Sunday, 19 July 2015


The July meeting at Stockport was given by Derek McComiskey.  He presented a personal view of some aspects of morality – stressing that it is not necessary to know anything about morality in the abstract to be a good person. The Humanist concern to act morally is a key feature of our world-view.

He described how someone comes to build their understanding of morality in a series of layers. Firstly were are born pre-programmed to learn morality. This “hard-wired” predisposition almost certainly comes from our long evolutionary development as a social creature. Secondly we are socialised in a particular context. Then, when older, we can learn more formally. There is a strong analogy with language acquisition.

To make a moral judgement there is an interplay of Intuition and Theory. We can often make a judgement with almost no thought, as we have strong gut feelings, or intuitions. However, there are difficult issues where we need to reflect, and fall back on theories.

A brief discussion about whether we can rely on our moral intuition concluded that it works well most of the time. However Derek gave examples (primarily Disgust) where it seems to misfire. Also experiments show that pro-social behaviour can be altered by seemingly inconsequential factors: e.g. people are more helpful if there is a pleasant smell in the air.

But if intuitions can be “wrong” - can we find a reliable yardstick in Moral Theory? There are a number of theories which claim to have procedures for comprehensively settling issues. The main ones were discussed, along with situations where they seem to fail.

So both intuition and theory can let us down. There isn't a fail-safe way of knowing what the right thing to do it. Helpful in this predicament is American philosopher Bernard Gert. He suggests that harm to others (death, pain, disability, etc) is the basis of moral thinking. He says that all “moral agents” know that these things are wrong to do unless there is sufficient justification. He is clear that there need not be a unique moral answer to every situation. We need to use careful reflection and discussion with others to sort out the best solution to difficult problems.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has analysed attitudes according to five moral categories (1) Care/Harm (2) Fairness (3) Loyalty/Betrayal (4) Respect for Authority (5) Purity. People who are socially liberal stress the first two only. Social conservatives include them all. Our cosmopolitan society leads to us mix with different “moral tribes” - i.e. people who emphasise different moral categories to us. This illuminates why we often talk at cross purposes.

In the last 20 years there has been an explosion of psychological and neuroscientific research into decision making – including moral decision making. This is building up a body of knowledge about exactly how and why we make the decisions we do, and the factors that influence us.

Effective Altruism is a recent phenomenon grounded in consequentialist ethics. It applies reason and evidence to find out how we can do the most good. Oxford philosopher Toby Ord has committed to living on £18k and giving the rest of his pay. He set up Giving What We Can – and the website there has a calculator to work out how rich you are. There are charity evaluation site to make sure your donated money does the best good.

The Euthyphro Dilemma is attributed to Socrates. If things are good because God commands them, and for no other reason, then he could command terrible things and we would have to call them good. If God commands things because they are good – it suggests that moral judgement is independent of God, and that he is subject to it. Most theists find this difficult.

If you are in a discussion with someone who tells you that their God is necessary for Goodness – ask to take a look at what their scriptures say. It is hard to take lessons in morality from the god of the Old Testament or of the Quran/Hadith.

Finally, we looked at the argument put forward by a prominent Christian speaker about “Objective” moral values, and how this points to God. After much discussion - we didn't agree with him!


Websites: - Charity Evaluation - Evidence based giving information, and "How Rich Am I" calculator - Research for the Bible, Quran and Book of Mormon

Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil. Paul Bloom
Morality Without God. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong
The Moral Landscape: How Science Determines Human Values. Sam Harris
Experiments In Ethics. Kwame Anthony Appiah

TED Talks:
(short clip from the above talk, re. monkey fairness experiment:

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Population Matters

The Stockport group meeting in June was lead by Brian McGavin from Population Matters.  He spent 20 years working in multimedia for the Government and other organisations. He became tired of spinning government lines on environmental issues and unsustainable growth of the planet as he felt the planet was under great danger.

He quotes Lester Brown, an American environmental analyst, who insists that overdevelopment and overpopulation are resulting in mankind killing the planet. On the other hand he says that the Journalist George Monbiot refuses to recognise that population is the main driver of ecological problems. In spite of the population increasing by one million extra people per day population issues are not taken seriously by politicians. Climate change is mentioned much more often than overpopulation.

We need a radical restructuring on many fronts to achieve a sustainable steady state economy. Population Matters is at odds with Greenpeace, The Green Party, The World Wildlife Fund etc. The Green Party do not want to address overpopulation and refuse to carry Population Matters Advertisements in its Newsletter.
Brian McGavin recommended a 54-page book Valedictory: Population Overshoot by Lindsey Grant to be found on the Negative Population Growth website..

In the US problems are exacerbated by mass immigration , expected to reach 3.360 to 4.400 per day by 2050. There is concern about Obama’s plans for amnesty of illegal immigrants when there is the prospect of endless streams of immigrants from failed states. The moral issues need to be solved in the country of origin e.g. large numbers of illegal immigrants from Eritrea cite the harsh conditions and length of National Service. The EU population is not stable, again because of immigration. Statistics are available on the Eurostat website. In Australia the population hit 20 million in 2010 and could double every 33 years. One problem here is that only 6% of the land is cultivable. In Syria, a country with a high population growth, there was a perception that when there was a drought Sadat only helped the Allawis and this led to support for ISIS. 

Fossil fuels are enormous drivers of the ability to tame the environment but they are not in the happy state many think they are. The production of liquid fuel from oil will not last very long and the differences are expected to be made up with fracking, tar sands etc. OPEC countries deliberately keep the price of oil down to discourage fracking but oil prices will eventually shoot up as there will be a 20% shortfall in 20 years. Fracking has a 69% depletion rate in the first year and 94% depletion rate over 5 years so the sites run out in no time at all. Tar sands are also inefficient and requires a lot of oil energy to get a return.
Wind and solar energy are intermittent and the nuclear power favoured by many relies on Uranium where the ores often contain 2% or less of Uranium being energy inefficient to extract and could run out altogether in 50 years. If the number of reactors is doubled it could run out in 20 or so years. Fusion power is not yet a realistic proposition.

The solutions include reducing car use and having more home energy installations. Fossil fuels should be save for building capital energy-reducing proposals and for such things as mining the rare metals required for mobile phones. The third runway at Heathrow should be abandoned and High speed trains used instead of short haul flights.

Meantime the population of the world is heading for 11 million so food and water will be required on a large scale. Warnings that we have about 30 years to stabilise the population have to date been ignored.

To get a viable sustainable population it would be necessary for each woman on the planet to have an average of no more than 1.3 children until 2040, after which the average could rise to 2.1 to maintain stability. Increases in elderly populations are a red herring. The Pope is releasing his first encyclical letter but is still intransigent on birth control. Islam has no edicts against birth control but in Iran women are being coerced to have more children. Massive population increases are projected for Ethiopia, Mali and Nigeria amongst others.

One solution would be to make overseas aid conditional on stopping barriers to family planning.

Rise of the Religious Right and the Impact on Women

June's GMH Meeting was a talk about the rise of the religious right and the impact on women in the UK, given by Sandhya Sharma.

The talk started with a video dating back 20 or so years showing how women in minority, primarily Asian, communities in London started to demonstrate against the then rise of religious fundamentalism and how they were ignored by the anti-racist and leftist movements. Also how women in Bradford around the same time started to demonstrate against domestic violence in their communities and how the religious leaders and the political left tried to shut them up.  Moving on to more recent times Sandhya explained how there’d been a gradual shift from state sponsored secular services, e.g. welfare and housing services, towards services run by religious institutions. Austerity measures from the government had heightened the effect with almost no public money going into entirely secular services like the Asian Refuge (for women and children fleeing domestic violence or forced marriages) with which Sandhya was involved.  However the people providing the services run by religious institutions are often from the very communities the women are seeking refuge from. And rather than holding the perpetrators responsible for their immoral, and sometimes illegal, actions, e.g. in matters related to domestic violence and abuse, their preference is often to take a conciliatory approach and unite the parties again.