Saturday, May 10, 2008

The dialog continues

I started to write my response in the usual manner: quote, rebuttal, quote rebuttal, etc. But I noticed that I was asking the questions I had asked before, the questions that inevitably seem to arise when an atheist attempts to formulate a system of ethics: What is Good, if not God? Where does it come from? Granted that there are a number of ethical systems which a man may utilize in striving to live ethically, why is he compelled to live ethically at all? These seem to be the fundamental questions, and I ask them up front to avoid repetition later.

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.


Doom said...

Wonderful! Now, there are some things I will have to consider. And yes, there was a time or two I thought your arguments were on target but not perhaps as sharp as they could be. Given the nature of what you are dealing with, however, and who you used for evidence, I still would give you a good grade.

I am back in the game, a bit, and it is a weekend, so, I am trying to catch up a bit. This was exciting enough that I may have to tack down through more of this debate. At first glance, given my new busier lifestyle added to my yet (if to a lesser degree) haranguing state of exhaustion, the material seemed too much. Reading back might leave me too far behind to add more than encouragement, I hope that is enough.

Now, and I say again, I only read this through once. And, there are some things of which I am unfamiliar (which I intend to rectify), but I think you did an excellent job of defending your position and then projecting that position forward where applicable. Beyond, it was a generally pleasant read. If we do not agree in all ways, we certainly have some very sincere and fundamental commonality. I am not sure how that can be, though, since I just joined the Church. I guess it is what I have arrived at after having searched through the muck of life, coming up with lemons using all the other combinations... until I arrived Home. You seemed to have been given roots, if they were withering for a bit, you turned that around through reading and conversation. Oh, and hello. And goodbye, for now. Blessings.

troutsky said...

A great conversation, given the format.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

I still would give you a good grade.


I am not sure how that can be, though, since I just joined the Church.

Wonderful! My prayers go with you.

Always remember that joining is only the beginning; God must complete the work He has begun in us through Christ Jesus, as Paul put it.


On you as well.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

A great conversation, given the format.

Many thanks. I'm glad you're enjoying it.

PJ said...

Hi again,

You ask, "What is Good, if not God?" I've explained, at least to my satisfaction, that there are lots of goods, irreducible to one another, and that the reason an object (or an end, more generally) can appear as good is rooted in our biology. The sophisticated array of goods available to us today are the result of thousands of years of evolution and culture. One could add to this that society -- as the ontological foundation of the practices in which these higher goods subsist -- is the unconditioned good, without which there would be only a Hobbesian struggle for survival and none of the spiritual fulfillment of the kind supplied by recognitional networks. And, since society subsists only in and through its individual members, we all partake of this Kantian dignity.

The second fundamental question you identify: "Granted that there are a number of ethical systems which a man may utilize in striving to live ethically, why is he compelled to live ethically at all?" I say, first, that we each, as an inescapable matter of fact, pursue some conception of the good life. Our highest satisfaction can only be obtained from other people who recognize and affirm our achievements, recognition which can only count, by the way, if we in turn recognize and esteem the other as a legitimate source of ethical authority in her own right (the praise of someone we regard as a moron being effectively worthless). So, the rational pursuit of the good life necessarily happens with and for other people in just institutions (the phrase is Paul Ricoeur's) -- if only we all pursued what would make us truly happy. Some people, of course, neglect their own best interests in order to pursue, say, the death of their enemies, and our ability to reason with these people is often quite limited. So we have to step in to protect the dignity-conferred rights of the intended victim. We institute laws and support an executive branch to enforce them, to physically apprehend those who are a danger to other people and society as a whole. The existence of such a branch serves as a reason not to break the law, and, if someone exercises her freedom to break it anyway, well, there are the feds to do their job and protect the rest of us as best they can.

Structurally, then, our answers are quite similar. You would say, I expect, we ought to behave ethically because we are the children of God, and that God in his divine wisdom has ensured that when everyone behaves ethically in this way, that we will all get along without too much stepping on anyone's toes. This is very much analogous to my claim that because of what we are (satisfaction-seeking, self-conscious beings) and because of how the good life is structured and conditioned (in terms of social networks of recognition) it is overwhelmingly in our best interest to behave in an ethical way that also promotes shared social goods. You too acknowledge that some people exercise their freedom to harm others and that we cannot always reason with them, and you too can only point to the possibility of future punishment as a disincentive. (And, just as one may doubt whether she will be caught, so one may doubt whether there is a hell.)

So our disagreement comes back to divergent conceptions of selfhood or, if you prefer, human nature. I've already said quite a bit about my conception, and don't understand yours well enough to criticize it. The discussion of the cat, frankly, was rather cryptic. Further explanation of what a soul is and how you see it figuring in this debate would be most helpful.

I can, however, address your question about good and evil. I don't see these terms occupying quite the central position you do, but there is certainly a place for them in the system I'm suggesting we adopt. What is good is what contributes to human flourishing. What is immoral is what causes suffering. Evil is a narrower category than the immoral, and -- although I haven't thought too much about this -- I would suggest that what is evil is to cause suffering for its own sake.

So I do have something I can say to your 19th Century Indians. Self-immolation causes unnecessary suffering. There are other ways to organize society in which widows can grieve their husbands and go on to live fulfilling lives. The reason is essentially utilitarian: less suffering, more fulfillment. (Though again, my position is not utilitarian in the technical sense the term has in philosophy. It's more eudaimonistic, if you want a label for it.)

To promote ethical practices in other societies is no simple matter. One needs to identify troublesome practices, understand why they exist (both the official rationale and the individual rationales of those involved), then to explain how things can be better and to persuasively link this new vision to other elements of their existing traditions. If we can't do this, we need to seriously consider the possibility that our way is not so superior as we fondly like to think. Given what I recall of your views on Iraq, I find it positively weird that you suggest, however obliquely, that the way to improve the world is to march in and proselytize.

The reason -- or at least, one reason -- that the sort of relativism you're worried about can't take hold is that all cultures are shaped and constrained by our biology. They all bottom out at the same place, as it were. I am generally at pains to emphasize the autonomy of our universe of meaning from the natural realm of what is simply there. But it's just as important to see that these two realms are linked together. In a word, this occurs by virtue of our embodiment. We only begin to have meaning and value, you'll recall from Hegel's reconstructed social pre-history, when we have conscious, living creatures. The world of value that we constitute is underdetermined by what is simply there: things only acquire meaning in relation to our goals and projects, which we articulate with increasing cultural sophistication. Socialized into an historical world, we work within the traditions carved out by our predecessors. But we never leave our bodies behind. To inflict direct, bodily pain upon unwilling victim is clearly immoral, a violation of her basic human dignity. To inflict bodily pain upon a complicit victim is more complicated, but it seems clear to me that I have the resources to make the case to her for a better way of life, which relocates the case into the first category.

I should immediately note that, although the two examples you offer both involve physical harm, this is not the only kind of suffering we need to worry about. People suffer needlessly whenever they are denied the proper conditions for flourishing, whenever they are deprived of existing resources for free self-actualization. I would suggest that this is the true issue in most cases of physical violence as well, particularly the systematic, officially sanctioned kinds of violence you're concerned about.

You'll notice that what I've done is to shift most of the burden of moral theory into social and political philosophy. I'm persuaded by my own arguments, of course, but the move may appear slightly disingenuous of me, in this context, because social and political philosophy is still a new terrain for me. I don't have a comprehensive position. If you want to discuss these issues further, I'd be happy to do so in an exploratory way. But I think that they're somewhat tangential to our debate: whereas you're advocating for an eternal moral code that is concretely action-guiding, I deny that there is any such thing, and that we don't need one in any case.

All the best,