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The monthly newsletter of the Internet Infidels


August 1999, Vol. 4, No. 8

The monthly newsletter of the Internet Infidels

In this issue:


the wire
Eric Roode wires you into news affecting freethinkers everywhere. Get wired.

What's new on the secular web?

We've published two fantastic papers by U. of Iowa Associate Professor of Philosophy Evan Fales entitled "Do mystics see God?" and "Are the gods apolitical?"

Eric Roode has put together an excellent voter's guide for the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election. If you are a U.S. citizen, 18 years or older, then now is the time to register to vote. Register first, then check out our voter's guide.

Campaign 2000

Upcoming events

  • Conference: "Science and God", Society of Humanist Philosophers, September 25-26, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, USA. E-mail or call (800) 446-6198, Ext. 311.


Book of the month

ImageDarwinian Natural Right : The Biological Ethics of Human Nature

By Larry Arnhart

Internet Infidels' Review:
"Arnhart argues that certain desires are universal in human societies because they are based in human biology. He sees this as grounding an Aristotelian view in which virtues are to be pursued because they promote eudaimonia--human flourishing. Humans can only flourish when biologically-based needs are satisfied. These needs include not only the appetitive ones like food and sex, but "higher" needs of meaningful social interaction and the pursuit of understanding. These universal needs provide the needed telos for judging the rightness or wrongness of actions: How well does the proposed action promote these biologically-based teloi? This view also provides a neutral standard whereby the ethical practices of diverse cultures may be judged, so complete ethichal relativism can be avoided. However, Arnhart recognizes that there may be multifarious, culturally-relative means of achieving the universal ends." -- Keith Parsons


Web Scan

Helping you to sip from the information firehose

Each month mathew dredges the bottom of the net to bring to you strange religious claims, flim-flam schemes, pop-culture memes gone awry, and the downright superstitious. Can your browser handle the upgrade to web.scan?


Internet Infidel of the MonthFarrell Till

Each month we recognize an "Internet Infidel of the Month", an outstanding person whose contributions have had an enormous impact on the Secular Web as well as the freethought, atheist, agnostic, and humanist community at large. We encourage you, our readers, to submit nominees to us as Contact.

This month's award winner is none other than Farrell Till. A graduate of Harding College (now a university) in Searcy, Arkansas, Farrell Till was a minister and missionary for the Church of Christ. Today he is an atheist and a vocal critic of biblical inerrancy, the belief that the Bible was originally composed without errors of any kind. He has debated this topic, both in print and in public, with fundamentalist ministers. Transcripts of some of these debates are available on the Secular Web. He is the moderator of the ERRANCY email discussion list, which provides debate and discussion concerning biblical contradictions. Finally, he publishes a bimonthly journal dedicated to inerrancy, The Skeptical Review.

When the Secular Web was just starting out, Farrell Till's Skeptical Review was a major resource available on the Secular Web. Given the selfless, tireless, and ongoing service Farrell Till has provided to the online freethought community, we are both pleased and honored to award Farrell Till "Internet Infidel of the Month" for August 1999.


Pat Robertson and Americans United Trade Blows

James Still

Things got out of hand last month as televangelist Pat Robertson attacked Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), the watchdog group that keeps a close eye on the radical religious right, including Robertson's Christian Coalition.

On July 6, Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) aired The 700 Club, which featured a report on Benjamin Smith's racially-motivated shooting and his neo-Nazi group, the World Church of the Creator. In an attempt to link AU to the white supremacist group, Robertson mentioned AU by name and told his viewers, "Their total goal is to eliminate Christianity and eliminate religion from the public square, take all vestiges of supernatural religion out of our state and make us a totally secular group."

Robertson's attempt to implicate AU in the deadly shooting rampage is "ridiculous and outrageous," according to AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn. In a July 8 letter to Robertson, Lynn said, "I watched with great interest and dismay the July 6 episode of The 700 Club, and heard you suggest that my organization is somehow responsible for the horrific shooting spree of neo-Nazi Benjamin Nathaniel Smith. Your comments and assertions were unusually offensive, and I am asking for a prompt on-air apology."

Pat Robertson has in the past used his television program to pronounce Lynn to be "lower than a child molester," an "intolerant jerk," and a "liar." Lynn also wrote in his letter to Robertson that "Americans United seeks to ensure that Christianity, and indeed all religious and philosophical traditions, are able to flourish in an environment free of government aid or opposition." It is no secret, however, that the only philosophical position acceptable to Robertson is Christian fundamentalism.

Escalating the battle between Lynn and Robertson, three members of the United States Senate have written to the U.S. Department of Justice, seeking a criminal investigation of Americans United for Separation of Church and State for allegedly trying to intimidate religious voters.

In a July 2 letter to Attorney General Janet Reno, Sens. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.), Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) suggested that Americans United, through the group's attempts to educate churches about the dangers of mixing religion and politics, may have "attempted to disenfranchise religious voters by intimidating people of faith into not participating in the political process."

On July 19, AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn demanded a prompt apology and a retraction from the senators for what he described as an "outrageous and wholly baseless action."

"The senators' accusation is a bald-faced lie," Lynn said. "They have, without shame or evidence, tried to enlist the top law enforcement official in our nation in a crackdown on a private organization that has done nothing wrong. The conduct of these senators in this matter has been nothing short of reckless and irresponsible."

Lynn said the call for an investigation was done at the behest of Pat Robertson, noting that Robertson had met with the Republican Senate leadership, including Senator Coverdell, on June 17. Two weeks after that meeting, Coverdell, Sessions and Helms asked the attorney general for a criminal investigation of Americans United.

"Americans United is being singled out for attack for a simple reason -- because we have the nerve to stand up to Pat Robertson and his Christian Coalition," Lynn added. "It is clear to us that the senators' request for an investigation is politically motivated. This is politics at its worst."

To support their argument, the senators cited a June 24 Congressional Quarterly Daily Monitor article about a church-based voter registration drive by the Christian Coalition. Asked about the Coalition being denied a tax exemption by the Internal Revenue Service and how this might affect the registration effort, the article quoted Lynn as saying, "Because of the tax decision, churches will be reluctant to open their doors to the Christian Coalition." The article also reported that AU may write to churches in the future about avoiding potential tax law difficulties.

The Justice Department has not announced whether it plans to take the Senators' complaint seriously and investigate AU.

"If the Justice Department does decide to investigate us, it will be very easy to clear our name," Lynn said. "While I don't know if there will be an investigation, I do know it is reckless and irresponsible for these senators to ask for a criminal investigation of a citizens' group, without any evidence, simply because a TV preacher asked them to."

"This appears to be a transparent effort on the part of Robertson and his friends in the Senate to intimidate us," Lynn concluded. "I have news for them -- it won't work."

The allegation of criminal wrongdoing seems to be a smokescreen to cover up something far more serious, however. Pat Robertson's Regent University, based in Richmond, Virginia, is set to reap a financial windfall if Richmond voters approve a $54.5 million bond measure for the institution. Americans United argues that the bond issue violates the separation of church and state, noting that Robertson's university "includes its fundamentalist Christian viewpoint in all classes and other educational activities."

On July 19, Americans United filed a brief with the Circuit Court for the City of Richmond, to voice their concerns. Lynn said in the brief that, "Pat Robertson has the right to teach any religious viewpoint he wants to, but he shouldn't ask the taxpayers of Virginia to help pass the collection plate to pay for it."

The bond issue would be used to expand facilities at Regent's home campus as well as a new campus in northern Virginia. Although the Virginia College Building Authority would not have to pay back the loan in the event of a default, state issuance of the tax-exempt bonds would save the university some $20-$30 million in taxes over the lifetime of the loan.

In 1991 the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that Jerry Falwell's Liberty University was ineligible for a similar bond issue because of Liberty's "pervasively sectarian" religious character. Americans United sponsored the litigation blocking Falwell's request of government assistance.

The precedent applies to the Regent application, AU says. Citing the Liberty case and other court decisions, Americans United Litigation Counsel Ayesha Khan told the circuit court, "For constitutional purposes, there is no difference between the government giving a cash grant to a religious school for construction of school buildings, and the government issuing tax-exempt bonds to raise money for such construction. In both cases there is a government subsidy."

A circuit court hearing on the Regent application was scheduled on July 30.


Scouts.jpg (18111 bytes)Struggle against BSA's discrimination continues

Margaret Downey

Seven years ago I filed a discrimination complaint against the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC). After a thorough investigation, the PHRC's legal department issued a "Probable Cause" finding saying that in its opinion BSA are a public accommodation and as such violated the Pennsylvania Public Accommodations laws in rejecting my son and me because of our nontheist lifestance.

The PHRC requested that the BSA abide by the "Probable Cause" finding but the BSA refused. The BSA pressed for the matter to be reviewed by the Commissioners assigned by the governor of Pennsylvania.

BSA contended that they were not a "public accommodation," but rather a "private organization" shielded by freedom of association. In other words, for the last seven years, BSA has fought for the right to discriminate against nontheists.

To support its contention that they are a private organization, BSA paraded religious troop leaders who said they could not tolerate a non-religious child in their midst, a sociologist who opined "citing no scientific evidence" on the untoward effects nontheist participation would supposedly have on BSA, and various people who said they believe BSA to be based on religion.

My evidence proving that BSA is in fact open-to-the-public consisted of recruitment flyers distributed in public schools, newspaper advertisements announcing "open houses" and that "all boys" are invited, and handbills that had been posted in public places such as public libraries, supermarkets bulletin boards, etc.

During the PHRC hearing, attorney James Grafton Randall and I also pointed out that BSA receive public money from the United Way's unallocated fund, and that they hold a Congressional Charter. The Charter specifically says that the BSA is an educational organization teaching Scoutcraft. The Charter says absolutely nothing about religion being an integral part of the BSA. Most importantly, the Charter allows the BSA to receive government gratuities and protects the BSA from competition as a national youth organization.

Not one piece of BSA literature describes them as a private/religious organization. Under Randall's cross examination, BSA witnesses read from the Scout Mastership Fundamentals booklet. It states, "religious instruction is the responsibility of home and church."

Commissioner Raquel Otero de Yiengst who heard the case presented at the Chester County Courthouse in May 1999, agreed with the PHRC's legal position, and recommended that the other eight Commissioners rule that BSA is a public accommodation. On June 28, 1999 seven Commissioners did the opposite. They voted that the BSA is a private organization and therefore not subject to the anti-discrimination laws of Pennsylvania.

With only one other Commissioner (Theotis Braddy) voting that BSA were an open-to-the-public organization, the PHRC held BSA to be private and dismissed my complaint. BSA declared a major victory. I was deeply saddened by this miscarriage of justice. I was sad for the nontheist community and I was sad for the BSA.

I wanted to prove the obvious, namely that BSA is an open-to-the-public program. I wanted to establish once and for all that BSA should serve all boys regardless of their religious beliefs. The complaint I filed was my attempt to force BSA to abide by its own Congressional Charter and to step into the 21st Century with pride and dignity. There is no pride or dignity associated with selective bigoted membership.

The right to discriminate is shameful. The PHRC dismissal means that intolerance will continue to flourish at the hands of the world's largest youth group.

BSA now joins the ranks of disgraceful private clubs that promote bigotry and prejudice. Ethical members of the BSA should be appalled to know that an organization established to teach Scoutcraft is now promoting separatism and bigotry.

Now that the BSA hierarchy has proven that BSA is private and may exclude on religious grounds, they will suffer the consequences. Public monies and gratuities will no longer be available to benefit the boys. No longer can BSA accept public funding from the United Way's unallocated fund, go into public schools to recruit, and accept government gratuities. BSA will have to rely solely on private donations. This will hurt the troops and the boys financially, which is not what I set out to do.

A private club that only serves certain sectors of the community is not eligible for special privileges. My worst fears have been realized. Religious zealots have seized control of BSA and they will destroy all that has been good with their fear and loathing toward the nonreligious community. The BSA PHRC victory is hollow.

The BSA will lose respect from people who hold dear the moral tenet of non-discrimination. This ruling now makes it perfectly clear that the BSA's definition of purpose is to service only the religious community. It is a terrible loss of an opportunity to teach virtuous values such as tolerance, brotherhood, and reverence for one?s fellow man to the religious as well as the nonreligious.

Over the last seven years BSA's hierarchy has attempted to promote fear and hatred toward the nontheist community. BSA distribute fund raising letters claiming that "special interest groups" are trying to take God out of Scouting. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nontheists simply wanted to say an oath that contained an additional "o." We wanted to say an oath to "Good." This request would have imposed no burden on the Scouting program, and would have accommodated nontheist participation. Exposure to whatever religious activities Scouting programs might have was not objectionable to nontheists. What was objectionable was our rejection; sight unseen, ethical duties unknown, and potential for good citizenship unproven. Recently BSA declared that Unitarian Scouts will no longer be eligible to receive their religious emblems. Unitarian values do not fall in line with the BSA. Unitarians are too tolerant and too sympathetic toward gays, girls, and the godless. Discrimination within the BSA is getting worse. We will soon see BSA determining acceptable and unacceptable religions. This is a terrible thing to teach children.

In America where diversity is honored, BSA shamelessly practice bigotry. BSA has taken the low road and now marches to the same tune as right-wing fringe groups. It would have been far better for BSA to follow the high road to tolerance. On that road they would find great company. The Girl Scouts of America (GSA) took the lead six years ago and can proudly say they do not discriminate. GSA has not been harmed and young ladies are being taught by example that discrimination is wrong and un-American.

PHRC has given BSA the green light to decide who is good enough and why. Would you want your children taught morals by a group that promotes prejudice, intolerance, and separatism? I ask Scouting people everywhere, if you believe in discrimination, then against whom else will you discriminate?

The Scouting hierarchy will be able to perpetuate discriminatory and un-American practices as a result of its victory in this case. BSA has been granted the legal right to practice religious intolerance and now the Boy Scout organization must carry the mantle of that intolerance for all to see.

There is only one way that people who love the Scouts can keep it from self destruction. There needs to be a flood of protest from within the organization. Lone voices have been silenced by dismissal but the time has come to bring BSA back into the mainstream and to demand its hierarchy to abide by Scout tenets of being kind, helpful, tolerant, friendly, and thrifty.

The ground swell has begun. A group of Eagle Scouts at Yale and Harvard University who find the BSA's discrimination policy reprehensible are organizing against BSA's religious only membership policy. They are still glad they are Eagles, but this revelation that BSA aspires to be a narrow clique, imposing a religious test for membership, brings them shame.

Troop leaders who are embarrassed about BSA bigotry against gays and nontheists recently organized to form "Scouting for All." Their web site is www.scoutingforall.org. Their voices are being heard national and internationally.

I started the Anti-Discrimination Support Network (ADSN) in 1993 with the help of the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia. ADSN will continue working to bring BSA back to the people and out of the hands of religious zealots.

In the meantime, I find comfort knowing that my son and I keep good company. Some people who would be excluded from the Boy Scouts are: Albert Einstein, Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, Charles Darwin, Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, and many others whom we honor today for their contributions to humanity.

A recent study demonstrated that a large number of scientists do not believe in God. BSA's religious membership policy systematically excludes boys with the potential to become great men from participating and contributing to the program. This is a very sad day, indeed.


The universe is just there (and that's all)

James Still

universe.jpg (18012 bytes)Human beings loathe ambiguity. Something must be either true or false. Either it is like this or it is like that and never the twain shall meet. God either exists or God does not exist. We have even created a logical law, the Law of Noncontradiction (capitalized to create the illusion of extralinguistic truth) in order to prevent ambiguity in our speech-acts. However, the world resists our will at every turn. Quantum mechanics reminds us that electrons in certain states, which we thought must be in a definite position and having one of two values, are instead in a superposition having no value at all. It seems that Nature will not give up her secrets to us so easily nor will she heed the human demand for absolutes.

At the root of fundamentalism is fear. Because fear is a motivating factor for fundamentalists, they in particular loathe ambiguity. The reason is quite simple: they are extreme cases of the human abhorrence of ambiguity, a wildly insecure lot for whom our scanty knowledge of the world poses, not an intellectual challenge, but rather a horrible thing to avoid at all costs. The huge gaps in our knowledge only serve to heighten their fear. Fundamentalists rush to fill the vacuum of our ignorance with fanciful tales in order to reassure themselves that there is no ambiguity about the world. Everything from hell below our feet, to terra firma, and on up to the seventh heaven, is in perfect order according to God's will. Behind this elaborate edifice, however, is a central question (which is not really a question at all) that motivates the entire modern religious impulse: "How can something come from nothing?"

In their famous BBC radio debate, Bertrand Russell irritated Father Copleston by refusing to argue about whether or not the existence of contingent (finite) beings cries out for an explanation. To the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" Russell merely shrugged his shoulders and replied "the universe is just there and that's all." Such an answer doesn't sit well with theists. It hits with a resounding thud at their feet, especially to those for whom all unanswerable questions somehow lead directly to easy mythological answers. The theist has never met an issue with which the academic practice of suspending judgment becomes the prudent course of action. He will pound jigsaw puzzle pieces into the overall picture and force them to fit. Copleston thought that Russell was like a chess player who avoided checkmate by refusing to even sit at the table. In an age of transcendent principles and eternal first causes, Russell's answer angers even the most tolerant theist. To admit that there are some things about which we just don't know is again to come face-to-face with ambiguity. But since the fundamentalist's faith is so fragile that the slightest doubt could send the whole edifice crashing down, he must bolster his worldview with firm absolutes. For example, a very militant fundamentalist once wrote me to insist:

"The very purpose of any rational discourse is to assess which side is true and which side is false. I am a Christian theist, and you are an atheist. I don't know about you, but I really think your world view is wrong."

Faith is lost on this person. He needs empirical certainty. He must also prove that I am wrong. In fact, he cannot accept that he is right unless I am wrong. If you really want to see a fundamentalist wince, tell him that while you are an atheist you don't consider him wrong, and further, that you respect his attempt to find meaning in life through God. This position has a lot of integrity going for it. After all, no one can really know whether God exists. If a being transcends the world, then necessarily those of us who exist in the world will never have knowledge of this being. Ambiguity has again crept into our discourse! The poor fundamentalist cannot stand the idea that an atheist might consider it acceptable for believers to believe. Atheists are supposed to be radical leftists, hell bent in pursuit of the destruction of God. I told a believer once that I did not consider him wrong for being a theist. He replied:

"I'm disappointed that you don't think I'm wrong for being a theist. Are you so insecure about your faith in atheism that you're not sure whether or not God exists?"

In shifting the discussion from truth to meaning I had deprived the fundamentalist of that which he craved the most: an enemy. The militant believer cannot stand the idea that a nonbeliever does not wish to argue or fight about God. When they lash out at you, they need you to strike back. They have donned the full armor of God in anticipation of just such a joust and by turning the other cheek, you have refused to play along. (Talk about being all dressed up with nowhere to go.) On another occasion, I again refused to pronounce a believer wrong and received this desperate reply:

"Are you encouraging me to follow a lie? Are you encouraging me to worship some make-believe deity? I thought you cared enough for me to tell me the Truth. Don't you give a crap about my well-being!? If God doesn't exist as you claim, you have the moral duty to tell others about that truth."

This poor soul is tortured by thinking solely in terms of right and wrong in a world of "us" versus "them." Unlike the fundamentalist, my atheism does not require others to be wrong in order for me to be right. I do not believe that God exists. Period. If I am wrong and God does exist, then it matters even less to me because I outgrew hide-and-seek as a young boy. In the absence of God it is up to each of us to find meaning and purpose for our lives. In fact, precisely because God does not exist our lives have greater meaning. If there is no Master Plan, as it seems that there is not, then the task falls to us to create meaning together and to value the sanctity of all human beings. Having said that, if the theist finds it meaningful to believe in God then who am I to argue? We can hold contradictory worldviews while simultaneously enjoying meaningful and fulfilling lives. Cosmological proofs can be amusing puzzles, but there is also something to be said about refusing to sit at the theist's chessboard.


chicken.jpg (41123 bytes) Feature

Atheism and Vegetarianism

Anand Venkataraman

Note: It's been suggested that there is plenty of scope for this article to be misunderstood. Just so the non-vegetarian reader is not offended, let me state up-front that I'm not arguing here that all non-vegetarians are irrational. A non-vegetarian who does not think vegetarianism is an irrational practise could be a perfectly rational person.

KAY MARTIN, a secretary to a New Zealand Member of Parliament, got the fright of her life a few weeks ago. According to the Auckland Sunday Star, she and a friend were chatting over a drink when they heard a chicken squawking. The bird sounded in some distress, so they went outside to investigate, thinking perhaps that it had escaped from one of the neighbors. But there were no chickens anywhere.

Then Martin realized with horror that the sound was coming from her own kitchen -- coming, in fact, from the oven, where she had put a chicken in to roast half an hour earlier. ``It was as if the chicken was shrieking at me from its grave,'' she says. ``It was so bizarre I just froze.''

As they approached the oven, the squawking reached a crescendo. They took the tray out, and as the chicken began to cool, the squawking died away. Martin chopped the neck off and threw it in the sink. She then noticed that the vocal chords were still intact. ``Steam was coming up the neck from the stuffing,'' says Martin, and this had caused the dead bird to squawk. She has not cooked chicken since.

Like Martin, people might have various reasons for their particular food preferences, particularly in idiosyncratic preferences like the above. But they are not always expected to justify them. Vegetarians, however, who exclude an entire kingdom of living things from their diet, have a much harder time. In an issue of the Washington Post, Alison Green writes: (``Living in Harmony with Vegetarians'', Alison Green, The Washington Post, 25 Aug 1995.)

``My biggest problem as a vegetarian has not been the food --- which I've found to be delicious and every bit as satisfying as meat --- but the bewildering attitudes of my family and friends. Other vegetarians have the same complaints: the weird looks, the silly questions, the hostile interrogations. It seems vegetarians --- 12 million of us in the U.S. and growing daily --- are a sadly misunderstood minority indeed.''

The situation is even worse for atheists, who typically tend to be ostensibly rational persons. There seems to be an implicit obligation on their part to justify any deviations from perceived normal behaviour, at least among fellow atheists. Consider the following:

Graham and his friend Jack are both atheists. But while Graham is a vegetarian, Jack is a non-vegetarian. Although diplomacy prevents them from ever airing their views on the matter, Jack secretly believes that Graham is irrational in being vegetarian. He thinks that Graham must subscribe to some irrational belief system that prescribes his peculiar dietary restrictions. So Jack doesn't accord Graham the intellectual respect that Graham is properly entitled to.

In this situation, ironically, it is Graham who ought to feel that way about Jack if at all any unspoken judgments are to be drawn. I will attempt to show that while Graham's views on the matter are quite consistent, either Jack's beliefs are inconsistent with each other or if his beliefs are consistent, then Jack is a potentially dishonest person. In the former case Jack is guilty of the same charge he levels against Graham, and in the latter he is not likely to be a very good friend.

The above problem, of course, is not just limited to the fictional Graham and Jack. How do vegetarian atheists, of which I know many including myself, reconcile their dietary practices with their beliefs? Presumably, most atheists are trying to live rational lives. But frequently non-vegetarian atheists look upon vegetarian ones as some kind of anomaly, or at best people who are not really rational. On the other hand, non-vegetarian theists look upon vegetarian atheists as not really rational either, since they must subscribe to some irrational belief system that advocates vegetarianism. In either case, atheists run the risk of being thought irrational in some sense. If this matters to them, then it is incumbent upon them to set the record straight. They may use the content of this article to do so.

However, note that this is not an apology for either atheism or vegetarianism. I don't believe one is necessary. The purpose of the explanation is to clarify some misconceptions that people commonly have about vegetarian atheists. Also, let me state at the outset that I am not going to try and convince non-vegetarians to give up their eating habits in this short article. I'm only hoping to convince them that vegetarianism is as rational a thing to do as being honest to each other. Also, just so the focus of this article is not misunderstood, let me point out that I am not intending to show that all non-vegetarians are somehow being irrational. The thrust of my argument is only that those non-vegetarians are irrational who believe vegetarianism to be an irrational practice. I will try to do this illustratively without using too many difficult words or references to abstruse philosophical literature. But before addressing the question of whether one should be vegetarian from a rational point of view, it will help to first look at the question of whether one should be moral at all. If you already think that people ought to be unconditionally moral you can skip the next section.

Why should we be moral in the first place?

King Darius of Persia once summoned the Greeks before him and asked what they thought about eating the corpses of their fathers. The Greeks were apalled at the idea and expressed their utter revulsion. Darius then asked exactly what it will take for a Greek to eat his father's dead body --- he was willing to pay as much as it required. However the Greeks were still abhorrent of the very idea. No amount of money would make them commit so vile an act as to eat human flesh, especially that of their fathers. At this point, Darius brought forth members of an Indian tribe who by custom ate the bodies of their parents. He made them the exact opposite proposition: How much would he have to pay them in order to make them cremate the bodies of their parents. The Indian tribe was taken aback and said that no amount of money would make them commit such a horrid act. The Greek historian Herodotus, who described this incident, concluded the obvious thing from it: That morals are relative to the culture possessing them.

If, like Herodotus, you believe that morals are relative to societies, or even to individuals, then I'm afraid that I won't be able to convince you. But before you leave, I should warn you that to be consistent you should also believe that Amnesty International's Universal Declaration of Human Rights is nonsense. And that the issue of human rights is culture sensitive, that the widespread torture and child abuse in, say, Thailand is appropriate and justified in the culture in which it occurs as the perpetrators typically claim.

Also, I don't suppose that any reasonable person today will claim that we should be moral only because it is legally enforced. There is no saying what that kind of person will do when he or she can get away with, say, dishonesty. On the other hand, some people say that they are moral because it is in their own self-interest to be so. This can mean two things, either that they are biologically predisposed to being moral or they believe that being moral has conseqences that will indirectly benefit them. Both of these cases are suspect, since one can easily conceive of many situations in which their beliefs will fail to back up their moral stance. In the former case at least, there are a number of situations in which we believe that the ``right thing to do'' is in serious conflict with our biological predisposition in the matter. I was once told the following story as proof that morals are biologically determined as even very young children are known to display them:

In the days when an ice cream sundae cost much less, a 7-year-old boy entered a hotel coffee shop and sat at a table. After a while, a waitress moved over, put a glass of water in front of him and stood with her hands on her hips, as if waiting impatiently for what was bound to be a very insignificant order.

``How much is an ice cream sundae?'' the boy enquired meekly.

``Fifty cents,'' came the curt reply.

The little boy pulled his hand out of his pocket and studied a number of coins in it. ``How much is a dish of plain ice cream?'' he inquired.

Some people were now waiting for a table and the waitress was beginning to show signs of annoyance. ``Thirty-five cents,'' she said brusquely.

The little boy again counted the coins. ``I'll have the plain ice cream,'' he said.

The waitress then brought the ice cream, slapped the bill on the table and walked away.

The boy finished his ice cream, paid the cashier and departed. When the waitress came back to wipe down the table she swallowed hard at what she saw. Placed neatly beside the empty dish were two nickels and five pennies, all of 15 cents -- her tip.

I grant that the story is very moving indeed, but it is nowhere near proving that all moral feeling is biologically motivated. Studies in psychology show that children as young as two years are already acquiring moral precepts that are evidently in conflict with their own biological desires. Empathy, I concede, is at least partly a biologically determined strong driving force towards espousing some moral framework favouring altruistic behavior. People with a strong sense of empathy tend to be very social and likable. They are also very likely to be moral in their attitudes. One could argue that in being moral they are only acting in their own self-interest by satisfying their empathic desires. But empathy alone simply doesn't cover all possible cases. Consider the following scenario. I pick this rather than one in which we find a stuffed wallet with the owner's address on the sidewalk because it is immensely more likely to happen, and has happened more than once even in my own case. Besides, the benefactor of the moral act is in this case much more diffuse and significantly harder to empathise with.

As Richard unloaded the contents of his K-Mart cart into the trunk of his car, he found an electric drill that he had placed in the cart, decided against buying until next time, but forgot to put back. It had escaped the store unnoticed by the check-out clerk. What should Richard do? Should he take it back to K-Mart and return it or should he drive on home feeling lucky since he needed the drill anyway?

In every hundred people who find themselves in Richard's position, I dare say a conservative estimate of fifty will hold who eventually drive home with the drill feeling quite happy about it. In each one of them the strongest desire that eventually won out was to be immoral, if we concede that the moral thing to do was to have returned the drill to K-Mart. This goes to show that our biological predisposition to be moral is simply not strong enough in every possible case. While some degree of selectively altruistic and moral behavior is almost sure to have evolved naturally and thus be part of our genetic makeup, there is a vast number of actions in which we are required to exercise moral restraint that are simply not covered by our genetic determinants. In Richard's case, if he were to return the drill it is more likely due to his acquired system of beliefs that created a stronger desire overrunning his baser biological instinct in the matter.

Richard himself, if he believes that being moral will indirectly benefit him, could reason thus: ``If I were not to return it, then K-Mart will suffer a small loss as they will write this item off. This loss will increase the price of items at K-Mart and will affect me eventually. But the loss is shared by everybody who shops at K-Mart, and I will only have to pay back a fraction of it. But the gain (the drill) is for me alone. So in total, I am better off keeping the drill.''

Within an atheistic framework, which discounts heaven and hell and other doctrines of equalisation like Karma, it is hard to see how it is indirectly bad for Richard if he decided to keep the drill instead of returning it. A similar line of reasoning underlies the actions of most people who resort to the occasional immoral act. In a 1996 survey of office employees nationwide done by Television New Zealand, more than 80 percent of those surveyed said they didn't even give a second thought to misappropriating office stationery for their own personal use.

Also, what is important here is not what Richard actually does, but what he believes is the right thing to do. He might decide to drive home with his drill, but if he believes that he ought to have returned it, that is what matters to us. We are not interested in whether Richard is moral or not in order for him to find sense in this article, but only in whether he believes that morals are absolute and universal. When people misappropriate office stationery, they hardly think about whether they are doing the right thing. But if they do, they will almost surely conclude that they are in the wrong. This conclusion will not be affected by their eventual action in the end, nor will this conclusion necessarily determine what that action will be. As I mentioned already, I have no problems with a practising non-vegetarian as long as he or she acknowledges the fact that vegetarianism is morally superior to non-vegetarianism. I cannot myself truthfully hold that I have been moral on every occasion presented to me thus far. But I will readily acknowledge my moral shortcomings. After all, it is only human to err. It is totally unreasonable to believe that in people of otherwise equal intellectual faculties, the biological urge to trespass will be equally subordinate as well.

Also, I am not trying here to establish the truth or falsity of moral statements. That is the job of a professional philosopher. What I seek to do is just show that regardless of the truth-value of vegetarianism being moral, it is as moral as other actions which we commonly perceive to be moral. Thus if a rational minded person finds vegetarianism unreasonable, then by the same token he should also find, say, honesty unreasonable. That will do for the present purpose.


If you are reading this section, then you probably agree that it is important for people to subscribe to at least a basic set of morals regardless of the society they live in. You might endorse, for example, Amnesty International's worthy efforts in preventing human rights abuses in various countries that try to justify it culturally. Therefore, I take it that you and I are at this point unanimous in condemning apartheid in the South Africa of a few decades ago. We judge it an immoral system, or at any rate, a less moral system than the American justice system because it denies certain rights to blacks that it accords to whites. It is less moral because it is less inclusive. In fact, the legal system in apartheid South Africa institutionalised exclusive morals and so we should say that the legal system is inferior to the legal system of the USA. But within the USA itself, we can see in operation morals of varying degrees of goodness that aren't subject to formal legislation. Everybody accords some basic rights to other fellow human beings. The most common of these is ``the right to be respected a priori for one's intellect'' for instance. But frequently, a black person in the USA, is even today not as respected for his intellectual prowess as a white. I'm sure you will agree that a person who espouses such a prejudiced belief is being immoral, because he denies to a certain group of people (namely blacks) the right to intellectual respect which he otherwise accords freely to others (whites).

Of course, this is not just limited to blacks and whites. It ranges across a whole spectrum of categories of peoples. It has been said rightly indeed that the moral status of a society can be measured by the amount of rights that its minorities enjoy. Anyone who denies that an exclusive moral framework is inferior to an inclusive one is at a potential risk being unable to argue rationally against discrimination of any sort. The situation is especially bleak today not only for minorities such as homosexuals or various ethnic groups but also for women who, in spite of massive reformation, are widely perceived in American society as not quite the equal of men.

Having come this far, it is now one small step to include within the group of beings with basic rights, not just other humans, but also other sentient creatures. In other words, at a bare minimum, we grant other sentient creatures the right to live, and not be killed for food. More moral people might choose to accord various other rights in addition, such as the right not to be enslaved, or experimented upon.

I was once watching an episode of 60 minutes on TV. It was about Japanese whaling methods which the producers of the show decided to be very inhumane. No argument here. However, when they interviewed a university professor (a physicist) about it, I found his response utterly surprising. He said that only instantaneous death can be humane and since the Japanese whaling method was very cruel and time consuming, the Japanese obviously didn't feel the compassion for sentient life that we in the West feel. I have no doubt that this professor went right home that night and celebrated his appearance on TV by boiling alive a lobster for his dinner, a popular delicacy in coastal New Zealand. My annoyance was not so much at his condemnation of the Japanese whaling method, which no one can deny was apalling, but of his self-exonerating statement that claimed ``only instantaneous death can be humane''. Let me be even more precise and say that I would not even have been annoyed if this man was not a scientist. But a professed scientist, subscribing to objective views, claiming that such a thing as instantaneous death exists and that it is humane, really struck me as absurd. Presumably, it is alright to inflict a certain degree of suffering on sentient creatures, but no more. Of course, this certain degree is variable according to individual whim and fancy, or more likely, convenience.

How do we determine exactly what rights a sentient creature should be accorded? I find a device called a ``hypothetical contract'' introduced in 1971 by the American philosopher John Rawls handy for the purpose. According to Rawls, the contracting parties are behind a veil, which immerses them in complete ignorance regarding any knowledge about themselves. This is sort of like sharing a bar of chocolate with your brother where one of you gets to cut and the other gets to choose. Since the cutter doesn't know which piece he will get, his best bet is to cut as fairly as possible. If you don't know your own identity or attributes in forming a law, then your best bet is to form a law as fairly as possible without bias towards any group of people. How do we apply Rawls' hypothetical contract here? Well, it turns out we can extend his device a little bit to turn it into some kind of a golden test to determine whether we ought to extend a certain right to a sentient creature or not. In our case, rather than forget our identity, we actually assume another identity -- that of the object of our action. If we are asking the question of whether a lobster has the right not be be boiled alive, we should ask ourselves instead the question ``Do I have the right not to be boiled alive?'' The answer, I am sure, will be a resounding yes.

But where exactly do we stop in our zeal to be more moral by expanding the inclusive circle? I agree that the inclusion has to stop somewhere, or else we will become extinct. While I am far from advoctating self-extinction as the most moral path like the Indian ascetic religion Jainism, I will insist that the minimal list of members in the rights group contain at least those creatures that we know to be sentient. I don't think any reasonable person today will intelligibly hold that a writhing and thrashing lobster in boiling water does not feel pain, but is just exhibiting an automatic pain resembling response. While I argue elsewhere that the pain of sentient, but not thinking creatures is of a shallower kind and is not as bad as the deeper mental anguish that thinking humans and possibly primates feel upon anticipation, experience, contemplation and recollection of suffering, I can't but imagine that it is pain nevertheless and should be avoided at all costs.

Some people may adamantly hold that we can never know what it is like to be a bat. In other words, they are saying that it is impossible to empathise with anything non-human because of our lack of evidence that they really feel pain as opposed to only exhibiting pain resembling behaviour. I can only ask them how it is they can tell if a fellow human being is in pain. All we have to infer the mental states of other people from is their behaviour, and sometimes not even that.

What about eating animals that died of natural causes?

This is an interesting question. I am sure that it was even put to the arche-atheist himself, the Buddha. Can consumption of carcasses constitute moral behaviour? Rawls' device comes in handy once again. Applying the golden test of morals to the situation, we ask ourselves: Do we give others the right to eat our corpses? Like the Indian tribe that Darius summoned, we may very well come to the moral conclusion that others should be allowed this privilege, or perhaps even that it is our birthright to be eaten after death. Alternatively, we may decide that it does not really matter to us one way or other what happens to our bodies after we are dead, and so concede that it is alright to eat animals that we did not kill. At least one historical figure, the Buddha, is known to have espoused this kind of belief. Although he advocated vegetarianism on moral grounds, he did not thus mind people eating animals that had already died of other causes. In his essay, ``Mind and matter'' the German quantum physicist Erwin Schrodinger admires this quality of sincerity in him.

However, besides being easier to pervert to suit our convenience, rules with exceptions such as the Buddha's are harder to follow than those without exceptions. It is far easier to get up at 6AM everyday than to get up at 6AM on weekdays but sleep in on weekends. For this reason, I think a blanket prohibition of meat is far easier to follow than one that selectively allows the consumption of animals that died of natural causes. So from a pragmatic point of view at least, unconditional vegetarianism is supported, if we agree that killing to eat is generally immoral.

The social vegetarian

As Mary picked up her ten year old son Tommy from her sister's house where he had spent the day playing with his cousins, he asked her why his cousins ate Kentucky Fried Chicken for lunch while he was given a vege-burger that his mother had specially packed for him. When Mary had first explained vegetarianism to Tommy some years ago, she said that it was the moral thing to do and that people who ate animals were somehow cheating and being bad. But now her own sister had moved into town and Tommy was asking her if his cousins were bad people.

The above problem is familiar to most vegetarian people. Not only do children seem to face an especially prominent aspect of the situation, but even adults have to deal with it in one way or another. No man is an island or so the saying goes. Since vegetarians are human too, they must learn to live in a world where the majority of their companions eat meat, an issue that is thankfully becoming less and less worrisome as vegetarian culture grows steadily. In distant relationships such as those between casual friends the problem does not surface simply because we can afford to ignore details regarding reasons for people's personal beliefs at that stage. Indeed the smooth functioning of the social system owes it to the fact that continued social intercourse can take place at all without having to first establish the equality of its participants. After a certain degree of closeness develops between companions, however, issues like this surface and require to be aired and resolved. As I mention elsewhere while discussing atheism and relationships, the human is a strongly mental creature and thus it is no surprise that everything significant about a human is to do with beliefs and ideas of one kind or another. It is very unlikely that an enduring relationship will ever form between people who don't see themselves as equal partners. In particular, we seem to have a special dislike for the holier than thou types of individuals who address us from their high horse of morality. Under these circumstances, how can vegetarians hope to forge deep and lasting friendships with non-vegetarians? Is it possible at all that there will exist a relationship between a vegetarian and a non-vegetarian?

Meat eaters could have made the problem a lot simpler if only they were unscrupulous and horribile people in general. But unfortunately for us, a great many meat eaters are otherwise very nice people, (otherwise in the sense they are nice to humans; of course they are not at all nice to the animal being devoured). It will help here to think of the problem slightly rephrased thus: Are we able to relate equally to someone who is a very nice individual in all respects except for the fact that he considers women inferior? Or except for the fact that he has some other serious moral shortcoming that doesn't affect us (except in our dislike of it)?

We have here what I call the Hitler as Artist problem. Adolf Hitler fancied himself as an artist when he was young. He studied at an art school in Munich, but failed twice in getting into the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. Assume for a moment that he did indeed manage to get into the Academy, and not only that, he went on to make a fundamental contribution to art in the magnitude of Picasso while at the same time everything else we know about him stayed the same. What would popular attitude be towards Hitler? Would he be just as despicable then as he is widely considered to be now? The source of the problem is that although humans have many facets to their personalities, we try to deal with each other as though we are somehow united wholes. It is very hard to intensely hate something about someone and at the same time greatly admire another of their qualities. At best, we see such a person as a paradox who doesn't quite fit into the right compartments in our minds which dictate how people ought to be.

So let's look at the typical problematic meat eater, Mike, who nevertheless is a very thoughtful individual, always there to help everybody in need and is also strongly empathic towards all his fellow humans. One of his friends, Zoe, has grown to like him a lot and would like to get much closer to him and possibly even start a relationship together. However there is this invisible barrier. Zoe, a vegetarian and Mike, a non-vegetarian. How does Zoe break this barrier? Unless she does, the unasked question ``Does she think she is superior to me?'' is always lurking in the background ready to surface at the slightest sign of tension in the relationship. We assume, of course, that Mike knows the reasoning behind Zoe's decision to avoid meat. Otherwise the opposite situation will hold in which Zoe, if she places value on rationality, continues to suspect that Mike somehow thinks her to be irrational.

I think that the best solution to this problem is for Zoe to believe that they are both equally moral as far as their ideals go, but that Mike's intrinsic impulse to eat meat is far stronger. She need not and must not attach any value to it and she must concede that she herself could have been non-vegetarian had her meat-eating urges been very much stronger, perhaps even very very much stronger. Note that in all this she doesn't have to concede at all that vegetariainism is not superior to non-vegetariainsm. Furthermore, Mike's relatively stronger impulse to eat meat could also have been due to poor familiarity with the range and variety of vegetarian cuisine, a situation that Zoe can promptly amend.

Besides being realistic, this way Zoe won't be on her high horse and Mike will be able to sympathise with her viewpoint far better. If in fact the relationship develops further and Mike agrees that vegetarianism is the more moral thing, the choice to remain vegetarian will be offered to their child if they have one. Both parents will unanimously endorse the moral superiority of vegetarianism while the father concedes that although he acknowledges that he ought to be vegetarian, he just finds it too difficult. If such a situation prevailed at home and the vegetarian parent made sure that adequate tasty vegetarian meals and snacks were offered, the child would then have a much better chance of remaining vegetarian throughout its life. When challenged at school about its vegetarian lifestyle, the child can always defend itself by saying:

"Killing animals to eat is a bad thing. I don't have a very strong desire to eat meat and so, luckily and thankfully, I can be a vegetarian. If my urge to eat meat was very much stronger, I realise that I could well be a non-vegetarian too."

In fact, the most moral position that vegetarians can take in this regard is to award the benefit of doubt to their fellow humans who are non-vegetarian and assume a-priori that they are equally moral in terms of their beliefs, but that their biological impulses to eat meat are stronger. Nobody ever argues that people have varying intrinsic dispositions. And there are no values attached to it.

At least in the case of a vegetarian child, not only does it offer the child a chance to relate to other children on an equal footing, it also introduces scope for reformation by prompting non-vegetarian children to question their own biological impulses with regard to eating meat and testing if they are able to avoid it themselves. No doubt, a non-vegetarian child can always come back with a rejoinder the next day after having talked to his parents, and defend its moral stance as completely justified since killing to eat is not immoral. If this happens, then the vegetarian child will have to resort to more sophisticated argumentation such as that presented in this article and potentially risk losing the non-vegetarian as a close friend. But this was to some extent already initiated by the non-vegetarian child who took it upon himself to rebut the vegetarian's reconciliatry offer. So nothing too significant is really lost.

Meat-loving and meat-hating vegetarians

A vegetarian once told me ``I am not a vegetarian because I love animals; I am a vegetarian because I hate plants.'' Here, finally, we address the other important question this brings up: Whether a vegetarian who avoids meat although he likes it is as moral as a vegetarian who avoids meat because he dislikes it. This problem is not unlike a comparison between a rehabilitated criminal who has to consciously suppress his urges to be immoral and an empathic person who intrinsically dislikes being immoral. Who is better? Why do some of us find it so easy to remain faithful to our spouses while some others have such a difficult time even trying to be less than promiscuous? I find it hard to accept the fact that all licentious people are those with loose morals. This entirely discounts any effects of their undeniable biological makeup.

In comparing the relative merits of meat-loving and meat-hating vegetarians, we note that there is a distinct possibility that the meat-hating vegetarian may one day grow to like it and thus become a non-vegetarian. In the case of the meat-loving vegetarian, however, he has unconditionally decided to avoid meat eating. An evaluation of their respective moral merits under all possible scenarios from this point of view could therefore tend to tilt the balance in favor of the vegetarian who likes to eat meat but consciously avoids it. If we discount this possibility, then as far as the end result is concerned they are both being equally moral. But then this raises another important problem. In a fair world, we would expect everyone to express the same amount of moral restraint, quantitatively speaking. Thus, the meat-hating vegetarian, in a sense, has it easy while it is much harder for the meat-loving vegetarian. Can we then expect that the meat-loving vegetarian grant himself license to be immoral in some other respect?

Unfortunately, the world is not a fair place. We have to accept that the meat-hating vegetarian just happens to be lucky in an unfair world where everybody is held to the same moral standards, regardless of their intrinsic dispositions. Contemplating this brings up the question we thought we had buried long ago: Whether we should at all be moral in an amoral world that treats us unfairly in our eyes. This, I am not even going to attempt to answer.

feedback.gif (1862 bytes)After all this, one could still argue that there is no rational basis for vegetarianism. But if that is so, then there is no rational basis for being moral in any other sense of the word either. We might as well commit the most heinous crimes as long as we can get away with it.

[Dr Anand Venkataraman is faculty in Computer Science at the Institute of Information Sciences and Technology, Massey University, New Zealand. He can be reached by email at a raman]


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