My worthy adversary writes:
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.
I can't think why it has taken me so long to ask it, but do you believe in free will? If you don't, I can't see what good a conversation about ethics would do--though, admittedly, I've never been able to fathom how one could disbelieve in free will. I'll refrain from quoting Rush. On the other hand, if you do, you surely realize that humans may do all sorts of things contrary to biological impulses. The use of birth control, for instance, provides a telling example of how humans thwart such impulses.
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.
You have hit upon one of the tenants of Natural Law theory, in which sociability is held to be one good; though, of course, all goods, in the Christian tradition, come from God Himself. The important fact, however, is that sociability is not enough. One could make an argument that the various despotic realms, especially those of the twentieth century, maintained sociability. They are ethically flawed, however, because they routinely violated other precepts of Natural Law, most blatantly in their flagrant disregard for human life, another good.
In short, a barbarous anarchy may be preferable to a human society if it is not in agreement with the basic tenants of morality. This is a point I have been at some pains to convey to you: it is impossible to vest the moral compass with a society of men because man is almost hopelessly fallible.
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.
I'm not sure what you mean by dignity, at least in this context. Our rights are inalienable because they come from God, or they are simply the results of what the people believe them to be. We know where that road may lead. This is a point the secularist of the EU implicitly recognize; "human rights" is an amorphous term because, unless it is grounded in something unchangeable, these rights are nothing more than the whims of the feds to whom you would go for protection.
Your scheme may work well enough, but your rhetoric can't mask the fact that this is basically wishful thinking. Government, especially when governed by those who answer to no one, is far more likely to coerce by violence and violate our so-called rights than it is to protect them. This is one of the largely unlearned lessons of the twentieth century, and, indeed, all of human history.
Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere, as Chesterton put it. If you don't draw moral lines, and merely put your faith in people's ability to influence their government to govern well, you will end in a nightmare of disappointment.
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.
Jesus insisted that He came to divide, so I don't think your last assertion is true. There are two reasons for the Christian to behave ethically. The first is an extension of the principle of the policeman at the corner, only God has better eyesight. The second is that God is Goodness itself, and therefore worthy of our loving service. Sin is an offense against God, and harms our neighbors, but often it is the sinner himself who is harmed most, as Roskolnikov discovered.
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.
Agreed. But the difference is very important. In my argument, every human being seeks God as his ultimate end. Your end is not defined. If I label it for you--as I am wont to do--as pleasure, a bit of a crude translation, you resist, saying that this is not what you mean. If I point out that you cannot have society as a good because society can be, and often is, bad, you again reject my claim and point out that it is more nuanced than that. Very well, but you cannot expect me to believe that a series of "goods", rooted in nothing more than wishful thinking, can possibly be a reasonable way to ground a system of ethics. If you do not tell men what to aim at, they will inevitably find lousy targets. And hit them.
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.
On this point, I think I can be of some service. Chesterton's point was that everyone starts with the understanding that evil exists. We have atheists like Woody Allen who lament the underachiever for creating a world so full of evil. Meanwhile, Christians wrestle with what is probably the most significant objection to the existence of an all-powerful and all-good Being. In fact, according to Aquinas, the existence of evil is the only real objection to the existence of God--though not an unanswerable one.
Anyway, the point is, no matter what your views on God, you no doubt feel that the world has somehow gone wrong; things could be better. The next thing one notices, is that it is not simply natural disasters and the like that are the cause of evil. Man is capable of much evil of his own. We can come to this conclusion from any number of observations. For instance, we may view with moral indignation the abuse of power, and the pain and suffering which it brings. But it is best to find this evil in one's own heart, for this allows us to get at the root of the problem.
Chesterton's point was that there were two good explanations for the evil present in every one of us. The first is the atheist's: The absence of God is all that is necessary for evil to triumph. But the Christian has his explanation as well: Man has disobeyed, and is separated from God; but once God deigned to walk among us, and paid the price for our disobedience; through Him we may be saved. In other words, evil is a result of sin.
Self-immolation causes unnecessary suffering.
This isn't necessarily true. We can concoct any number of scenarios in which it would be better to immolate oneself by fire. A widow would possibly endure great suffering, especially as her failure to immolate herself would cause social ostracization. It would be likewise difficult, based on what you have said, to have convinced Hitler to have refrained from eating his gun. Or, to use another example, if Christ, while waiting for Pilate's decision, would have drank the hemlock offered to Socrates, He would have relieved Himself of tremendous suffering. Only a firm grounding in the goodness of human life, regardless of the pain it suffers, offers a legitimate defense against the evil of suicide, in any of its forms.
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.
I think the answer is to pray fervently, and to evangelize, which often leads to martyrdom, the blood of which was the seed of the Church, in Tertulian's phrase. My antipathy toward the World Democratic Revolution in Iraq is that the exchange of human life is not worth the establishment of a so-called democracy. Actually, I think democracy, or at least the principles of universal suffrage, to be among the silliest of the ideas advanced by human kind.
On the other hand, bringing the Good News to the Iraqi people would be a worthy goal. It would not cost any lives--if done right--and would even ameliorate the present situation--as the religious often build hospitals and the like in the communities to which they offer witness. If asked why I do not partake of such I can only posit that I am a coward. Thankfully, moral weakness isn't a reason one may be excluded from the Church.
More on point, you essentially concede that you have nothing to offer a community, whose ideas differ from your own, in the way of a rational argument. Cultural relativism, which you seem, at times, to support, renders moral progress impossible, because it removes the standard by which such progress may be judged.
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 would agree, but I would add that our biology was literally shaped by the Fall. The only conclusion I read from my amateur study of human history is that evil is ubiquitous, but various. Bottoming out must be taken almost literally; where man meets man is at the crossroads of depravity.
People suffer needlessly whenever they are denied the proper conditions for flourishing, whenever they are deprived of existing resources for free self-actualization.
But you've repeatedly stated that freedom must be constrained by society. Self-actualization--do what thou wilt--is consistent only with anarchy. You could argue, as Christians do, that freedom consists in choosing to do good, but, again, this leaves you with the need to draw some lines or define some goods.
I have two things to add in closing. First, I came across this quote from Sartre in my readings of Kreeft's excerpts of Aquinas: "There can be no eternal truth since there is no divine mind to think it." Do you agree? Second, setting aside my skepticism toward macro-evolution, when the first human being evolved, was it a moral agent? Or did it require the evolution of other humans for him to achieve that status?
I merely ask that you give these questions your consideration. As always, I look forward to your response.