The Virtue of Cowardice

I have long accepted the fact that I am a coward. I would never consider dying or killing for my country, or for any purported noble cause. Yet, I have never been ashamed of that. I have never really seen the value in sacrificing for such things. However, I have also never been able to adequately articulate this vision, and was literally accused of moral weakness once when I tried to defend it.

Thus, when I watched The Americanization of Emily, a film which I was led to by the fascinating blogger Arthur Silber, it instantly became one of my favorites by doing something I could not. This movie launches an unrelenting shock and awe campaign on the futility of warfare and the idiocy of heroism, as Silber compellingly argues here (see also here and here).

I strongly encourage you to read at least the first of Silber's essays, although it may be better to do so after watching the film. If you at all trust my opinion on these matters, watch this movie. It is brilliant, absolutely marvelous, and incredible considering the time it was produced, in 1964, not even a decade after the "noble" war which serves as its setting. It is likely unlike any war film you have ever seen.

(Incidentally, those of you familiar with James' essay "The Moral Equivalent of War" might find it an apt accompaniment. I'm considering showing this film to my class in the spring along with James' essay.)

I offer this one tidbit to stoke your interest, and to give you a sense of why cowardice should be nothing to be afraid of:
War isn’t hell at all. It’s man at his best; the highest morality he's capable of ... it’s not war that’s insane, you see. It’s the morality of it. It’s not greed or ambition that makes war: it’s goodness. Wars are always fought for the best of reasons: for liberation or manifest destiny. Always against tyranny and always in the interest of humanity. So far this war, we’ve managed to butcher some ten million humans in the interest of humanity. Next war it seems we’ll have to destroy all of man in order to preserve his damn dignity. It’s not war that’s unnatural to us – it’s virtue. As long as valor remains a virtue, we shall have soldiers. So, I preach cowardice. Through cowardice, we shall all be saved.


Speaking of Non-belief...

This is quite fascinating and, in my view, a good sign (h/t Digby):

Multinational surveys have often reported that Americans are much more likely to believe in God than people in most other developed countries, particularly in Europe. However, a new Harris Poll finds that 42 percent of all U.S. adults say they are not "absolutely certain" there is a God, including 15 percent who are "somewhat certain," 11 percent who think there is probably no God and 16 percent who are not sure.

These are the results of a Harris Poll conducted online by Harris Interactive® between October 4 and 10, 2006 with a nationwide sample of 2,010 U.S. adults.

Important difference between online surveys and surveys conducted by telephone interviewers

Over the last few years, several different surveys have found that more people admit to potentially embarrassing beliefs or behaviors when answering online surveys (without interviewers) than admit to these behaviors when talking to interviewers in telephone surveys. They are also three times more likely to say that their sexual orientation is gay, lesbian or bi-sexual. Researchers call this unwillingness to give honest answers to some questions in telephone surveys a "social desirability bias."

It is therefore no surprise that in this online survey, more people say they are not absolutely certain there is a God than have given similar replies in other surveys conducted by telephone.


Are believers declining?

Three years ago, in an identical survey, 79 percent of adults said they believed in God and 66 percent said they were absolutely certain that there is a God. In this new survey, those numbers have declined to 73 percent and 58 percent respectively.

I've studied this issue a bit myself, and the numbers I've seen for belief in God have always been in the 80s or even 90s for the US. I wonder how much of this disparity has to do with the whole "social desirability bias" and how much with actual declining belief. (Or, how much is error in this particular poll? For instance, internet access tends to be less evenly distributed in this country than telephones, so this could bias the sample towards those who are better educated and better off financially.)

That more than a quarter do not believe (11% believing there is no God, 16% unsure) makes me pleased.

But why? Why does it please me that belief in God is declining? (I ask this question to myself, as much as anyone else who might wonder at my motivations.)

Well, one reason would not be specific to me: we like people to believe as we do, especially when we are confident about something.

But honestly, there's a lot of evidence that people who are religious believers are happier than those who are not. Jonathan Haidt suggests that this is a result of feeling connected to something larger than the self, whether it be a religious community or something metaphysical (or both).

He may be right. Beliefs aside, there are few secular organizations that are as tightly knit as (many) religious communities are.

In any case, given that at least some of this happiness is attributable to beliefs, in a sense I am pleased about something that results in less happiness in the world.

Peter Singer was on The Colbert Report last night, and it got me thinking about problems with utilitarianism (a view for which I have a lot of sympathy). The thing that I don't like about utilitarianism is that it puts all moral worth on something passive, something that is undergone rather than done, viz. suffering.

Yes, they claim to be concerned with happiness, but as pleasure, not as something active like eudaimonia or laetitia (joy) in Spinoza's sense. In any case, all people like Singer ever talk about is suffering anyway.

Returning to the issue at hand, I'm inclined to think that belief is not a matter of choice (contrary to the popular interpretation of James' "Will to Believe"). On some issues one does have options but, for most issues most of the time, things just seem true or false to most people.

I'll grant that wishful thinking plays a large role in determining belief--so that people believe what they want to believe--but this seldom operates consciously. In any case, even if they believe what they want and even if they recognize this to some extent, they still don't have much control over what they want in the first place. (They are aware of their desires but never even dream of the causes of those desires, etc.)

I think the challenge for modern human beings is to find happiness in a world in which we realize that we are unquestionably finite. We are not the center of the universe, there is not some higher power watching over us, we have no eternal aspects to ourselves; we are animals as much as any other species.

This doesn't mean happiness is impossible. We have to realize that this is not an all or nothing game. Yes, it would be nice to live longer than we do (although I don't know that I'd go so far as to say forever), but given our limitations, we can still make the most of things.

This may be a diminished happiness, but at least it's one that doesn't depend on questionable beliefs that will be doubtful for any honest, intelligent person. (OK, that's an unfair jab at believers. I think they can be honest and intelligent in their own ways.)

Anyway, it's nice to know I'm not the only one ineligible for public office in this state.


Fun Fact

I'm not allowed to hold public office in Tennessee!

Article IX, Section 2 of the state's constitution reads (h/t Incongruous):

"No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state."

Apparently my home state, Pennsylvania, is among six other states with a similar clause (in its case, Article 1, Section 4), although technically it just implies that it is not the case that atheists are not disqualified:

"No person who acknowledges the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments shall, on account of his religious sentiments, be disqualified to hold any office or place of trust or profit under this Commonwealth."

Isn't that fun? More reason why I have no intention of ever living in Tennessee or Pennsylvania again!