To be Rational is not, I Fear, Even on the Same Continent as Being Virtuous

28 Dec

It has been a while since I posted anything. Truth be told, I haven’t had much to talk about. While I have had one request to talk about The Punisher, I’ve been slow to move on it for a number of reasons (like the fact that so far the only thing I’ve come up with is wondering if Frank is even sane enough to be counted as a moral agent). This is not, however, a post about Frank Castle, or even about comics. Rather, this post is about atheism and rationality.

I make no secret of the fact that I am an atheist. I’ve criticized religion more than once on this blog, from both Nietzschean and non-Nietzschean perspectives. In particular, I’ve talked about the fact that I believe that religion is one of the primary offenders in shutting down our capacity for individual moral reasoning in favor of adopting a dogmatic view.

That said, barring the occasional comment I generally avoid engaging with the skeptic and atheist communities either online or off. Though it is by no means the only reason for my doing so, a large part of why I have no desire to engage with my “fellow free thinkers,” is that a good many of them crow their own rationalism, and believe that this is sufficient to qualify them as virtuous, and magically excuses their bad behavior(s).

Let us start with the most recent example, being, as it is, the example that inspired this post. A 15 year old girl decided to post about a Christmas gift on the r/atheism section of 4chan’s poor cousin Reddit. The resulting shitstorm featured a good many participants talking about how they would like to have sex with, or simply rape, a 15 year old girl. You can read more about it over at Skepchick.

The misogyny on display in this instance is pretty sickening, as are the attempts to blow it off as “just being the internet,” blaming the victim for posting her picture, or attempts to deflect the blame from the skeptic/atheist communities because it’s a problem for more than just these communities. This last point is true, because these things are problems in society as a whole… the point is also absolutely and utterly irrelevant, and a rather pathetic attempt at having to take responsibility for both our own behavior and the policing of our own communities.

This is not, however, an isolated instance of misogyny in particular, or bad behavior in general among atheist and skeptical communities. Obviously there are exceptions, and my personal experience does not qualify as universal experience, but I have continually seen a sense of entitlement in which atheists and skeptics adopt the stance that “Because I am a more rational person than you I am a more virtuous person than you.”

Yes, not believing in superstition is better than believing in superstition – one might even call it a virtue. Being possessed of a single virtue is not, however, anything like being a virtuous person.

This problem is nothing like new. Let us wind the clock all the way back to Aristotle. Yes, the man who for all intents and purposes invented the discipline of logic. Aristotle was a pretty logical guy… he was also cool with slavery. Yes, yes, I know philosophers like to leap to Aristotle’s defense by claiming that the Greek conception of slavery was not the same as our conception of slavery. So let’s look at Aristotle’s paraphrased defense of slavery, shall we? “Non-Greeks are not rational in the same way that Greeks are rational, thus they are not human in the way that Greeks are human and it is perfectly cool with me to have non-Greeks as slaves.” This is meaningfully different from the justifications that Europeans used to enslave Africans how, exactly? (Hint: It isn’t, and Aristotle’s justifications for slavery read almost identical to the justifications used by Europeans hundreds of years later.) It was logic, logic that for Aristotle formed the foundation of human virtue, as it was for Aristotle the uniquely human trait, that gave him this conclusion.

Arch-logician Kant, another soul for whom virtue was to be found solely in reason, was also a raging racist with deep seated issues about sex.

Yet if logic, as some have liked to claim, is not only transcendent, but the foundation from which virtue springs, how could two highly logical men have reached these conclusions? Should we hem and haw and try to condemn the views without condemning logic to a non-transcendent state?

No, no we really shouldn’t. Logic, like every other facet of human experience, is conditional. It has no transcendent basis or properties. Aristotle was okay with slavery, and Kant was a racist with bedroom-related issues because logic, transmitted as it is within an overriding cultural framework, told them that these things were the logical conclusions.

We are not creatures whose unique inherent quality is to be rational; we are creatures who are taught rationality tied up with all sorts of presuppositions, assumptions, and utter nonsense. Yes, rational thinking can be useful in a number of ways, and can even allow us to engage in a virtuous behavior in avoiding falling into the trap of superstition/religion. That neither makes rationality itself a virtue, nor does it make people who behave rationally into virtuous people.

Atheism and skepticism help prevent us from engaging in the bad behaviors encouraged by religion and magical thinking; as the most recent example of behavior on Reddit, as well as past examples of behaviors elsewhere demonstrate, none of that prevents us from acting like assholes in entirely different ways. So before we start crowing about how our rationality makes us more virtuous than those mired in superstition we should take a step back and make sure we are actually behaving in a virtuous fashion.

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Posted by on December 28, 2011 in Philosophy, Pop Culture


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