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Shades of gray - Comments

ZenDruid's Avatar Comment 1 by ZenDruid

People who kill, pillage and burn at the slightest provocation do not deserve membership in civilized humanity.

Sun, 03 Apr 2011 20:28:31 UTC | #611437

Aflacduck's Avatar Comment 2 by Aflacduck

Excellent, thought-provoking post by Pharyngula. Agreed with the above, those of us who do not wince at the thought of killing another human being for a difference of opinion should not be allowed to tread with the rest of us.

Sun, 03 Apr 2011 20:34:39 UTC | #611439

bendigeidfran's Avatar Comment 3 by bendigeidfran

I wouldn't mind if anyone killed me.

Sun, 03 Apr 2011 20:36:06 UTC | #611441

PERSON's Avatar Comment 4 by PERSON

And similarly, we should not attribute these twelve more weight than any other lives. Especially when political hay is being made on the basis of willingness to be outraged by what is paraded in front of us over the hidden and obscure.

Yes. It is wrong, that is unambiguous.

But that does not justify unexamined anger or being made a tool of.

Sun, 03 Apr 2011 20:37:15 UTC | #611442

Neodarwinian's Avatar Comment 5 by Neodarwinian

Must disagree on principle.

We have three degrees of murder and one of those, third degree murder, is split into three different classes. There is nuance in killing and there are worse things in this world than killing and death; much worse. Quite obvious to me that PZ has never killed anyone. He has no idea of the reality and how someone would feel about it. Empathy is under a normal curve also and is not binary.

Sun, 03 Apr 2011 20:41:15 UTC | #611443

derika's Avatar Comment 6 by derika

So true.

Sun, 03 Apr 2011 20:45:56 UTC | #611447

sanban's Avatar Comment 7 by sanban

Comment 5 by Neodarwinian : Must disagree on principle. We have three degrees of murder and one of those, third degree murder, is split into three different classes.

That's not about morality, but law. Being judged not guilty of murder by reason of insanity makes the fact that another human has been killed no less awful - it does mean we don't hold the killer legally liable. We still don't call it a "moral" killing.

There is nuance in killing

Tell me about those nuances: when is killing another human being "moral"?

and there are worse things in this world than killing and death; much worse.

None of which makes killing another person moral.

Quite obvious to me that PZ has never killed anyone. He has no idea of the reality and how someone would feel about it.

I've never killed, raped, mutilated nor tortured another person, either, but I'm pretty sure my moral compass on those issues are equally shaped by normal human empathy: that is, I reject them all as immoral.

Empathy is under a normal curve also and is not binary.

Not sure what you mean by that.

Sun, 03 Apr 2011 21:37:44 UTC | #611468

AtheistEgbert's Avatar Comment 8 by AtheistEgbert

Comment 5 by Neodarwinian :

Must disagree on principle.

We have three degrees of murder and one of those, third degree murder, is split into three different classes. There is nuance in killing and there are worse things in this world than killing and death; much worse. Quite obvious to me that PZ has never killed anyone. He has no idea of the reality and how someone would feel about it. Empathy is under a normal curve also and is not binary.

You're right, but PZ is also right. Unfortunately, explaining why the problem is both simple and complex is too nuanced to go into here.

I've tried to point out that morality must be an important project for atheists. The topic will remain a fog for most, until we've established a naturalistic or scientific theory of ethics, so that everyone understands exactly why it's both clear and simple in the case of PZ, and why it's nuanced and complicated in the real world, rather like gravity is simple in theory, but leads to endless complexity.

And can I just add, how beautifully written and inspiring PZ's article was.

Sun, 03 Apr 2011 21:56:43 UTC | #611474

Neodarwinian's Avatar Comment 9 by Neodarwinian

@ sanban

Where do you think law came from. Some arbitrary socially constructed area devoid of moral influence? You missed the point entirely. why call the killing anything?

Killing another human being in defense of someone's life can be moral, that is the right thing to do. The next two points are not worth answering.

There are degrees of empathy just like any other human trait and it can be distributed under a moral curve, just as morality can. It is not binary either.

Sun, 03 Apr 2011 22:10:37 UTC | #611479

Raiko's Avatar Comment 10 by Raiko

I have to disagree with PZ in so far that those who set the threshold for when in development human life is worth protecting (or at least in serious conflict with the life of the mother) are accidentally creating a gray area. I actually don't disagree with his views on this, but by having people who do disagree, or by having the philosophical difficulty to decide where to draw the line, there you have your gray, blurry area. But that's a disagreement for principle only. I acknowledge that its not what he's talking about. I do, however, find killing in self-defense quite acceptable. Or in defense of people you care for, at your best judgement that the individual you might kill is an immediate threat to those people's lives or something even more precious (as another commenter said, there are things worse than killing). In that case, I think standing by and watching would be the worse crime.

In general, however: great post. Too many people forget that behind every death tallied in the news or on a religion's death toll is a person with aspirations, connections and hopes and dreams. It is not okay to detach ourselves from what it literally means to take a life with everything in it from someone and also take someone from the lives of others. Anything that is powerful enough to suppress the empathy for another person's life should not be taken lightly, but the trend in politics, especially where religion is involved, is to do exactly that. It's ridiculous to assume anything short of saving lives is even worth debating in terms of whether or not it warrants murder. Sadly, it seems our societies need constant reminders of that.

Sun, 03 Apr 2011 22:37:28 UTC | #611488

AfraidToDie's Avatar Comment 11 by AfraidToDie

There are very important degrees. Who would feel extremely bad about a parent who decided to kill Fred Phelps as he spews his hatred at their son or daughter's funeral? Not me. Those crazy religious zealots who killed innocent people not related to the person who burned the Koran should have been stopped by law enforcement, even if it required a bullet to stop them. Terry Jones does not deserve to be murdered for the burning of "paper and ink", but had he been the one murdered instead of those innocent Afgans, wouldn't that be less evil? Do we stand idly by while religious idiots mistreat women in the name of belief espoused on that "paper and ind"? Unfortunately, there are people committing such horrible actions that it justifies fighting and dieing for to stop them, and yes, even killing for.

Mon, 04 Apr 2011 00:04:51 UTC | #611537

darksmiles22's Avatar Comment 12 by darksmiles22

Comment 10 by Raiko :

I do find killing in self-defense quite acceptable. Or in defense of people you care for, at your best judgement that the individual you might kill is an immediate threat to those people's lives or something even more precious (as another commenter said, there are things worse than killing). In that case, I think standing by and watching would be the worse crime.

I read PZ's post as a reminder of two things. There is nearly always a better option than violence if you resist the urge for revenge and look for one, and even if the victim dies on the wrong side of a war or is himself a murderer, he is still a victim - i.e. every death is wrong even if it is the least wrong option. That and it was just plain moving.

Mon, 04 Apr 2011 00:14:41 UTC | #611541

M D Aresteanu's Avatar Comment 13 by M D Aresteanu

Beautiful writing that really brings death close to home, but I fundamentally disagree with his position. I feel his sensitivity to the subject blurs his vision of reality. I think I have just as much empathy, but I find pacifism to be a immoral position in many instances.

Mon, 04 Apr 2011 00:41:35 UTC | #611550

darksmiles22's Avatar Comment 14 by darksmiles22

Comment 13 by M D Aresteanu :

Beautiful writing that really brings death close to home, but I fundamentally disagree with his position. I feel his sensitivity to the subject blurs his vision of reality. I think I have just as much empathy, but I find pacifism to be a immoral position in many instances.

PZ lists some reasons that are not good enough to justify killing: "God. Country. Honor. Justice. Revenge." I find it interesting he doesn't mention self defense there. In fact he later says, "I hold an absolute view that no killing is ever justified, that individuals have the necessity to defend themselves against assailants, but that even that does not grant moral approval to snuffing out the life of another."

That reads to me as, "Act in immediate self defense if you must, but have the decency to be ashamed after, and certainly don't kill for any other reason." I can find no quarrel with such a sentiment, but then again it probably only reflects my own view in the first place xD

Mon, 04 Apr 2011 00:57:25 UTC | #611555

rsharvey's Avatar Comment 15 by rsharvey

I think this was actually a fairly weak piece. Like others here, I agree with a lot of the sentiment and emotion, but it think its needlessly over reaching for an evolutionary biologist to claim that there is no grey area when it comes to taking a life. Is PZ a vegetarian? Is he pro-life?

Mon, 04 Apr 2011 01:21:03 UTC | #611559

Schrodinger's Cat's Avatar Comment 16 by Schrodinger's Cat

I don't know about shades of grey........the article struck me more as shades of hyperbole.

Truth is, PZ Myers simply would not exist today if every one of his ancestors had taken his 'principled' stance. Principled philosophers are largely a luxury....a result of those who were prepared to do the dirty deeds to ultimately secure a country where principled philosophers could spout waffle in freedom.

Mon, 04 Apr 2011 01:26:07 UTC | #611560

Alternative Carpark's Avatar Comment 17 by Alternative Carpark

There are very important degrees. Who would feel extremely bad about a parent who decided to kill Fred Phelps as he spews his hatred at their son or daughter's funeral?

Awful example -- How is that any different from the koran killers? Killing because of a book is insane, but killing because of insult to the memory of a dead relative is OK?

You might get more takers if it was Fred Phelps who had killed the son or daughter.

Mon, 04 Apr 2011 01:31:16 UTC | #611561

Pitchguest's Avatar Comment 18 by Pitchguest

This piece didn't really feel like reading PZ Myers at all.

More like one written by Pat Condell. With significant ranting, hyperbole and self-righteousness.

Mon, 04 Apr 2011 02:47:19 UTC | #611577

David Schultz's Avatar Comment 19 by David Schultz

I flatly disagree with PZ's thesis that killing is always wrong. It's a good habit to imagine and humanize the violence that occurs in the world, and it's a shame that so many people are systematically numbed to it, but I can think of situations in which it is positively the right thing to kill people. I think that on D-Day it was morally right of the allies to kill Germans. Each German was a person with memories feelings whose life was snuffed out. Most of them were hapless tools of a tyrannical dictator, manipulated if not forced into participating in genecide. Their deaths are not to be taken lightly or celebrated. But given the course Nazi Germany was taking, I assert that it was right to resist them with deadly violence, and it would have been immoral to do otherwise. As with all moral calculus we have to weight the consequences of each course of action, and I think any fair-minded person will agree that the course of non-resistance to Nazism would have led to far more death and misery than the killing that the Allies undertook.

I don't think we've engaged in a war where there was such clear moral asymmetry between the sides since WW2. Certainly there's a very good argument to be made that it's wrong and immoral of us to be engaged in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, etc, but I think it's lazy of PZ to declare all killing in all situations to be morally equal. The morality of an act is NEVER context-independent, even when it comes to killing.

Mon, 04 Apr 2011 02:56:24 UTC | #611580

zengardener's Avatar Comment 20 by zengardener

There are shades of grey.

It's hard to make decisions in a grey world. Pretending that it's only black and white makes the decisions easy, and sometimes wrong.

My advice is this.

When you find that you must kill, don't pretend that your victim is a deamon. Acknowledge that they are very similar to you, but in a different situation.

The same applies for those who would kill you.

Maybe there would be less killing. I don't know.

Mon, 04 Apr 2011 03:00:13 UTC | #611581

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 21 by Steve Zara

PZ is wrong. Wrong because we consider life so very precious, and each individual unique.

PZ is wrong because of the truth of the absolute position he holds.

He's wrong because we should so desperately care about others in this world in which bad things happen, and so many of them happen because of people.

I would kill.

If I saw grown men throwing rocks at a girl buried in sand, condemned to die because of adultery. If I had to kill to stop them, I would do it.

If I saw a man clothed in explosives, walking to a street, ready to blow up himself and dozens. If I had to kill to stop him, I would do it.

If I saw a priest luring another child away, to another session of pain and sobbing guilt, leading to a life ruined. If I had to kill to stop him, I would do it.

It's because life is so important that we must not turn away. I would kill because every death is terrible, every life unique and infinitely precious. I would kill because each human should be defended, not just myself.

I may wreck my own mind because of this action, but what I would do would be justified, because inaction is action, to do nothing when you hear the screams is a choice.

There are never situations when to kill is not terrible. But that does not mean there are never situations when it is the right thing to do.

Mon, 04 Apr 2011 03:31:00 UTC | #611588

Neodarwinian's Avatar Comment 22 by Neodarwinian

@ Steve Zara

Very well put!

Mon, 04 Apr 2011 03:39:09 UTC | #611590

Eric Blair's Avatar Comment 23 by Eric Blair

Steve Zara wrote:

There are never situations when to kill is not terrible. But that does not mean there are never situations when it is the right thing to do.

So true, so well put. But I think PZ and Steve are two sides of the same coin, the coin being our abhorrence of killing. We must never be complacent about killing, even and especially if we must ourselves kill . And we must be wise and courageous in deciding when to do so.

I would hope I would follow Steve's lead in his response to the threatened killing of others... and I hope I would someday forgive myself if I did.

These are subtle and profound ways of thinking that verge close, dangerously for atheists, to some Christian thinkers: extremists in defence of the the sacredness of every human life and of human dignity (Simone Weil and Jacques Ellul come to mind). Of course, this is also where we run into my favourite atheist, Albert Camus

(Not sure why they're all French ... :))

EB

Mon, 04 Apr 2011 04:34:20 UTC | #611597

PERSON's Avatar Comment 24 by PERSON

Comment 21 by Steve Zara

Perhaps I need to re-read the piece. What PZ wrote doesn't seem to contradict that.

I'm certainly not an absolutist pacifist, e.g. this sounds about right.

Mon, 04 Apr 2011 06:19:18 UTC | #611605

Schrodinger's Cat's Avatar Comment 25 by Schrodinger's Cat

I'm not sure why it isn't just simplest to point out that the only reason PZ Myers is free to spout such pretentious baloney under the guise of a moral stance is that people have killed in order to secure his freedom to do so.

Mon, 04 Apr 2011 06:25:22 UTC | #611607

1Sokkie's Avatar Comment 26 by 1Sokkie

Sometimes, issues demand nuance.

Sometimes?

Mon, 04 Apr 2011 08:55:48 UTC | #611625

1Sokkie's Avatar Comment 27 by 1Sokkie

Issues allways need nuance. I don't like it, but I think killing is in essence a natural thing. We've been doing it forever and we see other animals do it too. Be it for food, territory, mating rights, religion, anger, fear, ... etc.

Sure we've moved on. We have laws now, and morals. But underneath we are still animals, with animal behaviour.

Mon, 04 Apr 2011 09:05:22 UTC | #611630

Raiko's Avatar Comment 28 by Raiko

Comment 12 by darksmiles22 :

I read PZ's post as a reminder of two things. There is nearly always a better option than violence if you resist the urge for revenge and look for one, and even if the victim dies on the wrong side of a war or is himself a murderer, he is still a victim - i.e. every death is wrong even if it is the least wrong option. That and it was just plain moving.

It would be great if anyone in a potentially lethal situation would know the outcome so he or she was able to know for certain whether they're at a point where they can take other options, or where they have to defend themselves in (nearly) the worst way imaginable.

As you said yourself - there is nearly always a better option. Unfortunately, it isn't always plain to see for someone facing a threat to their life whether or not this is just a nearly situation. I can't blame anyone who doesn't take chances with that.

Comment 21 by Steve Zara

Well put, indeed.

I think the whole thread boils down to that PZ Myers did actually not find an exception to the general rule that black and white-thinking is generally wrong.

I think at least a waging of options is justified wherever ending one life could save many other innocent lives. If you can save these lives with other options, wonderful. If you can't, I still can't really blame anyone for going through with it.

However, what if ending one life saves one other? Can we judge which life is worth protecting more than the other? I think there are situations where we can and Steve Zara named some of them. I might not kill the priest in order to save the child from abuse (I think in this case you clearly do have other options, even if the church is quite in the way of justice here). The suicide bomber is going to die either way, so if I could change it to having him die alone instead of pulling innocent bystanders with him, there's just no question - and there shouldn't be (of course, it's not that easy to kill a suicide bomber without detonating the bomb, I suppose)! The stoner? If that's the only way, I'd certainly have no qualms, but being a coward, I'd also wager the consequences it would have for me (possibly my sentencing to death?). I am not a hero, sorry. :( I might opt for a different way with barely any chances of success (bargaining, calling for help when I know it's likely too late, etc.)

Point is: I think there are situations where we as moral, social, ethical human beings can make an informed decision as which of two lives in a situation is worth protecting - namely the victim's over the assaulter's. There are gray areas, especially in real-life situations where you have no real insight or no time to decide or contemplate the consequences, but as pretentious as it may sound to claim I have the right to decide right and wrong, who will live and who will die, I think there are situations where you have to decide, anyway. And most importantly: You should allow yourself to decide, too.

I remember a moral dilemma question that I think was used in some social studies experiment: A train is rolling towards a group of humans and will undoubtedly kill them all. You have the chance to change the track and make it roll over a single person instead. If you do nothing, the train will kill the group of humans, but you've not been involved. If you do something, only one person will die, but you'll have directly decided that he or she will. If I remember correctly, most people choose to change the track (a variation of this is whether or not to throw a human off a bridge in front of a train to stop it before it rolls over a group of people, and most people opt not to, if I remember correctly). Now, FSM bless I'll never be in such a situation. I do not know what I would do.

Mon, 04 Apr 2011 09:56:28 UTC | #611643

SomersetJohn's Avatar Comment 29 by SomersetJohn

I have a very simple rule, which I try to live by.

Violence is never right. Sometimes necessary, but never right.

While I can understand PZ's stance, and respect him for it, I don't have it in me to be an absolute pacifist like him. (Just don't ask me what "it" is.) I will fight for my family, for the oppressed, for myself and, under some circumstances, for my country. What I try very hard not to do is allow others to tell me when to use violence. It must be my decision, my responsibility and on my conscience.

Mon, 04 Apr 2011 10:42:19 UTC | #611653

bendigeidfran's Avatar Comment 30 by bendigeidfran

Is PZ alright? It was still good stuff, but better as the thoughts of one character in a novel. Far worse things than being dead, most things in fact. It remains one of the silliest 'punishments' ever devised. Old religious idea.

Mon, 04 Apr 2011 13:03:43 UTC | #611691