bookmark_borderObjectivity and Moral Viewpoints

It seems to me that selection of a moral point of view is similar to selection of a car to buy. There is no such thing as “the right car to buy”, although there are probably lots of “the wrong cars to buy.” Selection of a car is neither a purely subjective matter, nor is it a purely rational and objective matter. Selection of a moral point of view is also neither a purely subjective matter, nor a purely rational and objective matter.

There are reasonable criteria that can and should be considered when deciding on a car to buy: price, other costs (insurance, taxes, maintenance), economy (estimated miles/gallon), performance, safety, comfort, reliability, and style/appearance. Of course, different people will place different weight or significance on different criteria. For some people who have lots of money, price, other costs, and economy may be of little importance. For some people who like to live on the edge, safety may be of minor importance. For grandmothers who just plan to drive a mile or two to a grocery store once a week, performance may be unimportant. But, in general, people agree that these are all relevant considerations, and in general, people will take all of these considerations into account when making a careful selection of a car to buy.

If two cars are for sale, and they are both exactly the same in all of these relevant respects, except that the price of car A is 40,000 dollars, and the price of car B is 20,000 dollars, then car B is a better choice than car A. This does not mean that selection of car B is the right or correct choice, because there are other cars with other configurations of features and characteristics to choose from. But at least we can make a comparative evaluative judgment that is objective.

It might not be quite so easy to identify the criteria for selection of a moral point of view, but it seems in principle a similar sort of evaluative process. Suppose we are considering moral viewpoint A (= MVA) and moral viewpoint B (= MVB). Suppose that we determine that if society X adopts MVA this will probably result in widespread misery and suffering for people living in society X. Suppose that we also determine that if society X adopts MVB, this will probably NOT result in widespread misery and suffering for people in society X. Given this information, I think we can reasonably conclude that it would be better for society X to adopt MVB than to adopt MVA, other things being equal.

As with cars, there are not just two alternatives to chose from, and as with cars, there are multiple criteria to apply, multiple considerations to weigh, and different people give different weight to different considerations (the classic example being the tension between individual liberty and social stability). So, just as there is no “one correct car” to choose, there is no “one correct moral viewpoint” to choose. But we should be able to articulate criteria or relevant considerations that bear on this decision, and we should be able to make at least some comparative evaluative claims, like “moral viewpoint A is better than moral viewpoint B in such-and-such respect.”

bookmark_borderUN vs free speech again

Johann Hari has an opinion piece in The Independent, “Why should I respect these oppressive religions?”.

I don’t seriously disagree with anything in it. But then, maybe that is precisely the problem. I live and work in an academic environment, where I take free discussion for granted. I’m a fully paid-up member of the Argumentative Bastards Union. I have an unhealthy obsession with religion, from the perspective of a nonbeliever who constantly asks what the *&^%$#@ is going on with supernatural beliefs. It would be amazing if someone like me was sanguine about Muslims and multiculturalists using the United Nations to enforce a religious right not to be offended.

But how do I make an argument that can appeal to a broader base? Most people do not share my rather narrow and particular set of interests. Even modern, liberal-minded people feel the force of claims that giving religious offense crosses a boundary of decency. Many liberals agree that giving equal consideration to people entails sincere respect for their identity-defining beliefs, especially when these beliefs are central to those communities that make what people are. (Indeed, if you don’t see how deeply many Muslims are offended by certain kinds of criticism, and don’t see how this is often real harm to them, you’re missing something very important about this debate.) I can’t appeal to universal moral principles or individual rights as established agreements, because such agreements are exactly what are up for dispute here.

So, now what? Hari preaches to the choir; I don’t see much in what he says that could help us build a broader coalition in favor of more expansive free speech. (There’s nothing wrong in shoring up the base, but it’s worrisome if we always preach to the choir.) How do we appeal to more common interests, so we can persuade at least more liberal-minded people that deferring to religious communities about criticism harms such common interests?

Failing that, what are the prospects of at least saving some quasi-public domains as places where criticism can be freer? Just academia won’t work; we are too easily influenced by the outside world. (Witness the current levels of multicultural cant on campuses.) I wouldn’t expect too much from the Internet; there too often free speech means free invective, driving out intelligent criticism.


bookmark_borderStupid Philosopher Tricks

Taner is going to love this one. I’ve made a short list of some of the stupidest things philosophers have said over the millennia. Each of these claims has been seriously maintained by one or more major philosophers (in parentheses). Each is not only false, but obviously so. As the late philosophical iconoclast and maverick (if John McCain has not ruined this word) D.C. Stove used to ask: What is wrong with our thoughts?

1) Matter does not exist.

2) Atheists are less trustworthy than theists.

3) Time is unreal.

4) Change is impossible.
(Parmenides, Zeno)

5) This world is the best of all possible worlds.

6) Animals have no thoughts or feelings.

7) Nothing could have happened other than it did.

8) You cannot know that you are in pain.

9) There are no such things as pains.
(the Churchlands)

10) We perceive only sense-data.

11) When someone speaks in a native tongue that is historically unrelated to yours, you can never know what he or she means.

12) Worlds are constructed by category schemes, and, since humans create category schemes, humans create the world, in fact, many worlds.

13) Truth is whatever society lets you say.

14) Saying “God does not exist” is self-contradictory.

15) It is always wrong to lie, even if lying saves an innocent life.

16) You cannot learn from experience.

17) Humans are naturally good, but are corrupted by society.

18) Virtue cannot be taught.

19) Women are less rational than men.

20) Evil is merely a privation of good.

bookmark_borderA cynic’s definition of morality

Our moral lives are rooted in our interests and our agreements. If we want to explain our moral lives, from gut-level moral perceptions to moral discourse intended to persuade others and ourselves, we need not go beyond very thisworldly interests and agreements. Hence morality is, broadly speaking, politics.

If morality is politics, it is ugly. It is not true that there are moral truths all rational agents must agree upon. This does not mean anything goes. But quite a lot things can go. Not every way of life is stable and successful in reproducing itself. But there are invariably many competing ways of life, which support different moralities, in our moral ecologies.

Attempts to provide a basis for morality, from stories about the will of the gods to sophisticated moral philosophies, are attempts to transcend politics. Interests and agreements are plural and fluid. Morality is something we care about very deeply, so it must be made more secure than that. It must be based on something higher.

One of the functions of discourse about the basis of morality, then, is to conceal the nature of morality.

To say that morality is partly concerned with concealment is not to deny that it is useful. Honesty and openness might be wonderful in an idealized academic context, but real human groups cannot function without deception. Our interests almost always demand a measure of concealment, deception, and coercion. Our moralities, because they typically condemn these as vices, allow us to make efficient social use of deception and coercion. It is best if our vital vices remain hidden.

Understanding the nature of morality requires some critical distance to morality. A more amoral perspective can help. This is only so, naturally, if we want to understand what is going on with morality. More often, we are interested in morality as moral actors. We want to persuade or reassure people (including ourselves) about taking a certain course of action. We want to engage in apologetics for our own deep moral commitments. Presenting morality as transcending politics is a temptation that is hard to resist. After all, it appears to work.

Secular moralists are often very similar to their religious colleagues in this regard. Philosophers tend to retain many implicitly Capitalized superstitions even when they find no use for one of the old favorites, God. Chief among these is Reason—reason as something transcendent, rather than a useful cognitive tool.

Our moralities are all very thinly supported by reasons. It is more accurate to think of our moralities of having causes. These causes make who we are, including our interests and agreements, and hence our moralities. We can be reflective about our moral convictions. But there can be many different points of reflective equilibrium, even for wide reflective equilibrium. We still have a moral ecology, where many ways of life are stable upon reflection as well as other small perturbations.

An intellectually coherent scientific naturalism must come to grips with moral ecologies and moral pluralism. It must act against the desire to make morality transcend politics. By doing so, however, naturalism renders itself socially useless, perhaps even dangerous, in many contexts.

bookmark_borderThe Trilemma – How Old? part 2

I have not been able, so far, to find any references prior to the 1800s to a Latin sentence presenting a dilemma (e.g. aut deus aut homo non bonus – either God or a bad man) that could have been the original basis for the Trilemma. Because of this, I am skeptical that the Latin statement of the dilemma is of medieval or ancient origin. I don’t know the origin of the Trilemma, but I have a plausible hypothesis about how it came to be.

First, a very brief summary of historical apologetics, derived from a book by William Craig (Apologetics: An Introduction; hereafter: AAI). In the 5th century, Augustine defended the authority of scripture based on “empirical signs of credibility, mainly miracle and prophecy.” (AAI, p.130). In the 13th century, Aquinas followed Augustine on this point, but for Aquinas “miracle is the most important sign of credibility.” (AAI, p.130). Jesus’ miracles confirmed his teachings and his divine power. This makes the historical question, “Did Jesus really perform the miracles reported in the Gospels?” of critical importance, but Aquinas “just leaves the historical question unanswered.” (AAI, p.131).

The protestant reformation helped to foster historical consciousness and development of historical methodology, because protestants, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries, made historical arguments that the Catholic Church had departed from the original teachings and practices of the early Christians, and defenders of Catholicism also engaged in historical arguments to refute these protestant objections and to show that the teachings and practices of the Catholic Church were in keeping with those of the early Christians (see AAI, p.132).

The rise of historical consciousness and historical methodology allowed for the development of historical apologetics. According to Craig, “Hugo Grotius was the first to provide a developed historical argument for Christianity in his De veritate religionis christiannae [1627].”(AAI, p.133).

Here is a summary of how Grotius defended the central miracle of the resurrection of Jesus:

…the apostolic testimony to the event of the resurrection can only be denied if the apostles were either lying or sincerely mistaken. But neither of these are reasonable. Therefore, the resurrection must be an historical event.
(AAI, p.135)

Grotius argued for a trilemma about a claim made by the apostles:

(1) One of the following three statements is true:
The apostles were lying about the resurrection of Jesus.
The apostles were sincerely mistaken about the resurrection of Jesus.
The apostles’ claim that Jesus rose from the dead was true.
(2) The apostles were not lying about the resurrection of Jesus.
(3) The apostles were not sincerely mistaken about the resurrection of Jesus.
(4) The apostles’ claim that Jesus rose from the dead was true.

This is the same logic that is used by C.S. Lewis and Josh McDowell in the Trilemma argument for the divinity of Jesus. The person making the claim is Jesus rather than the apostles, and the claim is that Jesus is God, rather than that Jesus rose from the dead, but making those substitutions yeilds the familiar Trilemma argument:

(5) One of the following three statements is true:
Jesus was lying in claiming to be God.
Jesus was sincerely mistaken in claiming to be God.
Jesus’ claim to be God was true.
(6) Jesus was not lying in claiming to be God.
(7) Jesus was not sincerely mistaken in claiming to be God.
(8) Jesus’ claim to be God was true.

So, my hypothesis is that someone following in the footsteps of Hugo Grotius (sometime after 1627) modified his argument for the resurrection into an argument for the divinity of Jesus. Since I have found an early version of the Trilemma that was published in 1733, there is about a 100-year window when the Trilemma argument was invented (1627-1733).

bookmark_borderNaturalism and Objectively Horrifying Evils

A serious and thoughtful objection against metaphysical naturalism is that it cannot provide a basis for some of our deepest and most intuitive moral judgments. If so, a metaphysical naturalist could bite the bullet and say “so much for our deepest and most intuitive moral judgments!” Still, if this consequence could be avoided, it would remove a major stumbling-block for those who might otherwise view atheism as plausible.

The argument is clearly stated by Alvin Plantinga. He first notes that there seem to be instances of real and objectively horrifying evil in the world (Plantinga, The Shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, p. 326). The real and objectively horrifying acts that Plantinga means are those that are purposely and maliciously committed, like the hideous tortures and genocidal atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein, Stalin, the Nazis, or the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot. We think that such acts are objectively horrifying, that is, that they would remain enormously evil even if all human beings could be somehow brainwashed into approving of them.

Plantinga comments:

Naturalism does not have the resources to explain or accommodate this fact about these states of affairs [that they are objectively evil and horrifying]. From a naturalistic point of view, about all we can say is that we do indeed hate them; but this is far short of seeing them as intrinsically horrifying. How can we understand this intrinsically horrifying character? After all, as much misery and suffering can occur in a death from cancer as in a death caused by someone else’s wickedness. What is the difference? The difference lies in the perpetrators and their intentions. Those who engage in this sort of thing are purposely and intentionally setting themselves to do these wicked things. But why is this objectively horrifying? A good answer (and one for which it is hard to think of an alternative) is that the evil consists in defying God, the source of all that is good and just, and the first being of the universe. What is horrifying here is not merely going against God’s will, but consciously choosing to invert the true scale of values…(Ibid., p. 326).

Plantinga says that it is not opposition to God’s will per se that makes an act intrinsically wicked and horrifying, but its intentional inversion of the true scale of values. But are theists the only ones allowed to posit a true scale of values? Why should this be so? Why cannot a metaphysical naturalist reasonably hold, e.g., that kindness is good and cruelty is bad, and would be so even if somehow all humans were perversely brainwashed into thinking that they weren’t? Plantinga seems to be assuming that a naturalist must be a subjectivist about values, that is, that for naturalists value is a function of how we feel about things. For the subjectivist, the only thing that can make cruelty bad is that we all feel a collective sense of horror or disgust when we contemplate cruel acts.

But naturalistic alternatives to subjectivism are well known, and have been for centuries. Aristotle articulated such an alternative 2400 years ago. In his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle argued that the state of human well-being or flourishing, eudaimonia in Greek, is, objectively, the good for human beings. Eudaimonia is not made good by our feeling that it is. It would still be good if, perversely, all human beings were made to feel that it wasn’t. Neither is Eudaimonia made desirable by the fact that we do desire it; it would be desirable even if no human being desired it. Eudaimonia is best understood as a state of mental and moral excellence accompanied by a sufficiency of material and bodily goods. What makes such a state the good for man? Biology, says Aristotle—the biological nature of the human organism. Nature has designed the human organism to fulfill a characteristic function, just as other organisms are adapted to the performance of their roles in the economy of nature. Nature has therefore given humans the natural potentialities which, if actualized, will permit them to fulfill that function in an excellent manner. Humans are naturally adapted to live a life of intellectual and moral virtue in society with other human beings. This does not mean that most people actually live such a life; far from it. Most do not even perceive such a life as the natural end or goal of human striving, the state that is eminently and intrinsically worth achieving. Nevertheless, says Aristotle, it is in such a state, where human mental and moral capabilities are fully actualized, that humans will find the most fulfilling and rewarding life, for it is naturally pleasant to enjoy the use of our rational and moral faculties. Further, since most of our unhappiness in life springs from flaws in our own characters, particularly, as Aristotle notes, from our failure to form habits that avoid extremes of behavior (e.g., excessive anger or deficient generosity), the moderation entailed by virtue leads to a life of peace and equanimity even in the face of adversity.

Some have criticized Aristotle’s vision of the good life as elitist. Such critics say that it may spell out the best life for a well-off and well-educated Greek gentleman of the Fourth Century B.C.E., but its vision of the ideal life may be inappropriate to people of very different temperaments or cultural backgrounds. There may be something to such criticisms (not terribly much, in my opinion), but if naturalistic moralists can succeed in indicating, at least in broad outlines, the life that is intrinsically most rewarding and fulfilling for human organisms, then they will have identified something objectively valuable for human beings. That state will be objectively valuable in the sense Plantinga specifies, that is, it will be so even if everyone perversely identifies their well-being with something else, say, a life of hedonistic indulgence in sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, or one of self-righteous indulgence in persecuting everyone who does not share one’s particular religious fixations. In other words, naturalists will have succeeded in identifying a set of objective values and can say, with as much justification as any theist, that some actions are laudable and others are horrifying because they tend either to promote or to thwart the realization of human well-being. If there is an objective state of human flourishing, then those who purposely and intentionally seek to impede the realization of that state in others, say by crushing the human body, mind, or spirit, are engaged in objectively horrifying and wicked acts. Those who do such things, to use Plantinga’s phrasing, are choosing to invert the true scale of values; they are preventing both their victims and themselves from attaining the natural end of human beings. So, metaphysical naturalism seems quite compatible with a moral view that recognizes certain actions as violently opposed to the true, objective scale of values, and hence as intrinsically horrifying.

bookmark_borderEvolution leads to totalitarianism?

Conservative Jewish writer and intelligent-design supporter David Klinghoffer writes on the Discover Institute’s ID blog, arguing that both Hitler and Stalin’s versions of totalitarianism were inspired by Darwin. Apparently, “The Soviet state was, then, an experiment in applied Darwinism.” Klinghoffer’s main theme is that without the restraint due to recognition of God’s higher laws, secular people are likely to go on a rampage.

Asinine, yes, though it’s a claim that’s popular among many conservative monotheists, not just pro-ID Jewish conservatives. I’d like to take it seriously, since I think that nonbelievers and secularists have not, in general, adequately confronted the potential of utopian versions of Enlightenment politics to lead to totalitarian experiments. But lunatic insinuations that Darwinian evolution as a scientific theory inexorably sets the stage for Hitler and Stalin just makes this more difficult.

bookmark_borderSupernatural? Ick.

I’m not entirely certain why I object to supernatural beliefs.

Sure, supernatural claims are, I think, invariably mistaken. But that alone is no reason to object. A false belief may still be socially useful, culturally meaningful, or commendable in a zillion different ways. Now, particular religions, including all the really popular ones, very often do obstruct what I happen to care about. Abrahamic monotheism is, I think, an especially potent source of political nastiness. But supernatural beliefs and forms of religiosity are quite variable. There are (and there are bound to be) ways of believing in gods and demons that I have to concede are at least harmless and even support what I care about. So maybe the rational thing to do would be to encourage more liberal, sweetness-and-light forms of faith. Since we are stuck with supernatural beliefs—and we are stuck with them—we might as well have the more benign variety be more socially dominant.

Yet I find myself irritated by all kinds of supernaturalism. Lots of religious people are generally supportive of science and liberal cosmopolitan ways of living together. They genuinely care for and help people, more than I do. (I have a misanthropic streak.) They say their supernatural commitments anchor the behavior that I admire. Indeed, this appears to be true. But still, I am irritated. Gods, ghosts, souls, prophets, revelations, mysticism—I can’t help but think that intelligent adults should not be in the grip of such beliefs. Even if they are harmless, even if they are beneficial, I consider supernatural beliefs unseemly.

And maybe that’s the best way to describe it. Part of my objection to supernatural beliefs is analogous to aesthetic disapproval. My first reaction is “ick,” and further reflection has never been able to dispel a trace of disgust with what I see as an aggressive affirmation of falsehoods.

Maybe my irritation is like discomfort with ugly architecture in a city. I can come to accept that commercial considerations drive most buildings, that cheap and ugly apartment blocks are nonetheless the best available to many people in the circumstances, that worrying about the aesthetics of public architecture is an elite preoccupation that can’t take precedence over more serious public problems, etc. etc. Still, I remain bothered by an ugly skyline, and faintly disgusted that we can’t do better.

I don’t think the “ick” factor is at the bottom of my uncompromising secular tendency, at least not in the sense of identifying any single fundamental objection to supernaturalism. (Many independent objections come together and support one another, usually.) Still, it’s important. Politically, I usually have to get over my irritations and hope to work together with liberal religious people. Yet the almost-aesthetic objection remains, and I need to occasionally rant about how bloody stupid the whole thing is.

bookmark_borderThe Trilemma – How Old?

The trilemma argument goes something like this:

Jesus claimed to be God. Therefore, either Jesus was in fact God, or else he was a liar or a lunatic. But clearly Jesus was neither a liar, nor a lunatic, so he must in fact be God.

C. S. Lewis presented the trilemma argument in a 1943 BBC radio program, and in 1952 he published the argument in his widely read book Mere Christianity. The Christian apologist Josh McDowell promoted this argument further in 1972, in his bestseller Evidence that Demands a Verdict (see Chapter 7 in the revised edition). The argument is still widely used by Christian apologists, and was recently defended by the Christian philosopher Stephen Davis.[1]

According to Wikipedia, this argument goes back at least to the mid 1800s:

The earliest use of this approach was possibly by the Scots preacher “Rabbi” John Duncan (1796-1870), quoted in 1870 as a saying used by him during his preaching career:

“Christ either deceived mankind by conscious fraud, or He was Himself deluded and self-deceived, or He was Divine. There is no getting out of this trilemma. It is inexorable.”

The trilemma appears, however, to be a bit older than this. I did some searching on Google and found an instance of an apologetic argument that is very similar to the trilemma in a book published by John Leland in 1733, a century before the preaching of John Duncan:

And there is as little Pretence for fuppofing that he [Jesus] had a Defign to impofe upon others, or to put a folem Cheat upon Mankind, as there is for imagining that he himfelf was impof’d on. [3]

To “impofe upon others” means to deceive others, and what Jesus being “impof’d on” means is clarified on the page prior to the above passage:

… there is not the leaft Shadow of Pretence for fupposing that he was impos’d upon himfelf by the Warmth of his own Imagination, or in other words, that he was a meer Enthufiaft or Vifionary, that took his own Fancies for divine Infpirations. He appears from the Account given us of his facred Life, to have been calm and fedate, not fir’d by an intermperate enthufiaftic Heat; … judicious Thought runs thro’ his admirable Difcourfes, and a calm Prudence reign’d in his Deportment. He declar’d indeed that he was extraordinarily fent of God… [4]

What it means for Jesus to have been “impof’d on” is that Jesus was deceived in some way (either by others or by himself because of a lack of rationality).

Note that this apologetic argument is not focused specifically on “Jesus’ claim to be God” so it is slightly different from the trilemma presented by Lewis and by McDowell. However, the focus on Jesus’ claim to be “extraordinarily fent of God” comes close enough to the mark to consider this to be an early form of the trilemma. In any case, the basic logic is the same. Jesus was either telling the truth, was a deceiver, or was himself deceived about what he claimed. He was not a deceiver, nor was he deceived, so he must be telling the truth.

The same sort of logic was used in the very first work of historical apologetics, but it was used to defend the truthfulness of the apostles, especially the truthfulness of their claim that Jesus had performed miracles and had risen from the dead.

to be continued…

1. “Was Jesus Mad, Bad, or God?”, in Stephen T. Davis, Daniel Kendall, Gerald O’Collins, The Incarnation: an interdisciplinary symposium on the Incarnation of the Son of God (Oxford University Press, 2004), p222-3.
2.’s_trilemma, viewed 1/15/09.
3. An Answer to a Late Book Intituled, Christianity as Old as the Creation: In Two Parts. By John Leland, p.43. Published by printed by S. Powell, for Abraham Bradley, 1733.
4. Leland, p.42.