Posts Tagged ‘Ethics’

In Praise of Great Men

wilberforce

Our “post-modern” age (if there is such a thing) is sometimes skeptical, and even cynical, about “great men”. And frequently, that cynicism is not entirely unjustified. Great men, in the sense of historically significant men, have often not been good men. That being acknowledged (and it cannot be ignored), I want to make two brief points in reply.

Firstly, while I would not wish the “new” kinds of history to disappear, I don’t think history can be done without significant study of “great men”. This is because history is the search for the causes of contingent events, and when it comes to human history, those causes can and do include the actions of individuals. And “great men” are called that precisely because they produced widespread effects. For this reason alone, a complete understanding of history cannot overlook them.

Secondly, I think there’s something to be said for the value of great men in moral education. Certainly, educating people to be virtuous, to be good, is more important than making them “great”. To some degree, the extent of our effects on the world is a matter beyond our control; our character, however, is something much more directly under our control. So it makes sense to focus more intensely on changing the things we can change. Nevertheless, I don’t see what’s intrinsically wrong with having widespread significance, and so I don’t think it can be intrinsically wrong to desire such a significance. Pride in one’s greatness would of course be wrong, and greatness provides an occasion for pride that is not present otherwise. Yet, excellence in anything, including character, provides such an occasion. So the hazard does not ultimately make such a goal illicit.

Further, while I think utilitarianism is wrong to say that the only standard of right is “what maximizes the good”, still, taking into account that other things are intrinsically wrong, all other things being equal, “maximizing the good” is a noble goal. And I’m not sure how one can have such an aspiration without implicitly desiring to be “great”, at least in the sense of “causing widespread effects”.

Finally, it is true, most people will never be “great”. For this reason, it is unreasonable for an individual to assume they will be great, and it is even more unreasonable to place that expectation on others. Because our “greatness” in a historical sense is contingent upon so many things beyond our control (above all, the will of God), we can never take such a verdict on our life for granted. Yet, with that important qualification in place, I don’t see a reason to absolutely prohibit a desire to have widespread beneficial effects.

So I still think there’s a case to be made for studying “great men”, and studying to be among their company.

Revisiting Euthyphro

socrates

Socrates famously posed the dilemma: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” Later, this dilemma forced itself upon monotheistic religion, in the form of “Are things moral because God commands them, or does God command them because they are good?”

Taking the first horn of the dilemma commits one to a divine command theory of ethics, the latter to something more like a natural law position. Problems appear on both horns for the Christian, because the first approach seems to imply moral absurdities (like saying that child-rape would be good if God commanded it) and the second metaphysical ones (leaving morality as a kind of unexplained surd, existing independently of the putative First Cause).

For this reason Christian thinkers have tried to resolve the dilemma. One common approach is to say that the moral standard is God’s own nature, which he then commands that creatures reflect. I think this answer is partly right, but incomplete. By virtue of divine simplicity, it is true that Goodness is identical with God, since God is the source of good, and must be good, and being identical with his nature, must be goodness itself. Yet this answer is incomplete, for it’s not clear how divine goodness relates to what is good for human beings, which is what the dilemma was originally talking about.

Christians want to affirm that human goodness somehow finds its source in God (again, he is supposed to be the ultimate explanation for all things), but nevertheless want to avoid the problems that seem to come with a crude divine command theory of ethics. How can this be done? It seems to me that a kind of Thomistic metaphysics is the only good answer. One could try to avoid this route by taking a more voluntaristic and nominalistic metaphysics, but such an approach seems to entail the same moral problems that the crude divine command theory does. But then how can one avoid the other problem, of making morality an ontologically ungrounded surd?

The way around this problem comes in recognizing that what is good for human beings is determined by their nature, but that that nature is created by God. So while it is true that morality as such is not essentially a divine positive law backed up by threats of force, nevertheless it is derived ultimately from God as Creator. And further, since God’s nature is the law for his own actions, his creative activity partakes of the goodness of his own nature.

Thus one can avoid both horns of the dilemma and provide an intelligible connection between the goodness of God and morality if one takes the path of Thomistic natural law.

David Oderberg on Consequentialism

If one listens very carefully to activists, politicians, and related characters in the media, one begins to hear a certain kind of ethical view beneath some policy recommendations. I’m not going to provide an example, so if the reader does not know what I’m talking about, or does not believe me, they may ignore my comments without further ado. But I know that I’ve heard these views, and so I want to briefly refer to one response to them.

The view affirms some human rights as inviolable, but then also appeals to a kind of consequentialist or utilitarian logic. Several varieties of this perspective appear in academic ethical philosophy, which the interested reader could track down if they please. At the moment, though, I only want to point out one response.

David Oderberg’s paper Why I am not a Consequentialist gives several lines of argumentation against consequentialism in general; I will not discuss them all. Helpfully, Oderberg highlights his most forceful argument:

I have given a number of fairly abstract reasons why consequentialism is on the face of it unintuitive and unmotivated. But I also think it is straight out false, and not only false but an evil and dangerous theory – a view I am not alone in holding. There are a number of ways in which I could defend the view, but I want to focus on one in particular, the one that has always seemed to me – at least ever since I stopped being a consequentialist – the most damaging. It is a very familiar objection, but no less persuasive for being well known. This is the charge that consequentialism allows, indeed requires, certain kinds of action that are obviously wrong and so not to be done. In particular, consequentialism permits and requires actions that are horrendous evils, as evil as anything can be. The typical example often given is of the judge who condemns an innocent man to death in order to satisfy a rioting mob that will murder hundreds of people if the judge lets the innocent man go free. Another is the doctor who kills patients for their organs so he can transplant those organs into many other patients who need them. In general, according to consequentialism, it is at least permitted, often obligatory, for a person to commit what looks to any sane observer like a blatant and serious violation of someone else’s rights, and hence to commit an act of grave injustice, in order to maximize value, or at least to do what he thinks is likely to maximize value. Now, for the non-consequentialist, no intuition his opponent can bring to bear in support of the consequentialist position on this matter is as strong as the intuition that such apparent injustices are indeed injustices, and so to be forbidden on all occasions, no matter what the consequences. According to Elizabeth Anscombe, even to entertain the supposition that the judge is allowed, let alone required, to condemn the innocent man to placate the angry mob is to show evidence of a morally corrupt mind. Someone who thinks the issue debatable, she says, is not someone with whom you should enter into debate

After, Oderberg engages with responses to this point, including an academic example of the view I described above, in the person of Philip Pettit. Pettit argues that consequentialists should want to maximize dignity. Oderberg replies that this can be interpreted in two ways. One is that on closer inspection of Pettit’s work, it seems like he’s redefining dignity to presuppose consequentialism, and so falls foul to the various problems with consequentialism. The other is that Pettit is actually appealing to a non-consequentialist understanding of dignity, in which the right people have to respect is not grounded in how their being respected contributes to the maximization of social benefit. Oderberg replies that this approach will undermine Pettit’s project, since taking this view of dignity will contradict consequentialist principles, rendering Pettit’s system incoherent.

Oderberg’s penultimate paragraph describes the situation for all attempts to support this kind of mediating position between the idea of human rights and a consequentialist approach to ethics:

There is more that can be said about Pettit’s and other attempts to give a consequentialist defence of rights and justice. All such attempts will fail, simply because the structure of rights and justice and the structure of consequentialist thinking are contrary to each other. The only way the consequentialist can reconcile them is by reinterpreting rights and justice in terms that are explicitly or implicitly consequentialist. For the non-consequentialist, this would not merely be a case of begging the question, but of discarding at least some of the non-negotiable intuitions we have about rights and justice, such as the inherent and absolute injustice of knowingly condemning an innocent man to death. On the other hand, if the consequentialist wants to preserve such intuitions, he must incorporate into this theory principles that are themselves non-consequentialist. But if he does this, there is no logical stopping point short of abandoning consequentialism altogether.

The implication of Oderberg’s argument for ethics and politics, at minimum, would be that those who wish to coherently defend human rights need to seek support elsewhere. Something like Kantian deontologism, divine command ethics, or natural law ethics, would certainly do a better job (Oderberg chooses natural law ethics), though a further discussion would have to continue between those three possibilities (and others) in order to determine the ultimately correct system.

C.S. Lewis on Salvador Dali

Or something like that. Nearer to the end of That Hideous Strength, the final instalment in his space trilogy, Lewis describes a process designed by the villains to destroy any sense of objective value in the world. At the first stage of re-education, Lewis has the antagonists using architecture, interior design, and visual arts to begin the psychological corruption. I don’t recall off-hand if Lewis has commented elsewhere on modern art, but this passage certainly must be indirectly relaying his views on artists like Dali. And I think it probably lets us know what he would think of much contemporary “high art” and pop culture.

The room, at first, was an anti-climax. It appeared to be an empty committee room with a long table, eight or nine chairs, some pictures, and (oddly enough) a large step-ladder in one corner. There were no windows; it was lit by an electric light which produced, better than Mark had ever seen it produced before, the illusion of a cold, grey place out of doors. A man of trained sensibility would have seen at once that the room was ill proportioned, not grotesquely but sufficiently to produce dislike. Mark felt the effect without analysing the cause, and the effect grew as time passed. Sitting staring about him, he next noticed the door. The point of the arch was not in the centre; the thing was lopsided. Once again, the error was not gross. The thing was near enough to the true to deceive you for a moment and to go on teasing the mind after the deception had been unmasked. He turned and sat with his back to it … one mustn’t let it become an obsession. Then he noticed the spots on the ceiling; little round black spots at irregular intervals on the pale mustard-coloured surface. He determined that he would not fall into the trap of trying to count them. They would be hard to count, they were so irregularly placed. Or weren’t they? They suggested some kind of pattern. Their peculiar ugliness consisted in the fact that they kept on suggesting it and then frustrating expectation. He realised that this was another trap. He fixed his eyes on the table. He got up and began to walk about. He had a look at the pictures.

Some belonged to a school with which he was familiar. There was a portrait of a young woman who held her mouth wide open to reveal the fact that the inside of it was thickly overgrown with hair. It was very skilfully painted in the photographic manner so that you could feel that hair. There was a giant mantis playing a fiddle while being eaten by another mantis, and a man with corkscrews instead of arms bathing in a flat, sadly coloured sea beneath a summer sunset. But most of the pictures were not of this kind. Mark was a little surprised at the predominance of scriptural themes. It was only at the second or third glance that one discovered certain unaccountable details. Who was the person standing between the Christ and the Lazarus? And why were there so many beetles under the table in the Last Supper? What was the curious trick of lighting that made each picture look like something seen in delirium? When once these questions had been raised the apparent ordinariness of the pictures became like the ominous surface innocence at the beginning of certain dreams. Every fold of drapery, every piece of architecture, had a meaning one could not grasp but which withered the mind.

He understood the whole business now. Frost was not trying to make him insane; at least not in the sense Mark had hitherto given to the word “insanity”. To sit in the room was the first step towards what Frost called objectivity-the process whereby all specifically human reactions were killed in a man so that he might become fit for the fastidious society of the Macrobes [the fictional equivalent of demons]. Higher degrees in the asceticism of anti-nature would doubtless follow: the eating of abominable food, the dabbling in dirt and blood, the ritual performances of calculated obscenities. They were playing quite fair with him-offering him the same initiation through which they themselves had passed.

After an hour, this long high coffin of a room began to produce on Mark an effect which his instructor had probably not anticipated. As the desert first teaches men to love water, or as absence first reveals affection, there rose up against this background of the sour and the crooked some kind of vision of the sweet and the straight. Something else-something he vaguely called the “Normal”- apparently existed. He had never thought about it before. But there it was-solid, massive, like something you could touch, or eat, or fall in love with. It was all mixed up with Jane and fried eggs and soap and sunlight and the rooks cawing at Cure Hardy. He was not thinking in moral terms at all; or else (what is much the same thing) he was having his first deeply moral experience.

On the themes of the book as a whole, there are some noteworthy comments from Steven Wedgeworth, Phillip Johnson, and George Orwell.

Notes From Sources Of The Self

One of Charles Taylor’s most important works is Sources of the Self, wherein he narrates the origins of the modern conception of identity. I’ve begun the probably long process of reading through this tome. The following are a few selections that jumped out at me on first glance. The first section presents Taylor’s nuanced opinion of modernity.

But I find myself dissatisfied with the views on this subject which are now current. Some are upbeat, and see us as having climbed to a higher plateau; others show a picture of decline, of loss, of forgetfulness. Neither sort seems to me right; both ignore massively important features of our situation. We have yet to capture, I think, the unique combination of greatness and danger, of grandeur et misèrewhich characterizes the modern age. …

But I try to set out in the concluding chapter what flows from this story of the emerging modern identity. Briefly, it is that this identity is much richer in moral sources than its condemners allow, but that this richness is rendered invisible by the impoverished philosophical language of its most zealous defenders. Modernity urgently needs to be saved from its most unconditional supporters–a predicament perhaps not without precedent in the history of culture. [ix-xi]

In the following selection, Taylor explains that our moral sense is not reducible to matters of taste:

We feel the demand to be consistent in our moral reactions. And even those philosophers who propose to ignore ontological accounts nevertheless scrutinize and criticize our moral intuitions for their consistency or lack of it. But the issue of consistency presupposes intrinsic description. How could anyone be accused of being inconsistently nauseated? Some description could always be found covering all the objects he reacts to that way, if only the relative one that they all awake his disgust. The issue of consistency can only arise when the reaction is related to some independent property as its fit object.

The whole way in which we think, reason, argue, and question ourselves about morality supposes that our moral reactions have these two sides: that they are not only ‘gut’ feelings but also implicit acknowledgements of claims concerning their subjects. The various ontological accounts try to articulate these claims. The temptations to deny this, which arise from modern epistemology, are strengthened by the widespread acceptance of a deeply wrong model of practical reasoning, one based on an illegitimate extrapolation form reasoning in natural science. [7]

And in this final section Taylor explains how our moral sense is irreducible. This point is somewhat similar to one that C.S. Lewis makes in The Abolition of Man, namely that practical reason takes for granted the first principles of morality, and that if someone stands outside of these reasons, the science of ethics will be nonsensical to him.

Moral argument and exploration go on only within a world shaped by our deepest moral responses, like the ones I have been talking about here; just as natural science supposes that we focus on a world where all our responses have been neutralized. If you want to discriminate more finely what it is about human beings that makes them worthy of respect, you have to call to mind what it is to feel the claim of human suffering, or what is repugnant about injustice, or the awe you feel at the fact of human life. No argument can take someone from a neutral stance towards the world, either adopted from the demands of ‘science’ or fallen into as a consequence of pathology, to insight into moral ontology. But it doesn’t follow from this that moral ontology is a pure fiction, as naturalists often assume. Rather we should treat our deepest moral instincts, our ineradicable sense that human life is to be respected, as our mode of access to the world in which ontological claims are discernible and can be rationally argued about and sifted. [8]

Without Goodness, All Things Are Permissible

Can we be good without God?   Atheists and religious people of various stripes vigorously debate versions of this argument on a regular basis, with no consensus in sight. Perhaps, though, the ambiguity of the question trips up well-meaning advocates of both sides.  I would like to consider a more carefully qualified question:

If we are consistent with the materialistic-naturalistic view of the world, will that conviction make us tend towards behaviour most people regard as evil or antisocial or undesirable?

Let’s consider the facts. (more…)

Chronicles In The Abolition Of Man

A woman wants to give birth to a shark.

The prophet C.S. Lewis once wrote:

My point may be clearer to some if it is put in a different form. Nature is a word of varying meanings, which can best be understood if we consider its various opposites. The Natural is the opposite of the Artificial, the Civil, the Human, the Spiritual, and the Supernatural. The Artificial does not now concern us. If we take the rest of the list of opposites, however, I think we can get a rough idea of what men have meant by Nature and what it is they oppose to her. Nature seems to be the spatial and temporal, as distinct from what is less fully so or not so at all. She seems to be the world of quantity, as against the world of quality; of objects as against consciousness; of the bound, as against the wholly or partially autonomous; of that which knows no values as against that which both has and perceives value; of efficient causes (or, in some modern systems, of no causality at all) as against final causes. Now I take it that when we understand a thing analytically and then dominate and use it for our own convenience, we reduce it to the level of `Nature’ in the sense that we suspend our judgements of value about it, ignore its final cause (if any), and treat it in terms of quantity. This repression of elements in what would otherwise be our total reaction to it is sometimes very noticeable and even painful: something has to be overcome before we can cut up a dead man or a live animal in a dissecting room. These objects resist the movement of the mind whereby we thrust them into the world of mere Nature. But in other instances too, a similar price is exacted for our analytical knowledge and manipulative power, even if we have ceased to count it. We do not look at trees either as Dryads or as beautiful objects while we cut them into beams: the first man who did so may have felt the price keenly, and the bleeding trees in Virgil and Spenser may be far-off echoes of that primeval sense of impiety. The stars lost their divinity as astronomy developed, and the Dying God has no place in chemical agriculture. To many, no doubt, this process is simply the gradual discovery that the real world is different from what we expected, and the old opposition to Galileo or to `body-snatchers’ is simply obscurantism. But that is not the whole story. It is not the greatest of modern scientists who feel most sure that the object, stripped of its qualitative properties and reduced to mere quantity, is wholly real. Little scientists, and little unscientific followers of science, may think so. The great minds know very well that the object, so treated, is an artificial abstraction, that something of its reality has been lost.

From this point of view the conquest of Nature appears in a new light. We reduce things to mere Nature in order that we may `conquer’ them. We are always conquering Nature, because`Nature’ is the name for what we have, to some extent, conquered. The price of conquest is to treat a thing as mere Nature. Every conquest over Nature increases her domain. The stars do not become Nature till we can weigh and measure them: the soul does not become Nature till we can psychoanalyse her. The wresting of powers from Nature is also the surrendering of things to Nature. As long as this process stops short of the final stage we may well hold that the gain outweighs the loss. But as soon as we take the final step of reducing our own species to the level of mere Nature, the whole process is stultified, for this time the being who stood to gain and the being who has been sacrificed are one and the same. This is one of the many instances where to carry a principle to what seems its logical conclusion produces absurdity. It is like the famous Irishman who found that a certain kind of stove reduced his fuel bill by half and thence concluded that two stoves of the same kind would enable him to warm his house with no fuel at all. It is the magician’s bargain: give up our soul, get power in return. But once our souls, that is, ourselves, have been given up, the power thus conferred will not belong to us. We shall in fact be the slaves and puppets of that to which we have given our souls. It is in Man’s power to treat himself as a mere `natural object’ and his own judgements of value as raw material for scientific manipulation to alter at will. The objection to his doing so does not lie in the fact that this point of view (like one’s first day in a dissecting room) is painful and shocking till we grow used to it. The pain and the shock are at most a warning and a symptom. The real objection is that if man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be: not raw material to be manipulated, as he fondly imagined, by himself, but by mere appetite, that is, mere Nature, in the person of his de-humanized Conditioners.

We have been trying, like Lear, to have it both ways: to lay down our human prerogative and yet at the same time to retain it. It is impossible. Either we are rational spirit obliged for ever to obey the absolute values of the Tao, or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasures of masters who must, by hypothesis, have no motive but their own `natural’ impulses. Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.

Objective Good, Economics, And Politics

There is at least one fundamental tension between the thinking of some Austrian economics and some libertarian political philosophy, and classical Christian social thinking. Consider this excerpt from von Mises’ magnum opus, Human Action:

When applied to the ultimate ends of action, the terms rational and irrational are inappropriate and meaningless. The ultimate end of action is always the satisfaction of some desires of the acting man. Since nobody is in a position to substitute his own value judgments for those of the acting individual, it is vain to pass judgment on other people’s aims and volitions. No man is qualified to declare what would make another man happier or less discontented. The critic either tells us what he believes he would aim at if he were in the place of his fellow; or, in dictatorial arrogance blithely disposing of his fellow’s will and aspirations, declares what condition of this other man would better suit himself, the critic.

Mises stands within a long tradition of thinkers assuming Hume’s separation of value and fact, a repudiation of the premodern tradition (in which Christianity finds itself) which said there was such a thing as an objective good and evil for human action, and that it could be known by everyone. In participating in the modern tradition, Mises assumed the modernists’ rejection of formal and final causes in the world, and so left humanity without any objective good purpose toward which it was intrinsically directed. What is left in the vacuum is bare will, and perhaps the passions, to which Hume said reason was always a slave. Certainly, there is no objective good that can be rationally discovered by all people of good will.

And, of course, Mises and likeminded Austrians (and libertarians) are not alone amongst the economic and political schools of today in holding this view of ethics and human nature. But they are all clearly in opposition to Christian doctrine at this point.

Social Constructionism, Moral Realism, And Injustice

Jamie K.A. Smith wrote on twitter the other day:

We’re told that social constructionism has no resources to stop injustices like racism. But how did moral realism fair in that regard?

I want to briefly discuss where I think this is wrong. Firstly, it is true that people merely professing to be moral realists has not created heaven on earth. This should not be a big surprise to Christians, who believe in original sin, total depravity, and the persistence of indwelling sin in the lives of even regenerated people. But at the same time, I don’t notice that social constructionists, people who believe that all value and meaning is the creation of communities, have become morally perfect either. Except, perhaps, in cases where they have redefined their sin to be righteousness “for their community”. But the rest of us, I think, may not be persuaded. And certainly, communities that believe there is no objective right and wrong could easily, and indeed have, been quite evil and unjust.

Secondly, if the question is: “which view, considered in the abstract, provides more motivation to be good?”, then I think it is moral realism, not social constructionism, that has more resources available towards reaching that end. This is for one main reason. The communities of moral realism and social constructionism can both discipline their communities toward achieving the good and stopping injustices, for moral realist communities are still communities. But only moral realists can offer a principled argument for why people outside of their own community also ought to stop committing injustices. Social constructionists can only offer bare commands or invitations to those on the outside, while moral realists can do both of these things, and provide reasons why others should stop being racists, etc.

Thirdly, social constructionism is, at bottom, a kind of cultural relativism. And when cultural relativism goes missionary, when it tries to recruit from the outside or shape the outside world in its image, it is essentially being Nietzschean. Since it can have no objective right to do this (since, in its own view, there are no such things), any attempt to condemn others for things it considers wrong, or to enforce rules against such behaviour, is an act of sheer will-to-power. There is no trans-communal standard of justice that could make such an act warranted, since there is no trans-communal standard of justice. So it is merely one community trying to impose its will on another, for no more fundamental reason than that the community wishes to do it. At base, it must reduce all moral outrage to socially constructed arbitrary value preferences, and so to wish or will.

Aquinas vs. Kant

Ed Feser concludes his book Aquinas with the following comment about the relation between the Angelic Doctor and modernity:

In both its metaphysical and theological commitments, Aquinas’s system of ethics is, like the rest of his philosophy, obviously radically at odds with the assumptions typically made by contemporary moral philosophers. But the main difference may lie in something other than a disagreement over this or that particular ontological thesis or argument for God’s existence, in basic ethos rather than intellectual orientation. The spirit of modern moral philosophy is perhaps summed up best in Kant’s famous characterization of human beings as “ends in themselves” and “self-legislators.” This sort of talk would sound blasphemous and even mad to Aquinas, for whom God alone, as the “first cause and last end of all things,” could possibly be said to be the source of moral law and an end in himself. (ST I-II.62.1, as translated by Pegis in Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas). For Aquinas, we are not here for ourselves, but for the glory of God, and precisely because this is the end set for us by nature, it is in him alone that we can find our true happiness. And it must be emphasized that, as with the other themes we’ve explored in this book, he takes this conclusion to be a matter, not of faith, but of reason itself.

Therein lies the sting of Aquinas’ challenge to modernity. [192]