Monday, March 24, 2008

What do Archbishops know about Ethics?

I reckon that it would be a pretty safe bet that given any population of religious people and the same (numerically) population of non-religious people there will be roughly equal proportions of liars, cheats, perverts, hypocrites, honourable people, altruistic people, intelligent, stupid etc.

Whilst this is more of an intuitive assertion than a scientific one, any hard evidence I have ever seen about the subject tends to suggest this, in fact most evidence I've seen implies that religious people tend to be less "moral" than their irreligious counterparts (prison populations, teen pregnancies, divorce rates etc.); which is interesting in itself, but not the subject of this post.

My question is, "where does our morality come from"; if my previous assertion is true anyone would have to agree, it may be informed by different religions in different ways, but it's not intrinsically from religion, i.e. the notion that if you don’t have a religion you can’t be "moral" is clearly nonsense. For myself I'm pretty sure I know the answer to this question, being a parent, it's perhaps a simplistic view but the answer seems blindingly obvious to me, we get our morals from, our parents and our community of peers, those that we don't get from that source are clearly innate because we observe them in related species, i.e. they are already hard-wired from our evolutionary heritage. I observe this every day in the behaviour of my kids and their friends, i.e. on the whole they tend to be a blend of the attitudes, perspectives and habits of their parents. Interestingly (although, not scientific) I also observe that the kids from religious backgrounds (i.e. the ones that are in the process of being indoctrinated into the religion of their parents) are often the worst behaved. I would offer the theory that this is because they are constantly being told that they are “special” and “righteous” that level of arrogance and solipsism has got to affect growing brains somehow?

Anyway, onto the main thrust of this post, I have been following a story in the mainstream press currently on a bill that the government is trying to get through the house called “The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill” (you can read what people are saying about it here); part of it would allow the creation of part human, part animal embryos for purposes of stem cell production. As you would expect (groan), the usual religious “objectors” are demanding a free vote, religious interests inside and outside the Government are doing their best “indignant” faces, terms such as “monstrous”, “Frankenstein”, “sacred” are being tossed around and the bejewelled, robed and self appointed religious “leaders” are gathering like vultures around a dying wildebeest on the African savannah.

There are so many aspects of these “objections” that are themselves objectionable that it’s actually quite hard for me to know where to start, lets start with the science part,

- Firstly, humans are animals, animal DNA and human DNA are made of the exactly the same stuff, so we’re really just talking about manipulating chemicals that replicate themselves, not people.

- This research focuses on very small groups of cells; roughly the same as the number you destroy with a good scratch or pick of your nose.

- No one is talking about actually creating hybrid organisms, indeed that possibility doesn’t even exist; this argument is about science at the cellular level, not zoology!

- Every human cell has the “potential” to become another human, if it’s ok to experiment with skin cells, heart cells or liver cells (I could say to find treatments for middle-aged, syphilitic, alcoholic clergymen at this point, but that would be a cheap shot) why not embryonic cells?

Taking these points on board it seems to be evident that the Archbishop of St. Andrews, Keith O’Brien [Catholic] just wants to stir up trouble or is just lying for Jesus when he says, "[this legislation is a] monstrous attack on human rights, human dignity and human life", adding that it would allow experiments of "Frankenstein proportion", what utter poppycock, doesn’t this chap actually read this stuff? Even Lord Winston (quite rightly) chipped in criticising this buffoon today (here) and he claims (incomprehensibly to me) to be a man of “faith” as well, albeit not a Catholic.

I don’t understand the Catholic “hang up” with this; it’s the same with abortion, actually I don’t think they understand it either, it seems to be a case of dogma trailing behind reality and some sad old virgins trying to remain relevant, but then I suppose everyone is entitled to their opinion. If it is indeed the (true) opinions of these people that this kind of research is immoral then I would like to ask the following questions,

- Is it moral to believe that the needs of a clump of 150 cells trump the needs of a teenage girl with MS or an elderly man with Parkinson’s disease?

- Is it moral to believe that we shouldn’t use our intelligence and reason to alleviate measurable suffering when it is clear that the suffering caused is less or none at all?

- Did the Catholic God create these diseases, these viruses and bacteria? If the answer is yes, then clearly there is some kind of master plan (otherwise why do it?), therefore are the sufferers being punished, and is it immoral to treat any kinds of medical problem?

- Do Catholics have a superior knowledge of ethics and morality than everyone else; if they do how do they know that?

I doubt if these questions will ever be answered for me, but they go to the heart of my objection with these objections, it's not about a point of view and it's not about holding a different opinion, its about some people thinking (i.e. in their own heads) that they know something everyone else doesn't, and also thinking that because of that they have the right or even the calling to impose that view, this authority from revelation (or passed down revelation) is something that I feel doesn't belong in our modern world, in fact I think it is immoral.

In short then, what do Archbishops know about ethics that the rest of us don't?

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