Thursday, August 18, 2011

Moral One-Upmanship, Psychological Health, and Avoiding Hypocrisy

I just finished reading two blog posts back-to-back. The first, by Sarah Hippolitus on Secular Perspectives, focused on "The Psychological Harms of Traditional Christian Belief." The second, by my friend Arni Zachariassen, made an impassioned case against opportunistic moral one-upmanship in the debate between atheists and theists.

After I'd finished reading the post on Secular Perspectives, I found myself immediately wanting to write a series of blog posts addressing each of her six main claims about how Christian teachings damage psychological health--arguing, in effect, that for each of the teachings she brings under the crosshairs, much hinges on how the teaching is understood or interpreted. Her claims strike me as identifying dangers realized to greater or lesser degrees in some Christian communities--but not as identifying problems that are endemic to every expression of the Christian faith.

And in terms of the issue of psychological health, she completely ignores the empirical research that positively correlates religiosity (including its Christian forms) with happiness, at least in societies under stress and especially insofar as religiosity is linked to increases in religious experiences. There is little evidence, by contrast, to suggest that religiosity in general has a negative effect on happiness (in prosperous societies, the religious and non-religious seem to be comparably happy with their lives). In failing to consider such evidence, she also fails to ask crucial questions. Given here reasons for thinking that the specific doctrines she targets, interpreted as she interprets them, shouldn't be expected to promote psychological health--and given that these reasons seem quite compelling in the abstract--mightn't we conclude either that most Christians don't interpret these teachings in the way Hippolitus does, or that there are compensating psychological benefits to Christian belief and practice?

In other words, I found myself inspired to devote weeks of time and effort demostrating that her treatment is oversimplified and ends up throwing out the baby with the bathwater...something that anyone with any kind of rich understanding of Christianity already knows.

And then I read Arni's post. His post begins with what must have been a rather shocking doscovery: an internet acquaintance of his had been arrested on child pornography and child rape charges--and had confessed to at least some of these crimes. The acquaintance, as it happened, was not merely an atheist but "a bit of an atheist activist." What Arni notes is how easily and readily this latter fact might have been invoked as an opportunity for what he calls "moral one-upmanship" in the contemporary God debates. One gets the sense that, at least for a moment, Arni was tempted to do exactly this.

But the reality, as he points out, is that theists and atheists alike have been guilty of horrific offenses against their fellow human beings, and blaming someone's atheism or religion for their moral failings really doesn't capture the truth about the human condition, in which the temptation to do awful things is ubiquitous, and neither belief in God not belief in a naturalistic worldview has any special claim on making us better or worse. More significantly, Arni saw that using this horror as an opportunity for theistic one-upmanship "would represent precisely that curving in on oneself that Christian theology describes in the doctrine of sin. Because as much as I’d love to score some argumentative points and feel good about myself in all my moral superiority, doing so would be a betrayal of what morality is really about."

And what is morality about? "Morality is something you do, first and foremost. Only later is it something you talk about." Arni's point is not about moral theorizing. He is not saying that one shouldn't consider and push arguments concerning the greater adequacy of theistic (or naturalistic) accounts of morality. He finds theistic accounts of our moral experience more satisfactory, and is ready and willing to explain why.

But there is a difference between saying that a theistic worldview does a better job of accounting for morality than atheistic ones, and saying that theists are more moral than atheists. One might believe that God accounts for goodness, but it doesn't follow from this that one cannot be good without believing in God. What Arni is asking for is not the end to debates about the possibility of adequately grounding moral concepts in naturalistic worldviews. That isn't what "moral one-upmanship" is about. Moral one-upmanship occurs when a theist or atheist says, "We're morally better than you are! Nya, nya!"

Morality in the first instance is something we do. When we use moral standards more for judging others than for guiding our own behavior, we have taken the first step towards abandoning morality. And this is precisely what we do when we engage in moral one-upmanship.

So what does all of this have to do with Hippolitus's essay? It seems to me pretty clear that in secular circles, the concept of psychological health has come to occupy much of the same normative space historically occupied by moral language. Psychological health is a central action-guiding value, both in terms of self-development and in terms of the treatment of others. Now I don't make this point in order to criticize it. I think that psychological health is a very important value, one that should play an important action-guiding role. Although I don't think it can stand alone as a foundation for morality, my purpose here is not to attack secular moral theory but simply to note that there is a presumptive moral theory at work in secular circles, even when it is not named as such. Practically speaking, psychological health serves as a basis for utilitarian-style moral decision-making.

Seen in this light, Hippolitus's essay amounts to an exercize in just the sort of moral one-upmanship that Arni is criticizing. She is focused on attributing moral failings to Christians--arguing that their teachings undermine psychological health--rather than looking inward to explore how secular humanists can become morally better themselves.

But as soon as I say this I find myself confronting the specter of hypocrisy. If moral one-upmanship is itself a kind of "sin," then am I not simply focusing here on the sins of secular humanists like Hippolitus and ignoring my own? But then again, how can any of us avoid talking about the failings of others? Sometimes, at least, it seems that showing a proper respect for oneself demands that one point out the unfairness of what others are doing.

And here, then, is the lesson: It isn't that we should never point out the moral failings of others. After all, sometimes outsiders are in a better position to notice our moral failings than we are. If we want to work on being moral, we need the perspective that others can provide. And often, those who are best able to provide it are outsiders. As such, not only should I invite others to tell me when they think I've fallen short in some morally significant way (hopefully in a charitable spirit aimed at helping to lift me up morally, rather than for the sake of knocking me down), but I should also return the favor (again, in a constructive spirit, recognizing that I could be mistaken in my judgment about them).

The crucial point is that all this external criticism has got to aim at motivating internal self-reflection and growth. Thus, criticism must be offered in a spirit that is likely to promote such self-refection and growth rather than promoting defensiveness; criticism should be received with an eye towards self-refection and growth even when it is delivered in a manner likely to produce defensiveness; and the criticism of others should always be subordinate to personal self-reflection and growth. This last point means not only that we should care more about our own moral condition than that of others, but that we should treat the moral condition of others as a kind of mirror. When I see someone commit a certain kind of wrong, I should ask myself, "When do I do that?"

It's not that we shouldn't criticize others. Rather, it's that all such criticism should be part of moving beyond oneself into a more communal standpoint in which the criticism serves the function of collective development. I criticize you in order to help you grow, and at the same time look inward to see how and where I might need a similar kind of growth.

If this is what we should be doing--and I think it is--then the defensive response to Hippolitus that I originally envisioned should be viewed with suspicion. Of course, there has to be a place for pointing out that attacks and criticisms are misguided. But again, this cannot be our priority. And, having already devoted a book to responding defensively (in a sense) to new atheist attacks on religion, it might be that a series of posts doing the same sort thing in response to a comparatively obscure blog post is a misdirection of my priorities.

In this case, at least, I might be better served using that obscure blog post as a mirror, or looking for that within Hippolitus's critique that isn't just confusion or overgeneralization--something that might just apply to my own brand of Christianity, or something that is a danger I might fall prey to if I don't remain vigilant.


  1. "Practically speaking, psychological health serves as a basis for utilitarian-style moral decision-making."

    This seems a bit confused. Secular morals are also about what we do, which comes before all theorizing, as you note, so doesn't need any basis at all, other than the normal cultivating & thinking process of being human.

    When theorizing, a secularist may put more weight on the intrinsic nature of humanity, as seen from evolutionary theory and psychology, to account for our tendencies that we either promote or repress. But the ultimate judging about which tendencies we value most and want to promote over others is not specific to the secular account.. it is always the same- what we most want for ourselves & for society by extension.

    We might have a society full of psychologically unhealthy people, (raised Catholic, if I wanted to get in a one-upping dig, perhaps!), who yet still share an ideal of how they want to treat each other, however thoroughly breached in practice, and work towards that ideal as best they can.

  2. Simul justus et peccator. There is no place for moral one-upsmanship. We need more Lutherans in the world!

    On a half-related note, I have been reading a bit more atheist literature lately and have been extremely put-off by the epistemological hubris I find there. Also, it seems like work from philosophers of science like Thomas Kuhn are mostly ignored. So, my question is, have you run across some atheist literature from people who aren't blind to issues like these? If so, who would you recommend reading?

  3. CPO- Whatever epistemological hubris you find in the atheist literature is put entirely to shame by that of the theistic fantasists. It typically goes.. you can't prove the negative of atheism, thus I can believe anything I like of my god- that he is all good, all-he, all-this, all-that, all-supernatural, mystically messaging, and no hell besides. Whatever I want is what I get, epistemologically speaking.

    Incidentally, have you any idea what goes on these days under the Lutheran rubric?

  4. Yeah, I'm aware of the Lutheran stuff. I'm not looking to argue here, just looking to learn. Hubris is everywhere.

    What I'm trying to say is, if a person believes:
    1. All knowing is perspectival and limited, and "reality" is constructed by a person.
    2. There is no such thing as a bare, uninterpreted fact.
    3. Science is a thoroughly subjective and human enterprise, colored by the presuppositions, prejudices, and wants and desires of its practitioners, just like every other human enterprise.

    Then, can that person be an atheist? Are there atheists out there who believe such things and write about it, or have they all bought hook, line, and sinker into the objectivity of science and human knowing?

    Again, not looking to debate the merits of such beliefs, just wondering if any atheists believe and write from that perspective.

  5. I don't think that atheists would generally regard science as "thoroughly subjective", since that is an extreme view. Incorrect, I would say. The better way to put it is that science has generated highly accurate views of many aspects of reality, and in general creates views which reside on various positions of the asymptotic curve towards "true" descriptions of reality.

    For instance, gravitational mechanics is pretty well-worked out and not a matter of subjectivity. So while science is done by humans, the public process of proposal, critique, testing, and disposal is a ratchet that gets us closer to fulfilling a correspondence theory of truth- where what we are trying to correspond to is reality- that objective thing outside our will / mind / imagination.

    Something like psychology is much lower down on the asymptotic curve. We can describe quite a few tidbits and factoids, but can't model such a complex mess very effectively (yet). What scientists have to say about it (productively) tends to keep to very circumscribed areas where some variable can be isolated or manipulated. Attempts to come up with grander approaches (Freud) are highly suspect, frequently turning out to be total failures.

    That said, a science of psycology still has a lot going for it, particularly in its foundation in evolution, which places the origin and development of our minds in a continuous, animal context that is highly informative about our current condition.

    I think Michael Ruse might be one of your more sympathetic atheists, but he still isn't going to agree with your subjective view of science. He concludes.. "'First, if the claim is that all contemporary evolutionism is merely an excuse to promote moral and societal norms, this is simply false."

  6. Burk,

    C.P.O was asking the following: IF (among other things) one has a subjective view of science (in the sense of believing that all our scientific conclusions reflect to some extent our presuppositions and desires), can a person THEN be an atheist? Are there atheists who start from that kind of foundation and defend their atheism from such a foundation? Or does a defense of atheism rely on a foundation that displays far more confidence in our ability to "get at" uninterpreted reality (among other things, by way of scientific investigation)?

    That most atheists don't adopt a "thorough" subjectivism with regard to science doesn't really address this question, although it would be an interesting sociological fact.

    With respect to this question, my immediate thought is Sartre--but for him, atheism operates more as a premise (he once described his existentialism as an attempt to fully work out what it means for there to be no God). Another name that comes to mind is Richard Rorty--although he was never exactly an apologist for atheism, and at one point said he wished he'd described himself as "anti-clerical" rather than as "atheist." For him, the question of God's existence was just never a living option.

  7. Yes, sorry to leap all over this one. I suspect the best place to look might be on the extreme left wing, to people like Žižek or other way-out postmodernists.

    They would disbelieve or deconstruct all narrative, however earnestly propounded and backed with so-called evidence. But you would have to go to some serious extremes to find this.

  8. Well, some of that went over my brain because though a writer, I have been a news writer, not an academic. However, I really appreciate the comment, "morality is what we do." I get frustrated with attorneys sometimes because thinking on strict legal lines does not mean one is thinking justly. The law and justice are two separate things. I agree that we do is very different from what we might be thinking. To simplify, as many 12-step programs assert, "walk your talk." Now, this is strictly my opinion, but we could do with quite a few fewer lawyers and quite few more people doing actual front line work. For instance, instead of pontificating about the law that applies, how about just getting out there and doing something just? Thank you again for making me think hard today. I appreciate that about your blog.

  9. Thanks Burk and Dr. Reitan, I appreciate the help. It gives me a good place to start.