The conversation continues apace:
The idea is that, because human beings are the source of all value, they themselves possess an absolute, unconditional value. It is impossible to set a price upon that without which "price" is inconceivable. My Hegel-inspired emphasis on society as the unconditioned good is just an extension of this Kantian insight. The two arguments share a structure and are complimentary because society subsists only in and through its individual members who subsist in their autonomy only in and through their society.
Again, I'm not familiar with Kant--for shame!--but since he was a theist, wouldn't he claim that God imbues humans with value? I'm asking only because I'm curious. You'll notice I've tried to concentrate on the parts of your response that highlight matter we've previously neglected to discuss.
It's perfectly possible to ground rights in something changeable, like social history, so long as it can be seen to change in accordance with some kind of logic or reason. The legitimacy of rights claims, then, could be assessed according to the rationality of the socio-historical transformations from which they emerge, where the ideal of freedom or human flourishing provides the benchmark for rationality. But I suggest this rather tentatively, and it would require a great deal of elaboration in any case.
You need not elaborate. But I'm curious, again--and feel free to but note the musing without responding to it--about how our rights might "change in accordance with some kind of logic or reason". Or rather, I'm unaware of how we would be able to tell how such rights changed if we couldn't determine the inner logic that compelled them to do so. Just some scattered thoughts.
On a semi-related topic, I'm not sure how familiar you are with C. S. Lewis. His book The Abolition of Man provides a short but sufficient look at what he calls the Tao--what I would call the Natural Law--and what it means for the development of a system of ethics. If you stumble across a copy, it's well worth a read.
On the contrary, this is precisely why we need democracy, transparency, and lively political debate. To eliminate government would be a disaster. Our well-being depends upon too many socio-economic systems and institutions of far too great a complexity for any individual to manage alone. These systems do improve our lives and provide us with real freedom. Yet, as they become increasingly global and interconnected, they also present an increasing amount of danger. But this is an argument for more, better government to responsibly promote our interests.
I very much disagree. Men, alas, not being angels, require government as a necessary evil, not so much to prevent man from doing evil, as to provide a system of redress when the inevitable occurs. "The government that governs least governs best" not because man behaves well without government, but because too often, rather than check the evil of the men under its control, government creates still greater evils. It's worth pointing out that, during the bloody twentieth century, a man was far, far more likely to be killed by his own government than at the hands of his fellow citizens. My argument here is based on my understanding of human nature, so it is informed by my Catholicism, but we need not get too far into what is essentially a political debate.
Well, you're right that I won't tell you what specific actions you need to take in order to have an ethical life, because I believe that there are many different ways to lead such a life.
I think it worth pointing out that the multitudinous saints lived lives that were often very different from one another; yet all lived quite ethically, at least insofar as the Church is concerned.
And, in my view, my position fairs rather better than yours with reference to the target metaphor. It is much easier to form a concrete conception of the good life, and to see that it can only be achieved with and for other people in just institutions, than it is to form an action-guiding conception of God.
I think you're forgetting that we Christians have revelation to help us in guiding our actions. One could certainly claim that revelation is bunk, or counter-intuitive, but it is the height of absurdity to suggest that the Church would be unable to form a code of ethics whereby the good life may be achieved. Think of an ethical dilemma, and the Church has thought about it; think about a profession, and, excluding those devoted to evil, the Church has had a member who has excelled at it.
PJ: I don't expect that we will ever eliminate evil -- and so we must always have some mechanism for managing its presence as best we can, when it appears -- but I don't see how this problem has any kind of foundational importance. (Additionally, some people do dispute your claim about the universality of our understanding of evil -- the argument of Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals, for instance, is intended to debunk this prejudice.)
Pepin has recommended that particular tome to me, so I hope to get to it eventually.
As to evil: one must have an understanding about what it is and why it has come to be so that one may minimized it and its effects. No? I have found that the doctrine of original sin and the story of the fall provides an excellent explanation for the existence of evil.
It's not possible to explain a positive phenomenon with reference to a non-existent entity, so Chesterton's atheist is a strawman. In any case, I'm not sure there is evil in all of us, at least not according to my earlier definition of evil as seeking to cause suffering for its own sake. Perhaps you can explain your position here?
I think the atheist explanation for evil would go something like this: since there is no omnipotent being to prevent evil from occurring, we're forced to endure it; if there were a God, He would have prevented evil from existing in the first place.
If we define evil as the causing of suffering for its own sake, then, going back to the example of the cat, and the fact that human beings torture the animal simply because they can, we must admit that something has gone dreadfully wrong with man. Now, I don't know if you've ever done anything evil, but I know that I have; in fact, I continue to do evil, despite my insistence--like Peter's--that I would never do such a thing. I'm not sure who else to blame for my sins unless it is my own miserable self.
This is completely consistent with my eudaimonistic position, as should be abundantly clear from what I've written heretofore. Notice too that I carefully specified that suffering is not a merely physical notion, but that the worst kind of suffering is spiritual, i.e., having to do with human freedom, with our inability to freely articulate and pursue our own conception of the good life.
I don't want to rehash things again, but you're contradicting yourself. I don't object to the fact that our inability to "freely articulate and pursue our own conception of the good life" may cause suffering. Nor do I insist that self-immolation may be a mite unpleasant. What I cannot understand is how you can claim that a woman who sincerely wishes to end her life is ethically prohibited from doing so. I cannot, for the life of me, see how self-actualization can be a "good" if it can be countered--seemingly at random--by an appeal to another "good". You need not attempt to explain this again since I'm clearing not getting it; only know that this is probably going to be a rather large sticking point for a number of people as it has been for me.
To the first part of this, all I can say is that I'll throw in my lot with democratic action over prayer any day (and you accuse me of wishful thinking!).
The phrase "wishful thinking" springs insensibly to mind when you expect democracy in the Middle East to bring about positive change. The brethren of those in Iraq have elected a panoply of terroristic groups to power. Purple fingers notwithstanding, I severely doubt that the Iraqis will prove better judges of character.
I don't expect you to believe in the power of prayer, but the saints, of which I have previously spoke, have all been canonized after prayers in their name led to miracles--a phenomenon I have no doubt you'd deny. Recently, the dedication of Russia to Mary by the Popes was one cause some credit to the fall of the Soviet Union, a fall which only seemed inevitable in retrospect, and which was undoubtedly heightened by the actions of the Polish Catholic group Solidarity.
Christ was insistent that His wisdom would seem foolish to the world. And so it goes.
The second part I find more alarming. The idea seems to be to provoke (and disavow) violence in order to spread an ideology that would otherwise, on its own merits, be rejected? (The more Catholic the world is, the more ethical, the closer we all are to our One True Purpose.) The reasoning here strikes me as dangerously close to that of the 9-11 hijackers. I don't expect I have to ask, after that accusation, but anything you could do to clarify your position here would be most helpful.
My reference to martyrdom was merely a very safe prediction of what will inevitably come should Christians attempt to evangelize the Muslim world. I do not support our President and his quixotic War on Terror, but as a student of history, I am less than impressed with Islam's influence on the world--even as I respect it as the most serious alternative to Christianity. Islam is an inherently violent faith, and one that refused to tolerate dissidents. Just ask Salman Rushdie. Christians are currently being martyred in post-invasion Iraq, and I have little doubt that a number of missionaries would suffer the same fate. Nonetheless, for the Church, such offerings prove propitious.
Thus far, the Muslim world has been impervious to conversion. One reason is that any apostate of Islam is condemned to death, but another is the inherent irrationality of the religion. In the Regensberg address, Pope Benedict drew ire for suggesting that Islam was being irrational when it insisted on using the sword to spread the faith. Quoting "the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus", the Pope noted: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
He then added: "The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul."
In short, I do not seek martyrdom, either for myself, or for members of the Church. Nor do I believe that the Catholic faith require the sword to spread. But martyrdom may be required if we are to produce fruit in the Islamic world. Who knows where the Church would be without Diocletian''s persecutions.
Be careful, too, in conflating martyrdom with suicide. Missionaries who are killed preaching the Good News are worlds apart from those who fly planes into buildings to strike at the Great Satan.
This comes very close to some of my more general practical/ethical/political objections to religion. It seems to me any time a group of people think that they are in touch with a super-human truth and thereby endowed with a transcendent purpose, that jihadist and Inquisition-style projects begin to look alarming rational. After all, if you really believe that our immortal souls are at stake, or that you are doing the Work of the Almighty, a few human lives looks like an acceptable price to pay (however regrettable it may be that they declined your impassioned appeals to convert, refused to see the truth, etc.).
The religions of the world have undoubtedly caused a certain amount of evil. These are not to be excused or ignored. That said, while your argument is theoretically sound, the reality is that religious crimes have been infrequent. It is telling, in fact, that the Spanish Inquisition is one of the crimes for which Christianity must repeatedly answer. While the excesses should not be forgotten and must be condemned, I can only conclude that it is mark of the liberality of the Faith that an institution which led to 3,230 deaths over a span of over 350 years tops the list of scandals of the age. (The statistic comes from Henry Kamen's book, The Spanish Inquisition, which I heartily recommend to anyone who wishes to understand the topic.)
The brief retort, then, is that while possessing the Word of God might theoretically cause one to force men to believe, the Church has--thankfully--seldom resorted to force. Conversion, like learning, does not suffer compulsion. I can no more force you to become a believing Catholic than I can get you to profess that the sky is purple. My only hope is to explain that, while the Catholic Faith can never be reached by unaided reason, it is perfectly compatible with rationality. God's Grace must suffice for the rest.
One other point bears mentioning. The twentieth century witnessed a number of dictators--from Hitler to Pol Pot, Stalin to Mao--who attempted to remake mankind in their own image. None professed a belief in revealed truth, but all committed heinous crimes nonetheless. The importance seems to lie, not on what men believe to be truth--though this plays some role--but on their views of the value of their fellow human beings. It is also, I think, a caution against placing unchecked power in the hands of any one man.
Your second claim shocks me. Can you explain why you think that democracy (or universal suffrage) is "among the silliest of the ideas advanced by humankind"? I mean, what kind of government do you support? Where does the government get its authority if not from the will of the people to be governed? And how can anyone be assured that the interests of the people are served except by making one's case to them as a condition for holding office?
Let me first explain that when I'm speaking of democracy, I'm being a bit sloppy. Direct democracy strikes me as an intriguing idea--can you imagine trying to pass a budget in a nation of 300 million people, all voting over the Internet? When I spoke of democracy, I was referring to some form of representative government.
There are several flaws to this form of democracy. The first is that it provides a false pretext for governmental authority. In this pitiful presidential election of ours, we are again faced with a very poor selection of candidates. Nonetheless, the cretin that emerges victorious will use the "will of the people" to do all sorts of nefarious things. At least half the populace--myself included--doesn't even vote. The competition of two very similar parties may provide, in H. L. Mencken's phrase "the only really amusing form of government", but I can't see how the will of the people has anything to do with it.
The second is that democracy assumes that the unwashed masses have the foggiest idea of how to run a government. I firmly believe that all men are children of God, but that virtues should be spread evenly throughout the species strikes me as far too fabulous. History teaches that the number of people capable of producing a good government is small--perhaps ten or fifteen percent of the populace. Letting all and sundry vote is a sure recipe for disaster. As a libertarian, I can't help but chuckle when I recall that the first tenant of Mussolini's Fascist Manifesto was universal suffrage. Totalitarianism via democracy is the road on which we will travel.
I have thought too little on ideal government, since all of my suggestions are impractical, but I think I should like a monarchy. I am also reminded of Voltaire's ideal government--the statement may be spurious--a soft despotism tempered by the occasional assassination.
I concede no such thing. I claim simply that there are many ways to lead an ethical life, and that I do not presume, a priori, to know the conditions under which my way might be an improvement for anyone else. In any case, it's both easy and useless to pass judgment on other people, whatever their culture. The real challenge is to effect reform, and I think I have the conceptual framework, in terms of human flourishing and suffering, to make the case for improvement on an individual basis.
On this point I must staunchly disagree. It seems to me that one of the largest drawbacks to your philosophy is that it is only effective among a small group of well-read humanists, most of whom will be content to read books and avoid morally questionable endeavors. I have previously pointed out that atheism is but a layover on the way to paganism. Save for a few intellectual types, a Hegelian interpretation of Kant isn't going to sway the masses. As Joseph Knecht discovered in Herman Hesse's excellent The Glass Bead Game, whatever the virtues of humanism, it will always fall short in producing massive societal change.
As for the Church, she has produced her reform. Say what you will about the theoretical shortcomings of Catholicism, the empirical results are in. The middle ages of Europe can be called many things, but they were certainly of marked difference from the vast stretches of barbarism that surrounded the decadent Roman Empire.
Self-actualization is not "do what thou wilt." Furthermore, it is constrained by society primarily in the sense of being made possible by society, because it's only in terms of the language and practices handed down to me by my historical community that I can articulate a self-conception to actualize. Society, here, is not a force outside of the individual to which it could be opposed. Do you understand the point I'm trying to make here? It runs counter to some popular intuitions, but I think it's incredibly important to appreciate, philosophically. To your request, I still don't understand what you want in terms of lines or definitions beyond what I've already said. I just don't believe that the subject matter of ethics can be deduced a priori or catalogued exhaustively.
I think I'm beginning to understand, but it's a very different way of looking at things, so it will take me some time to contemplate.
I suppose I probably do. Truths have a "subjective ontology," which is just a fancy way of saying that they exist only in thought (even if their objects -- the content that makes them true -- often exist independently of whatever we may think). Since there was a time when there was no one thinking, and since there will be such a time again, we can say for this reason that there are no eternal truths. But I don't know if this is what Sartre meant. Why do you ask?
I ask because it came up in my reading, because I knew you had read Sartre, and because the idea of absolute unchangeable Truth is essential to my worldview.
In any case, I very much doubt they had our highly reflexive kind of moral consciousness.
The idea of an evolved morality makes little sense to me. I can see how we might take some time to abolish an evil practice, but I can't see how the morality of a caveman should differ fundamentally from mine, save in the instance of revelation. Aristotle was wiser than the caveman, but I see no reason why their morality should not have aligned.
Once again, I continue to enjoy the conversation. I thank you for your patience, and look forward to your response.