights.

Many thanks for taking the time to comment - I do appreciate it! I hope my response clarifies the issue.

I see what you mean, and I agree on many points.

This being said, I think of raising children *is* forcing them to do stuff they would prefer not to do. In my case, I know for a fact that I was forced to go to church and if I had had freedom of choice on the matter, I wouldn't have gone (because I was young and would rather have played then attended church). I think few children would have any interest in religious education (or education at all!) if they were free. So we have to acknowled that these are choices we are making and imposing on them. I'm also ready to go as far as to say that we usually do so for all the right reasons. These choices are numerous and far reaching : how to interact with others, what to eat, how to care for oneself, values system, respect of the law (or not), etc. Making these choices and getting the child ready to make them for himself when he's old enough is the essence of what raising a child is.

This being said, the fact that we, as parents, have the right and often the duty to make these choices for our children doesn't, by itself, imply that choice of religion is one we SHOULD and much less NEED to make for them. I think there is a huge difference between saying, "in my opinion, parents should raise their children in a strictly secular way" and saying "Lets make a law to invalidate the declaration of human right and force people to do this and not that".

While I certainly don't fully endorse Dawkin's vision, I do think he is entitled to advocate secularism, if only as a counter for religious extremism that is, and has historically consistantly been, a potent source of conflict and problems (and yes, maybe also of solutions) for the human race.

I also think that it's possible, as a christian, to raise children in a fairly secular way without it being the horrible disruption of family life that you describe.

It's not about raising them in a different culture than your own, it's simply not emphasing certain aspect of yourself/your belief on them. It's accepting difference and letting them explore that and make their own mind. To a large extent, this is already being done on various aspects of life. For exemple, it is generally considered healthy not to choose hobbies for a child, or what he should study, what career to persue, etc. Over the past decades, in the most educated portion of the population at least, this freedom of the child has also been extended to sexual orientation. It doesn't prevent you from guiding your child through life and even tho these are important and integral parts of who you are, you understand that your child doesn't *have* to be like you on these matters to be a complete and decent person...

Also, it's not imperative (and I would posite not even desirable) that a choice on that even be made at all before later in life. We don't stress if our children don't know what they wanna be at 12yo. We also don't fret if they haven't deceided who they want to mary at 18yo. Embracing a metaphysical explanation to the world and which God (if any) to worship strikes me as something eminantly more complex, fundamental and personnal than that. Yet, this is a commitment we systematically and ritually ask 8yo children to make when they undergo 1st communion.

I was raised christian, became agnostic around 14 and, sadly, am leaning more and more towards atheism as the years pass. My parents meant well of course... But today, I can definatly say, *very personnally*, that I know my christian upbringing as been an obstacle for me to overcome on my quest for identity and happines. To this day, this is something that I sometimes end up fighting when thinking about ethical issues.

I'm also confident that raising me an atheist wouldn't have been any better. Today, when a child asks me about death, instead of giving my personnal theory, I use this answer: "Nobody knows for sure, this is something you will have to find out for yourself as you grow up..." This is how I understand Dawkin's secularism (as opposed to Dawkin's materialistic atheism).

We give our children freedom to choose tons of stuff for themselves already. Maybe, just maybe, we don't *have to* choose what arbitrary dogma they should follow and the meaning of the universe has to be for them...


P.s.: Ow, this is way too long. Anyhow, english not being my native language, please forgive me and consider that all typos and errors were included for entertainment value =)

Olivier: thank you so much for taking the time to write your response - I greatly appreciate it! I will try to find the time to give this an adequate reply. This is an issue both serious and complex enough to be worth talking about, and I thank you for giving your time to share your thoughts.

Best wishes!

Hi there,
I'm the artist of Universal Paths.
I don't mind if you keep the image up but if you would please put my copyright notice somewhere beside the image along side your link to my site I would really appreciate it

Here's what the notice looks like:

"Universal Paths" 2007(c)coypyright Shoshanna Bauer All Rights Reserved

Shoshanna: many thanks for permission to use your image! I will do as you ask with regard to the copyright notice.

Very good read, thank you.

A bit late to this party, but...

There's a hair to be split in "raising your children in your own cultural tradition / religion".

One can do such a thing in several different ways:

1. Teaching your child about your religion.
2. Preventing your child from accessing all other points of view.
3. Expressing your value judgments on different religions to your child, with discussion of your reasoning, etc.
4. Expressing those value judgments without presenting explanation or analysis to the child.


I would think that 2. and 4. constitute child abuse.

For example, sending your child to a very strict religious school that ensures they live in an environment free from opposing points of view, etc.

Or even withdrawing your child from sex education in a public school.


So I would say that, its more likely for those "trying to raise their children in their faith" to commit such abuses than those who raise their children in a secular way.

Since it would probably be fairly rare for the latter to actively ban the child from studying lots of different religions, whereas the former probably would.

Zeech: it's an interesting claim you make here. My gut reaction is to agree with you, yet the ghost of the philosopher Paul Feyerabend screams in my ear not to be so hasty. :)

Let's look at an extreme outlying case as a means of exploring this. Take a child raised in a remote village in the Amazon. The tribe knows about the outside world, as they have been visited, but they do not generally mix with the outside world, and indeed it is slightly tabu to do so. Is it really abusive for the parents to raise their children in this way? Why shouldn't they be free to live within their own cultural tradition?

Now you may object to this that you couch the issue in terms of "prevention" - 'preventing your child from accessing other points of view'. But in all honesty, don't parents have the right and duty to determine what their child is ready to experience? We don't accuse parents of abuse for, say, not letting children watch 18-rated videos until they are old enough, or playing with mini-bikes until they feel they are ready, or starting to date, to give three fairly trivial examples.

As for expressing value judgements without explanation and analysis - there is surely no ethical reason why people should have to present explanations for their values, and certainly not analysis. When a parent, for instance, teaches a child than it is wrong to steal, it's not actually a moral requirement of any kind that they explain the ethical background to this decision - in fact, we don't expect children to have this kind of understanding. Quite frankly, most adults also lack this understanding - things are "wrong" because they are "wrong" - so this clause seems to accuse everyone who is not an intellectual of being abusive! ;)

You make the claim that it is "fairly rare" for a non-religious parent (I'm dodging your use of secular, as this term can mean several different things) to block a child from learning about religion, and "more likely" for a parent from a religious background to block learning about other religions. I'm not sure of the basis for this claim - most students of comparative religion come from religious backgrounds, so this would suggest some kind of error on your part. And when Dawkins, for instance, suggests that we block children accessing religion until they are 18 years old, how is this not actively banning the child from studying lots of different religions exactly?

I am not certain how rare or otherwise it is that a non-religious parent effectively bans their child from taking an interest in religion - but is there a significant distinction to be made between an active ban, and an expression of contempt for religious people such that the child forms a prejudice against religion? I'm not claiming this is abuse - parents have the right to pass their bigotry on to their children, no matter how much we dislike it - but I don't think the issue is as clear cut in the religious/non-religious axis as you would like to believe. Your own metaphysical bias may be in play, which is to say, it may be easier for you to see the problems in the people who don't share your beliefs, and harder to see it among those who believe similarly to you.

I wouldn't encourage, say, a Muslim family to send their children to an all-Muslim school - but I would defend to the death their right to do so. Parents have the right to raise their children however they wish, provided it does not cross into mental or physical abuse which is defined in the law relative to the cultural background - and it must be this way if the law is to remain ethically grounded.

You and I have Cosmopolitan values (in the sense employed by Kwame Anthony Appiah) but we must be careful that we don't predicate that value in some universal manner and attempt to force it onto other people - and it is all too easy to fall into that trap.

I hope this has been an interesting exploration of the issue for you, and I welcome further discussion.

Best wishes!

Hi, thanks for a thoughtful reply to my very necromantic comment :)

Regarding a parent's right to prevent their child from accessing things, I would differ from you in that I dont view it as an absolute and all-encompassing right.

Similar to how some libertarians want "freedom from interference in their family and property", I see such things as inherently open to abuse - even if libertarians accept "communal/village justice", there's nothing stopping pedophiles from setting up an enclave somewhere free from interference in their "family lives."

If we dont want to go to such extremes, then mistreatment of pets is another example - pets are considered property in various ways, but generally society acknowledges that there's a significant difference - you simply shouldnt be allowed to treat a pet like you would a pencil or a pillow.

So yes, I still think that parents should not have absolute freedom in deciding what to prevent their children from seeing.

There are things I'm happy to allow parents to restrict - violence, porn, horror, explicit scenes of war or injury, etc.

Also my position on this varies on age as well. Sure, you tell a 3 year old, "dont lie because its bad" but as they get older it's a disservice to them not to give them deeper analysis and understanding.

Like so many things in the world, there's no "absolute right of the parent of the child" nor is there "absolute freedom of the child" or "absolute control of the state over the raising of the child." The morality we can all tolerate (even if noone agrees) is somewhere in the middle being fought over by swords and words and tug of war.

I havent read Dawkins, but it feels like he's merely being a science-side caricature of all the most extreme religious views. That's annoying but maybe necessary - secular and liberal people tend to be too reasonable and understanding of other people's opinions. (sure, they may be contemptful or disparaging, but at core they subscribe to the notion that there are many different truths out there.)

If Dawkins wants to prevent religion being taught until age 18, then he's falling into exactly the same crime I'm describing - preventing your children from accessing information. But how many Dawkins are there in the world? How many religious people who want to prevent their children from being taught about other religions? Can you honestly say that the ultra-secular fundamentalist is an equally large group?

Sure, we want to defend the right of muslim parents to send their children to muslim schools. But equally we can't let religious (or any other) schools do whatever they want. If they want to omit certain standard subjects, if they want to apply strong moral teaching in order to shape the children's values in way that's too narrow and deviates too much from the mainstream, then we shouldnt allow it anymore than we should allow some sort of "traditional family values" school that makes sure girls only get taught cooking and home ec, and applies a lot of pressure to make them fear or avoid football or woodworking.

So ultimately, I still think it's a crime against the child to restrict their access to information that's not "harmful" to them. We restrict their access to violence and porn because it might frighten them, disturb them, and maybe desensitize them.

But alternative religions, creationism, science, evolution, the existence of sex, the existence of gay people.... when you restrict a child's access to this sort of knowledge, it's not about protecting them, its not about guiding them - its about shaping them - like one would shape a bonsai, by stunting any possible growth in undesirable directions.

To me, that's a crime. Bonsai growers may disagree.

Oh, just a thought.
Regarding "forcing cosmopolitan values onto others"...

It reminds me of a saying I'm fond of.
"Tolerate everything except intolerance". It's a deliberately paradoxical-sounding line that's kinda cute but sums up my attitude to these sorts of things.

Applied to this case, it means "Never force your values onto others, except the value that they shouldnt force their values onto others."

Or alternatively "it's ok to force people to not force others." :)

There are things I'm happy to allow parents to restrict - violence, porn, horror, explicit scenes of war or injury, etc.

Ah, the old "the world should be defined by what I'm happy with" problem. To be somewhat provocative, should the world adhere to your personal definition of what is right? If so, why? If not, what should it adhere to? Should it be homogeneous? Heterogeneous? Is there any particular reason why your views should be any more influential than (say) mine?

In response I quote myself:
"The morality we can all tolerate (even if noone agrees) is somewhere in the middle being fought over by swords and words and tug of war."

So my views are more influential than yours if I have better words, swords and tug of wars. Or maybe we might achieve a compromise, or possibly only the parts where our views overlap will prevail.

Either way, before considering other views one has to form their own, and then the negotiations can take place.


Also, the things I listed are things which generally we consider directly harmful to children. Whereas most of us wouldnt place "other religions" in that category. (or at least we wouldnt dare say it out loud ;)

Besides, if it was purely "what I'm happy with", then porn wouldnt be on that list, I'm fine with porn :P

zeech: Thanks so much for coming to continue our discussions!

Let's take a quick look at your specific points...

"...there's nothing stopping pedophiles from setting up an enclave somewhere free from interference in their 'family lives.'"

Actually there is a barrier here, because the law considers sex with children to be illegal, so the entire state legal apparatus exists to stop precisely this kind of abuse.

My general position here is: we legislate about the actions we agree to deny, but we don't legislate beliefs.

Also, since our legal systems are punitive, you only legislate about what deserves punishment. Does a person who denies a child access to knowledge about such-and-such really deserve punishment? Surely our goal is to *encourage* them to be more open - not to *force* them to be open.

"So yes, I still think that parents should not have absolute freedom in deciding what to prevent their children from seeing."

To be honest, with the advent of the internet I just don't see how parents *can* block their children from learning about whatever they decide to investigate! But I definitely don't think this is a case for legislation... Or at least, I feel it would be a dangerous area to try and legislate.

"Like so many things in the world, there's no 'absolute right'..."

Quite. But we agree to certain rights, and that's as binding as we need. We don't need access to absolutes to agree conditions of behaviour (thankfully!)

"I havent read Dawkins, but it feels like he's merely being a science-side caricature of all the most extreme religious views."

Wonderful sentence. :) I know precisely what you mean.

"But how many Dawkins are there in the world? How many religious people who want to prevent their children from being taught about other religions? Can you honestly say that the ultra-secular fundamentalist is an equally large group?"

Are we to resolve our ethical decisions as a matter of numerical superiority? :) It's true, there are fewer anti-religious zealots than religious zealots - but that's in part because there are at least 3 times as many religious people as non-religious people in the world. Plus, are numbers really all this is about? The scientific establishment - which in the West might be construed to be a more influential power bloc than the religious community (look at who the news services turn to for definitive answers) - is predominantly atheist/Bright/materialist, and *does*, I'm sorry to say, slightly oppress religious people in science. (I hear this complaint often from Christians in science jobs in the US). I don't think the lower numbers of anti-religious zealots makes them any less of a concern, personally, but there is of course room for interpretation.

"So ultimately, I still think it's a crime against the child to restrict their access to information that's not 'harmful' to them. We restrict their access to violence and porn because it might frighten them, disturb them, and maybe desensitize them."

Surely in the general case it is better to trust the parents' instincts as to what is appropriate for the child than trying to enforce standards of this kind using the state apparatus? This still strikes me as a very dangerous (and inflammatory!) area to consider legislation.

"...when you restrict a child's access to this sort of knowledge, it's not about protecting them, its not about guiding them - its about shaping them - like one would shape a bonsai, by stunting any possible growth in undesirable directions. To me, that's a crime. Bonsai growers may disagree."

You seem to be taking a position which places autonomy as a primary value. Which is great, except not everyone considers autonomy to be a primary value, and surely we don't want to force our values onto others.

I think the parallel between parenting and bonsai trees is apposite - except the child, unlike the bonsai, must eventually come into its own.

Parents do the best they can... if children aren't happy with how they were raised, it's between them and their parents as far as I'm concerned. I don't think the state should be messing with families - it has enough problems as it is. :)

Thanks once again for sharing your thoughts! Next week (or the week after if I run late) I'll be having some open discussion on a topic relating this - I hope you'll be around to contribute.

Best wishes!

By open discussion, do you mean you'll be making another blog topic on this issue?

Regarding my pedophiles comment, I was referring not to reality, but to a hypothetical "libertarian paradise" where the state doesnt interfere in any way with a person's family, property, etc. But it was just a throwaway example - my point was that we do expect the state to intervene in private matters for several issues.

As for the very tricky issue of what to legislate and how, that's terribly complex and one has to worry not just about ideals but also actual effects and consequences. So better to figure out what the agreed ideal or goal is first :)

Certainly we can't legislate what parents teach their kids. But we already have plenty of legislation that parents need to send their children to school (at least here in Australia - home schooling is rare and I dont think you're allowed to permanently homeschool a child for his/her entire childhood), and legislation detailing what a school can teach and cant teach.

So I'm not really advocating any change to legislation - just expressing an opinion to what the guiding ideals should be, when the details of these existing legislations are argued about in committee meetings and so forth.

Also, we -do- have child abuse laws. And whilst it's too draconian to activate those laws when parents teach their beliefs to their children, I think it might be justified to activate those laws if parents prevent their child from going to a public school in favor of a religious school, (or vice versa) against the child's wishes.

I'd put this in a similar category as when parents stop their daughter from going to high school in order to keep them from learning things "traditional girls dont need to know", or if parents want to sign their child up for an arranged marriage back in their home country. I'm not sure if those things are child abuse crimes in your country, but they are in some countries.

As for pushing my values of autonomy onto other people, once again, "Tolerate everything except intolerance." Everyone values autonomy - the only people that dont are those who have been indoctrinated not to.

Is a sense, it's mirror image of what you were saying - your expression of the very crucial and fundamental "freedom of belief", is to passionately defend the right of parents to raise their child in their own faiths and values.

Whereas my expression of that same freedom is to passionately defend every child's right not to have a religion or value system imposed upon them.

(except, of course, the belief system "which places autonomy as a primary value". By preventing all other value systems from being imposed, by definition we're imposing this one. Tolerate everything except intolerance once again.)

Sorry, one last thing :) If only you could edit your comments like you can on a web forum :)

"Are we to resolve our ethical decisions as a matter of numerical superiority? :) It's true, there are fewer anti-religious zealots than religious zealots - but that's in part because there are at least 3 times as many religious people as non-religious people in the world. Plus, are numbers really all this is about?"

We might have gotten sidetracked in the to-and-fro of comment and reply.

The original point was that a secular viewpoint is "less likely" to impose restrictions on a child's access to other religions. Of course, "less likely" when applied to a population means that there will be some, just less.

Your reply that there are more religious people, and thus more religious zealots was a sidestep, using absolute numbers when I was talking about -relative- numbers.

"You make the claim that it is "fairly rare" for a non-religious parent (I'm dodging your use of secular, as this term can mean several different things) to block a child from learning about religion, and "more likely" for a parent from a religious background to block learning about other religions. I'm not sure of the basis for this claim"

My reasoning is that a non-religious viewpoint is inherently pluralist. It might be condescending ("religion is a comforting delusion that can be dangerous when taken to the extreme.") but it's hard to teach your children to be open minded, analyse all information, and seek out truth, and then simultaneously ban an entire subject from them.

Whereas a religious viewpoint (for the major religions, at least) is inherently exclusive - any attempt to make it otherwise is to water down the original message.

It's certainly possible to teach your children about the absolute truth of your religion whilst encouraging them to study all others, but people who actually want their children to follow their religion tend not to do that :P

And I -do- make the distinction between an outright ban vs. an expression of value judgement (especially one backed by reasoning).

zeech: I can't say much here, because you have left me so many comments I have to ration my time! :)

"Everyone values autonomy"

To some extent, but non-believers in the West (including, bizarrely, Australia!) prioritise autonomy as a value, whereas there are many ethical positions where there are values higher than autonomy. I hope to dig into this further at some point in the near future.

"Whereas my expression of that same freedom is to passionately defend every child's right not to have a religion or value system imposed upon them."

I will be posting a new piece that covers this on Thursday this week, if everything goes smoothly, so perhaps we can discuss this point then?


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