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Seven Deadly Myths of Modern Society

Originally published in Australian Humanist No. 98 Winter 2010, pp 9-12


Hydra monster as depicted in the game Titan Quest (THQ, public domain image)
Hydra, a deadly myth of ancient Greece. Chop off one of its heads
and two more will grow in its place - a knotty problem for Hercules.
Many more recent myths have a similar bent for self perpetuation
The stability of human societies has probably always depended on the perpetuation of convenient myths. Contemporary Western societies still cling to some long-standing fictions, while replacing others with new ones no less astonishing – some already enshrined in various misleadingly worded constitutions, manifestos and declarations. Although humanists have triumphed over one of the most intransigent myths (the existence of gods and supernatural realms), many seem loath to surrender various other strange beliefs. Of the seven broadly ethical myths outlined here, I contend that the first three are overt nonsense, while the status of the others is perhaps less clear-cut.

Why deadly? Because the failure of nations to confront social realities could eventually lead to their downfall, even though in the past deception, pretence, self-delusion, ignorance, hogwash and hocus-pocus have been prominent among the threads binding the fabric of civilizations. As economic and environmental events become ever more encompassing, two choices confront us: international solidarity or disaster. Only truth and knowledge can secure the foundations of an enduring global society.

1. God

This is the most ancient, ubiquitous, elaborate and tenacious of all myths, denounced by almost every humanist for its absurdity and objectionable social and psychological effects. The case against the existence of deities is incontrovertible, and now so well documented it’s becoming tiresome to revisit it. God-worship is not just misguided – it’s demeaning, disturbing and deeply unethical.
 
Saturn devouring one of his sons
A mural by Francisco Goya - Saturn
devouring one of his sons. More
recent gods are just as ravenous.
 
Notice, though, the heading is God, not gods – because the oneness of God, an enormously powerful element in the Abrahamic religions, is a significant part of the myth. To the uninitiated, the God concept looks decidedly plural. Every religion, every sect, has its own god or gods, and they are all very obviously different. Furthermore, the god of any given religion comprises a bizarre mishmash of roles. There’s no obvious connection between the multifarious invented functions of (for example) the Christian god, such as creating the universe, begetting a son, answering prayers, setting moral standards, revelling in praise, redeeming sins, admitting souls to heaven and a potpourri of other gimmicks. Take your pick and build your own god!

All religions and sects, then, differ substantially from one another, so we should not find it surprising that some are worse than others. Much worse! This remark prompts the questions: should we tolerate all religions, should we respect freedom of religion regardless of consequences, should we always respect the apostles of religion, should we assent to the teaching of religion to young children? Well, show me just one pertinent reason why. (Avoiding offence, maintaining international relations and other reproofs that keep alive the perverseness of the myth are not pertinent, whatever other virtues they might possess.) We are not asked to observe any of these niceties when it comes to so-called cults. What’s the difference? Only (sometimes) a darker shade of madness, and the minority group syndrome.

2. Equality

All men are created equal, so we are told in the American Declaration of Independence; or born free and equal in dignity and rights according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There can be few documents of such far-reaching importance that contain statements as blatantly false as these. How could any rational person read this stuff without convulsing?1A

There are no ethically significant qualities of people in respect of which they are all equal. Neither are they born equal nor do they acquire equal "rights", opportunities or freedom. They do not even possess any inherent right to be treated as equals. As for being “equal in the eyes of God”, it’s hard to imagine a more pitiful phrase – or a god more cruel.

Identical twins in the womb
Identical twins in the womb - is this as close to equality as any two
human beings can get? (A cosy environment but an ethical desert)
For goodness sake, just look at the world! A couple of sideways glances will do, thank you. But if you are not overwhelmed by tears of anguish, you probably didn’t see what I saw.

The flagrant, unsparing inequalities among humankind are due to differences in genetic makeup, the vagaries of the local natural environment and the attributes of the society into which each person is born. They encompass everything that matters most to a person – physical and intellectual fitness for life, all basic material needs, security, opportunities, rights and so on. People would be equal, in some sense of the word, if none of these differences existed.

It is one of the principal functions of an ethical social system to soften these differences and to provide the means of removing the grave injustices that ensue from them. Obviously to implement this strategy society must to a large extent treat individuals unequally. Fair treatment implies unequal treatment. Once we acknowledge this and stop fooling ourselves that people are equal, we might see more clearly how to get on with the job of relieving the anguish of the disadvantaged and the oppressed and giving them a sense of dignity. Meanwhile if we must use the word "equal", let it be in contexts where it carries some weight, as in "all ordinary individuals should have equal access to justice, health care and education, regardless of circumstances". In those areas we will often find governments sadly wanting.

The gap between the lucky and the unlucky exemplifies just one kind of inequality. Another kind is typified by the marked variation in the rationality and moral nature of human beings. Although it is the standpoint of humanists, and thankfully of Australian society in general, that we respect the dignity of every member of our species, regardless of their conduct, beyond this very basic obligation we tend to treat them very differently indeed, in line with their own moral outlook and social conduct. Our society reveres some human beings and despises others, at the same time accepting the bizarre assortment of strengths and weaknesses embraced by the vast majority. Some are placed on pedestals, others put behind bars, while the rest of us just keep on paying our taxes! We do not suffer extreme malefactors and intractable criminals in our society. Even Australia’s leaders sometimes join in the chorus of expletives – scum, monster, ratbag, not human at all. While such remarks are open to interpretation, we cannot simply close our eyes to the reality that between the genocidal maniac and the altruist, the imbecile and the genius, the automaton and the revolutionary, there are folk of every calibre.

Should you one day stumble upon a human equality, let’s hope it will be something like the will to live or the capacity to suffer pain and misery. However, I very much doubt that even these would qualify. Here in Australia we might do well to steer clear of the equality morass and follow our own simple maxim: “A fair go for everyone”.

3. Natural rights

By natural rights I mean inherent or inalienable rights, supposedly owned by all individuals from the moment of birth (or before) regardless of circumstances. This concept appears to be completely unintelligible (“nonsense upon stilts” according to Bentham, 18431B ). The only rights available to individuals are those conferred by the society to which they belong, genes and physical environment permitting. While in most societies there are legal and social rights to education, health care, employment, access to legal aid and so on, there are no "automatic" rights to any of these things, or to food, shelter, property ownership, free speech, reproduction or indeed to life itself.

A “healthy” set of rights, therefore, is what an ethically sound social system bestows on the people. From this aspect, the most that individuals actually possess is a sense of expectation as to how society and the law should treat them.

Among the traits that do reside in people are needs, urges and aspirations, but whether or not these can be fulfilled or expressed is determined by the community, the law and external factors. A free person is one who lives in a well-informed, compassionate society that respects these needs, that is, a society with the capacity to deliver a liberal package of rights. The most important rights are those which enable individuals to live as human beings and to develop and express their humanity. Of these, perhaps the most fundamental is the right to escape suffering.

It's questionable whether the concept of rights can apply to anything other than sentient, intelligent individuals, and only then as a privilege or concession offered by others. If embryos have rights, then so do most animals, and if animals have rights, why not rainforest trees and rare orchids? Why not heritage buildings? Nor is there any reason why all rights (“natural” or not) should be ubiquitous or stand for all time. For example, the rights to reproduce (willy-nilly!), to plunder the earth, to own land, to form monopolies and to manufacture and consume whatever one wants might well be considered unsustainable.

4. Moral relativism

This term has various shades of meaning. In the sense intended here, moral relativism does not imply, for example, that incest may be wrong in certain circumstances but right in other circumstances. It implies, rather, that there's no universally recognised way of telling in which circumstances incest would be right or wrong. In this sense, relativism is incoherent and indefensible – if there are no universal standards there are no genuine standards at all. Moral progress would be illusory and the door would be left open for moral anarchy.

It is of course a fact that very different moral codes prevail in different epochs and regions of the world. Moral relativists argue that the values of different cultures are appropriate for the conditions existing in those cultures and cannot be overridden by a higher arbitrator. But if there is no definitive way of telling which values are best, one might as well let things be – a policy that some relativists (and sceptics) do appear to advocate. (Presumably they are indifferent to child slavery, female circumcision, the slaughter of female infants, honour killings, torture for minor offences, corruption, drug abuse, the excesses of Shariah law and a multitude of other cultural horrors.)  I believe most humanists would agree, however, that some codes, including some within our own culture, are in dire need of revision – that there is room for genuine moral improvement irrespective of state and culture. This stance implies some kind of ethical idealism, if not absolutism.7

There is evidence on at least two fronts for the progress of morality towards an elevated state. At the personal level, one's sense of morality clearly develops from childhood through to adulthood, while on the historical plane, recapping the evolution of Western civilization as a whole, one can hardly fail to notice that each stage of its ethical development discards elements of barbarity that were present in the previous stage. The moral tone of society does not simply change, it advances. Recent progress in ethics, however, has been linked to the immense growth in factual knowledge as much as to a heightened awareness of moral principles. Ignorance is morality’s chief gaoler.

5. Moral determinism

I use the word “determinism” in an unusually broad sense. Let’s begin with a transparent example. Legally enforced rules of behaviour do not constitute a moral code of behaviour, even when ethical concerns have inspired their making. Enforcement replaces morality, because individuals have no realistic alternative but to comply – no opportunity to exercise their moral conscience.

In principle, there’s no such thing as moral law, if breaking the law entails punishment. Likewise, religious rules nullify morality to the extent that breaking them induces a seriously felt threat of retribution (usually in an afterlife). The rationale, here, is that the concept of morality requires freedom of choice and responsibility. If we cannot or do not exercise those critical capabilities, we are not moral beings at all, but automatons.

Most ethical theories focus on either the physical causes or the social effects of moral behaviour rather than on subjective aspects, so they are not primarily moral theories. Naturalistic philosophies that explain morality in purely empirical terms, ignoring its mental quality, reduce ethics to a dispassionate collection of scientific or sociological facts. The dominant ethical standpoint today is probably consequentialism, a group of theories linked by the common precept that consequences alone are relevant when making moral judgments. Since nothing hangs on the attitude or feelings of whoever’s making the moves, freedom and responsibility are unnecessary for achieving those outcomes: Big Brother would do a better job. But consequentialism is doomed even as a legal or political philosophy, because the evaluation of consequences is plagued by insurmountable difficulties.

In fact almost any explanation or objectification of moral conduct puts constraints on morality that interfere with the concept itself. As often as not, to explain morality is to explain it away. The fundamental quality of morality is moral conscience, embodying virtues such as compassion, love, honesty, a sense of fairness, a desire for happiness and harmony, responsibility, courage, receptiveness, knowledge, appreciation of beauty and respect for reality and the world we inhabit.

The chief enemies of the concept of morality, then, are unbridled legislation, socialism, religion, consequentialism, scientism (see below) and other reductionist and overly constraining ethical philosophies. A major shortcoming of modern society is its abysmal failure to cultivate personal responsibility. In Australia the unabating expansion of government regimentation and poorly targeted welfare increasingly undermines freedom, responsibility and self-respect. If humanists value these qualities, they must defend moral conscience and everything that’s needed to make room for that faculty to work.

6. Rampant bigotry

The two-part myth I wish to expose here is that all discrimination is irrational and unjustifiable and that irrational discrimination (prejudice or bigotry) in our society is rife. The grave danger in this fiction is that the legislation and public opinion which endorse it are beginning to undermine an inherent and extremely valuable instrument of human reason.

Without doubt, bigotry as such is wrong. The doubt arises over the circumstances in which a person may be held guilty of engaging in it. We all necessarily discriminate – it is an indispensable feature of perception and reason – and the only question is whether, in a given situation, we do so with due care and consideration. I’d suggest that, given the limitations of our knowledge, we almost always do, and with sufficient reason.

The gist of this argument is as follows. All rational thought is conceptual. We cannot reason or speak about people (or anything else) at all without categorising them in one way or another. This is just how our minds operate - we have nothing to work with except the totality of concepts that we accumulate in relation to any particular person (or thing). In other words we necessarily generalise. The distinction between specific and general information is vague and largely illusory. In weighing up a person for some purpose, we use whatever information we have. Most of the time, very little. We make snap judgments on first impressions.

But given what we know or believe about the characteristics of a person or group, we should be entitled to deal with them accordingly, within the bounds of common respect and decency. Not surprisingly, immigration authorities, welfare agencies and insurance companies already do so, without censure. But ordinary folk? Surely we can’t be blamed for prejudice if acting on the basis of the most relevant information we possess, however scant it might be. It’s a risk assessment strategy, only we use intuition instead of statistics. And we should be entitled to use it.

The underlying problem is ignorance, which limits a person’s capacity to make well considered judgments. However, in today’s information-bloated world we are all ignorant and must make do with what snippets of knowledge we do possess. No one should have the authority to take away from us the power of evaluation just because of some misguided notion that someone might get offended or treated “unequally”. Interestingly, though, taking offence (like inviting derision) has become a trendy pastime, and one we could do without if society is to rid itself of the duplicity of political correctness.

Overlying these considerations, however, is a basic innate predilection for kinship. Is there a single person who does not, in the general scheme of things, favour his own kind - his family, friends and compatriots, and the values they represent? Good grief, these things our so important to us that we wage wars over them, and though the mind may aspire to global unity, a deeper voice tells us only the kind of unity that conserves the values of our own clan will suffice. Instincts too play their part in shaping our attitudes towards other folk.3

Many provisos aside, it seems fair to say the political system has gone wildly overboard with its antidiscrimination policies The puzzle is why the authorities imagine they have the right (or the hide) to decide when one can and cannot use certain attributes in decision making – particularly when, as often as not, the implementation of those restrictions accentuates divisions rather than eradicating them. (Just look at the American model of condescending arrogance!) The whole shemozzle is just one of the many unspeakable excesses of meddlesome neo-sociologists, and it’s an affront to human intelligence and freedom.

7. "Scientism"

A belief often defended by humanists and other free-thinkers is that the scientific method is the only justifiable means of acquiring knowledge about reality and the nature of things. More extremely, they might see scientific knowledge as the only genuine kind of knowledge, and scientific truths as the only kind of truth.

Whether or not this is merely an overreaction to supernaturalism, it is an extraordinary point of view, considering that science, as we understand it now, is a quite recent development. (Although the makings of modern science stem from the scientific revolution in the 16th century, JS Mill, 18434, was one of the first to give an account of scientific method.) Knowledge precedes science by countless generations and a zillion synapses! Science has developed out of our ordinary, everyday ability to observe, interpret and interact with our surroundings, along with the ability to share our experiences and encourage others to copy our behaviour. Perhaps the crucial element in this process is recognition (observing some aspect of nature more than once and categorising it). The rudiments of “the scientific method” are very evident in these endeavours, and many lowly animals are proficient in most of them!

There’s nothing distinctively scientific about distinguishing truth from nonsense, fact from fantasy or sensible behaviour from silly behaviour. Most of our knowledge is neither verified nor in need of verification, yet we trust it enough to act upon it. Otherwise we’d spend life sleeping in a dark room. 99% of the time, we do interpret the world correctly. That’s how Homo sapiens made it this far, without so much as a sniff of science. And although it’s certainly helpful, science is not an essential factor in dispelling many of the myths that beleaguer us. To dismiss the gods we had no need of science. But having nevertheless used it for that purpose, do we wish to go on and use it to destroy the moral, aesthetic and emotive aspects of our lives, the central components of our human nature?6

These remarks in no way detract from the leading position of science in human enterprise and wisdom, in particular, our understanding of the fundamental generalities of the physical universe. Indeed, all events, all our common knowledge and all our glib communication should doubtless be open to scientific explanation. But we should be aware of science's limitations and elusiveness, and the profound mysteries shrouding its methodology. There is no unique scientific method and no single theory of how science progresses. The next major scientific revolution could well change our entire perception of science itself. It cannot predict its own future, or whether it will save or destroy our planet. Science is an adventure both rewarding and hazardous, yet in many areas it’s beginning to smother our zest for adventure as well as our sense of priorities.

Concluding remarks

These are just a few of the myths that infect our society.5 While important to me, those of you with different perspectives on life will doubtless have your own collections. In this article I have adopted the distinctly apolitical view that, when deployed as guidelines for living, lies, nonsense and deception are always unethical. The pursuit of truth is highly important for humanists, as it should be for everybody. But because this pursuit is futile if we have no appreciation of the meaning of truth, the establishment of robust criteria of truth ranks as one of philosophy’s most important quests. For it seems we cannot assume that all people the world over entertain similar notions of truth, or that our current scientific concept of truth, such as it is, will necessarily hold up in our most far-reaching investigations of the universe.

Be that as it may, here is my “ethical” outlook in a nutshell: Truth and reality are fundamental to ethics and life. Morality is primarily about living in tune with reality and communicating truths. A moral person is a person of integrity – one who interacts appropriately with the real world, is not deceived by falsehoods and nonsense and does not deceive others. Moral concern also has a transcendental aspect, extending not only to the plight of people in far away places, but to other species, the environment and the future. The essence of morality (in contrast to social convention and law) is moral conscience, which cannot function in the absence of individual freedom and responsibility.

1A However, the bulk of the Declaration of Independence is straight forward.

1B Bentham, Jeremy. "Anarchical Fallacies" in vol. 2 of The Works of Jeremy Bentham, John Bowring, ed., 491-534
      (Edinburgh, 1843)

2 This sentence is not in the published article

3 This paragraph is not in the published article

4 Mill, JS. "A System of Logic" (Longman, London, 1843, & numerous later editions)

5 It may yet turn out that freedom and responsibility, upon which the above opinions depend, must be included among these myths - not, however, because of misleading uses of language, but because recent evidence in the field of neuroscience is possibly beginning to point that way.

6 "For is it not possible that science as we know it today, or a "search for the truth" in the style of traditional philosophy, will create a monster? Is it not possible that an objective approach that frowns upon personal connections between the entities examined will harm people, turn them into miserable, unfriendly, self-righteous mechanisms without charm or humour? "Is it not possible," asks Kierkegaard, "that my activity as an objective [or critico-rational] observer of nature will weaken my strength as a human being?" I suspect the answer to many of these questions is affirmative and I believe that a reform of the sciences that makes them more anarchic and more subjective (in Kierkegaard's sense) is urgently needed." Paul Feyerabend: Against Method, 4th ed. (London: Verso, 2010).

7 Yet from a personal point of view a good ethical system is very much an attunement between the hypothetical world "out there", the world in my head and especially the worlds I believe other people carry around in their heads.

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........Dabs of Grue..........June 2011.....................