In any event, I'll stick with the usual format, if only to avoid having to rewrite. I'll also try to avoid asking questions which I have already asked, and do my best to answer those posed to me.
Maybe you've already explained this, but what do you think human nature is?
I would say that man is composed of body and soul. He is both a moral agent and a rational one; the ability to distinguish between right and wrong is what separates man from the beasts. Further, I believe human nature is fraught with concupiscence. Thus while man longs for God who is Good, because he is a fallen creature, man sins; like St. Paul, we do what we do not want. (Romans 7:16)
And how do you know that the features you select are part of nature rather than the historical accomplishments of human culture?
Since you can't test for a soul—anymore than you can dust for vomit—you'll have to either accept or reject that one on faith. Still, aside from the notion of man as fallen, I don't think there's anything in my definition with which Aristotle would disagree. As for the fall, it so happens Chesterton said it best. After noting that the doctrine of original sin is “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved”, he notes:
Some followers of the Reverend R.J.Campbell, in their almost too fastidious spirituality, admit divine sinlessness, which they cannot see even in their dreams. But they essentially deny human sin, which they can see in the street. The strongest saints and the strongest sceptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.
In short, I think my definition, although slovenly constructed, is entirely valid and complete enough for the sake of our little intellectual duel.
Why does it matter?
Because we'll never get anywhere if we can't define our terms. If human nature is always changing, then so too will be the “good” which applies to that nature. This is an entirely permissible explanation, but I think it rather clear that this excludes the possibility of a logically coherent system of ethics.
On the other hand, the values attached to different practices and modes of life have an economy largely autonomous of our biological nature, and this is the realm in which we exercise our freedom and exist as ethical beings. So I prefer to focus on society, and to look for answers to ethical and moral questions in terms of the individual's embeddedness in her historical society.
You posit that we are ethical beings. But you have yet to define the terms “good” and “evil”, which are necessities for any ethical choice. You've spoken repeatedly of values, from which good and evil may arise, but I see nothing in your presentation that would prevent a “historical society” from valuing disparate things. And, indeed, if we study history, we will see that various societies have done precisely this.
For instance, one of the more charming practices of India was the rite of suttee, in which the newly widowed immolated herself on her husband's funeral pyre. Now, Christians have a code of ethics which precludes self-immolation, and, in this case, the evangelization of the island helped lead to a reduction in the practice; it was eventually abolished in 1829 by the colonizing British. But, to go back several centuries, there was nothing in the “historical society” of a poor Indian woman which would discourage her from self-immolation. I see no grounds upon which you could condemn this practice to her.
Ethically, raping people promotes violence that's likely to spill back into your life unexpectedly, it's going to feed into all kinds of destructive cycles, and is massively unlikely to contribute to a fulfilling human life... Rapists suffer from a confused conception of the good life. The satisfactions of nonconsensual sex are hollow and fleeting.
While I would tend to agree with you, my agreement arises out of our shared cultural heritage. The Judeo-Christian culture teaches that rape is a moral wrong, and a grave one. But rape hasn't always been considered wrong in all cultures, as Vox Day points out.
Understand, I am not so much disagreeing with you as I am unmoved my your reasoning. Much of what you say could be readily applied to the promiscuous culture of too many institutions of so-called higher learning. The satisfactions of consensual sex are hollow and fleeting as well. Vanity of vanities and all that.
Much of ethics seems to be little more than applied common sense, but the vicissitudes of human behavior suggest that this simple appeal isn't likely to suffice. We live in an age when millions of unborn children are slaughtered so that women can live what they feel is “the good life”. Naturally, this appalls my Christian sensibilities—and I think it evinces a violation of Kant's second formulation of his categorical imperative—but while one could insist that these women are not actually living the good life if they refrain from abortion, one could make a case--in my view a much stronger one--for precisely the opposite. Thus, while our conceptions of the good life are probably very similar, until we define this term—or at least ground it in an objective system of ethics—most any behavior could be seen as consistent with “the good life”, which is the exact problem that the ethical system should aim to solve.
You determine for yourself, inasmuch as you determine anything for yourself, who you want to be. We each have our own conception of the good life. The point is that this conception cannot be formed in a vacuum.
This seems reasonable, but it remains unclear as to where my ability to determine my own “good life” leaves off and is curtailed by that of my “historical society”. Thus, we would both agree that, within our “historical society”, becoming a good rapist is a contradiction in terms. But I see nothing in what you have said so far that would prevent the contradiction from disappearing in a society that chose to value nonconsensual intercourse. To me, on the other hand, because God is the source of goodness, rape is always wrong, no matter the values of a particular society.
Where do you think we get our literary standards?
We get our literary standards from our culture, but they're ultimately unsound in determining whether or not a writer has achieved the "good life". If you asked Americans to compile a list of the good writers of today, those who can actually read would come up with names like Stephen King, Dan Brown, J. K. Rowling, Danielle Steele, John Grisham, perhaps Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton. Occasionally, great writers receive deserved adulation from their contemporaries, as Charles Dickens and Shakespeare did in their time, and Umberto Eco does in ours. But many good writers suffer the fate of Melville. Only the Father who “sees in secret” (Matthew 6:4) is capable of rewarding—or punishing—humans according to their actions. Culture sometimes rewards virtue; often it punishes it; oftener the two possess no obvious relationship at all.
To elaborate on this and to show how we begin to achieve an autonomous world of value, I quote from a paper I wrote on Hegel's Phenomenology, of which I sent you a copy a few weeks ago.
For some reason, I never got the paper. If you send it, I'll do my best to read it, though I confess with my background in philosophy as limited as it is, it will probably prove beyond my ability to understand.
Lastly, since my admirable antagonist references phenomenology, I'll share this passage I recalled from George Weigel's Witness to Hope:
It was phenomenology's determination to see things whole and get to the reality of things-as-they-are that attracted Karol Wojtyla [the future Pope John Paul II]. In his habilitation thesis, he asked whether it was possible to create a solid philosophical foundation for the moral life on the basis of [Max] Scheler's phenomenology of ethics, and particularly the ethics of value...
The question Wojtyla posed in his habilitation thesis was whether Scheler (and, by extension, the phenomenological method) could do for contemporary Christian philosophy and theology what Aristotle had done for Thomas Aquinas.
The answer, for the young priest, essentially, was “No.” The moral act is a real act with real consequences, and to Wojtyla's mind Scheler had failed to come to grips with how moral choices actually shape a person. Therefore, in Scheler's system, morality was still suspended somewhere “outside” the human universe. Wojtyla was also critical of Scheler's tendency to emotionalize experience and consciousness, leading to a truncated portrait of the human person...
Phenomenology would drift off into various forms of solipsism, however, unless it were grounded in a general theory of things-as-they-are that was resolutely realistic and that could defend the capacity of human beings to get at the truth of things... If the choice was not between good and evil, but only between personal preferences, then all choices were ultimately indifferent and real choice no longer existed. This, in turn, would empty the drama of human freedom of its essential tension and deprive human beings of their most distinctively human quality. (p.127, 129)
As always, I look forward to your response.