Religion and Morality: You could do more

Immanuel Kant said, “Morality is not properly the doctrine of how we may make ourselves happy, but how we may make ourselves worthy of happiness.” In the past I was of the opinion that if a moral system makes people miserable, it is not a useful moral system at all, but I think perhaps I’m finally starting to grasp Kant’s meaning. Sometimes it takes me longer than I’d like to get things.

It seems to me now that there are two ways of viewing morality. First, we may seek out systems that give us guidance on how we may improve ourselves. Second, we may seek out systems that validate how we already are.

Over the past few decades (or is this problem much older?), we appear to have embraced a massive self-esteem movement that compels us to seek self-validation rather than self-reflection and self-criticism. Christian mega-churches now teach people that God wants them to be happy, so they should pursue whatever makes them happy: luxury homes, cars, vacations, or other possessions. No more are congregants taught the value of restraint and humility. Thus, immediate and intense gratification is combined with the arrogance of ones who must not be questioned. It is not that I want to see medieval flagellants in the streets, but humble servitude and stewardship might be a nice change. I do realize, of course, that such meek worshipers still exist, but they are too quiet to gain so much notice.

And many people who claim to be interested in Buddhism say that it helps them stay centered. By this, they mean, as far as I can tell, that it helps them cope with the stresses life throws their way. But Buddhism as I understand it teaches discipline and awareness of the suffering of life. Suffering is universal, and relief from suffering must also be universal. To relieve your own suffering, you must stop believing in your “own” suffering and work to relieve universal suffering through loving kindness that pervades all your actions, words, and thoughts.   Your relief comes from the kindness you show others and your restraint from pursuing selfish desires, not from freeing your mind of unpleasant thoughts.

Finally, those who are not religious often turn to moral philosophy as a source of comfort. Rather than evaluating a moral system to see how sound it is and what advice it can offer for living a life that is good, proper, and noble, we read for a philosophy that exalts someone who is very much the way we already are.

When corporate leaders and other public figures are criticized for immoral behavior, they often react angrily and declare that it is their critics who are acting inappropriately. Of course, not all criticisms are valid, so sometimes they are correct, but imagine a world where the same people responded with an air of humility. We’ve entered an age where we constantly demand apologies of anyone in the public who says something we don’t like. I find apologies on demand to be extremely unsatisfying. I would much rather hear someone say, “I try to be a good person, but sometimes I make mistakes. I would ask you to show me the same forbearance and forgiveness that I promise to show you.” And maybe we can all set to the task of improving ourselves and our world.

Why my students love Ayn Rand

I think my Introduction to Ethics class is fairly typical. We start with Epicurus and work our way through Aristotle, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Immanuel Kant. After those heavy hitters, I try to lighten things up with some essays from contemporary philosophers (in the most general interpretation of the term). So, after reading some Kant, I move to an interview with Ayn Rand for a little break.

This may not be such as good tactic. When I first chose the assignment, I did so because the interview reveals Rand’s beliefs in a way that is stark and easily digested. I assumed anyone reading it would agree with me that her philosophy is reprehensible, and I would be serving the greater good of humanity by having them exposed to it. I try not to reveal my biases in class, and I really don’t want to tell them what to believe. I just hope they will hate Rand. I’m less concerned about what they will like.

Nonetheless, I always have a few students who declare that Rand is the first reading they have liked. I ask probing questions hoping to find that maybe they didn’t really get what she was saying, simplistic as it is, but I generally have to concede that they really do like what she says. As a result, I think I have created a small band of ardent Rand supporters over the years. The Tea Party can thank me. And I think I’ve identified the two reasons she is so popular with students:

1. As I mentioned, the assignment is easy to read and digest. After slogging through Mill and Kant, I can certainly understand why they would be relieved to find something they can understand on the first pass, even if the reading completely flies in the face of their supposed religious convictions. But the second point is more meaningful to me.

2. Rand is easy in another sense as well. She really doesn’t demand much of her readers. She tells them they must be selfish and pursue only what is truly gratifying to them. Now, Epicurus said that they should seek a pleasurable life through contemplation and serious examination of the world around them with great respect for their community. Aristotle tells them they must practice constantly to become virtuous in a way that will enable not only their personal flourishing but the success of their society. Mill tells them to seek their own pleasure but that they will derive the greatest satisfaction from pleasures that require much practice and refinement to achieve. And Kant tells them they can’t lie under any circumstances. Furthermore, they must help people who are worse off than they are. To follow Kant or any of the others, they would have to put out a great deal of effort to change how they live, but to follow Rand’s advice they don’t see that much more effort is required. In their minds, at least, they are already living Rand’s ideal life. And, they get to feel pretty self-righteous comparing themselves to recipients of government aid (my students do not consider low community college tuition to be a form of government support).

I suppose I am hopelessly naive to think my students will take my class looking for hints on possible self improvement. They are seeking validation for their current lifestyles, not ideas on how to improve.

Except when they are not seeking the easy way. It is easy for teachers to get discouraged and forget all the talented and hard working students who are in constant search of new information and new challenges. Many of my students have now gone on from the community college to universities and graduate school. They have admirable careers in fields such as law, science, health, and social work. I am humbled by them.

For further reading:
1. 10 (insane) things I learned about the world reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged
2. How Ayn Rand Seduced Generations of Young Men and Helped Make the US into a Selfish, Greedy Nation

Arthur Levitt “Defends” Goldman Sachs

Arthur Levitt, the former Securities and Exchange Commission chairman and a senior adviser to Goldman Sachs, says no one puts customer’s first and the firm should stop saying they do. He says this in response to Greg Smith’s op-ed published on the day of his departure from Goldman Sachs. Smith, of course, said that Goldman Sachs was disrespectful of clients and did not put their interests first. Levitt thinks it is wrong to expect financial services firms to put the interests of clients ahead of their own. That would be unreasonable, and anyone who doesn’t understand that is just too stupid to even be doing business, apparently. Levitt said, “That’s not to stay that buyers should beware. It is to say there should be transparency. But on the other hand, let’s not create a fellowship of buyers and sellers that will march into the sunset.”

What he is saying, I think, is that the most successful firms are also the most ruthless. If they put their clients first, they will fail. This is the same reason so many athletes use performance-enhancing drugs. It isn’t that it is right; it is just that everyone is doing it, so it has become necessary to compete. More regulation and oversight might help financial services, but this doesn’t seem to occur to Levitt.

But it does occur to Matt Taibbi, reporter for Rolling Stone magazine. Way back on May 11, 2011, Taibbi reported on Wall Street and the Financial Crisis: Anatomy of a Financial Collapse, the 650-page report just released by the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan, alongside Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. From Taibbi’s article:

“But the mountain of evidence collected against Goldman by Levin’s small, 15-desk office of investigators — details of gross, baldfaced fraud delivered up in such quantities as to almost serve as a kind of sarcastic challenge to the curiously impassive Justice Department — stands as the most important symbol of Wall Street’s aristocratic impunity and prosecutorial immunity produced since the crash of 2008.”

But we shouldn’t be too critical, right?

It seems absurd to even have to write about this in an ethics blog. Is there any ethical question here? The fact that anyone would defend fraud and client abuse is a sad indication of our current state of moral decay. How do we revive a sense of honor and decency in corporate executives? How do we weave a new moral fabric and replace the one that is soiled and rent?


On Lying

Anyone who has taught an introductory course in ethics has discussed the morality of lying, and most of us find that few people endorse an absolute prohibition against lying. Though we like to reject “situation ethics,” we tend to say that whether one should lie “depends on the situation.”

Lies (Photo credit: Gerard Stolk (vers l’Avent))

Against Kant’s absolute prohibition of lying, we offer the Murderer at the Door who wants to kill our innocent children. Surely, we should lie to throw the murderer off the trail of our children and, one would hope, into the hands of the police. This kind of lie is justified because it saves or has the potential to prevent great harm, or so it seems to some of us who don’t find Kant compelling.

On the other end of the spectrum, we find ourselves wanting to demand the truth even when dishonesty (or withholding the truth) appears harmless. We have the case of police who have taken embarrassing photos of an assault victim to be used as evidence against the perpetrator but who then use the photos for the amusement of themselves and their colleagues. The victim may never be affected by this secondary use of the photos so long as the victim remains completely unaware of them. Doing such a thing seems quite wrong, though, or at least it does for me.

In relationships, we have all kinds of information that could help or hurt our partners. Should we tell them what their friends have said about them behind their backs? Should we go so far as to tell a complete lie (“No, Susan has never said an unkind word about you!)? Learning every detail of what your friends and colleagues have said about you is likely to be painful at best. I personally recommend sheltering yourself from this as much as possible. I also think it is possible to share too much information.

On the other hand, if your friends are so hateful towards you that they cannot be considered friends, you might want to know that. So, we are tempted to say we want complete honesty except when it is more painful or harmful than a lie. This leads to the problem that we do not always know what is better or worse in the end. Lies have unintended consequences, and we feel responsible for their consequences while we do not feel personally responsible for the consequences of the truth, although many people have said something along the lines of “I never should have told the truth!”

So, we are left with decisions based on the context and situation. We must choose between protecting someone’s feelings and offering full disclosure. There are a number of things we can consider in our decisions. First, I think we may consider how the other person will react if the dishonesty is discovered. Many people have said that if their death is imminent, they would want their friends and family to lie to them.

We can also consider our own motivation for the lie. Are we lying to protect others or to protect ourselves from taking responsibility for our own actions? When we are only trying to cover our own footprints to avoid having to confront truths about ourselves or our actions, I think the lie is most likely not justified.

Finally, as much as consequences cannot be predicted, we really must think of what outcome we are trying to achieve. In many ways, this last consideration echoes the first two, but it deserves a little focus on its own. We must think of what good the lie may produce if it is believed and what pain it may produce if it is exposed. I suppose we must also attempt to evaluate what pain may result if a lie is believed. (E.g., what is the harm in telling people they will live 10 years when you know they have only a few hours left?)

How happy should you be?

I’ve never considered myself a strict Utilitarian in the narrowest sense of the term, but I always believed that suffering is generally a bad thing and that relieving suffering when possible is morally laudable. I still believe this for the most part, but lately I see myself in a dilemma of sorts. I have rejected all arguments for the necessity of suffering offered by theodicists, for I do not find belief in God to be more plausible based on the idea that suffering is the product of love and mercy from a being who only wants to motivate spiritual development and love for the good in people. I would be more able to imagine a merciful God who neglected to create life at all out of concern that life would entail suffering.

Given the fact that life with its attendant suffering is here (and unnecessary, in my opinion), I find myself agreeing that suffering does seem to be an essential element in developing any sort of moral worth. When I’ve met people, usually quite young, who have never faced financial difficulty, disease, or loss of a loved one, I generally find these people to be underdeveloped. They also seem unaware of the basic truths of life. The lack of suffering in their own lives makes them indifferent to the suffering of others. While most people believe we can’t take all the problems of the world on our shoulders, we also believe it is wrong to be “too happy” in the face of pain and suffering, but it is our own suffering that brings meaning to our experience of the suffering of others. We can never know the pain of others, but our own pain can make us care about what others may be experiencing. I realize some people experience pain and remain stubbornly egocentric, but I believe those who never experience any pain are likely to be incapable of placing any value on the pain of others. At least, they are unable to develop a fully empathic individuals.

All of this is said really to argue against the idea that we should be as cheerful as possible at all times. An old movie asked what is so bad about feeling good at a time when gloominess was trendy. Now, especially in the U.S., we have banished sadness, even when sadness is appropriate. We rush to the pharmacist when we experience the loss of a loved one, the breakup of a relationship, or even more minor life changes. We are attempting to deny the experiences that make us human.

My feeling on this surprises me. When I was much younger, I read many of the existentialist philosophers. I knew then that the brute force of one’s own existence could lead only to anxiety and, in the words of Sartre and others, anguish. I remember now that Heidegger would have us find an authentic existence by contemplating our own death, an experience that pushes the superficial features of life out of our consciousness. Camus would have us constantly justify our existence by defending our choice to not commit suicide every day. For Sartre, the happy people could not be said to even exist in any meaningful sense–just automata going through the motions of life.

When I think of what it means to love or care about someone, I can’t imagine this emotion without pain. (I must add that I wish I could write this without hearing the strains of “Love Hurts,” but so be it.) We love our parents, our children, and, of course, our lovers, and each relationship is laced with deep pain, fear, worry, and uncertainty. The joy we get from these relationships can’t possibly outweigh the pain, but we find it worth the effort. Perhaps the pain intensifies the joy. It may be that the more pain we feel, the more we love. The more we love, the more we care for others. The more we care for others, the less pain we hope they will feel.

I’ve led myself to a paradox I cannot resolve. And I feel vaguely peaceful about it.

Commodifying Mindfulness

I attended a presentation last week on the use of mindfulness in marriage and family therapy. I don’t know a lot about Buddhism and would never claim to be an expert. What I do know of Siddhartha Gautama leads me to view his writings as moral writings. In other words, I do not see them as a guide to the good life but as a guide to how to be good. I may have missed the point here, and I’m glad to be corrected, if anyone reads his words differently. I also realize there is room for interpretation. Nonetheless, I don’t think his goal was to teach people to have a more pleasurable existence or to achieve greater success in business. I also wonder as to whether he intended to help people improve their marriages, considering that he abandoned his wife and son when he left for his journey to confront suffering in the world.

Statue representing Siddhartha Gautama.
Statue representing Siddhartha Gautama. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The presenter I saw began by mentioning Siddhartha. He said, correctly, that there were four noble truths, but he did not mention what the first three were (they have to do with life as suffering or sorrow, the causes of sorrow, and the extinction of sorrow). The fourth truth is Siddhartha’s dharma, or teaching of “the way.” The word “dharma” is not specific to Gautama. Anyway, Buddha suggests we can achieve enlightenment by following an eightfold path. The presenter I saw mentioned only the seventh fork on the eightfold path, which is mindfulness.

By doing this, he ignored all the negative precepts of Buddha’s teaching. He left out the stuff about avoiding sexual misconduct (interpret how you will), lying, gossiping, killing animals (vegetarianism seems recommended), and a number of other things. Now, Buddhism, as I understand it, has no commandments, so no one is obligated to be a celibate vegetarian who never speaks, but these are suggestions as to how one might find enlightenment, the goal of which is extinction of individual consciousness. Once we are freed from the cycle of samsara, we will pass into a state of universal awareness, which negates the awareness of any individual.

Given that Buddhism does not recognize the existence of individuals and views all sorrow as universal sorrow, it seems unlikely that Gautama intended to help people achieve individual fulfillment. Indeed, when we take action to relieve suffering, the good of the action is not the good of an individual but the good of the universe. Similarly, the suffering of an individual is only (!) the suffering of the universe. To be freed from this suffering, we must no longer think of the individual, we must not think of our selves. So long as we do, life, which is sorrow itself, will continue.

A universe without suffering is a universe without life in it, least of all life that is conscious and driven by individual needs and desires. In Buddha’s scheme, mindfulness is one tool to help achieve this ego-less state. It is a moral guideline. It is not a way to focus on our goals and what is keeping us from them. It is not a way to relax. It is not a way to be happier. It is a way to be good and right. While I am not a Buddhist and will most likely never become one, I still respect the efforts of people to be better people. Buddha abandoned his family and friends to try to save the universe. Maybe he made the right choice, and maybe he did not, but I feel using mindfulness in a superficial manner is disrespectful of the effort. Using Buddha’s teaching to make money is even more offensive to me, but I suppose I’m easily offended.

Can we talk?

In recent months (perhaps years, now), it seems the religious and irreligious are divided more severely than ever. In response to demands that intelligent design be taught in schools or that evolution not be taught, writers such as Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins have taken religious thinkers and writers to task, attacking religious thought with unbridled enthusiasm. Their writings serve more as a rallying cry than as discourse and, as such, probably exaggerate the true gap between believers and non-believers in our society. Some of the religious seem equally enamored of raising arms against the other side. The Terri Schaivo “debate” quickly devolved into nothing more than grandstanding, posturing, and provocation for combat. With no background knowledge of our society, one would think pluralism had only happened moments ago and that any kind of discourse between the two sides (indeed, there are far more than two sides, but such nuance is invisible at the moment) is impossible. A little reflection, however, will remind us that the United States, while not quite the rich and diverse mosaic some dream it has been, is a country that has managed discussion between divergent groups in the past. The founders of our country were both religious and secular. Although a fair amount of strife resulted, discussion and compromise were always seen as real possibilities. It is possible that a way forward still exists.

When asked who would be an authority on matters of morality, most members of the public, in the United States at least, would first mention members of the clergy. More sophisticated individuals might know to mention theologians specifically. Few people would think to mention philosophers, especially not secular or, worse, atheistic philosophers. In The Elements of Moral Philosophy, James Rachels says:
“It is not unusual for priests and ministers to be treated as moral experts. Most hospitals, for example, have ethics committees, and these committees usually include three types of members: healthcare professionals to advise about technical matters, lawyers to handle legal issues, and religious representatives to address moral questions.”
So, most people in the U.S. believe morality and religion are inseparable. Rachels refers to Plato’s Euthyphro to question whether God’s morality is arbitrary or rational. If actions or values are good only because God commanded them, then morality is arbitrary, or so the argument goes. If God commanded actions and values because they are good, then God’s morality is rational. Rachels quotes Gottfried Leibniz saying that the latter must be true. He says, “For why praise him for what he has done if he would be equally praiseworthy in doing exactly the contrary.” If God’s actions are rational and not arbitrary, then any rational person should have an equal ability to examine moral questions on the basis of reasoned argument. Rachels’ argument is that atheists and secularists should be included in moral discourse.
It is surprising, then, to find that the theologians Rachels felt have an undeserved place of privilege in moral discourse should complain that they have been left out of moral discussions, particularly with regard to bioethics. Courtney Campbell writes, “One unfortunate aspect of civic bioethics . . . is its incivility, including incivility toward religiously grounded opinions.” He also warns that religious bioethicists cannot retreat to the academy as, “the academy exhibits its own forms of intolerance toward religious expression.” Rachels and Campbell appear to be living in two different worlds, one hostile toward the secular and one hostile toward the religious. Authors on both sides declare that they must fight to be included in the discussion and be heard over the tyrannical forces of the opposing side.
Certainly, each side is correct in at least a surface view of discourse in the United States. Most people in the United States are religious, and their religious values are reflected in the public sphere. Some religious groups have shown clear forms of intolerance for opposing views. On the other hand, many professional philosophers are secular or atheistic, and a condescending attitude toward religion is perceptible to even beginning students in philosophy. Philosophers are a small minority, indeed, but their voices are disproportionately loud in the debates over bioethics, at least in part because they have made some provocative claims. How is a religious person to speak to a philosopher who claims it is permissible to kill babies and disabled adults but not animals? The fact that such a question is even asked must be enough to make some religious writers feel dialogue is hopeless.
James Gustafson describes three styles of religious discussion in medical ethics. The first is based on autonomy of religious views; most people would generally associate this view with an assertion of religious authority. When asserting authority, one is likely only to sway those of the same faith who feel compelled to follow the authority of its leaders. This is, of course, an important part of the moral work of many theologians, but it does not engage the wider community. The second style stresses continuity with the wider community. This style seeks to make religious positions intelligible both to those within and beyond a specific religious community. For example, a Catholic theologian may publish and article or give a speech intending to make the Catholic position on social welfare or just war comprehensible to non-Catholics. In doing so, some non-Catholics may come to agree and join with Catholics in support of or opposition to public policies. The final style is interaction, which is the only style in which the religious interlocutor is open to revising his or her original position. The interactive style is not for every writer or every occasion, but Gustafson notes that it is possible and can provide a space where the religious and the secular can converse about matters of medical morality.
J. Bryan Hehir discusses the role of the “public church.” In examining the proper role of Catholic bioethics, he notes that the Catholic Church “defines civil society as both an audience for its teaching and an object of its pastoral care.” From this prospective, theologians and others are obligated to engage the wider, pluralistic public on important matters of morality. He says that religious writers must be prepared to contend with a pluralistic society, a secular state, and a liberal philosophy of law. He notes the success of Martin Luther King in addressing the public on moral matters using rational argument that was not free from religious significance. However, biomedical issues seem especially intractable, particularly with regard to issues related to sanctity of life (e.g., abortion, suicide, euthanasia).
Given the steadfast opinions of individuals on both sides of the abortion debate, many have advised Catholic writers to focus attention on the ecclesial community. Hehir finds this dissatisfying as he advocates a public church, not a church that restricts its reach to its own enclave. He says, with some apparent pride, “The strategy may ultimately fail, but the failure will be that of a public church, rather than a decision by a once-public church to retreat within a purely ecclesial definition of its role.” The question is not whether the church succeeds or fails but whether it fulfills its duty to society as an object of pastoral care.
Hehir moves to another issue that may seem to be less of a problem for discussion between the church and the secular public: public access to health care. While religious language may be used to discuss health care, the general public can certainly understand the positions of the church, and the issues are not nearly so intractable as discussions of abortion, for example. On the surface, it seems that the church would be obligated to support efforts at providing heath care to all, but Hehir sees a problem. Many proposals for public access to health care include provisions for publicly funded abortions. He suggests that multiple strategies could be adopted but not in his short essay. Fortunately, Andrew Lustig expands on the discussion of health care rationing and reform, but the problem remains frustrating. Lustig recalls Christian teaching that demands universalizing love and care for one another, which would seem to require support for public access to health care, perhaps even globally. Nonetheless, he notes that U.S. bishops oppose any health care package that includes abortion. He calls for religious writers and others to invite their religious values to drive arguments expressed in non-parochial, or public, terms. He sees a possibility that religious values will “work their leaven upon the world” indirectly. How is a secularist to respond?
Two secular philosophers, Peter Singer and Peter Unger, have devoted much of their attention to the ethical use of the world’s resources. Both are motivated by a value shared by all Christian writer’s I am aware of: a value of preserving the lives of those who wish to live. Admittedly, some Christian writers would want to preserve lives in cases where someone might want to die, but it is possible to bracket that concern while discussing our individual obligation to others who do want to live. Singer and Unger both argue that taking care of the world’s most vulnerable people is an individual responsibility for everyone. While they both eschew religious language, others have pointed out that only Jesus seemed to have an ethic as demanding as Utilitarianism, requiring all in affluence to give to any who need assistance. Singer and Unger are both Utilitarians (a frequent straw man for non-Utilitarian ethicists) and argue that the interests of all must be considered equally (for Singer, the interest of animals must also be part of the calculus).
On the point of health care in particular, Singer questions the claim of Christians to value all lives equally. He challenges the notion, saying that to value all lives equally would mean spending as much money to save the lives of the world’s desperately poor as we spend saving premature infants and those in the last stages of life. Many of Singer’s positions are anathema to Christian thought and tradition, but on this point common ground seems possible. While not responding specifically to Singer and Unger, Edward Langerak gives an example of a kind of language that is distinctively religious yet still capable of engaging secular philosophers. He notes that religious covenant requires individuals to love their neighbors. He acknowledges that “the problem has usually been that people’s sense of obligation is too minimal for covenantal flourishing.” He quickly adds, “But some special covenants seem especially prone to encourage a ‘savior’ mentality in which persons lose themselves in a bottomless pit of others’ needs.” His language is decidedly religious, but it echoes secular arguments against the Utilitarian calculus. Both the Utilitarian and covenantal ethicist can “bury the self in the bottomless needs of others.”
James B. Tubbs grapples with the question of obligation to strangers. Tubbs exclaims, “Yet Jesus goes beyond the claim that needy strangers should be regarded in the manner in which God regards them. He suggests, in fact, that the needy stranger be regarded as the Son of Man himself!” Tubbs emphasizes this point further by admonishing that the encounter with the stranger should be seen as an encounter with the divine. He then moves to an examination of what it means to be a neighbor. He declares that our moral life is dependent on relationships with others, but he leaves off the discussion of what this relationship demands of us. It would not be difficult for the Utilitarian to agree that strangers shape our moral lives, but it seems more difficult for Utilitarians to turn away from what our relationships demand of us. In any case, it is not religious language or hostility to religious thought that prevents Utilitarians and religious writers from becoming interlocutors. One has no difficulty imagining a discourse on our obligations to strangers between the secular and the sectarian. A certain degree of consistency is of value in any moral tradition.
I have focused so far on obligations to strangers as it seems to me to be the most pressing medical issue for everyone. More than four million people die each year from starvation. Millions more die from treatable or preventable diseases. While academic bioethicists grapple with deep quandaries regarding patients and the role of the doctor at the bedside, most of the world would be improved greatly by having the luxury of becoming a patient rather than another statistic. War and its always-attendant famine kills far more people than withdrawal of treatment from impaired newborns or cessation of treatment for the cognitively impaired. This is not to dismiss the importance of discussions over transplantation and other hard questions, but the easy questions may be a good place for secular and sectarian interlocutors to begin a discussion. An infinitesimally small number of people discussing bioethics and medical humanities would claim that the loss of life is insignificant. Whether the author values life because it is a gift from God or because it is something individuals have developed an interest in maintaining, life is something to be preserved, at least in the cases where the living person values his or her life. Given the almost universal agreement with this statement, it seems that philosophers, theologians, and bioethicists of every stripe could work together not on whether life should be preserved but on how public policy can be shaped to help those who need medical care and cannot procure it. It has perhaps been avoided too often because the task is more daunting than deciding at what moment a dying person becomes a corpse with organs suitable for donation. Nonetheless, if we are to encounter strangers as our neighbors, we must gird ourselves for the struggle and prepare for a significant shift in how we view our fellow sufferers in the world.
If a discussion of helping the world’s neediest individuals seems possible among people of many faiths and philosophical dispositions, Leigh Turner’s example of blood transfusions will have us despair that no discussion is possible in other areas. To be sure, people from many backgrounds would agree that blood transfusions are often required to prolong lives. Many would see providing transfusions to be an obligation of the highest order. Turner points out that none of this rhetoric or consensus of most bioethicists will be of interest to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Turner warns, “Principlist and case-based approaches to moral deliberation typically exaggerate notions of common morality.” The point deserves consideration. It is naïve for any bioethicist to assume that any argument, no matter how well reasoned, will be accepted by all. Turner accuses bioethicists of ignoring the elephant in the room, but this conclusion may be rash. It could be that bioethicists, aware of the elephant in the room, persevere in the hope of lighting one candle rather than cursing the darkness.
It is no question that philosophers and theologians often talk past one another. Many religious concepts cannot be put into a language common enough for the secular and the sectarian. This should not mean, however, that the conversation should not begin. The “public church” should make its beliefs as clear as possible to even an unreceptive audience. The public intellectual should do the same. Resistance should come from all who have the strength of their convictions regardless of whether those convictions come from religious moral traditions or reasoned argument and reflection. Speaking one’s conviction publicly and arguing for it is itself a moral act. Tolerance and respect for diversity do not require us to stifle our voices. They require us to accept that other individuals have the same right and obligation we have to express their deeply held convictions and beliefs.
Public policy, on the other hand, must reflect the greatest respect for individual beliefs and convictions that cause no harm to others. To be sure, it is not easy to decide what beliefs cause harm to others. The case of blood transfusions from the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ point of view is a reminder that sometimes harm seems quite different when seen from different vantages. I personally am concerned about harm done to animals. I realize that most do not consider harm to animals to be harm at all. I join the relatively small group of individuals, mostly but not exclusively secular philosophers, in explaining why much of the harm to animals seems not only cruel but unnecessary. I have learned that the stronger claim that animals should not be harmed or used in research is almost universally rejected, but many people of various faiths and backgrounds accept that cruelty is an evil. Deontologists and virtue ethicists both reject cruelty to animals as a bad habit that could lead to cruelty to humans. Thus, Kant and Aquinas both reject direct obligations to animals but see humane treatment of animals as an indirect obligation to humans. Those with sufficient openness have been able to discuss this subject with respect and results. Globally, a shift toward more humane farming is underway even as factory farming continues to be the most profitable means of producing food.
We can and must engage one another in discourse with respect, tolerance, and courage. The debate will not always produce an answer that is accepted by all, but the lack of debate will always produce frustration and power struggles. Bioethicists are in a position to model such discourse for the larger society. This will require leaving the enclaves of institutions and entering the public sphere in a more visible manner. We must take care to live by the principles we espouse. Peter Singer has been criticized for donating only 20 percent of his salary. He admits he could do more but also points out that it would not be necessary if everyone living in affluence would give only one percent of her or his income. We have achieved nothing near this level of giving, but aid organizations did see a spike in donations after Singer’s essay on world poverty appeared in the New York Times. It is certain that atheist Singer managed to engage the religious with his argument. Discourse can have positive results.
Ronald Carson writes, “In covenant, one receives others as one receives a gift—in trust—and one passes the gift on in response to need, with due regard for the recipient, and without calculation.” Our fellow ethicists are in need of respectful interlocutors just as our fellow humans are in need of medical assistance. As bioethicists, medical humanists, and responsible human beings, we can help provide insight, assistance, and advocacy. We can join and be fully engaged in a moral community. This is the task at hand.

The Value of Simplicity

Many political, social, and religious movements advocate simple living as a way of reducing demand for financial resources, increasing spiritual awareness, and placing fewer demands on environmental resources. For some, simplicity is a matter of interior design or architecture that emphasizes a lack of clutter and distraction. For examples, consider some Buddhist monasteries and temples, and meeting houses of the Religious Society of Friends. Architects design buildings to help people focus on their own thoughts and revelations while meditating or praying. Some practitioners will extend simplicity of design to clothing, gardens, and other spaces. In some ways, this first concern focuses on the benefits to the individual, especially with regard to spiritual growth. The spiritual growth of the individual should then provide benefits for others or for the universe as a whole, or so some believe.

Another argument for simple living focuses primarily on what is good for others. By living simply, we can leave more resources for current inhabitants of the world, including animals, and for future generations. Our commitment to simplicity also takes us out of competition with our neighbors. We no longer struggle to have the best clothes, homes, or cars. If everyone practiced this type of simplicity, it is argued, we could feed the world’s hungry and provide medical care for the world’s sick. People as diverse as Buddha, Jesus, and philosopher Peter Singer have argued for simplicity as a moral imperative.

These two arguments for simplicity cannot be separated. The spiritual growth or enlightenment of the individual should benefit others and be aimed, ultimately, at relieving suffering and providing comfort. The benefit of meditation and prayer is not to be a sense of calm or relaxation. The goal is to be a better person, not to feel better. I should perhaps qualify this last sentence and say that I believe the goal of meditation and prayer should be to become a better person rather than a more relaxed person. A feeling of calm can help one see reality with greater clarity, but calm in itself is not the end goal of meditation. Right thought is necessary to produce right action, and right action is driven by compassion for all that suffer, which is to say all that live.

The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) has a long and rich tradition of simplicity (known as the “Testimony of Simplicity”). From the inception of the tradition, Friends met in unadorned buildings, wore plain clothing, and waited in silence to be inspired by the “light within.” The benefits of simplicity were described in the 17th century by Quaker William Penn:

“Personal pride does not end with noble blood. It leads people to a fond value of their persons, especially if they have any pretense to shape or beauty. Some are so taken with themselves it would seem that nothing else deserved their attention. Their folly would diminish if they could spare but half the time to think of God, that they spend in washing, perfuming, painting and dressing their bodies. In these things they are precise and very artificial and spare no cost. But what aggravates the evil is that the pride of one might comfortably supply the needs of ten. Gross impiety it is that a nation’s pride should be maintained in the face of its poor. ”

It was important to Penn that the money saved on adornments could be used to help those in need. Recently, pride has come to be seen as a virtue, but William Penn obviously considered pride to be a sin that encumbered any attempt to achieve justice or moral goodness.

Another Quaker, Richard Gregg, was equally clear on the value of simplicity in 1936. He said:

To give a concrete instance of what I mean by unity and disunity, it would be consistent with a real awareness of human unity if I should invite into my house for a meal and a night’s lodging a starving man who has knocked at my door. But if my rugs are so fine that I am afraid his dirty shoes may ruin them, I hesitate. If I have many valuable objects of art or much fine silverware, I also hesitate for fear he may pocket some of them or tell men who may later steal them from the house. If my furniture and hangings bespeak great wealth I mistrust him lest he hold me up; or perhaps if I am less suspicious and more courageous and more sensitively imaginative, I fear lest the contrast between his poverty and my abundance will make him secretly envious, or resentful, or bitter, or make him feel ill at ease. Or perhaps he is so very dirty that I fear he has vermin, and I am revolted by that thought and am so far from him humanly that I do not know how to deal with him humanely. In this case it is clear that my lack of simplicity acts as a barrier between him and me. The prolonged lack of simplicity of our whole society has increased the distance between his thoughts, feelings and ways, and mine, and so adds to the social barrier. That troubles me.

It is clear that Richard Gregg saw acquisition of “things” to be a problem. While forced poverty is not the goal of simplicity, detachment from items of material value is a goal of simplicity. Attachment to expensive housing, artwork, clothing, or other ornaments interferes with one’s ability to act morally. The money saved can be used to help the plight of those suffering in the world, and the lack of attachment to ornaments frees one from being “owned” by one’s own property. It also means that one does not need to live in debt or with obligations to others. It means one is not required to ask for gifts from others who may or may not be dishonorable. In this sense, simplicity is both a form of liberation and a method for helping to liberate others from poverty or extreme suffering. The teaching on simplicity by Friends is rather unambiguous.

A 2001 New York Times article describes how the Live Oak Friends Meeting in Houston, Texas came to build a $1.5 million meeting house based on the principles of simplicity. The article notes that the 100 members of the meeting raised $500,000 through internal efforts and the remaining $1 million came from donations from “individuals, corporations and foundations making contributions to a nonprofit corporation set up for the purpose of the project.” The article does not specify who the individuals, corporations, and foundations were or whether they were screened for social responsibility.

The meeting house was designed by architect Leslie Elkins, but the cost is due largely to the James Turrell “skyspace” integrated into the meeting house. Turrell is a Quaker artist who uses light as his medium. The skyspace is like an open-air atrium with a retractable roof. When the skyspace is open, there is simply an open square in the center of the ceiling. Anyone can look at a section of the sky at any time for no cost at all, of course. Turrell creates an aesthetic experience of light in the sky in the same way my favorite composer, John Cage (influenced by Taoism and not a Quaker), creates an aesthetic experience of silence for audiences. The value of the art, as Taoists would say, lies in what is not there.

At Turrell’s insistence, any trees that obstructed the view through the skyspace were cut down. Turrell’s art, and the skyspace, attract visitors from around the world. Visitors may view the skyspace for free but donations are accepted. At the insistence of the artist, photography is not allowed as the rights to any images of the skyspace are retained by James Turrell.

Due to the expense of repairs to the skyspace and the cost of the building, the members of the meeting are understandably concerned with protecting the investment in this work of art. When I say “understandably,” I mean to imply that Richard Gregg, for example, would understand.

The meeting house follows simplicity by design. Does it fulfill the testimony of simplicity as described by William Penn and Richard Gregg? Could $1.5 million be better spent? Does the skyspace serve a greater purpose of promoting social justice and environmental sustainability in the world? I think the questions are worth considering, even six years after the fact.

Randall Horton

Conceptual difficulties regarding God

Many people are committed to the idea of theism. When a person claims to be a theist, though, we learn nothing regarding the person’s position to any particular conception of God, so all we know about this person is that she prefers to not be described as an atheist. Some people are intentionally vague claiming only that there is “something bigger than myself” or that there are universal mysteries that the human mind cannot comprehend. Others claim that they cannot conceive of ethical principles being true without the existence of some God, so God must exist in order to be good. It is not possible to prove these claims right or wrong because they are incoherent.

When one refers to the mystery of the universe, for example, what claim can such a person possibly make by this statement? The universe is, indeed, quite large and complicated. The human mind has many limitations that prevent any accurate perception of the universe. We can imagine that there is a mind that can perceive the universe, but we cannot imagine constructing any argument or test that would give evidence of this infinite, or at least quite large and complicated, mind. The only thing as large and complicated at the universe is the universe, unless we conceive of God to be larger and more complicated than the universe, then the mystery would be how something smaller than something else could come to be called the universe, for “universe” seems to be an all-encompassing term. If God is larger and more complicated that what we know is the universe, then the universe is not universal, and God is the universe, whatever that may be.

Now, we can claim that God does encompass all and also claim that with out limited minds we can observe and understand at least parts of God (the part that commands or desires us to be kind to one another, for example), but when we observe things in this way, we must always be aware that God’s observations may not look at all like our observations of even small and simple matters. Unfortunately, humans cannot see any perspective other than the human perspective. We could even challenge this view further and say that one cannot perceive any perspective other than one’s own.

The fact that we have perceptions, though, is evidence for some that God is necessary. All perceptions must come from somewhere, so there is a source for all of experience. Some call that source of perception God, but reasons for calling it “God” are not readily apparent. This appears to be motivated only by desire for something that can be called “God.” That our perceptions exist cannot be denied, for we cannot deny what we are experiencing. It seems natural to assume that all perceptions (and everything else in the world) has a cause, but this is a notoriously problematic claim.

Language and the Content of Belief

Language and the Content of Belief

If language is a core feature of consciousness, our conscious thoughts, expressed in language, should accurately reflect our belief states, and we should be able to accurately determine the contents of at least our own beliefs. Further, we should be able to freely affect what our belief states are through rational analysis. It is this ability that creates in us a sense of moral agency and responsibility. Through rational analysis and argument, we can form beliefs that are appropriate and honorable. If we assume other humans are more or less like us, we may also be able to extend this ability to other humans through inference and analogy. Ascribing content to the beliefs of non-human animals would be riskier business, unless we found animals that could use our language. If language is a core feature of consciousness, then a machine that could use human language as a human might use language would have achieved human consciousness. On the other hand, if language is a more distal feature of consciousness, ascribing content to our own beliefs might be as risky as ascribing content to the beliefs of other humans, animals, and machines. Our moral decisions may be determined by something other than rational analysis. Our moral views may be the product of evolution, not reason. I will argue that many of our beliefs and thoughts are unconscious, and we attempt to ascribe content to our beliefs by the same inferences we make to ascribe content to others. To say we know our own minds is only to say that we are aware of our minds, not to claim that we know the specific content of our beliefs.

Human language brings clarity and understanding to human thoughts and beliefs. In fact, many have argued that without language, humans have no capacity for thought or belief. Descartes expresses a firm conviction that language is necessary for any thought:

There has never been an animal so perfect as to use a sign to make other animals understand something which bore no relation to its passions; and there is no human being so imperfect as not to do so. . . . The reason animals do not speak as we do is not that they lack the organs but that they have no thoughts. It cannot be said that they speak to each other but we cannot understand them; for since dogs and some other animals express their passions to us, they would express their thoughts also if they had them. (CSMK 575)

While the idea that language is necessary for the emergence of belief has been accepted for centuries, philosophers and others have begun to use the term “belief” more permissively, making the assertion much less obvious. While to say a cow had beliefs may have once implied the cow ascribed to some creed or doctrine, the claim has a much more mundane connotation in contemporary philosophy. For example, using the language of belief/desire psychology, we might say that a group of cows and humans gathering under a cover after hearing a thunderclap share a common belief that it is about to rain. We will also say they desire to stay out of the storm. Cows do not need the ability to express their beliefs to want to avoid a storm that appears to be imminent. In this case, it is easy to describe the cow’s behavior using the language of belief/desire psychology, but it is also easy to imagine that the humans under the cover are in a far different position than the cows; they understand their position, have plans and fears for the future, and have a sense of what it is right and wrong to do. We want to say the humans are conscious, and the cows are not. We know the humans are conscious because we assume them to be more or less like us, and we are conscious. Language expresses our thoughts and beliefs, and we assume that other humans use language and experience consciousness as we do.

Language does more than provide evidence of consciousness, though; it is the structure of consciousness. A sophisticated study of human language and behavior should produce a powerful and accurate psychological theory. If language sets humans apart from machines and animals, then language is quite likely the feature of human consciousness that produces moral agency and responsibility. If animals and machines are not capable of beliefs and thoughts, then humans are the only known creatures to have any concept of moral responsibility. However, if consciousness is not unique to humans, or if language is not the stuff that makes consciousness, then we may not be able to construct an adequate description of beliefs and desires, much less moral agency.

Language of Machines

Daniel Dennett argues that we can use language, through the “intentional stance,” to describe the beliefs of people, animals, or artifacts including a thermostat, a podium, or a tree (Brainchildren 327). It is easy to construct sentences to describe the beliefs of these objects (“The thermostat believes it is 70 degrees in this room”). If the thermostat is working properly and conditions are more or less normal, we should be able to predict the temperature based on the actions of the thermostat, or we should be able to predict the actions of the thermostat by knowing the temperature in the room. We recognize the possibility of error, however. As the thermostat may be broken, we are likely to say, “According to the thermostat, . . .” If the room does not feel warmer or cooler than the thermostat indicates, then we assume all is well. If we want to know the true nature of belief, being able to describe the beliefs of a thermostat is outrageously unsatisfying. Unless the thermostat is able to describe its own beliefs using language, we are loath to even suggest it has beliefs.

But given the capacity for human language, machines might appear to have beliefs and desires similar to human beliefs and desires. In fact, if a machine could use human language in a manner indistinguishable from human use, it is difficult to see how the consciousness of the machine could be denied with any certainty. Of course, the claim that such a machine is impossible goes back at least to Descartes, who wrote, “It is not conceivable that such a machine should produce different arrangements of words so as to give an appropriately meaningful answer to whatever is said in its presence, as the dullest of men can do” (CSM II 140). Surely Descartes did not imagine 21st century computer programs when he provided this early version of the Turing Test (in which a computer is held to be conscious if it can master human conversation), but so far his challenge has not been met.

In John Searle’s Chinese room argument, we are challenged to accept that even a computer that could pass the Turing Test would not prove the computer is conscious. Although he does not deny that machines could someday be conscious, a language program would not be proof of it (Searle 753-64). Our best reason for believing the machine is not conscious is that it is not similar enough to a human to be considered conscious by analogy. Even if we can’t deny beliefs and desires to a machine with certainty, we are equally ill equipped to accurately ascribe beliefs and desires to machines, or trees, or stones.

Beliefs of Non-Human Animals

We are more likely to feel confident ascribing beliefs to non-human animals for several reasons: they share at least part of an evolutionary history with humans, they share a genetic material with humans, they share behaviors similar to those of humans, and they share a physiological structure similar to that of humans. As a result, many humans feel comfortable making inferences about non-human animal experience and consciousness based on analogy with humans.

David Hume claims that we can make many inferences about animals based on the assumption that animals are analogous to humans in many respects. Similarly, we can make inferences about humans based on the observation of animals. For Hume, this is compelling evidence that humans are not as rational as we like to think. Animals make many of the same inferences as humans without the benefit of scientific or philosophical reasoning. Our philosophical arguments are used only to support beliefs we share with less rational animals. While we may think we are using reason, we are only providing explanations for beliefs built by habit or biology. He says,

It is custom alone, which engages animals, from every object, that strikes their senses, to infer its usual attendant, and carries their imagination, from the appearance of the one, to conceive the other, in that particular manner, which we denominate belief. No other explication can be given of this operation, in all the higher, as well as lower classes of sensitive beings, which fall under our notice and observation.

Hume clearly feels we can ascribe beliefs to non-human animals. In particular, we can assume that animals believe in cause and effect. In contemporary terms, our beliefs may be formed by evolution or experience, but our own understanding of those beliefs is expressed through rational explanation. Hume’s assumption that it is possible to infer anything at all about humans based on an analogy with animals is, of course, unproven. However, his description brilliantly illustrates the possibility that beliefs we hold to be founded in reason are merely the result of habit, while reason is only our way of expressing those beliefs. This is enough to warn us of the perils of ascribing content to beliefs based on our descriptions of our own beliefs. It is at least possible that there is a great divide between what we believe and what we think we believe.

In his paper, “Do Animals Have Beliefs?,” Stephen Stich examines the difficulty of ascribing content to animal beliefs. For Stich, the problem of ascribing content to animal beliefs is serious enough that we may fear ascribing content to any beliefs at all. Stich offers two possible accounts for animal belief and belief ascription, ultimately rejecting both. (Animals 15-28)

The first possibility is that animals do have belief, and we can ascribe content to those beliefs by observing animal behavior (in the manner of Hume). Stich contends, “When we attribute a belief to an animal we are presupposing that our commonsense psychological theory provides . . . a correct explanation of the animal’s behavior” (Animals 15). Indeed, desires and beliefs can provide a foundation for describing the causes of animal behavior. Assuming they are analogous to humans, animal beliefs are formed by perception and inference. Seeing, hearing, and smelling food in a dish, the dog comes to believe there is food in the dish, just as there is every morning. This belief results in a desire to gain access to the dish. Once an animal has formed beliefs, these beliefs can generate other beliefs.

For example, some dogs have a desire to chase squirrels. Upon seeing a squirrel in the back yard, such a dog will bark at the door, because this particular dog believes barking at the door will cause a human to come and open the door. (We could describe an infinite array of beliefs. For example, dogs believe squirrels should be chased. Dogs believe humans should open doors for dogs. Dogs believe barking at doors is more effective than scratching them.)

According to Stich, the appeal of a view based on beliefs and desires is that it is the most intuitive explanation for human behavior. Further, it is hard to imagine that we could explain human behavior through belief/desire psychology without being able to explain animal behavior in the same way. If folk psychology fails in one case, it appears to fail in the other.

The second possibility is that animals do not have belief. It is impossible to ascribe content to animal beliefs; therefore, it is meaningless to talk about animals having belief. If a dog has no concept of what a bone is, then it is impossible to say that the dog has any beliefs at all about bones. Without language, it is impossible to ascribe belief to animals. This begs the question of whether language actually enables us to ascribe content to beliefs accurately. Still, if we can’t ascribe content to the beliefs of animals, then we may run into trouble ascribing content to the beliefs of humans.

Stich poses the solution offered by David Armstrong. According to Armstrong, although animals lack the concepts we have, we can ascribe content to animal beliefs in a “referentially transparent” (de re) manner. A dog may respond to a bone in the same manner we would expect it to respond if it had our concept |bone|. Armstrong acknowledges that we can not talk about animal beliefs in a way that is “referentially opaque” (de dicto). In order to do this, we would have to know that the dog had a concept analogous to our concept of |bone|, which is impossible. Armstrong claims, however, that the dog does have a de dicto concept of |bone|, and enough research of animal psychology might eventually give us insights to animal concepts. For Armstrong, our de re discussions of animal concepts presuppose that there are correct de dicto beliefs on board the animal that correspond to our de re descriptions. If no correct de dicto concepts exist, then our efforts are only a way of describing animal behavior, not a way of understanding animal belief (19-21).

On Armstrong’s view, eventually we will gain enough knowledge of animals to accurately ascribe content (de dicto) to animal beliefs. Stich’s most serious objection to Armstrong’s argument is that we can only ascribe contents of beliefs to subjects that “have a broad network of related beliefs that are largely isomorphic to our own” (27). We cannot ascribe content to the beliefs of any being that does not share our concepts, and we have no way of knowing what concepts animals share. For example, even if we understand all the conditions necessary for a dog to react to a bone in front of him, it will make no sense to say, “Fido believes a bone is in front of him,” unless we assume Fido has a concept for “in front of,” among others. Following Armstrong’s suggestion, it may be possible to determine exactly how a dog would react to a bone or bone-like object in every conceivable situation. We can predict with 100 percent accuracy the behavior of the dog. We may identify all the properties of the human concept |bone| and all the properties of the dog concept of |bone’|. We’re not out of the water, though, as the concept |bone’| is not the dog’s concept but our concept of the properties of the dog’s concept. We still don’t know what concept the dog has on board.

For Stich, a larger problem may be that we do not know what concepts other humans share. If we follow the reasoning that we can only claim beings have beliefs if they have specifiable content and that content is only specifiable if they have concepts isomorphic to our own, we are in a position of implying that humans with concepts radically different from our own have no beliefs at all. Examples of such humans would include people from different times or cultures. Indeed, anyone from a different language community would be in danger of being declared to be wholly without beliefs.

Stich concludes that it is impossible to decide whether a belief without specifiable content is a belief at all, and it is impossible to verify content for either human or non-human animals. He claims, “If we are to renovate rationally our pre-theoretic concept of belief to better serve the purposes of scientific psychology, then one of the first properties to be stripped away will be content” (27). Folk psychology, based on the attribution of content to beliefs and desires, is inadequate for a scientific account of belief.

Belief and Other Minds

If there is any possibility of accurately attributing belief to any other minds, it would seem that human minds, with a capacity for human language, would be the best hope. We recognize that a human can have a mind full of desires, beliefs, and rational arguments without ever expressing them. In Kinds of Minds, Daniel Dennett points out that this is possible because we sometimes have beliefs and desires that go unexpressed, and we can imagine never expressing any of them, or at least misleading people as to what they are. Actually ascribing content to the beliefs of humans is risky business, then, but at least we feel confident that humans are generally able to communicate beliefs and desires roughly isomorphic to our own beliefs and desires. We believe humans have minds, and their use of language is the best evidence of it (Kinds 12).

Because humans use language, we show them greater moral concern than we show other animals. The closer their language is to our own, the more concern we show them. Wittgenstein famously said that if a lion could talk, we couldn’t understand it. Dennett suggests that this lion would be the first in history to have a mind and would be a unique being in the universe. We assume that any animal that can use language in the manner of humans has a mind (Kinds 18).

The problem with this assumption is that we might be easily fooled. Another human may use language in exactly the same way that I do, express all the beliefs I have, exhibit all the behavior I exhibit, and perhaps be acting deceptively or robotically. When serial killers and pedophiles are arrested, friends, family members, and coworkers are generally interviewed who express that they have made grandly mistaken ascriptions of beliefs and desires to the criminals. It is the trust we place in members of our language community that enables us to be duped in such horrendous ways. We should perhaps be less confident that members of our language community have beliefs and desires isomorphic to our own.

But even if some members of the language community are deceptive, surely they at least have minds—at least have some beliefs and desires, even if we can’t know the content. If we encounter a robot with a human appearance and the ability to use human language effectively (something like the fictional Stepford Wives), would we assume the robot to have a mind? Such robots are being developed, but none exists (see Dennett’s discussion of Cog[1] in Kinds of Minds, page 16), so the questions can’t be answered empirically. While developing such a robot, we may come to understand exactly how a mind develops and comes into being. On the other hand, it is possible to imagine such a robot existing with no mind and no human feeling at all. If we can imagine a robot as an automaton, why not imagine that at least some humans are automata? Perhaps their use of language is as unconscious as our basic reflexes. Their bodies simply produce language naturally with no self-awareness and no beliefs and desires. While we assume this is not the case, it is impossible to determine this with any certainty.

What We Know of Our Own Minds

If nothing else is certain, we must know the contents of our own minds. Descartes was unable to doubt the existence of his mind, and it seems quite impossible for me to doubt the thoughts I am thinking right now. As I produce thoughts, I am aware of them, and it is impossible for me to escape them. My thoughts, formed by language, express the contents of my beliefs and desires precisely, because that is how I have intended to express them to myself. I can’t imagine I am deceiving myself or that I am an automaton. I am a thinking being immersed in my conscious life. If the language I use in thinking expresses my beliefs accurately and rationally, then this is what enables me to develop moral principles and behave in a morally responsible manner.

But what of our “unconscious” thoughts? Hume demonstrated that our belief in cause and effect seems to exist in a precognitive state. We don’t use language and reason to develop a belief in cause and effect—in at least some cases, language merely expresses what is built into us. Our moral reasoning, though, is based on careful consideration and tediously crafted arguments. Surely our language is not expressing a precognitive instinct or intuition. In Kinds of Minds, Dennett quotes Elizabeth Marshall Thomas saying, “For reasons known to dogs but not to us, many dog mothers won’t mate with their sons” (10). Dennett rightly questions why we should assume that dogs understand this behavior any better than humans understand it. It may just be an instinct, produced by evolution. If the dog had language, it might come up with an eloquent argument on why incest is wrong, but the argument would seem superfluous—just following the instinct works well enough.

By the same token, human moral arguments may do nothing more than express or at best buttress deeply held moral convictions instilled by evolution or experience. In a Discover magazine article titled “Whose Life Would You Save?” Carl Zimmer describes the work of Princeton postdoctoral researcher Joshua Green. Green uses MRI brain scans to study what parts of the brain are active when people ponder moral dilemmas. He poses various dilemmas familiar to undergraduate students of utilitarianism, the categorical imperative, or other popular moral theories.

He found that different dilemmas trigger different types of brain activity. He presented people with a number of dilemmas, but two of them illustrate his findings well enough. He used a thought experiment developed by Judith Jarvis Thompson and Phillipa Foote. Test subjects were asked to imagine themselves at the wheel of a trolley that will kill five people if left on course. If it is switched to another track, it will kill one person. Most people respond that they will switch to another track in order to save four more lives, apparently invoking utilitarian principles. In the next scenario, they are asked to imagine they can save five people only if they push one person onto the tracks to certain death. Far fewer people are willing to say they would push anyone onto the tracks, apparently invoking a categorical rule against killing innocent people. From a purely logical standpoint, the two questions should have consistent answers.

Greene found that some dilemmas seem to evoke snap judgments, which may be the product of thousands of years of evolution. He notes that in experiments by Sasrah Brosnan and Frans de Waal capuchin monkeys who were given a cucumber as a treat while other monkeys were given grapes would refuse to take the cucumbers and sometimes would throw the cucumbers at the researchers. Brosnan and De Waal concluded that the monkeys had a sense of fairness and the ability to make moral decisions without human reasoning. Humans may also make moral decisions without the benefit of reasoning. It appears evolution has created in us (at least in those who are morally developed) a strong aversion to deliberately killing innocent people. Evolution has not prepared us for other dilemmas such as whether to switch trolley tracks to reduce the total number of people killed in an accident. These dilemmas result in logical analysis and problem solving. Zimmer writes, “Impersonal moral decisions . . . triggered many of the same parts of the brain as nonmoral questions do (such as whether you should take the train or the bus to work)” (63). Moral dilemmas that require one to consider actions such as killing a baby trigger parts of the brain that Greene believes may produce the emotional instincts behind our moral judgments. This explains why most people appear to have inconsistent moral beliefs, behaving as a utilitarian in one instance and as a Kantian the next.

It may turn out that Hume was correct when he claimed, “Morality is determined by sentiment. It defines virtue to be whatever mental action or quality gives to a spectator the pleasing sentiment of approbation” (Rachels 63). His claim is that we evaluate actions based on how they make us feel, and then we construct a theory to explain our choices. If the theory does not match our sentiment, however, we modify the theory—our emotional response seems to be part of our overall architecture. The work of philosophers, then, has been to construct moral theories consistent with our emotions rather than to provide guidance for our actions.

Language gives us access to our conscious thought. Language permits us to be aware of our own existence and to feel relatively assured that other minds exist as well. It is through language that we make sense of ourselves and the world. We may be deceived, though, into thinking that thought is equivalent to conscious thought. Much of what goes on in our mind is unconscious. Without our awareness, our mind attends to dangers, weighs risks, compensates for expected events, and even makes moral judgments. Evolution has provided us with a body that works largely on an unconscious level. However, humans, and perhaps some nonhuman animals, have become aware of their own thoughts, and this awareness has led to an assumption of moral responsibility. This awareness should not be taken to prove that we are aware of the biological facts that guide our moral decisions.

Stephen Stich explores the development of moral theory in his 1993 paper titled, “Moral Philosophy and Mental Representation.” In the essay, Stich claims that while most moral theories are based on establishing necessary and sufficient conditions for right and wrong actions, humans do not make mental representations based on necessary and sufficient conditions. He says, “For if the mental representation of moral concepts is similar to the mental representation of other concepts that have been studied, then the tacitly known necessary and sufficient conditions that moral philosophers are seeking do not exist” (Moral 8). As an alternative, he suggests that moral philosophers should focus on developing theories that account for how moral principles are mentally represented. He writes:

These principles along with our beliefs about the circumstances of specific cases, should entail the intuitive judgments we would be inclined to make about the cases, at least in those instances where our judgments are clear, and there are no extraneous factors likely to be influencing them. There is, of course, no reason to suppose that the principles guiding our moral judgments are fully (or even partially) available to conscious introspection. To uncover them we must collect a wide range of intuitions about specific cases (real or hypothetical) and attempt to construct a system of principles that will entail them. (8)

On this view, moral theories represent beliefs that are not only unconscious but are unavailable to the conscious mind. In order to make a determination of the content of our own moral beliefs, then, we must examine our own moral decisions and infer the content of our beliefs. In this approach, we find that humans are deciphering their own beliefs in much the same manner the Brosnan and De Waal determine the moral beliefs of capuchin monkeys. Not only does language fail to give a full accounting of our belief states, but our conscious thoughts may be an impediment to determining our actual beliefs, so that we must consider prelinguistic or nonlinguistic cues to discover what we actually believe.


When we ascribe content to the beliefs of other beings, including human beings, we assume those beings have mental experiences roughly isomorphic to our own. Based on our own experiences and beliefs, we make inferences about the beliefs of other beings. The more a being resembles us, the more confident we are in making such inferences. As a result, we are most comfortable ascribing contents to the beliefs of humans who speak the same language we speak. We are even more comfortable if the person is of the same gender and social class. Even in these cases, though, we may be too optimistic. Our own beliefs may be as inaccessible to us as the beliefs of our distant neighbors or monkeys or lobsters. Ascribing content to beliefs may be futile. On the other hand, we seem to survive quite well assuming that we know our own beliefs and that others have beliefs that are more or less transparent to us. We may be able to use the language of belief/desire psychology as a heuristic to help us understand, manipulate and cope with our behavior and the behavior of others. Although language is a distal feature of consciousness and may not accurately determine the content of our beliefs, language may enable us to gain a community of thinkers and form successful relationships with other beings.

Works Cited

Dennett, Daniel C. Brainchildren. Cambridge: MIT P, 1998.

—. Kinds of Minds. New York: Basic Books, 1996.

Descartes, Rene. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes: Volume II. Trans. John Cottingham,

Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985.

—. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes: Volume III. Trans. John Cottingham,

Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Murdoch, and Anthony Kenny. Cambridge: Cambridge UP,


Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Vol. XXXVII, Part 3. The

Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier, 1909–14;, 2001. [May 11, 2004].

Hume, David. “Morality as Based on Sentiment.” The Right Thing to Do: Basic Readings in

Moral Philosophy. Ed. James Rachels. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2003.

Searle, John. “Is the Brain’s Mind a Computer Program?” Reason at Work. Eds. Steven Cahn,

Patricia Kitcher, George Sher, and Pater Markie. Wadsworth, 1984.

Stich, Stephen P. “Moral Philosophy and Mental Representation.” The Origin of Values, ed.

Michael Hechter, Lynn Nadel & Richard E. Michod. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

1993. 215-28.

Publications/MPMR/MPAMR.html. [May 11, 2004].

—. “Do Animals Have Beliefs?” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 57.1: 15-28.


Zimmer, Carl. “Whose Life Would You Save?” Discover Apr. 2004: 60-65.

[1] Dennett is working with Rodney Brooks, Lynn Andrea Stein, and a team of robotocists at MIT to develop a humanoid robot named Cog. Dennett says, “Cog is made of metal and silicon and glass, like other robots, but the design is so different, so much more like the design of a human being, that Cog may someday become the world’s first conscious robot.” (Kinds 16)