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MacNeill is on a Roll

Allen MacNeill has jumped into the Sam Harris thread and raises some interesting points.  I am always pleased to find areas of agreement with our (sometime) opponents, such as Allen.  Therefore, I am going to close the comments to the Sam Harris thread and let Allen lead this thread off.  Let me hasten to add that by giving Allen this post, I am not necessarily endorsing his views.   All that follows is Allen’s:

Sorry to come into this discussion so late (I’ve been fighting a bad cold). However, despite coming into this rather late, I think there is still quite a bit I can contribute to this debate.

Indeed, having read through all of the comments so far, I find it fascinating that no one has yet presented even the briefest outline of the two dominant theories of ethical justification (usually referred to as “meta-ethics”), nor mentioned the two predominant theories of ethics formulated within those meta-ethical systems of justification, nor cited any of the proponents of these traditions (with the exception of David Hume and utilitarianism).

Before going into them, I would first like to state that I have spent almost four decades studying and investigating the intersection between science and ethics (or “morals” if you lean more toward Latin than Greek). As a result of this experience it seems to me that referencing and exploring some of these dominant ethical traditions might help bring some clarity to this discussion.

As an introduction to such a presentation, I would like to first respond to a few of the comments made so far:

In comment #73 Clive Hayden wrote:

“Morality is always the premise, not the conclusion; it has no contingency.”

In comment #104 stephenB wrote:

“…it is impossible to make a moral choice without a moral standard based on objective truth, under which circumstances you can only make a preferred choice based on your own selfish instincts…”

In comment #124 stephenB wrote:

“Moral relativism always degenerates into tyranny—every time—without exception. Without the objective moral law as the ultimate arbiter between disputed claims for rights, power always makes the decision.”

And in comment #134 William J. Murray wrote:

“Might-makes-right is immoral; it’s the opposite of the very idea of rights and morals. Rights and morals are supposed to prevent us from descending into might-makes-right tyranny and abuse, not facilitate that evil.”

Long-time readers of these threads might initially be shocked by this, but I fully and emphatically agree with all of these comments. Furthermore, I would elaborate on that agreement by stating that both a logical and empirical analysis of the dominant theories of ethics, their meta-ethical justifications, and their empirical effects supports my assessment.

Finally, I personally have come to these conclusions from a starting position that was diametrically opposed to my current understanding. That is, I once believed that:

1) there is/are no “transcendent ethical/moral law(s)”;

2) morality (if such a thing even exists) is entirely dependent on context (i.e. “relative” not “absolute”);

3) that a thorough understanding of human biology and evolution can (indeed, should, or even must) provide us with everything we need to know to formulate a valid code of ethical/moral behavior; and

4) that given the foregoing, the only valid ethical code would be one that is rooted in and ultimately derived from empirical reality, context-dependent/relativistic, and directly derived from our empirical knowledge of biology and evolution.

I now completely reject all four of these assertions, and do so not only as a result of my much longer experience as an observer of nature (including “human nature”) but also as a person who has taken a great deal of time and care to study the various ethical traditions and the observable effects those traditions have had on the behavior of people who profess them.

This will take a while, so I’m going to split it up into several comments. Here goes

First, it will help in the discussion that follows to distinguish between the terms “validity” and “justification”.

VALIDITY
“Validity” usually refers to the outcome of a logical operation, such as the construction of a deductive syllogism or the testing of an hypothesis via the hypothetico-deductive (i.e. “scientific”) method.

• In deductive reasoning, a conclusion is “valid” if it follows logically from its major and minor premises.

• In inductive reasoning (and its variants, abductive reasoning and consilience), a conclusion is “valid” if it is not falsified by the preponderance of the data (”preponderance” being defined somewhat differently in the different branches of the natural sciences; in biology it is typically greater than 95% of the observed cases/data).

JUSTIFICATION
“Justification” refers to the method by which ethical/moral prescriptions are determined to be valid.

• In the empirical sciences, determining if an hypothesis (i.e. a generalization about what some observable phenomenon) is) is “valid” involves either simple description (i.e. “natural history”) or experimentation (i.e. “controlled manipulation of independent variables”).

• In meta-ethics, determining if an ethic (i.e. a statement about what a person/people ought to do) is “valid” involves examining either the internal logic of that ethical prescription or the effects of putting that ethical prescription into practice.

Which brings us to the principle difficulty with Sam Harris’ piece. He does indeed commit what G. E. Moore called the “naturalistic fallacy”: he derives an “is” statement from an “ought” statement, which is a violation of one of the most basic principles of meta-ethics. As Hume, Moore, Rawls, and virtually all other ethicists have argued, one cannot justify an ethic by showing that it is derived from a statement about the way the world is, regardless of how empirically “valid” that “is” statement might be.

In the context of this thread, this means that no amount of arguing that humans are “social animals” or that we are “innately altruistic” or that “our sociality predisposes us to act ethically/morally” can be used to justify an ethical prescription. Even if those descriptive statements about humans are valid (and I believe they are, at least superficially and in some, but not all, contexts), they cannot tell us what we ought to do.

Empirical generalizations about human behavior can only tell us what we have a tendency to do, not what we ought to do. If we are indeed altruistic and cooperative (and there is a great deal of ethological evidence supporting this generalization), the most one can say about the application of these tendencies to what we ought to do is, if being altruistic and cooperative is what we ought to do, then doing so will not be as difficult as it would be if we were innately selfish and competitive.

Before going any further, it is also time to distinguish between descriptive and normative ethics
[BTW, from this point forward I will use "ethics" inclusively to mean either "ethics" or "morals", as the two terms mostly differ in derivation, rather than meaning]:

DESCRIPTIVE ETHICS
“Descriptive ethics” are descriptive statements of what people in various cultures, situations, societies, etc. say are the “good” or “right” things to do.

For example, one might observe the behavior of the Nazis and conclude that their ethics were grounded on the absolute superiority of the Aryan race, which in their view not only justified their actions, it made such things as the mass murder of the genetically “defective”, gypsies, homosexuals, Jews, and mentally ill necessary. Given the observed history of the Nazis and their racial doctrines, this would indeed be a valid generalization about their morals/ethics, but only in the descriptive sense.

NORMATIVE ETHICS
“Normative ethics” are normative (i.e. “law-like”) statements of what people ought to do, regardless of their particular cultures, situations, societies, etc.

In other words, descriptive ethics are necessarily “relative” (i.e. situation-dependent), whereas normative ethics are necessarily “absolute” (i.e. situation-independent). And, as several commentators in this thread have pointed out (stephenB perhaps the most forcefully, but s/he has not been alone in this effort), there is a fundamental logical contradiction between descriptive/relativistic and normative/absolute ethics: the former can be shown to demonstrably violate what any rational person would consider to be valid ethical prescriptions. That is, asserting that “a good person is required to murder people who are genetically “defective”, gypsies, homosexuals, Jews, and mentally ill” is absolutely wrong. We all know this; indeed, even the Nazis knew this, which is why they eventually had to resort to killing technologies that would remove them from direct responsibility for their actions). So, what remains for us to determine is how to formulate our ethics in such a way that they will not only not justify the actions of the Nazis, but will require us to stop anyone from doing what they did.

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167 Responses to MacNeill is on a Roll

  1. Wow! Two threads with my views as the focus – I’m flattered!

    But, before continuing, let me point out that virtually nothing that I have written in the comments above is original with me. Indeed, it’s standard ethical theory, what you would read in virtually any introduction to philosophical ethics.

    I also apologize for the somewhat didactic presentation and tone. I guess it’s just my “nature” (you can take the teacher out of the classroom, but you can’t take the classroom out of the teacher).

    I will eventually get to something that I think might be new to some reading this, but we’ll see when we get there.

    And so, on to the heart of the matter:

    Logically, ethics (i.e. ethical prescriptions) may be justified either “internally” (i.e. with reference to some “universal/absolute” standard) or “consequentially” (i.e. with reference to the effects of actions taken in accordance with the prescriptions. The first type of ethics are usually referred to as “deontological” ethics, whereas the second type are often referred to as “teleological” ethics (see, teleology is part of this discussion;-)):

    DEONTOLOGICAL ETHICS
    “Deontological ethics” are justified by their conformity with an absolute, or “universal” standard of right and wrong (or, if you prefer, good and evil).

    • For example, Emmanuel Kant (in his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals) formulated an absolute standard to which he asserted that all ethical systems must necessarily (i.e. logically) conform. He stated this standard in the form of a deductive syllogism (translated from the German):

    Major Premise: “A person acts ethically if his or her conduct would, without condition, be the ‘right’ conduct for any person in similar circumstances.”

    Minor Premise: “A person’s conduct is “right” if it treats others as ends in themselves and not as means to an end”.

    Conclusion: “A person acts morally when he or she acts as if his or her conduct were establishing a universal law governing others under similar circumstances”.

    Or, more concisely:

    Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

    This principle, sometimes referred to as “universalizability” (or “reciprocity”), is the basis for all deontological ethics.

    Several commentators in the “Sam Harris” thread quoted various versions of the “golden rule” as “universal moral rules”. It seems clear to me that all of these are simply rewordings of Kant’s soi-disant “categorical imperative”, and derive their ethical force from the same logical justification as that formulated by Kant.

    Historically, there have been many modifications and extensions of Kant’s categorical imperative, most notably the “theory of justice” of American ethical philosopher John Rawls. However, none of the more recent versions have departed from Kant’s underlying principle in any fundamental way.

    Notice that Kant’s ethics are not necessarily (i.e. logically) justified by their effects. On the contrary, it has often been pointed out that Kant’s categorical imperative is logically true even if it has negative effects on the individuals who conform their behavior to conform with them.

    Indeed, some would argue (and some argued in the “Sam Harris”) that an act isn’t “genuinely” ethical unless it somehow goes against one’s individual self-interest. I don’t think that this is necessarily the case. There are situations in which self-interest and the interests of others are aligned. Under such conditions, acting according to Kant’s categorical imperative would benefit both one’s self and others.

    However, in a situation in which self-interest is opposed to (or undermines) the interests of others, Kant’s categorical imperative requires one to act against one’s own self-interest (or, at least, not to act at all).

    ***My little boy is asking me to get him a sippy-cup of cider and a graham cracker. As both activities require supervision, I’ll be back in a while***

  2. While reading the above post, I could not help but think of the confusion folks have between absolute ethics and legalism. Would either Mr. MacNiell or Mr Arrington be willing to discuss the distinction between legalism and absolute ethics/morality? Below are 2 examples where the “law” was not observed but no evil occurred.

    I can think of 2 examples off the top of my head.

    1. Mark 3:1-6 (New American Standard Bible)

    Jesus Heals on the Sabbath
    He entered again into a synagogue; and a man was there whose hand was withered. They were watching Him to see if He would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him. He said to the man with the withered hand, “Get up and come forward!” And He said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to kill?” But they kept silent.
    After looking around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored.
    The Pharisees went out and immediately began conspiring with the Herodians against Him, as to how they might destroy Him.

    and 2: Corrie Tin Boon, where she was hding jews in her home and when asked by the Nazis if she had jews in her home she did not reveal the truth and said “No”.

    Thanks for considering.

  3. 3

    Major Premise: “A person acts ethically if his or her conduct would, without condition, be the ‘right’ conduct for any person in similar circumstances.”

    Minor Premise: “A person’s conduct is “right” if it treats others as ends in themselves and not as means to an end”.

    Conclusion: “A person acts morally when he or she acts as if his or her conduct were establishing a universal law governing others under similar circumstances”.

    Yes, this is the standard formulation of the categorical imperative. Let us see how Allen is doing:

    “A person acts morally when he or she acts as if his or her conduct were establishing a universal law governing others under similar circumstances”.

    It should be a universal law that tending to your little boy’s desire for cider and crackers trumps posting comments on a UD thread.

    Allen has temporarily abandoned this UD thread to get cider and crackers for his little boy.

    Allen has treated his boy as an end and not a means.

    Allen has behaved ethically.

    ;-)

  4. Hi Barry. I wonder if you would care to address any of my comments in the Sam Harris thread.

  5. Wagenweg:While reading the above post, I could not help but think of the confusion folks have between absolute ethics and legalism. … Below are 2 examples where the “law” was not observed but no evil occurred.

    Part of the problem is that word ‘absolute.’ And part of the problem is the common confusion between morality itself and the contingent demands of morality. Putting these together, we find the word ‘absolute’ improperly applied to to contingent demands of morality – which cannot but lead to confusion.

    Mr MacNeill quoted Mr Hayden: “Morality is always the premise, not the conclusion; it has no contingency.”

    If one is going to use the word ‘absolute,’ it properly applies to morality itself, that is, to the premise(s), rather than to the conclusions of moral reasoning.

  6. 6

    wagenweg, Jesus frequently broke the law in an “in your face” sort of way to demonstrate the very point you are making. When I appeal to a universal ethical code, I am not appealing (as many of the posters on the Sam Harris thread seemed to believe) to a code of laws.

    I frequently use the IRS Code to illustrate this point. The concept of the code is very simple. Add up your income. Multiply your income by the tax rate. Send a check to the government for that amount. There, I’ve said it in 20 words. The IRS Code is over 3.5 million words long. Why? Because of original sin. That’s why. Men simply will not abide by the “core” of the code, and as a consequence the IRS writes a massive code that attempts to anticipate every attempt to circumvent the “core” of the code.

    The Mishnah was the IRS Code of Jesus day. Over the centuries the rabbis had propounded gloss after gloss on the law, so that by Jesus’ time they had imposed an enormously complex, detailed and burdensome set of rules of conduct on the people. The rules governing what one could and could not do on the Sabbath were especially burdensome. That is why Jesus went out of his way to flout these rules. He wanted people to get over the detailed rules and regulations and instead get back to the “core” of God’s law, which, he said, is very simple. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. He said all of the law and all of the prophets hang on these two commandments.
    Does this mean that we can safely do away with codes, such as the Ten Commandments. No, I am not saying that either. These codes continue to have a function. They help teach us what it means to love God and love our neighbor. The confusion in the Sam Harris thread about “You shall not murder” is an example. That commandment teaches us that we must never commit murder. That in turn causes us to think about what “murder” is. Is killing every justified? Yes, I am, for example, justified in killing another in defense of myself or another. So we see that the “rules” as it were, act as a teacher. Yet we must always remember that the letter kills, but the Spirit is life.

  7. Mr. Arrington,
    Thank you for answering my question and very well I might add.

    It seems to me that morality without a moral law giver (God) would either have to be legalistic, meaning, always tell the truth regardless of circumstance, or completely imaginery as morality would be determined by a person in a situation at any given time resulting in literally millions of variations and in doing so render it meaningless.

    If morlaity was a result of a result of our DNA (I do not believe it is) then is it the DNA that interprets the situational ethic? Seems to me that if morlaity was determined by my genes, that I would always have ot tell the truth for example because my moral gene would not be able to interpret all situations I will encounter in my life and therefore direct my actions accordingly. So I wonder if the moral gene at the beginning of a person’s life would look the exactly the same at the end of a person’s life? If after all the gene is dictating my moral choices.

    Thanks to Mr Arrngton and Mr MacNiell for the great discussion.

  8. I’m not exactly sure where this thread is meant to take us—and a little unsure how much it will hold my interest (which is something that is independent of some of the fine contributions that are normally made here), but allow me to just ‘throw something into the rink.’

    Allen distinguishes between “descriptive” and “normative” ethics. Just a couple of thoughts: (1) if I’m not mistaken, in St. Thomas Aquinas’ exposition of ethics, his starting point is what he terms (and this may come from Aristotle or Plato themselves) “sinteresis”, which is our human faculty of intuiting “first principles”. This, of course, lies solidly within the “normative” ethics as Allen describes it; (2) what might describe the “descriptive” camp of ethics is the substitution of some “communally” agreed upon (or imposed upon, in the case of the Nazis) “first principle” in a non-intuitive fashion; (3) from (1) and (2)interestingly, a distinction sets itself up; namely, that “normative” ethics flows from an individual (who ‘intuits’) and that “descriptive” ethics flows from an ensemble; (4) viewed this way, and incorporating Kant’s categorical imperative, as well as Allen’s comments concerning it, it seems as though there are then two ways of viewing morality—either as (a) flowing from the individual outwards towards the community (“normative”), or (b) flowing outwards from the community towards the individual (“descriptive”), with the former view involving, shall we say, “self-imposed” behavior, while the latter involves an “externally imposed” behavior. In a way, this seems to parallel the “nature/nurture” divide that accompanies social behavior in general.

    Again, just some thoughts.

  9. If this thread continues the earlier thread, I would like somebody to respond to various arguments I made there that were ignored.

  10. wagenweg @2, I like your question about “legalism.”

    I would characterize legalism as the unfortunate idea that the law is more important than the larger purpose that is was designed to serve, that the letter of the law matters more than the spirit of the law. In many respects, it is the polar opposite of the equally immoral extreme of lawlessness.

    Between these two extremes, we find the golden mean of the natural moral law, which informs and guides the social order. Unlike the neurotic lawlessness of anarchy, it provides a stable framework and moral foundation around which the civil law can be built; unlike the psychotic legalism of tyranny, it allows that social order and culture to evolve, breathe, and establish its own identity. In fact, all cultures and social orders were meant to be similar in their moral structure and totally different in their personality structure—ever changing, ever finding new vitality and force. Like the analogy in Scripture, both the “rock” and the “living waters” are essential; the rock of unchanging morality provides the moral foundation while the living waters of change invigorate the culture and offers new, exciting, and unpredictable surprises. Legalistic psychotics want the rock without the water; neurotic anarchists want the water without the rock.

    Ironically, both lawlessness and legalism finally sterilize the culture, causing serious malformation. Anarchy, because it is neurotic, wants change for the sake of change and seeks to transform even the moral order itself, attacking the very foundation of a stable social order—it wants surprises all the time; legalism, because it is psychotic, militates against all changes, even those which are necessary and healthy, using the moral law not as a stabilizing force but as a weapon to force sameness on everyone—it wants no surprises at all.

    Ideally, the moral law will inform the civil law, but the bar for the latter must be lowered a little because, at one extreme, it is impossible to build a well-ordered society around the idea that everyone must act like a saint just as, at the other extreme, it is impossible to build a well ordered society around the idea that everyone can create their own morality.

    Culture, if it is to evolve naturally on matters of style and custom, must retain its core moral structure but healthy growth and development does not lend itself to overly prescribed behavior, it lives and breathes only on general principles. Thus, the American experiment, as it was originally conceived, held that the civil law must be based on the natural moral law and the inherent dignity of the human person. Unfortunately, it has abandoned that principle in recent years and is now paying the price. Lawless neurotics [surprisingly they are like legalistic psychotics in the sense that they seek to tyrannize as soon as they gain power], who hated the Declaration of Independence and the idea of God as a lawgiver, set out to change that absolute standard into the relative and unstable standard of law by popular opinion and judicial fiat, and, for the most part, they have been successful. Their strategy was to characterize advocates of the natural moral law, which is the rational midpoint between two extremes, as legalistic psychotics. Meanwhile, real legalistic psychotics have been stumping for Sharia Law and their lawless counterparts, though their total opposites, encourage this because they hope that, as a coalition, they can team up to destroy the Judeo/Christian formulation and form a new ruling class, much like the psychotic Pharasees and the neurotic Sadducees, who temporarily put aside their mutual hate to crucify who they hated even more.

  11. To comment on Allen’s post, I agree with the first two of the four ideas he now rejects but reject the second two. Further, I think the descriptive/normative binary is overly simplistic and does not necessarily correspond with a relative/absolute binary. He writes:

    “Normative ethics” are normative (i.e. “law-like”) statements of what people ought to do, regardless of their particular cultures, situations, societies, etc.

    I submit that the question of “how to stop the Nazi” cannot be answered “regardless of . . . particular cultures, situations, societies, etc.” Yet there are (relative) normative approaches we can and to take to that question.

  12. per Allen’s now rejecting “1) there is/are no “transcendent ethical/moral law(s)”;” and his distinction between descriptive and prescriptive ethics, the USA was founded by U.S.C. The Declaration of Independence – 1776

    This Declaration was based on restoring the rule of law to redress the detailed list of breaches by King and Parliament.

    In doing so, the Founders of the USA appealed to transcendent law:

    to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, . . .
    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. . . .
    We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions,

  13. Barry @ 6:

    “Does this mean that we can safely do away with codes, such as the Ten Commandments. No, I am not saying that either. These codes continue to have a function. They help teach us what it means to love God and love our neighbor.”

    Baloney. The law was never intended to have that purpose, it doesn’t to this day, and it never will. The law is there to show you that you’re dead because of sin, and that you need Christ to have life.

  14. Sorry for the delay; the Golden Hoard were clamoring for dinner.

    To continue: the other major category of normative ethics is “teleological ethics”.

    TELEOLOGICAL ETHICS
    “Teleological ethics” are justified by their consequences (technically, by their intended consequences, hence the descriptive term “teleological”, from the Greek telos meaning “end” or “intention”). Like the deontological ethics described previously, teleological ethics are justified with reference to an “absolute” standard of good and evil, but their “rightness” or “wrongness” is determined by the effects of putting them into practice, rather than by their internal logical consistency.

    By far the most common and widely recognized system of teleological ethics is utilitarianism, in which the justification for any ethic prescription is that it have the effect of bringing about “the greatest good for the greatest number” (traditionally, of people, although Peter Singer and some other recent utilitarians have “expanded the circle” to include other non-human species).

    Notice that the term “teleological” is used here in a somewhat different sense than in the teleology (i.e. “purpose”) referenced by ID supporters. In the case of teleological ethics, the “intentionality” of ethical prescriptions is tied to the outcome of ethically prescribed actions. Such ethics are usually understood to require that the prescribed outcome (e.g. the “greatest good for the greatest number”) not only be the outcome, but also that it be the intended outcome, rather than a side-effect of some other prescribed action(s).

    It is possible to formulate teleological ethics in such a way as to conform with classical deductive logic. For example, in the case of utilitarianism applied to health care:

    Major Premise: Those acts are “good” (or “right”) that promote the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

    Minor Premise: Health care provided and regulated by the government promotes the greatest good of the greatest number of people (i.e. the most widely disseminated improvement in health).

    Conclusion: Health care ought to be provided and regulated by the government.

    (Please note that this example is for illustration purposes only. I am neither advocating socialized medicine nor attempting to somehow do the opposite.)

    Perhaps the most significant difference between deontological and teleological ethics is that the latter requires some mechanism for determining that the intended outcome (e.g. the greatest good for the greatest number) is actually brought about as a result of the application of the ethic. This is not necessarily the case for deontological ethics, which are justified by logical consistency with a universal (i.e. “absolute”) standard. This, in turn, means that if a teleological ethic fails to bring about its intended outcome, it can be modified or even abandoned, whereas a deontological ethic is not necessarily invalidated by the observed fact that the outcome of applying the ethic is not perceived as “good”.

    In the realm of public policy, deontological ethics are usually assumed to apply primarily to those social institutions concerned with justice and equity, whereas teleological ethics (and especially utilitarianism) are usually assumed to apply to those social institutions concerned with the general welfare (e.g. economics, public works, etc.)

    As several commentators on the Sam Harris thread pointed out, Harris’ “ethics” are fairly pedestrian utilitarian ethics, albeit with a logically fallacious violation of the “is/ought” distinction. This kind of “naturalistic fallacy” is most common among utilitarians and others who advocate teleological ethics for, as pointed out above, the determination of whether a teleological ethic is valid depends on empirical observation. However, once again such empirical observation does not allow one to ground the ethic in an empirical description (as the definition of what is “good” is classically not empirically defined). Rather, empirical observation is valid only when it is used to determine if the effect of applying the ethic conforms with its intent (which is derived normatively, not descriptively).

  15. In comment #12 DLH wrote:

    “…per Allen’s now rejecting “1) there is/are no “transcendent ethical/moral law(s)”

    I had a little trouble parsing the double negative, but I think you are asserting that, by rejecting the proposition that there are no transcendent ethical/moral law(s), I am asserting that there are such laws, then yes, that is what I, and most other ethicists (including both deontologists and teleologists) are asserting, albeit in different ways.

  16. Re composer in comment #11:

    I’m not sure what you’re saying you reject. In the previous thread ( http://www.uncommondescent.com.....ent-351228 ) I stated that, whereas I formerly held the following beliefs, I have now completely rejected them:

    1) there is/are no “transcendent ethical/moral law(s)”;

    2) morality (if such a thing even exists) is entirely dependent on context (i.e. “relative” not “absolute”);

    3) that a thorough understanding of human biology and evolution can (indeed, should, or even must) provide us with everything we need to know to formulate a valid code of ethical/moral behavior; and

    4) that given the foregoing, the only valid ethical code would be one that is rooted in and ultimately derived from empirical reality, context-dependent/relativistic, and directly derived from our empirical knowledge of biology and evolution.

    Are you saying that, contrary to my current beliefs, you do not reject #1 and 2? That is, are you asserting that

    there is/are no “transcendent ethical/moral law(s)”

    and

    morality (if such a thing even exists) is entirely dependent on context (i.e. “relative” not “absolute”)?

    If so, then I agree with Clive, stephenB, William J. Murray, and most ethical philosophers, who argue (to my mind, convincingly) that this position amounts to pure ethical relativism, and as such virtually always results in lawlessness (indeed, by definition), totalitarianism (i.e. absolute majority rule), and great evil (as illustrated by the policies pursued by the Nazis, the Communists, and their ilk).

    Based on my understanding of how ethics are validly formulated and justified, all four of the beliefs which I formerly held are, in fact, not only not ethical in and of themselves, but their effects are actually anti-ethical/immoral, often in the extreme.

  17. Allen_MacNeill at 15 – Correct. I was trying to quote you exactly rather then rephrase it.

    On “utilitarianism”, could not H* claim that it was the greatest good for Aryans to get rid of all J* (“sub species”), and therefore that it was ethically justified?

    I note also differences in meanings between: <a href="http://www.wordswarm.net/dicti.....anscendent
    and Transcendentalism and transcendence

  18. Sorry for monopolizing so much of this thread, but if clarity is the ideal, then I believe that it’s necessary. To continue:

    Having laid out the differences between “is” and “ought” statements, descriptive and normative ethics, and the justification for deontological and teleological ethics, there is still the question of the “focus” (or “nexus”) of the justification. That is, whom should we look to for the underlying justification of our ethics? It seems to me that there are three possibilities:

    1) our individual selves

    2) groups/society

    3) supernatural lawgiver(s)/judge(s) (i.e. “God(s)”)

    It is possible to construct a two-by-three matrix in which the type of justification for the ethic (i.e. deontological versus teleological) is arrayed with the focus/nexus of that justification. This yields a matrix with six cells. Given the confines of this comment system, I cannot illustrate such a matrix, but I can list its components. They are (and here is where things will probably get controversial – please note that the second entry in each of the following is intended as an illustrative example, not an absolute/exhaustive stipulation):

    Deontological:
    Individual/self…existentialism
    Group/society…justice/equity
    God(s)…Judaism

    Teleological:
    Individual/self…Hobbesian/Randite egoism
    Group/society…utilitarianism
    God(s)…Christianity/Islam

    Rather than going into each of these in detail right now, I’d like to yield the floor and see how much of a wasps’ nest I’ve stirred up.

  19. Allen,

    Are you saying that, contrary to my current beliefs, you do not reject #1 and 2?

    Yes.

    I do, however, reject #3 and #4, both of which I am amazed that you ever held.

    ethical relativism . . . virtually always results in lawlessness (indeed, by definition), totalitarianism (i.e. absolute majority rule), and great evil (as illustrated by the policies pursued by the Nazis, the Communists, and their ilk).

    At least three things to note here. First, I dispute that relativism results in lawlessness. It may, but so may objectivism, where versions of objective morality strongly differ. Relativism could result in acknowledgement that laws are (and always were) human constructions. There is nothing about relativism that makes it necessarily more or less lawless than its opposite.

    Second, that’s a strange definition of totalitarianism you have there.

    Third, we have not avoided “great evil” of the types you mention despite the fact that almost all moral systems, including the ones you mention, have claimed absolute validity for themselves. Given that relativism has been a small minority position historically, and that the almost universal hegemony of objective moralities has not stopped the emergence of every sort of horrible behavior imaginable, it’s pretty silly to pin the blame on little ol’ relativism.

  20. DLH in #17:

    Thank you for the qualification of the term “transcendent”. In the sense that I and other ethicists use it, this term means “not depend upon nor restricted to a single/relative category”. That is, a “transcendent” ethic is one that does not depend upon a particular culture, society, ecosystem, etc., but “transcends” all such particular distinctions.

    As for the example of the Nazis, the historical record indicates that even they knew that their policies (i.e. systematic mass murder) were evil, but they justified them by asserting that they were ultimately justified by their outcomes. That is, according to Nazi doctrine, the mass murder of genetic defectives, gypsies, homosexuals, Jews, mthe mentally ill, etc. (not to mention the peoples of the territories that they militarily invaded and subjugated) was evil (although a small group at the very top did not believe this vis-a-vis the Jews), but that this “lesser” evil was justified because it would result in the establishment of a “new world order” with the Aryan race at its head.

    This viewpoint, of course, directly violates Kant’s “categorical imperative”, and also arguably violates the utilitarian principle of “greatest good for the greatest number”, and so I think your argument for ethical relativism in this case still fails.

  21. Re composer in comment #19:

    “Relativism could result in acknowledgement that laws are (and always were) human constructions.”

    Yes and no. The empirical fact that we often fall short of fulfilling an “absolute” ethical prescription has no bearing on its justification, although it may reflect somewhat badly on its validity (in the purely empirical sense, of course, in which “valid” means “supported by the evidence”, not “true by definition”).

    Furthermore, the empirical observation that our “absolute” (i.e. “transcendent”) ethics have evolved over time also does not invalidate their absolute/transcendent quality. To use one of stephenB’s arguments, we either “make up” our ethics or we “discover” them. I used to think the former, but now believe the latter.

    “There is nothing about relativism that makes it necessarily more or less lawless than its opposite.

    Except experience. What we observe is that in those groups in which ethics are purely “relative” (i.e. completely up to each individual or group to formulate and justify for themselves, without reference to others) virtually always suffer an eventual moral/ethical collapse. Experience generally indicates that, when ethics are reduced to a purely personal choice, the result is virtually always extreme egoism, to the point of undermining the shared norms of society. Since human life is virtually impossible without some kind of social norms to regulate our interactions (we are not badgers, after all), the undermining of social cohesion results in “the greatest evil for the greatest number”.

  22. This is beginning to feel like a monologue (*ugh*). Come on, people, fight back!

  23. Allen,

    What we observe is that in those groups in which ethics are purely “relative” (i.e. completely up to each individual or group to formulate and justify for themselves, without reference to others) virtually always suffer an eventual moral/ethical collapse.

    That confuses relativism with subjectivism. Relativism can and often does include reference to others. A relativistic ethic that considers the whole of humanity is still relativist.

    Also, what examples of relativism leading to collapse are you thinking of? Without examples, your claim is hollow.

    Finally, do animals have access to absolute moral law? Many mammals manage to behave pretty decently, at least to their own species. They even have coherent societies of a sort. Can they do that without the aid of moral law?

  24. Allen,

    Furthermore, the empirical observation that our “absolute” (i.e. “transcendent”) ethics have evolved over time also does not invalidate their absolute/transcendent quality.

    You’re simply affirming what’s under dispute. You’ve made no argument that I can see for the “absolute” or “transcendent” character of moral laws. Repeating the claim as a conclusion doesn’t make it so.

  25. Allen, Barry, etal this is a fabulous discussion. I regret that I have had time to only scan the posts. Much here to consider. Bravo…

  26. —composer to Allen: “That confuses relativism with subjectivism. Relativism can and often does include reference to others. A relativistic ethic that considers the whole of humanity is still relativist.”

    The best way to understand those terms is to compare them with their counterparts, as follows:

    Relative vs. Absolute,

    Subjective vs. Objective.

    Thus relativistic ethic implies a code that does not apply to all people, at all times, and in all places, meaning that it is “relative” to the situation, or culture, or conditions. The absolute ethic implies exactly what it states—a universal moral law that admits of no exceptions.

    Subjectivist ethics places the emphasis not so much on the comprehensively binding nature of the code, as does absolutism, but rather its source, namely the individual person, who, as the subjectivist would have it, can socially construct or make up a code that fits his preferences, as opposed to objectivist ethics, which places the emphasis outside the individual, meaning that the person is morally obliged to conform to the code in spite of his preferences.

  27. StephenB, well said.

  28. Indeed, thank you stephenB. You have helped make this clear in a way that I haven’t seen done elsewhere.

    That said, I would also like to make a distinction between “relative” and “context dependent”. What I meant by “relative” with reference to ethics is what stephenB has defined as “subjectivist”. That is, a “subjectivist” ethics essentially reduces to personal predilection, or (to paraphrase what stephenB wrote) a subjectivist…can formulate an ethical code that fits her/his preferences (or “their” preferences, if the focus of the ethic is the group, rather than the individual – see my matrix in comment #18, above). Under such conditions, s/he/they may violate the deontological principle of “universalizability” – that is, s/he/they can “justify” an ethic that uses others as means to their own ends, which (as history clearly shows us) usually leads to evil outcomes to a greater or lesser extent.

    And yes, I have noticed that this is an essentially teleological argument, in that it is validated empirically, rather than justified ethically. To me, it seems clear that no fully applicable system of ethics can be solely deontological nor teleological. Rather, it seems to me that, to be most widely applicable, an ethical system must be both.

    Nor do I think that this “combination” of deontological and teleological ethics necessarily entails a contradiction in terms. On the contrary, I think that there is a necessary hierarchy of justification, in which any ethic must first be deontologically justified (i.e. it cannot entail any internal logical contradictions), but then must also be justified with reference to its intended (and also actual) effects.

  29. Oops, forgot to distinguish between “relativist” and “context dependent”. Given the previous comment, I would revise this by saying that I think it is possible to distinguish between “subjectivist” and “context dependent” ethical prescriptions. I have already explained what I mean by the former. By the latter (i.e. “context dependent”) ethical prescriptions, I mean ethical prescriptions which, although they are still either deontological or teleological, are not “absolute” in the sense that they apply in absolutely every situation.

    For example, a classical Kantian ethical prescription is never to lie. Most strict interpreters of Kant assert that this means that it is never morally justifiable to lie, regardless of circumstances.
    However, one can easily imagine cases (indeed, there have been historical examples of cases) in which this is clearly not justifiable.

    Consider the people who hid Anne Frank’s family from the Nazis. If they had been questioned by the Gestapo as to the whereabouts of the Franks, a strict Kantian would say that they could not lie to the Gestapo and conceal the Franks. Doesn’t this violate the “absolute” nature of Kant’s prohibition against lying?

    Not necessarily; Kant’s “highest” ethical “absolute” is to never use others as a means to one’s own ends. In the case of lying to the Gestapo, the family concealing the Franks could reveal them to the Nazis, but in doing so they would be using the Franks as a means to their own ends (i.e. to prevent themselves from suffering the same immoral outcome to which they would expose the Franks by revealing their location). Put another way, if the family concealing the Franks were put in the same position as the Franks, they certainly would not find revealing their location to the Gestapo to be justified. Ergo, Kant’s prohibition against lying is context-dependent: it depends on the influence of the context on the outcome of the ethical justification for the prescribed actions.

  30. I haven’t raised anyone’s ire yet, so let me whack the wasp nest again:

    Notice that neither of the major ethical systems presented so far necessarily requires that a supernatural judge/lawgiver assert what is good or bad, right or wrong. On the contrary, both deontological ethics and teleological ethics can be formulated in such a way as to not require that a supernatural agent formulate or assert them. Indeed, to make an assertion to the contrary is to once again fall prey to the euthyphro dilemma, according to which one may ask “Is something good (i.e.ethical) because God says so, or does God say so because it is good?”

  31. And, just for fun, rather than simply reiterate the standard defenses against the euthyphro dilemma, it might be interesting to see if light can be thrown on this question by considering the relationship between the euthyphro dilemma and the logical argument that a whole cannot be equated to any one of its parts.

    This argument is similar to the one made by G. E. Moore in defense of his assertion that “good” is not definable in terms of anything else, but rather exists as a “primary” (i.e. non-derived) quality. It might also be interesting to consider the implications of Moore’s argument for the distinction between deontological and teleological ethics.

    Or not, your choice…

  32. Oh dear, nobody is commenting except me. Another whack at the wasp nest:

    In the context of the foregoing presentation, I think it is reasonable to assert that, despite what Franz deWaal, Sam Harris, E. O. Wilson, and many others currently think, applying what we have observed about the behavior of non-human primates cannot help us in the slightest to formulate our ethics, it can only give us some sense of how easy (or difficult) living according to the ethics we may formulate might be.

  33. Neither utilitarian ethics nor Kantian deontological ethics can offer a non-circular answer to the question why one should embrace either of these systems rather than embrace egoism or even nihilism. The decision to be a utilitarian or a Kantian is purely arbitrary and thus ultimately subjective.

    In other words, once one has abandoned a transcendent, objective moral authority one is left only with some variety of subjectivism, and if one is a subjectivist one has no grounds for making any meaningful moral judgment of the conduct of others and no grounds for thinking there are any moral obligations other than what one may arbitrarily impose upon oneself.

  34. Allen [30]:

    Notice that neither of the major ethical systems presented so far necessarily requires that a supernatural judge/lawgiver assert what is good or bad, right or wrong.

    There’s a whole swirl of issues involved when it comes to ethics/morality.

    If, for example, you address the issue of where is God in all of this, you have already presupposed ‘consciousness’. The more fundamental question is this: whence consciousness? (Which, of course, gets us right back to the materialist/Creation divide: that is, are material forces alone sufficient in explaining consciousness?)

  35. Re Dick in comment #33:

    Isn’t it the case that your assertion that “neither utilitarian ethics nor Kantian deontological ethics can offer a non-circular answer to the question why one should embrace either of these systems rather than embrace egoism or even nihilism….” applies to every system of ethics, including those justified with reference to a supernatural judge/lawgiver? Does the assertion that one’s ethics come from God necessarily mean that one will therefore behave ethically?

    BTW, I thought is was reasonably clear that transcendent ethical authorities were precisely what is meant by ethical systems that are justified by something else besides personal or group preference. Deontological ethical systems seem to me to be “transcendent” by definition, in that they “transcend” personal or group preferences. And, since “subjective” refers to essentially the same concept, deontological ethics are also “objective”, in that they do not depend upon personal or group opinions, but rather on “objective” judgments.

    Would you disagree, and if so, what words would you like to use instead of “transcendent” and “objective” when referring to the criteria by which deontological ethics are justified?

  36. PaV in comment #34:

    I believe that you are absolutely right: that is, it seems clear to me that, although consciousness apparently requires a material medium, it cannot be “reduced” to that substrate. McLuhan was wrong, the medium is not the message, at least in the case of meaningful information (which is what consciousness is as far as I can tell).

    Ergo, it seems quite clear that consciousness makes ethics possible. That is, if we could not alter our behavior as the result of our conscious thoughts, then ethics would be entirely meaningless. Yes, one could construct an automaton that performed all of those behaviors we refer to when we think of ethical behavior, but if those behaviors were entirely “hard-wired” (that is, the result of entirely unalterable circuits, or “information linkages”), then it wouldn’t qualify for what we mean when we say “ethical behavior”.

    To be as concise as possible, ethics aren’t “in” the behaviors, they’re “in” the intentions that motivate them. To locate the “ultimate” source of ethics, therefore, one must identify the ultimate source of our motivations, which seems to be our consciousness.

    But please, argue with me, I’m not quite certain about the foregoing…

  37. However, it is not clear to me that consciousness necessarily requires the intervention of a supernatural agent for its origin. I would really appreciate arguments both for and against this proposition, so that we all might gain some clarity on this point.

  38. Allen wrote:

    Consider the people who hid Anne Frank’s family from the Nazis. If they had been questioned by the Gestapo as to the whereabouts of the Franks, a strict Kantian would say that they could not lie to the Gestapo and conceal the Franks. Doesn’t this violate the “absolute” nature of Kant’s prohibition against lying?

    Not necessarily; Kant’s “highest” ethical “absolute” is to never use others as a means to one’s own ends. In the case of lying to the Gestapo, the family concealing the Franks could reveal them to the Nazis, but in doing so they would be using the Franks as a means to their own ends (i.e. to prevent themselves from suffering the same immoral outcome to which they would expose the Franks by revealing their location).

    Allen,

    It’s true that the family would be in violation of Kantian ethics if they chose to betray the Franks in order to save their own skins. However, that is not the only possible motivation for such an action. If they were true Kantians, they would betray the Franks not out of self-interest, but simply because they regard lying as immoral.

    The fact that the consequences would be dire for the Franks would not sway a Kantian.

    Such an utter disregard for consequences — along with Kant’s insistence that acts performed out of sympathy do not qualify as morally good — makes it impossible for me to be a Kantian.

  39. Allen, interesting comments all. OK, as a tribute to this special post which has been established in your honor, I’ll tug away just a little.

    On the matter of lying and the problem of creating undue harm with the truth, I submit that the guiding principle is this: According to the natural moral law and the inherent dignity of the human person, ethical communication requires that the sender of a message is obliged always to speak the truth as long as the hearer of the message is entitled to the truth, which is almost always the case. The example stated above represents one of those few instances in which the receiver of the message, the Nazi offender, is, most assuredly, not entitled to the truth. This formula, while not too distant from Kant’s idea is, in my judgment, superior because it doesn’t force the decision maker to wade through a discursive reasoning process to arrive at the obviously moral conclusion—and clearly it doesn’t relativize or subjectivize the universal moral code.

    With respect to the euthyphro dilemma, I suspect that you already know that I come down solidly on the side that God commands it because it is good. If a thing is good solely because God commands it, God’s will is put at variance with his nature, opening the door to Islam’s doctrine of abrogation, which finds God literally changing his mind about what is good and, therefore, compromising both his omnipotence and his omniscience.

  40. FWIW, consciousness doesn’t require agent intervention. Rather, it is immersed in agency.

    We require air to live, yet our thoughts are separate from that air. So too, it seems our being, our consciousness depends on God, yet it has separate identity from Him.

    Why does it depend on God? It seems no matter how you approach the ultimate questions of the origin of life or the universe, at the end of the day, the logic is inescapable: the substance of intelligence resides in that which gives force and energy their characteristics and tendency to interact.

  41. Allen (#35) asks: “Does the assertion that one’s ethics come from God necessarily mean that one will therefore behave ethically?”

    No, of course not, even if God exists we might never do, or even know, what is right. But I don’t think that’s the point. The point is that only if there is a God who somehow weaves moral truth into the fabric of creation can morality be something more meaningful than just a matter of individual taste or preference. That is, there’s no non-arbitrary basis either for moral judgment or moral obligation unless there is a moral authority which transcends human beings.

    Allen goes on to say that: “Deontological ethical systems seem to me to be “transcendent” by definition, in that they “transcend” personal or group preferences.”

    If by “group” Allen means the entire human race, then I agree with him, but if he simply means one’s peers or one’s social or cultural unit then I think the word is being defined too restrictively.

    An adequate moral authority must “transcend” humanity otherwise any morality based on it devolves into some form of subjectivism.

    Finally, I want to dissent from this assertion: deontological ethics are also “objective”, in that they do not depend upon personal or group opinions, but rather on “objective” judgments.

    I disagree with this for two reasons: First, the decision to embrace deontological ethics is purely subjective. There’s no objective reason one can give for doing so. There’s no objective criterion by which we can determine the superiority of duty ethics over utilitarianism or egoism.

    Second, once one does accept, say, the Categorical Imperative the criteria for applying it are themselves subjective, at least the reversibility criterion is.

    Kant tells us that an act satisfies the C.I. if it is an act which we would be willing to have done to ourselves, but whether one would be so willing is contingent upon one’s own subjective preferences and predilections.

    For instance, I might want someone to pull the plug on me if I were in an irreversible coma, but someone else might not want the plug pulled on them. So, the right thing to do, if I’m a Kantian and in the position of deciding for someone else whether to terminate their life, is to decide on the basis of what I would want done to me.

    There’s nothing objective about that.

  42. Allen (#18):

    Just a few quick questions.

    1. I notice that you classified the religious ethic of Judaism as deontological, and that of Christianity as teleological. Why?

    2. I didn’t see Aristotle in your matrix. Would you classify him as deontological or teleological? In this connection, I’d like to quote from an essay by Bill Kilcullen of Macquarie University, on Aristotle’s Ethics (see http://www.humanities.mq.edu.a.....08.html#11 ):

    9. Teleology

    Aristotle’s ethics is often described as ‘teleological’, a description justified by his constant references to the end, the mark, the good, etc. However, in modern ethical theory “teleological” usually means “consequentialist”, and Aristotle’s ethics is not consequentialist. Consequentialism is the doctrine that the goodness or badness of an action always derives entirely from the goodness or badness of its consequences, so that no action is good or bad intrinsically. The best-known species of consequentialism is Utilitarianism, which holds, roughly, ‘that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness’ (J.S. Mill Utilitarianism (B1602.A2 vol. 10), p. 210). Similarly Aristotle says that happiness is something ‘we choose always for itself and never for the sake of something else… but we choose [other things] for the sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be made happy’ (1097 b1-5); happiness is the ‘end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake, everything else being desired for the sake of this’ (1094 a18). This sounds like Utilitarianism. But there is a vital difference. Mill continues in the passage just quoted, ‘By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain’ (p. 210), whereas Aristotle says, ‘We must class happiness as an activity… and if some activities are… desirable for the sake of something else ['production'], while others are so in themselves, evidently happiness must be placed among those desirable in themselves, not among those desirable for the sake of something else… And of this nature virtuous actions are thought to be’ (1176 b1-8). So when Aristotle says that some activities are desired as means to happiness, he means as means to other activities; the goodness of the consequences or products of such actions derives from the intrinsic goodness of the activities which they facilitate: in his view only actions can be good intrinsically, which is the opposite of consequentialism.

    See B. H. Baumrin, Aristotle’s Ethical Intuitionism’, The New Scholasticism, 42 (1968), pp.1-17. (B1.N4)

    What is your take on Aristotle?

  43. Allen says: “Notice that neither of the major ethical systems presented so far necessarily requires that a supernatural judge/lawgiver assert what is good or bad, right or wrong. On the contrary, both deontological ethics and teleological ethics can be formulated in such a way as to not require that a supernatural agent formulate or assert them. Indeed, to make an assertion to the contrary is to once again fall prey to the euthyphro dilemma, according to which one may ask “Is something good (i.e.ethical) because God says so, or does God say so because it is good?”

    I think I disagree about the necessity of a supernatural agent if only because if there is a moral law it seems more reasonable that there would be a moral lawgiver than not. Else how to explain the odd existence of this law? Be that as it may, if there is no supernatural agent or, to put it another way, no ultimate reckoning or accounting, then the moral law would really have no “force” anyway. If I didn’t have to pay attention to it, then most probably I wouldn’t. Almost certainly I wouldn’t. OK, I definitely wouldn’t. But there will be an accounting and so I try to, sometimes, at least. Bearing in mind, from a Christian theology point of view that being a good Christian is a different thing from becoming a Christian. In the latter case, all the good deeds in the world aren’t enough. Thanks, Jesus, for taking care of that for us.

    Regarding the Euthyphro dilemma I believe there is a third possibility and that this is the correct answer. What is right is a manifestation of God’s character. Something is not right because He says so or because He recognizes it but because that is how He IS. The moral law is an expression of his character.

  44. Allen, Barry, etc.,

    Our Founding Fathers were obviously well read… they rejected humanism. Why?

    If our rights are endowed by mankind, then each generation of leaders will give different rights to those they govern. We see this struggle of balance with every society.

    However,
    If our rights are endowed by a Creator, then each generation of leaders can be measured against the Creator. This is one reason why our Founding Fathers insisted on moral teachings directly from the Bible in the schools. They knew that w/o these teachings the fragiel balance would be lost and liberty lost. That governement would take place of G_d.

    The super-natural function of the Creator therefore is as an unchanging immutable force. The markers written in stone ;-)

    Determining whether our minds can eventually give rise to the same laws as a supernatural being is somewhat of a wild goose chase? That is, if in Judeo-Christian beliefs we are made in Elohym’s image, eventually we “discover” these immutable laws fundamental not just to survival, but to prosperity and opportunity for all.

    Love = Shall not murder
    Love = Shall not lie
    Love = Shall not commit adultery
    Love = Shall Love He that created you

    The 10 Commandments have actions towards the Creator and domestic actions among family and friends. That is why Christ could simplify to just two fundamental Loves.

    These “Laws” are like fundamental structure of Top Down structured programming code. You have the internal and external rules. Breaking them, creates glitches that eventually spirals into chaotic loops until the “Code” is found and restored in base registers. Or, rebooted.

    We live in a Coded world, whether we like it or not. Sin or no sin.

    It is not an accident that in the beginning of Genesis, Elohym “speaks” or that in John, Yeshua is the Logos.

    It is a simple message.

    Sin corrupts the Word/Code, corrupting the message until it is substantially lost. A reboot then takes place. So that the Word can begin again.

    The Bible is a great study of this application over and over again.

    It is no accident that Moses is all over Washington DC as a message from our Founding Fathers. For a reason. Forget history, become enslaved and perish.

  45. 45

    I hestitate to jump in to such esteemed company, but the discussion above has been one of the most interesting discussions I’ve read in a long time, so I just wanted to say in response to:

    Allen_MacNeill (post #37) wrote:
    >> ethics aren’t “in” the behaviors, they’re “in” the intentions that motivate them

    … Allen … I think this is spot on. Behaviours can end up being wrong but yet be motivated by right intentions, and vice-versa. In employment situations, where I have had staff working for me, I have always instructed them:

    “Try to do the right thing; even if the outcome is bad, if your intent was good, I will back you up.”

    Whilst the law doesn’t always recognise intentions, nevertheless we as humans usually do acknowledge their importance and we make allowances when we:

    (1) reward (or refuse to punish) good intent that nevertheless resulted in bad behaviours/outcomes; or
    (2) punish (or criticise) bad intent, despite it producing apparently good behaviours/outcomes

    Anyway, thanks all for a really informative discussion!

  46. tgpeeler, I am glad you put into words what I was sensing I already knew was correct:

    “The moral law (love) is an expression of his (God’s) character.”
    http://www.uncommondescent.com.....ent-351312

    A stunning confirmation to your insight is found in the profound changes wrought in peoples lives after a encounter with “The Being Of Light” in their Near Death Experiences (NDEs). These videos document a few cases of these startling transformastions starting at the 3:55 minute mark of this video:

    The Day I Died – 5/6
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NdNXSdYRU_U

    The Day I Died – 6/6
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1lP0DO5CQI

    It should also be noted that “The Being Of Light” witnessed in NDE’s also explains the mystery of how the image formed on the Shroud of Turin in a very complete way both scientifically and philosophically;

    “It is not a continuum or spherical-front radiation that made the image, as visible or UV light. It is not the X-ray radiation that obeys the one over R squared law that we are so accustomed to in medicine. It is more unique. It is suggested that the image was formed when a high-energy particle struck the fiber and released radiation within the fiber at a speed greater that the local speed of light. Since the fiber acts as a light pipe, this energy moved out through the fiber until it encountered an optical discontinuity, then it slowed to the local speed of light and dispersed. The fact that the pixels don’t fluoresce suggests that the conversion to their now brittle dehydrated state occurred instantly and completely so no partial products remain to be activated by the ultraviolet light. This suggests a quantum event where a finite amount of energy transferred abruptly. The fact that there are images front and back suggests the radiating particles were released along the gravity vector. The radiation pressure may also help explain why the blood was “lifted cleanly” from the body as it transformed to a resurrected state.”
    http://www.shroudstory.com/natural.htm

    It should also be noted: All foreign, non-Judeo-Christian culture, NDE studies I have looked at have a extreme rarity of encounters with “The Being Of Light” and tend to be very unpleasant NDE’s. The following study was shocking for what was found in some non-Judeo-Christian NDE’s:

    Near-Death Experiences in Thailand – Todd Murphy:
    Excerpt:The Light seems to be absent in Thai NDEs. So is the profound positive affect found in so many Western NDEs. The most common affect in our collection is negative. Unlike the negative affect in so many Western NDEs (cf. Greyson & Bush, 1992), that found in Thai NDEs (in all but case #11) has two recognizable causes. The first is fear of ‘going’. The second is horror and fear of hell. It is worth noting that although half of our collection include seeing hell (cases 2,6,7,9,10) and being forced to witness horrific tortures, not one includes the NDEer having been subjected to these torments themselves. http://www.shaktitechnology.com/thaindes.htm

    Thus tgpeeler, your insights of Moral law being a “result” of God’s own character are corroborated to fairly significant degree.

  47. further note:

    this “unification” between what is in essence the “infinite world of Quantum Mechanics” and the “finite world of the space-time of General Relativity” seems to be directly related to what Jesus apparently joined together with His resurrection, i.e. related to the unification of infinite God with finite man:

    The Center Of The Universe Is Life (General Relativity – Quantum Mechanics and The Shroud)- video
    http://www.metacafe.com/watch/3993426/

    The End Of Christianity – Finding a Good God in an Evil World – Pg.31 – William Dembski
    Excerpt: “In mathematics there are two ways to go to infinity. One is to grow large without measure. The other is to form a fraction in which the denominator goes to zero. The Cross is a path of humility in which the infinite God becomes finite and then contracts to zero, only to resurrect and thereby unite a finite humanity within a newfound infinity.” http://www.designinference.com.....of_xty.pdf

  48. StephenB @38

    …, ethical communication requires that the sender of a message is obliged always to speak the truth as long as the hearer of the message is entitled to the truth, which is almost always the case. The example stated above represents one of those few instances in which the receiver of the message, the Nazi offender, is, most assuredly, not entitled to the truth.

    My mother’s family were refugees from 1941 and so when the war ended, they returned to Yugoslavia where Tito put them into a concentration camp because they were ethnic Germans. There was one very brutal guard that everyone was afraid of. One day, their regular guard couldn’t take them out on their work detail so this guy took them instead. The threats started as they left and continued until they went over a small hill and then he got quiet. They worked until midday and then he said, relax, take it easy. When they got back to within sight of the camp, he got ugly again.
    It was one of their nicest days in a very bad number of years.
    This guard was entitled to the truth but he couldn’t display that so that someone like StephenB would judge him favourably.

    Both of my parents had some very horrible stories, but always from the least likely place, some act of kindness.

    All of these stories show, that none of us is in a position to judge, ever.

    Any one person’s moral code is unique and true only in context to that person and the way they are allowed to relate to the world.

  49. Re stephenB in comment #38:

    Your first paragraph is an interesting resolution to Kant’s “dissembling dilemma”:

    “…the sender of a message is obliged always to speak the truth as long as the hearer of the message is entitled to the truth, which is almost always the case.”

    Close, but not quite close enough, IMHO. The alternative resolution to the dilemma is the one I suggested: that the principle of “reciprocity” prohibits one from telling the truth when one would not “will” that someone else tell the truth in such a way as to do evil to oneself.

    But, that said, I think that it is possible to reconcile your solution with the “reciprocity” solution by pointing out that “being entitled to the truth” can be semantically construed to mean “‘entitled’ by virtue of the principle of reciprocity; one would be ‘entitled’ to the truth if one were willing to put oneself in the same position as the person faced with the requirement to tell the truth”, which brings us back around to the situation I exemplified in the case of the Frank family and the people who concealed them from the Nazis.

    BTW, Kant himself refused to give examples for his maxims, and asserted that to do so necessarily weakened them. He believed that all examples were mere approximations of the “universality” of his maxims, and were therefore necessarily false at some level (note the similarity of his argument to Plato’s argument for the reality of the eidos).

  50. In comment #38 stephenB also wrote:

    “…I come down solidly on the side that God commands it because it is good. If a thing is good solely because God commands it, God’s will is put at variance with his nature, opening the door to Islam’s doctrine of abrogation, which finds God literally changing his mind about what is good and, therefore, compromising both his omnipotence and his omniscience.”

    Yes, stephen, we have had this discussion before, in previous threads. As I have pointed out in those discussions, it seems to me that your argument is essentially definitional (i.e. semantic) That is, by defining God’s essential nature as “good”, one locates the nature of goodness a priori and then equates God’s nature with it, rather than the other way around. Doing so, of course, simply shifts one to the other horn of the dilemma, which (as Socrates implied, but did not explicitly assert) is the one that is logically more compelling.

    Also, equating God with goodness seems to me to run afoul of the basic logical principle that a whole (i.e. God) cannot be equated with one of its properties (i.e. “parts”). Indeed, this is one of my problems with the traditional conception of the Abrahamic deity being equated with four qualities: omnibenevolence, omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience. It seems to me that the concept of God is necessarily unitary (the Trinity notwithstanding), at least with regard to His qualities. That is, the concept of the Trinity is not a doctrine of “qualities”, as such would necessarily imply that the removal of one or more of God’s “persons” (i.e. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) would somehow subtract from God’s overall quality, and this seems contradictory to God’s “omni-ness”.

    For example, if God genuinely is a Trinity, then how does one reconcile this with the temporal appearance of the Son after quite a bit of time had passed since the creation? Yes, one can reconcile this by asserting that all three “persons” of the deity have always existed, but then that immediately raises the question “Why did God delay the Incarnation for so long?”

    I hope it is clear from the foregoing that I am not clear how to resolve all of these issues. The Friends (Quakers) have a concept called “clearness” in which a Meeting (or usually some subset thereof) works on coming to clarity. To me, that’s what this discussion is for, and so I am very grateful to all of those who are willing to think calmly and carefully about these issues.

    In line with this sentiment, I find it very interesting that this thread seems to be relatively free of the usual rancor here, a fact about which I am also very grateful (yes, although I love a good argument, I don’t really enjoy fighting). Any hypotheses as to why this might be the case?

  51. Re Oramus in comment #39:

    An interesting hypothesis that might resolve this question is the idea that the quality of reality that we refer to with the role-name “God” is consciousness iself. That is, that process we perceive as consciousness is the operation of that Whom we refer to as “God”, working within us.

    And not just within us; around us as well. Gregory Bateson captured this idea in his penultimate book, Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity:

    “Insofar as we are a mental process, to that same extent we must expect that natural world to show similar characteristics of mentality.”

    Just a thought…

  52. In comment #40 Dick wrote:

    “If by “group” Allen means the entire human race, then I agree with him”

    Yes, this is precisely what I mean, but not in quite the sense I suspect Dick intended. That is, one can define groups as being subsets of larger groups, but if there is something that these subsets have in common (e.g. consciousness), then the only limit to the process of “expanding the boundaries of the group” is the totality of all entities that share the characteristics of all of the subsidiary groups, on down to each individual of which those groups are composed.

    In other words, the “universal” ethical principles formulated (or, if you prefer, “discovered”) by Kant apply to all conscious entities that are capable of comprehending them (and, of course, acting according to the principles contained therein).

  53. Allen:

    I’m very pressed for time; but quickly.

    I think everyone would agree that without consciousness, the use of reason would be either (1) not possible, or (2) if possible, it would exist without ‘intent’. And, of course without intent, there is no morality.

    So, with consciousness comes reason; that is, reason is a function (relies upon) consciousness.

    Then I would say that the Kantian imperative itself relies on reason. Not to get into a contest of definitions, but it is, in the end, reason that tells us what a “means” is and what an “end” is. Further, it is the use of reason that would determine the conditions under which something (a person) is being used as a means or as an end. Hence, it is as though Kant is postulating a categorical imperative by universalizing the functions (critical functions) of Reason (caps intended). It is in a way a reification of Reason.

    Finally, to get at whether ‘ethics’ and ‘norms’ come from God, it seems to me that this question inevitably gets caught up with the question of where does reason come from and where does conscience come from. And it does so in the sense that as we speak (write) all participants are involved in this question via the use of our reason as the path of discovering the fount of ethics and morals. I would again state that Thomas speaks of sinteresis, a kind of intuition that allows us to grasp first principles, principles from which an ethics or a morality are then constructed using the human faculty of reason. It then seems to me that this ‘intuition’ seems to enter into the world of ideas (in the Platonic sense), and it is here that we should: (1) determine if this, sinteresis, is indeed the process by which a morality begins to be constructed, and (2) if this ‘world of ideas’ is Divine in origin; that is, it subsists in God himself. This is the rub as I see it.

  54. In comment #40 Dick also wrote:

    “…the decision to embrace deontological ethics is purely subjective.”

    It seems to me that this is the case for any ethic, regardless of its source. Indeed, the existence of an ethic does not compel anyone to either adopt it nor to act in accordance with its principles. This requires that one choose to do so. Everything I understand about ethics implies that this is necessarily the case: that ethics are< by definition, chosen. If one has no choice but to believe or do something, then doing so does not involve ethics at all, but is rather a compulsion.

  55. In comment #41 vjtorley wrote:

    “…you classified the religious ethic of Judaism as deontological, and that of Christianity as teleological. Why?”

    First, let me reiterate that I’m not asserting either of these, I’m merely suggesting that some might interpret them this way.

    That said, it is my understanding (having discussed this with many observant Jews, not being Jewish myself) that the deity of the Tanakh (what Christians refer to as the “Old Testament“) asserts His ethical principles (for example, in Leviticus and Deuteronomy) without any reference to either reward or punishment. Reward and punishment are inherently teleological concepts: one does what one is supposed to do in order to gain some reward, and one avoids doing other things in order to avoid punishment.

    To state it most concisely, consider the commentary of Rabbi Hillel. When asked to sum up the Torah, he stated:

    “Do not do unto others that which would be hateful if done to yourself. All the rest is commentary.”

    This seems to me to be a deontological, not a teleological statement.

    As for Christianity, it seems to me that it incorporates both deontological and teleological elements. The “Golden Rule”, like Rabbi Hillel’s aphorism, is clearly deontological. However, the doctrines of eternal reward (i.e. in Heaven) and eternal punishment (i.e. in Hell) are just as clearly teleological.

    As for your question about Aristotle, I learned in my studies of ethics that Aristotle’s ethics were essentially deontological, albeit with some teleological implications. It also seems to me that Aristotle’s logic, being virtually entirely deductive, also points to deontology in the domain of ethics. So, I agree with your assertion to that effect.

  56. Allen this statement of yours caught my eye:

    “equating God with goodness seems to me to run afoul of the basic logical principle that a whole (i.e. God) cannot be equated with one of its properties (i.e. “parts”).”

    Clearly the inference of “goodness” to God is not “afoul” of any basic logical principle” for a Theist is not merely saying God is “only” good but instead is saying that God’s perfect and loving character is the “source” from which all goodness derives. To arrive at the conclusion from our perspective, i.e. that goodness comes from God, is a matter of simply admitting/accepting the basic foundational truth that the transcendent quality of goodness does indeed exist in reality, and therefore since it does in fact exist it is clearly logical that the transcendent effect we witness in reality must have a ultimate transcendent “uncaused cause” as a primary source from which it is derived.

    Does God Exist? – Finding a Good God in an Evil World – video
    http://www.metacafe.com/watch/4007708

    The materialist objection that goodness emerges from a material basis is absurd on its face for it imparts a transcendent property to the material that it does not possess, (material knows not whether it is good or evil or anything else for that matter) nor is it capable of “emerging” from it since it is a transcendent judgment that is bestowed upon the material from a mind, we, our minds, deem whether or not we are pleased with material. As well it is beyond any reasonable argument any longer for all the material in the universe had a transcendent origin in the first place. Quantum mechanics only solidifies these observations by concretely placing consciousness as primary to material in the double slit quantum eraser.

  57. Allen,

    It seems to me that you are defining the words transcendent and relative somewhat oddly. Your version of transcendent seems to mean merely universal, that is, applying everywhere by the one who chooses the ethic in question. Others here are using transcendent to refer to the source of the ethical rule: that is, they would say that the moral law precedes human beings. Your use of transcendent is weak enough that even I can buy it, because such transcendence is no transcendence at all.

    Your use of relative to mean subjective is equally troubling for relativists like myself, but for different reasons.

  58. In comment #42, tgpeeler wrote:

    “…if there is a moral law it seems more reasonable that there would be a moral lawgiver than not. Else how to explain the odd existence of this law?”

    I disagree. Yes, in our limited human experience, the existence of laws require a lawgiver, but this does not necessarily entail the same conclusion when one is referring to something outside of (i.e. something that “transcends”) our limited human experience.

    For example, it might be the case that the logic that provides the framework for both science and ethics is an entirely intrinsic quality of reality in the universe, requiring no “supernatural” cause. Yes, to anticipate stephenB’s rejoinder, I do indeed accept the principle of cause, and understand that this acceptance entails that the universe itself has a cause.

    However, it also seems to me that neither the “identity” nor the “operation” of that “original cause” are accessible or explainable via our limited human abilities. That is, it seems to me that explaining the existence of logic via logical argument itself necessarily entails a circular argument: logic cannot logically explain its own existence.

    However, as I have stated before, when one reaches the kind of impasse represented by the origin of logic (and our universe, and consciousness, all of which may be the same “thing”, given Bateson’s conjecture), to me it seems that the only warranted position is silence. To assert either the existence or non-existence of a source for these things seems to be to be an axiomatic assertion, rather than a warranted conclusion.

  59. Re PaV in comment #51:

    I can find nothing in your comment with which to disagree. Semantic quibbles yes, but they don’t signify…

  60. In comment #54 bornagain77 wrote:

    “The materialist objection that goodness emerges from a material basis is absurd on its face…”

    I completely agree, and I hope it is clear that I have not made any such assertion. On the contrary, I hope it is clear from the foregoing that it is my position that “good” is an a priori unconditional “primary” quality, not reducible to anything else. This was G. E. Moore’s position in Principia Ethica, it was essentially Kant’s position in his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, it was also essentially Rawl’s position in A Theory of Justice, and is an integral, non-reducible element of teleological ethics as well (regardless of “focus”).

  61. Re composer in comment #55:

    Perhaps it would help if I invoke a hierarchy of cause, with each “higher” level being “transcendent” of the level below it. If the universe is all there is (an axiomatic assertion of those committed to the position that what we can empirically observe or infer is all we can speak about with confidence), then something (e.g. logic) that pertains to the highest level (i.e. the universe itself) is all we can talk about, and therefore “transcends” everything else (i.e. everything else below it).

  62. Please note that the position that I have outlined in comment #59 is not necessarily my position. However, I do believe that it is the position of most people whose worldview is that of the modern sciences. Which, of course, gets us back to the “competing worldviews” thread; BTDT…

  63. And now, it is almost time for me to go to office hours. Please, of the sake of clarity, if there is anything in the foregoing with which you take issue, do so. That way – the way of honest, open, and principled argument – is the way to clarity…

    …not agreement, except for the ground rules of debate. Clarity is my goal, and if that means some disagree with me, then so be it.

  64. Allen [59], it might help some people, but it doesn’t helpl me at all. Doesn’t that view suggest that any ethic with internal logical coherence is “transcendent”? Given that any logic depends on assumptions, any logical ethic that works is equally transcendent, unless I’ve missed something.

    How is the transcendence you are trying to save not a completely hollow version?

    Also, I do not think what you have described “is the position of most people whose worldview is that of the modern sciences.” For one thing, what you have described puts rationalism over empiricism. It might be the position of most analytic philosophers. . . .

  65. Allen,

    Thank you for your response in #53. I can see where you’re coming from now.

    I’d just like to make a few brief comments about what you wrote in #48.

    Also, equating God with goodness seems to me to run afoul of the basic logical principle that a whole (i.e. God) cannot be equated with one of its properties (i.e. “parts”).

    Your underlying assumption here is that goodness is a property of God. I’d be prepared to say that it’s an attribute, but I think it’s a mistake to call it a property. Jeffrey Brower has recently written an excellent paper called Making Sense of Divine Simplicity which offers a much more sensible interpretation of the traditional doctrine that God is altogether simple and without parts or properties. Brower critiques the more common philosophical defenses of the doctrine of divine simplicity, and argues that they collapse into incoherence, as they require God to be identical with some property. Brower disagrees with this analysis, and argues that the doctrine of divine simplicity requires nothing more than the following:

    (DS): If an intrinsic predication of the form “God is F” is true, then God’s F-ness exists and is identical with God.

    Brower’s interpretation of the doctrine employs the notion of a truthmaker, which he analyzes as follows:

    My own defense of simplicity is designed to pick up where these others leave off. It employs an alternative account of predication, one that makes crucial use of the notion of a truthmaker:

    (TA): If an intrinsic predication of the form “a is F” is true, then a’s F-ness exists, where
    this entity is to be understood as the truthmaker for “a is F”.

    Interpreted in light of (TA), the doctrine of divine simplicity avoids the problems associated with the property interpretation. For so interpreted, the doctrine entails that God is identical with each of the truthmakers for the true (intrinsic) predications that can be made about him – indeed, that God himself is the truthmaker for each of these predications. But unlike the claim that God is a property, these claims seem perfectly coherent (at least on the assumption that truthmaker theory is itself coherent).

    So for instance, the sentences “God is good” and “God is intelligent” can both be true, because they both have the same truthmaker: God. Ditto for sentences like: “God is omnibenevolent,” “God is omnipotent,” “God is omnipresent,” and “God is omniscient.”

    You also wrote:

    For example, if God genuinely is a Trinity, then how does one reconcile this with the temporal appearance of the Son after quite a bit of time had passed since the creation? Yes, one can reconcile this by asserting that all three “persons” of the deity have always existed, but then that immediately raises the question “Why did God delay the Incarnation for so long?”

    Interestingly, Dinesh d’Souza addressed this very question in a Townhall blog in 2008:

    http://townhall.com/columnists.....ments=true

    I happen to disagree with the second part of d’Souza’s article, where he claims that there was a cultural “Big Bang” 5,000 years ago. If you wanted, you could make a good case for a cultural Big Bang 50,000 years ago, too – or even earlier, at the dawn of human language. However, I think d’Souza made a good point when he quoted Erik Kreps, of the Survey Research Center of the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research.

    An adept numbers guy, Kreps notes that it is not the number of years but the levels of human population that are the issue here. The Population Reference Bureau estimates that the number of people who have ever been born is approximately 105 billion. Of this number, about 2 percent were born in the 100,000 years before Christ came to earth.

    “So in a sense,” Kreps notes, “God’s timing couldn’t have been more perfect. If He’d come earlier in human history, how reliable would the records of his relationship with man be? But He showed up just before the exponential explosion in the world’s population, so even though 98 percent of humanity’s timeline had passed, only 2 percent of humanity had previously been born, so 98 percent of us have walked the earth since the Redemption.”

    Just a thought.

  66. 66
    William J. Murray

    Dick says in #40:

    “For instance, I might want someone to pull the plug on me if I were in an irreversible coma, but someone else might not want the plug pulled on them. So, the right thing to do, if I’m a Kantian and in the position of deciding for someone else whether to terminate their life, is to decide on the basis of what I would want done to me.”

    The determining moral standard is that others respect your wishes in the case of the coma situation. To treat others as you would wish to be treated, you would respect their wishes and keep them on life support.

    The letter of the law can never be held higher than the spirit of the law, which is another reason that moral law must be considered transcendent and not reducible to sentences and particular examples.

  67. Allen, you might find this exchange interesting. This is an excerpt from a Theist debating one of the most dogmatic atheists I know of, a Guy named Jim Thorpe who has trolled the Christian website tangle for a few years and who is totally impervious to reason or evidence of any sort.

    http://connect.tangle.com/view.....e23b8803a0

    Jim Thorpe:
    All you keep doing is making the bare assertion that your god exists, this isn’t evidence. My point with the second question was that absolute morality can’t exist unless everyone wants or needs the exact same thing under a given condition at all times. By amending my statement it seems that you acknowledge god would actually violate the laws of identity and non-contradiction.

    Kris Lounsbury
    God, as the Author and embodiment of logic, cannot violate the law of identity or non-contradiction. I would make the statement that you originally made by saying, ‘A’ cannot be ‘A’ and non ‘A’ at the same time and in the same relationship. I hope that clears that up. Let me try to summarize what I’m saying about the Biblical God because I can assure you that I’m not making a bare assertion about His existence. I would assert (and you can challenge this) that if I can prove that the contrary is impossible, then I’ve proved my point. Here’s my statement about God in its simplest form. It’s impossible that the Biblical God doesn’t exist, therefore the Biblical God exists. Think about it. The basis for all correct thinking begins with the proper use of logic to evaluate both the evidence for, and the cogency of, any statement. If we don’t use logic in our reasoning then we can’t say anything coherent. But where does logic come from in a strictly material universe? You can say, “I don’t care where it comes from, I just know it’s there and I try to use it to determine the cogency of a statement or premise.” The problem with that attitude is that it doesn’t answer the question–It merely says, “I prefer not to deal with it.” Without going into a whole lot more detail, let me simply say, I don’t believe you can justify either the existence of logic or the proper use of it without starting with the Triune God of the Bible. In reality the truth of the existence of God is proved by your very attempt to use logic to disprove Him. So every time you try to use logic to reason about the non-existence of God you confirm His existence all the more.

    Jim replies:
    You originally said “If God exists, then ‘A’ could be both ‘A’ and also ‘not A’ (I would add, “at the same time and in the same relationship” No, proving the alternative impossible to our current knowledge would not be sufficient, that’s a false dichotomy. You’re confusing logic for some sort of governing body, the laws of logic are basically our understanding of the universe so if the universe worked completely different the laws of logic would be completely different. Simply by asking ‘where did it come from’ you’re begging the question. Why would it have to come from anywhere as a property of reality, in an infinitely cyclical universe? If matter and energy always existed what part of logic would be different and why? You haven’t evidenced a deity in general, let alone the biblical god specifically.

    Kris Lounsbury
    Jim, I’ll try not to put words in your mouth but it seems like your mixing up two different forms of argumentation. There is nothing wrong with evidentialism except for the fact of our finite limitations. On that point you are absolutely correct in saying that we can only arrive at a ‘truth’ that is true relative to our knowledge today. In my mind, although evidentialism is ok to use we need to understand its limitations especially for skeptics. On the other hand, the transcendental argument for God is based upon the use of epistemology to arrive at a statement that is irrefutable (unless one retreats to utter skepticism–or nihilism). Our ability to think in logical categories gives us the ability to use language, math and science in a way that conveys meaningful or ‘true’ communication to others. I would be interested in any “evidence” that can cogently link logic, mind, math, ethics or even scientific predictability to merely the chemical or physical properties of matter. Rather than being an ‘intrinsic’ property of matter, logic, much like information is imposed upon matter. These are some basic aspects of the transcendental argument for the existence of God. You might not accept this type of argumentation but I hope you can see how it is different from evidentialism. This might sound like an echo of the cosmological argument and it does have some of its elements but I would say that the transcendental argument for God, using the concept of logic (we could add mind, ethics, etc.–literally any mental construct) is irrefutable unless you retreat into utter skepticism or nihilism.,,,,

    What do you think Allen? I thought she had a pretty good grasp. It is kind of sad to see her wast it on ole Dogmatic Jim though. I truly believe there is no evidence whatsoever that would persuade him to believe in God, save of course for seeing God when he dies.

  68. 68
    William J. Murray

    It seems to me that the biggest problem most moral relativists have with objective moral laws is that there is no way to “prove” they are objective; one must simply choose to accept moral law as binding, and choose what kind of morality they are going to adhere to.

    As Mr. MacNeill points out, for morals to have meaning (or to exist as morals), they must be chosen, not compulsed. They cannot be proven in the formal sense; if they could, there would be no such thing as meaningful morality.

    This brings up the problematic issue of deterministic materialism and free will. Without true free will, there is no such thing as significant moralty, because moral choices require true prescriptive power and authority. Compatibilist free will is simply a description of an event tht unfolds from a previous set of mechanistic occurrences.

    Materialism offers only an “is”; it provides no “oughts”.

    In order for morals to exist and be meaningful, we cannot be living in an entirely materialist, deterministic universe.

  69. Allen

    Thank you for pushing forward. I am entering late and admittedly have not read all the comments thoroughly, but I wanted to enter a few comments. About ten years ago I did a report on ethics for work and discovered that there seemed to be four basic theories of ethics:
    1) based on the means,
    2) based on the ends,
    3) based on the motives, and
    4) based on the character of the decision maker.

    The interesting thing I discovered was that all four worked, but only within limits. Outside of those limits each theory failed. Only by trying to combine the four could one start to approach a “universal” system. Combinations then had their own problems.

    Then in 2001 I was baptized Catholic. In my journey to Christianity I discovered a different dimension to ethics. It seems that all four (ends, means, motive, and character) must be right simultaneously for a decision to be truly ethical. The fundamental problem is that our human capabilities do not allow us to maximize four variables.

    However, what is impossible for us is possible for God. Therefore the secret to ethical decisions is to allow God to make the decision. Our role is to consciously set aside our will and let God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, act through us. (NOTE: do not make the mistake of thinking that this makes us passive observers).

    Aside: The Trinity explains everything about God’s goodness. C S Lewis said it well when he pointed out that only because Christians have the Triune God do Christians know for certain that God is not only good, but God is Goodness itself.

    Peace and have a Happy Easter,

    Gesualdo

  70. —Toronto: “This guard was entitled to the truth but he couldn’t display that so that someone like StephenB would judge him favourably.”

    What kind of cuckoo logic is this? My whole point was to say that Nazi’s on the prowl are NOT not entitled to the truth and you twist it to mean that they ARE entitled to the truth. Do you actually try to comprehend what you read?

  71. StephenB @70,
    The point was that the guard was a “Schindler”.

    If not for him and others like him, a lot of people wouldn’t have survived.

    You would have judged him wrongly.

    I can’t believe you missed that.

    What kind of cuckoo logic is this?

    That’s the kind of cuckoo logic called reality, not the type of logical armchair quarterbacking we can do when our bellies are full and no one is pointing a gun at you.

  72. StephenB @39,

    The example stated above represents one of those few instances in which the receiver of the message, the Nazi offender, is, most assuredly, not entitled to the truth.

    StephenB @70,

    What kind of cuckoo logic is this? My whole point was to say that Nazi’s on the prowl are NOT not entitled to the truth and you twist it to mean that they ARE entitled to the truth. Do you actually try to comprehend what you read?

  73. StephenB @70,
    If you are right and there is a god, he would have to be a personal god, and that means a unique relationship with me that could not be defined by anyone outside of god and myself.

    No church, pastor or minister of any kind could better communicate his message to me than he could.

    That means no absolute one-size-fits-all moral code, but rather a unique one for each unique person he created on this planet.

    I have no problem with a god, only the idea that any peer of mine, i.e. any other human being, including you, can tell me absolutely how he wishes me to behave.

    Schindler looked great to the Nazis, but even better to the people he helped.

  74. Despite being an atheist, I love the story of Jesus.

    He preached love, peace and understanding and when the Romans came for him, he stopped Peter.

    Not even for the Son of God should you raise your sword, a far cry from the idea of a justified war with justified killing.

    He had his own moral code which was different from anyone else’s, including the government or church of the day.

    That’s an example of the life we should lead, one that is uniquely ours.

  75. Allen,

    I think your arguments run into a real problem for materialists, and maybe for atheists. You point to a morality or ethics which really is a thing. It is not contingent, not created. As far as I can tell you believe it does not spring from material but precedes it.

    Does it need to be embodied in something? Your laws suggest choice. It would seem that choice can only be embodied in a chooser.

    Something like this can not be created – therefore it must be eternal. This falls precisely into the ontological argument for God. So though I don’t think your ethics systems require a law giver, they at least require an eternal consciousness.

    This pretty much means you must be at least a deist.

    I don’t know your religious bent at all, but I welcome you to take the final step and confess that the best explanation for all of this is in two lines.

    “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”.

    “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

    I welcome you to make the choice to accept that the intelligence who first chose these laws, knows you and loves you.

  76. StephenB,
    The reason I bring up this judgement issue is because so many times I have judged and been wrong.

    I fear I may be judging you now and for that I apologize.

  77. Allen:

    I can find nothing in your comment with which to disagree. Semantic quibbles yes, but they don’t signify…

    This is scary! :)

  78. —Toronto: “You would have judged him wrongly.”

    Would you mind explaining how you know that?

    —”The point was that the guard was a “Schindler”.

    So what?

    —”If not for him and others like him, a lot of people wouldn’t have survived.”

    Others like him? They must not have been very much like him.

    —”I can’t believe you missed that.”

    I can’t believe that you continue to speak in the abstract without explaining yourself.

    —”That’s the kind of cuckoo logic called reality, not the type of logical armchair quarterbacking we can do when our bellies are full and no one is pointing a gun at you.”

    The cuckoo logic is your failed attempt to make sense of a very simple proposition. The exception to the moral command to tell the truth is based on one’s estimate about whether the party that one is addressing deserves to know the truth. It has nothing to do with the success or the accuracy of that guess. If what appears to be a Nazi enters your house and demands to know if a Jew is hiding in your closet, you are not required to tell him the truth because you perceive that he is not entitled to the truth. It doesn’t matter if you are wrong in your assessment and he isn’t really a Nazi. You need to learn how to think things through.

  79. StephenB @79,

    —Toronto: “You would have judged him wrongly.”

    Would you mind explaining how you know that?

    ???? Because my mom didn’t get beaten up by the most brutal guard outside of the camp even though she often got it from the nicer ones in camp. They used a riding crop that raised welts for a week, the brutal ones used the stock of their rifles.

    He was not what he appeared to be.

    Neither were the “nice” ones.

    The point is you’ve said your absolute moral code is subject to your judgement of the person you’re dealing with and your judgement of the person was wrong.

    You’ve shown me that you don’t have an absolute moral code as it becomes subject to context.

    I can’t believe that you continue to speak in the abstract without explaining yourself.

    Abstract in what way? My mom judged him wrongly like you did. Of all of my mom’s memories, this was one of the few nice ones.

    That’s the point. You are either grounded in an absolute moral code or you adopt a subjective one.

    I accept a subjective one, you don’t, and yet your code is as subject to context as mine.

    Based on the fact that your code doesn’t apply to everyone in the same way, is your code absolute or subjective?

  80. Allen_MacNeill @ 63
    04/01/2010
    10:29 am

    I don’t know if you meant to do this but your post at 63 was a great example of the necessity of a transendent moral law.

    Whereas “disagreement is the path to clarity” yet it must be guided by “the ground rules for debate”.

    Just imagine if we all lived our lives within cultural diversity YET within the “ground rules” of an objective moral law such as do unto others as you would have them do unto you BASED on the good shown to us by the moral lawgiver himself.

    If everyone lived within the construct of this premise, there would be no need for things like law enfourcement, big government, war, condems, abortion, and the like.

    Another quote from Ravi zacharias:
    “Before moving a fence (moral boundary) first ask yourself why it was placed there to begin with?”

    Great discussion, I’ve leanred quite a bit.

  81. Toronto at 48

    Thank you for sharing your story. I have a client who fought in the war and before entering Berlin was order to go south and let the Russians have Berlin. However he encountered many in camps along the way.

    I just wanted to point out that although the Nazi wasn’t as mean and angry as he first seemed to be, a judgement was still made. It was just based on the information they had. Apparently if the Nazi leadership would have had the same knowledge as your mother’s family, they might have taken action against the Schindler for being so kind which would have been yet another judgement by a very different set of moral standards.

  82. —-Allen: “Also, equating God with goodness seems to me to run afoul of the basic logical principle that a whole (i.e. God) cannot be equated with one of its properties (i.e. “parts”). Indeed, this is one of my problems with the traditional conception of the Abrahamic deity being equated with four qualities: omnibenevolence, omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience. It seems to me that the concept of God is necessarily unitary (the Trinity notwithstanding), at least with regard to His qualities. That is, the concept of the Trinity is not a doctrine of “qualities”, as such would necessarily imply that the removal of one or more of God’s “persons” (i.e. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) would somehow subtract from God’s overall quality, and this seems contradictory to God’s “omni-ness”.

    To me, the traditional approach to resolving these difficulties works best. Granted, the requirement for “unity,” I submit that the intellectual challenge is to reconcile the three persons in one God with the one God: The three persons speak to “who” God is, while God’s nature speaks to “what” God is. Indeed, according to traditional Christianity, all three persons are, so to speak, “all” God, that is, they all possess the same Divine nature, that is, they are all the same “what,” but they are, as the term implies, different persons.

    Indeed, the hypostatic union [Christ’s two natures] provides an example of the same principle with a different twist. Traditional Christianity teaches that Christ is one person with two natures, meaning that, as a singular person, he is Divine, but, after the incarnation, he maintains, if I may put it so, two “what’s,” his Divine nature and his human nature. Thus, while Christ as God, or for that matter, the Father and the Holy Sprit cannot suffer, Christ can suffer in his human nature. Do these teachings transcend reason’s capacity to completely comprehend? I would say, yes. Do they contradict reason? I would say no.

    On the matter of reconciling the temporal appearance of the Son, and why it happened so late in creation, I think the timing was strategically planned. In order for the God to provide the highly subtle teachings inherent in the New Testament, he had to prepare and develop the “Chosen people” until the time was right for his appearance. Just as one cannot read poetry to a hungry man, one cannot propose subtle theologies to a crude man or, for that matter, a crude people. For that reason, God often dealt harshly with his chosen ones for centuries because, in the beginning, they were incapable of responding to what we might characterize as “gentle beckoning,” and even at the end, proved to be a bit slow on the uptake when it came to absorbing the more abstruse doctrines. Put another way, He had to correct grossly bad behavior prior to addressing the internal intentions that give rise to that behavior. One cannot speak to a murderer or rapist, for example, about taming the passions of anger and lust until he stops the murdering and raping. Much less, can He persuade Warlords on the spiritual benefits of loving their enemies, and, as you are no doubt aware, cultures are even harder to change than people. Indeed, he literally had to kill some of his own people [and their enemies] to slow them down, as the record shows.

    Thus, the Old Testament focuses more on WHAT people do, and the New Testament focuses more on WHY they do it [You have heard it said, don’t murder and commit adultery, I say unto you, root out the anger and lust that cause them.] God waited, then, until he could speak to man’s heart, and, just as soon as that time came, he arrived. Even at that, most didn’t get it for quite a long time. Moses’ people would never have gotten it because they simply had too many rough edges. When someone is in the process of worshipping a calf, you cannot really explain the subtleties of the Trinity. The best you can do under those circumstances is to demand that they stop worshiping false Gods, enforce that demand, and then promise a Redeemer to come.

  83. wagenweg @81,

    …. they might have taken action against the Schindler for being so kind which would have been yet another judgement by a very different set of moral standards.

    You are absolutely right.

    The problem is we can never judge except from our point of view.

    That is my problem with StephenB’s position.

    If one’s claim is that an absolute moral code is required for proper behaviour, how can you override that code on a case by case basis due to a subjective judgement?

    If we say that an absolute moral code is in any way qualified, then it is no longer absolute, it is subjective.

  84. I regret not being able to join this thread sooner as it appears Professor MacNeill has been given a relatively easy ride. I would like to offer a few brief comments here and then expand on them in subsequent posts which I will try to keep to sub-treatise lengths. I think a good place to start is with the four poor abandoned principles.

    1) there is/are no “transcendent ethical/moral law(s)”;

    This turns on what is meant by transcendent. I read it initially in the same sense in which it is often used here when referring to “transcendent beings” or “transcendent souls”, in other words, something which transcends the boundaries our material Universe into some other ethereal domain. This has since been limited to the sense of ethics which transcend individual preferences or appetites. Even in this more restricted sense I would still reject the notion of an absolute ethic. For a start, whose “absolute” are you going to choose and on what grounds? There are an estimated 4,200 religious groups currently. Even if they were all monotheistic, which they’re not, that’s still an awful lot of absolutely true ethics and “truthmakers” out there. Where would you like to start?

    2) morality (if such a thing even exists) is entirely dependent on context (i.e. “relative” not “absolute”);

    Morality exists in the same way and in the same place as the law or other codes of human contact, in the context of society and in the minds of its members. As for being context-dependent, I thought the little parable about lying to Nazis about knowing the whereabouts of Anne Frank and her family made that point rather neatly.

    3) that a thorough understanding of human biology and evolution can (indeed, should, or even must) provide us with everything we need to know to formulate a valid code of ethical/moral behavior; and

    No, not without walking straight into the naturalistic fallacy. I’m surprised a philosopher would make such an error. That is not to say, however, that the formulation of a code of ethics would not benefit from being informed with “a thorough understanding of human biology and evolution”.

    4) that given the foregoing, the only valid ethical code would be one that is rooted in and ultimately derived from empirical reality, context-dependent/relativistic, and directly derived from our empirical knowledge of biology and evolution.

    See above.

    The problem I see with any attempt to assert an absolute or objective morality is that it becomes a question of whose absolute morality and adherence to which faith is entailed by it. Quite plainly, many here believe Christian morality fulfills this role but acknowledging that supremacy means accepting the existence of the Christian God.

    Besides, in what way can a revealed morality be considered objective? It is the product of God’s mind in the same way as other codes have been the product of human minds. The only reason for thinking God’s moral prescriptions are better than human efforts is that He is supposed to be the greatest, most wise and most powerful being that has ever existed and can ever exist. But that is just “might is right” with a vengeance. If He does exist, we have to be thankful that he has given up dropping subtle hints of His displeasure like global floods.

    Of course, if He doesn’t exist then we are left to our own devices which does not mean, despite the dire warnings of doom-sayers, an inevitable collapse into nihilism.

  85. Well said Seversky. I’ve been making some of the same points, but to no avail. Perhaps your more focused treatment will be helpful.

  86. Seversky and composer:

    Please note carefully that I have tried not to advocate for an ethical code grounded in, derived from, or justified by any particular religion. Indeed, I hope I have made it clear that I have not advocated for any of the ethical codes (or the arguments for justification for or against them) that I have described in my comments. My intent throughout both of these threads (and the thread on competing worldviews) was to refrain from doing so, and instead to give a brief summary of my understanding of the history and current state of meta-ethical theory.

    Furthermore, although I did state that I no longer believed in the four positions that I listed (and which Seversky referenced in comment #85), I have not actually stated what my current ethical positions are on these issues. That is, I stated what they used to be, and stated that I no longer hold them (indeed, that I have come to believe that they are invalid), but I have not as yet stated what my current position is.

    I have refrained from doing so for the same reason that I generally refrain from telling my students what my ethical, political, or religious beliefs are, unless they ask me directly. When they do so, I make it clear that I am not advocating for my positions on these issues, but if they are genuinely interested in what they are, I would be happy to discuss them, if they are willing to listen to what will be a very, very long story, mostly concerning things that have happened to me in my life, and what I thought about those events, and if they are willing to think about and to answer a rather long and sometimes disconnected series of rather personal questions.

    Furthermore, I make it clear that I do not believe that such a discussion is appropriate for a group class session, and therefore ask that those who are curious about my personal positions on these issues to please take these up with me during office hours.

  87. —Toronto @79: If we say that an absolute moral code is in any way qualified, then it is no longer absolute, it is subjective.

    What you mean to say is that you think that it is “relative,” which is the counterpart to absolute. Subjective is the counterpart to objective.

    Also be advised that the code, which is NEVER changing, is different from the application, which is ALWAYS changing

    If it makes you feel better to share your story, by all means share it, but your comments do not in the least address my point.

    The moral mandate against killing [murder] is absolute [not relative], but the exception for self defense does not make it subjective because self defense is not murder.

    The moral mandate against lying is absolute because we are not permitted to mislead others who have a right to the truth, but Nazis on the prowl or their cronies are not entitled to the truth.

    Again, you are confusing the best strategy, which no one can possibly know, with the obligation to tell the truth, which is not present in this situation.

    [A] Either there is an obligation to tell the truth in this situation or [B] there is no obligation. I have pointed out that the answer is [B]. If you dispute my claim, then you are affirming [A]. There is no third option. All the other complexities and unfortunate circumstances that you share, tragic thought they may be, do not relate to subject matter.

  88. Allen,

    FWIW, I have asked you to divulge neither your ethical code nor how you justify it. You have however stated that you disavow the following positions:

    1) there is/are no “transcendent ethical/moral law(s)”;

    2) morality (if such a thing even exists) is entirely dependent on context (i.e. “relative” not “absolute”).

    That is, you have claimed that

    1. there is/are transcendent ethical/moral law(s);

    2. morality (if such a thing even exists) is “absolute” not “relative.”

    Have I got you right?

    My view is that your definition of transcendence is so weak that one moral system (perhaps almost any non-contradictory moral system) is as transcendent as another. This seems to make transcendence a form of subjectivism: a subjectively chosen all-contexts rule.

    You don’t need to tell me what your moral system is. It would be nice to know why you think your exceedingly weak version of transcendence is worth the attention we’re paying, since it satisfies neither the Christian nor the skeptic.

  89. That said, Seversky asked me a direct question:

    “…whose “absolute” are you going to choose and on what grounds? There are an estimated 4,200 religious groups currently. Even if they were all monotheistic, which they’re not, that’s still an awful lot of absolutely true ethics and “truthmakers” out there. Where would you like to start?”

    I would start with a deontological ethical position essentially the same as Kant’s “categorical imperative”: that only those ethical prescriptions that are universalizable and reciprocal are justified. I believe that virtually everyone, from the most committed atheist Hobbesian/Randite egoist to the most committed self-sacrificing religious believer would accept this principle.

    Furthermore, I would submit as evidence for this assertion that something like Kant’s categorial imperative (call it the “golden rule” if you like, but as I will explain later, there are important differences) exists in nearly all known human cultures, societies, and religions. And, in those in which this is not the case (e.g. Nazi Germany), I think the historical record is clear that even the most hardened (but not sociopathic) Nazis knew that what they were doing was “wrong” at some level, but that it was “justified” by the overarching demands of Nazi racial and political doctrine.

    I would then go on to assert that one can list a set of “absolutes” that almost no one would disagree with, based on the principle of “universalizable reciprocity”. Oddly enough, such a list includes things like prohibitions against assault, battery, child abuse, deliberate lying (for personal gain, to evade punishment, or to shift blame to others), extortion, kidnapping, murder, rape, theft, vandalism…sound familiar? If you agree with this list, why do you do so? Do you think that a society that either permits these things or (worse) advocates them is one you would like to live in? And is the choice to obey or defy these prohibitions simply a matter of personal preference? Why or why not?

    Note that this is a list of prohibitions, similar to the universalizable prohibition articulated by Rabbi Hillel:

    “Do not do unto others that which would be hateful if done to yourself.”

    Such a “universal” prohibition (or list of them) presupposes that one would not want to live in a society in which such things were permitted or advocated.

    It is harder to come up with a list of positive universalizable ethical prescriptions (even Kant, Rawls, and most other deontologists generally haven’t attempted to do this, at least not systematically). It seems to me that this is because nearly everyone agrees on what we shouldn’t do, but it is much more difficult to agree on what we should do.

    The Christian version of the “golden rule” does attempt to do this:

    “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.”

    A beautiful and benign sentiment, but not particularly specific when interpreted in a positive, rather than a negative sense (i.e. in the sense of Rabbi Hillel’s prohibition).

    For example, does the “golden rule” mean I should give all of my possessions to the poor, becoming poor myself as a result (and also impoverishing my wife and children)? Some Christians have indeed advocated this, but not many have actually done so. Does the “golden rule” justify Medicare or the Health Care Reform Act of 2010? There is clearly honest and deeply held disagreement over the answer to these questions, and nowhere near as much disagreement over laws prohibiting child molesting. Why?

  90. Re composer in comment #89:

    Have I answered your question, or would you like me to elaborate? This is not a rhetorical question, BTW, I really want to know.

  91. In comment #89 composer also wrote:

    “It would be nice to know why you think your exceedingly weak version of transcendence is worth the attention we’re paying, since it satisfies neither the Christian nor the skeptic.”

    I personally don’t think that the formulation of an ethical system that prohibits assault, battery, child abuse, deliberate lying (for personal gain, to evade punishment, or to shift blame to others), extortion, kidnapping, murder, rape, theft, and vandalism is “exceedingly weak” or “relativistic” or “subjective”. Indeed, it seems to me that such an ethical system would indeed be “absolute” and would “transcend” any particular individual’s personal preferences or society’s predelictions. Do you disagree?

  92. StephenB @88,

    The moral mandate against killing [murder] is absolute [not relative], but the exception for self defense does not make it subjective because self defense is not murder.

    Killing is an act, murder is a legal definition. God is not going to wait for a ruling from a court system in Texas and one in New York to inform him who has murdered, and therefore sinned, and who acted in self-defence and is therefore sin-free. You could have exactly the same event happen in two states and have a different ruling. That doesn’t work for an absolute moral code.

    What we are really talking about is killing.

    If Jesus couldn’t justify Peter raising his sword to defend the Son of God, just who does this exception apply to?

    The moral mandate against lying is absolute because we are not permitted to mislead others who have a right to the truth, but Nazis on the prowl or their cronies are not entitled to the truth.

    And who decides who has a right to the truth in any situation?

    You made a judgment about the guard that was wrong.

    Your biggest mistake wasn’t that you erred in your conclusion, it was believing that you had the right to judge him at all.

    That guard was brutal and terrifying, but he acted as ethically as he could in his situation. He was deserving of the benefits of your absolute moral code, but you decided, wrongly, that he wasn’t worthy of it.

  93. Personally, I think appealing to God(s) for the ultimate justification for the ethical prohibition of assault, battery, child abuse, deliberate lying (for personal gain, to evade punishment, or to shift blame to others), extortion, kidnapping, murder, rape, theft, and vandalism is superfluous. To quote Socrates:

    “And what is good, Phædrus,
    And what is not good…
    Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?

  94. Mr MacNeill,

    Did you ever get around to giving examples of relativism leading to collapse? Since you’re making the claim about all such systems, it would be nice to have at least one example.

    BTW, the people who helped hide the Frank family were the employees of Mr Frank. The family was hidden in the back of the commercial building of his business. For my money, the building is more worth preserving than every church, mosque, and synagogue in Amsterdam.

    In your OP, you invert is and ought:
    he derives an “is” statement from an “ought” statement

    I can understand the use of the word ‘ought’ in the teleological presentation. It follows the general pattern – if I want outcome Y, I ought to take action X. If I want to stop feeling hungry, I ought to eat a graham cracker. If i want to increase some global utility function, I ought to follow the golden rule. Fine. Increase the average total caloric intake per human lifetime, and you’re not doing wrong.

    On the deontological side, it seems ought and good have collapsed into a tautology, of which Euthyphro’s dilemma is a symptom. I ought to do what is good, and the good is that which I ought to do, and good luck separating them. Well, its always true, therefore it must be transcendent.

    Are we agreed that all these universal, absolute normativities only apply to humans? If a group of dolphin males force a female out of the pod, chase her down and force her to submit to sex with them, there is no moral judgement to be made, right? Any more than there is one to be made when a praying mantis female bites the head off of her lover. And a tsunami, that’s just water sloshing around.

    But another intelligent species has the same universal normative morality, even if its biology is vastly different, right? Those intelligent praying mantises, that write sonnets in the afternoon, for them biting the head off is a moral wrong. Right?

  95. Ahhh. Phaedrus.

    That reminds me of Robert Persig and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

    Quality.

    Morality is like quality and beauty (and God). You cannot define it. But you can perceive its attributes.

    But how do you perceive their attributes? Wisdom. That’s what’s missing from this discussion.

    It seems that it is only wisdom that makes it possible to know the ultimate end of an action.

    Imagine being subjugated by an enemy because you refused to take up arms to defend yourself. And remember the parable about the guy that was asked for his shirt and replied by offering his coat as well?

    Where’s the wisdom in giving up what was not asked for, or becoming a serf to your enemy when you could have fought and won, right?

    Christ understood the power of wisdom. He warned that few would choose to or be able to travel that road.

    In a nutshell, I don’t think it is logically possible for morality to be subjective. Otherwise it would cease to be morality.

    As well, the difference in people’s level of understanding of what is moral does not make morality less objective. It simply demonstrates our ignorance of what is moral.

    But wisdom closes the gap in that (lack of)understanding.

  96. 97

    That was pretty cheesy Nakashima, even for you.

  97. 98

    Nakashima,

    Did you ever get around to giving examples of relativism leading to collapse? Since you’re making the claim about all such systems, it would be nice to have at least one example.

    Look at any atheistic regime such as Russia under Lenin and Stalin, or the situation in Cambodia under Pol Pot. Here’s a little list:
    http://books.google.com/books?.....38;f=false

  98. In comment #95 Nakashima-san wrote:

    “On the deontological side, it seems ought and good have collapsed into a tautology, of which Euthyphro’s dilemma is a symptom. I ought to do what is good, and the good is that which I ought to do, and good luck separating them. Well, its always true, therefore it must be transcendent.”

    While I do agree that it appears at first glance that deontological ethics (such as Kant’s categorical imperative) are tautological, the same appears to be true for natural selection:

    “Who is the most fit?”
    “Those who survive.”
    “Why do they survive?”
    “Because they are the most fit.”
    Rinse and repeat…

    However, we know that Darwin’s formulation of natural selection was not tautological, but rather consisted of an algorithm, each component of which is empirically testable (i.e. variety, heredity, and fecundity, resulting in differential reproduction). The same is the case for Kant’s categorical imperative:

    Major Premise: “A person acts ethically if his or her conduct would, without condition, be the ‘right’ conduct for any person in similar circumstances.”

    Minor Premise: “A person’s conduct is “right” if it treats others as ends in themselves and not as means to an end”.

    Conclusion: “A person acts morally when he or she acts as if his or her conduct were establishing a universal law governing others under similar circumstances”.

    As was pointed out earlier, the crucial step in this deductive syllogism is the formulation of the major premise. If the major premise is valid, then the conclusion must be valid.

    Kant’s explanation of how one comes to his major premise (i.e. “A person acts ethically if his or her conduct would, without condition, be the ‘right’ conduct for any person in similar circumstances.”) is based on the principle of “universal reciprocity”. That is, if people are capable of conforming their behavior to their beliefs (at least in part), and if they are capable of imagining someone else behaving toward them in the way they themselves behave, then everyone should constrain their own behavior toward others in a way that approximates how they would want others to behave toward them.

    This formulation is indeed “transcendent” in the same way that Trivers’ reciprocal altruism is transcendent: the fitness changes to each individual in a reciprocally altruistic relationship (e.g. “tit for tat”) “transcend” the individual fitness of each member of that relationship. That is, fitness is summed “globally” over the relationship, rather than calculated “locally” at the level of each individual.

    I realize, of course, that this definition of “transcendence” is not the same as that held by most religious believers. However, from a purely logical standpoint, “transcendent” simply means “operating at a higher level of organization than that of the components of a system”. Ergo, Kant’s categorical imperative is indeed “transcendent”, as it is justified at the level of interactive groups of humans, rather than at the level of each individual person.

  99. Allen,

    I’m not convinced, though I see where you’re going. It’s very akin to Rawls’s view in A Theory of Justice. (As I recall, Rawls asks a question like “what kind of society would I want to live in if I didn’t know whether I would be born male, female, black, white, etc.: none of the accidents of life.” He derives a theory of justice from that blank slate.)

    I don’t think the view you have described is transcendent. It is relevant, as far as I can tell, only to humans. (Environmental and animal concerns could only be ethical in terms of appeal to relative and contextual human interests: “you wouldn’t want someone polluting boldy water, would you?”) You inflate human interests to include all. Wouldn’t an ethical system that viewed the Earth as worth protecting for its own sake be considered less transcendent, under the view you’ve described, than one in which the Earth is worth protecting only when its protection can be brought under the umbrella of reciprocal and universal human interests?

    Nor do I think it is absolute or universal, because everything on the list of prohibited absolutes is in fact relative and contextual. Even child abuse, from which we rightly recoil, cannot be prohibited without (relative and changing) definitions of what constitutes a child and what constitutes abuse.

  100. Clive [98], in what sense are these regimes “relativist”? One could argue that they are brutally absolutist in their own way.

  101. In comment #95 Nakashima-san also wrote:

    “Are we agreed that all these universal, absolute normativities only apply to humans? If a group of dolphin males force a female out of the pod, chase her down and force her to submit to sex with them, there is no moral judgement to be made, right? Any more than there is one to be made when a praying mantis female bites the head off of her lover. And a tsunami, that’s just water sloshing around.”

    Mostly agreed, although I believe that there are exceptions. Note that in my previous comment I asserted that a necessary condition for ethical behavior was the ability to conform one’s actions to one’s beliefs. I do not think that this ability is necessarily restricted to humans.

    Indeed, if one substitutes the term “learned behavior” for “belief” (a valid substitution, in my opinion), then non-humans who can alter their inter-individual behavior as the result of learning are also capable of that form of learned behavior we call “ethical” behavior.

    For example, one can easily house-break a dog (most dogs, anyway). Using the term “ethical” to mean “trainable” (meaning “able to alter a behavior as the result of experience”), then one can interpret the behavior of a house-broken dog as “ethical”. When one of my dogs needs to “go”, they exhibit all of the urgency that a human exhibits when confronted with an “ethical” decision, and if they fail (and the carpet gets soiled) they act in a way that almost anyone would interpret as “guilty”.

    So, it seems to me that some of the behaviors of highly social animals (i.e. those behaviors that are highly modifiable as the result of experience) are indeed “ethical” at some level.

    With respect to the specific examples in Nakashima-san’s comment:

    Before I could answer the question about dolphin behavior, I would need to know if this behavior was, indeed, modifiable as the result of experience, or whether it was mostly innate. If it is the latter, then it would certainly not qualify as “ethical”, but if it were the former, then it might be.

    In particular, if one were to observe females banding together to resist the “gang rape” behavior of males, then I believe that an argument could be made that this group behavior constituted evidence for “ethical” behavior, at least among the female dolphins.

    I realize that many people reading this would disagree with me, but consider how an intelligent alien from another planet would interpret human behavior under similar circumstances. Being totally unable to understand human language (and therefore unable to ask humans why they do what they do), an alien human ethologist would make the same kinds of inferences that ethologists make about animal behaviors. Dolphin behavior (like human behavior) can be extraordinarily complex, and some of their behaviors (such as group anti-predator defense, assisting an injured dolphin in breathing, etc.) appear to be very similar to human behaviors, so much so that people who work with these animals all the time automatically assume that they are somehow “humanlike” in their motivations. To me, the ability to empathize with someone else is the primary criterion for “universal reciprocity”, and so it seems reasonable to refer to at least some of the behaviors of non-human animals as “ethics”.

    Note, in this context, that the word “ethics” and the word “ethology” both derive from the same Greek root (ethikos, meaning “customary behavior”), as does the word “ethnology”. I therefore agree with Donald Griffin (a world-famous ethologist who determined that bats use echo-location to navigate and hunt), who asserted in his now-famous books, the Question of Animal Awareness (1976) and Animal Minds: Beyond Cognition to Consciousness (2001) that some animals are capable of both consciousness and what appears to be “ethical” behavior.

    Given the foregoing, I believe that it is equally clear that the behavior of preying mantises (which we know from the work of Kenneth Roeder and others is almost entirely innate) is neither “conscious” nor even quasi-”ethical”.

    And tsunamis are, indeed, just water sloshing around.

  102. In 100 above, change “boldy” to “your.” My apologies: I use a little text substitution program to generate html code from keywords, and I forgot to change the coded word. (The program is here: http://lifehacker.com/238306/l.....er-windows)

  103. Re composer in comment #100:

    Indeed, Rawl’s A Theory of Justice is a modern reinterpretation of Kant’s categorical imperative.

    I have just posted a comment in which I explain that it seems to me that “ethical behavior” is not necessarily restricted to humans. Rather, something like “ethical behavior” can be observed in many social vertebrates (and I have a friend, the world’s authority on the behavior of carpenter bees/Xylacopa virginica, who believes that the same is the case for some long-lived social hymenoptera, to a limited extent at least).

    As for “ecological ethics”, there have already been serious attempts to extend the concepts of meta-ethics to our treatment of the non-human world (for example, Christopher Stone’s classic Should Trees Have Standing?)
    I haven’t gone into this as pect of ethics in this thread, but I have myself applied the same meta-ethical analysis to ecosystems. As a result of this analysis, I believe that the matrix that I described in comment #18 can be extended to include ethical consideration of ecosystems, as well as individuals and groups. At present, I am still working on a detailed treatment of this extension of ethics, and plan to publish the results in the near future.

    Finally, I take issue with this statement:

    “Even child abuse, from which we rightly recoil, cannot be prohibited without (relative and changing) definitions of what constitutes a child and what constitutes abuse.”

    I disagree. Yes, there are societies (such as the Yanomani) in which 12-year-olds are considered “adults” and in which forcible copulation with 12-year-olds (following a raid on another village in which 12-year-old females are “kidnapped” as mates) is not considered what we would call “rape”.

    However, there are no societies in which forcible copulation with 2-year-olds is not considered wrong, and punishable by either death or virtually permanent incarceration or banishment. So, there is indeed an “absolute” criterion by which such behavior is judged, rather than a purely arbitrary (i.e. “contextual” or “relative”) one. Furthermore, as “ethical” prohibitions such as “forcible copulation with 2-year-olds is wrong and severely punishable) exist in all known societies, such prohibitions are indeed “transcendent” and “universal”. The same appears to be the case for the short list of ten “unethical” behaviors I cited in comment #90 (i.e. assault, battery, child abuse, deliberate lying (for personal gain, to evade punishment, or to shift blame to others), extortion, kidnapping, murder, rape, theft, and vandalism…and yes, the fact that this list has ten items is deliberate).

  104. On the question of ethical relativism, I recommend Abraham Edel’s books, especially Anthropology and Ethics (1959) and Exploring Fact and Value (1980). Edel has an interesting analysis of what he calls “the stubborn individual”, in which he attempts to ethically justify forcing a recalcitrant individual to conform to social norms. I don’t necessarily agree with all of Edel’s positions, but I find his analysis thought-provoking and therefore valuable for coming to clarity on the issue of ethical individualism and relativism.

  105. Allen, if you have to resort to “everybody knows that raping 2-year-olds is wrong!” as a reason why ethics must be transcendent and universal, you’re in pretty bad shape. I’ll agree that we’re all repulsed by this. However, any ethical question that actually occurs to sane adults cannot be answered aside from context. And, pace our usage, “contextual” and “relative” are not equivalent to “arbitrary”. (As long as we’re throwing around reading recommendations, the objectivist insistence that it must be so equivalent has been critiqued by, among others, Barbara Herrnstein Smith in Belief and Resistance and Scandalous Knowledge).

    As for “coming to clarity on the issue of ethical individualism and relativism,” I’ve already come to clarity, thanks. It’s you who is clinging to a unsustainable and impoverished transcendence.

  106. Another reading recommendation: the chapter on child abuse in The Social Construction of What? by Ian Hacking.

  107. Mr MacNeill,

    As was pointed out earlier, the crucial step in this deductive syllogism is the formulation of the major premise. If the major premise is valid, then the conclusion must be valid.

    You follow Wikipedia (and possibly a great many others) in calling this a syllogism. I admit to having trouble seeing it. Can you state it in symbolic terms? I’m used to thinking of syllogisms in terms of entities and properties, ‘Socrates’ and ‘mortal’. I’m unfamiliar with a syllogism that is prescriptive, not descriptive. Is there a substitution of ‘must’ for ‘is’?

    All men must eat.
    Socrates is a man.
    Socrates must eat.

    Thanks in advance!

  108. Isn’t anyone going to challenge Allen on his use of Kant?

    Kant invented the categorical imperative to counter the radical subjectivism of Hume and support the notion of an existent moral order; i.e., to reintroduce the transcendent through a new application of the synthetic method. Allen is using Kant to do exactly the opposite—argue that God might as well be dead because he’s superfluous to ethics.

    As to the stand-off between Kant and the Golden Rule: Kant says stealing cannot be ethical because universal stealing would annihilate private property and negate its own self-interest. According to the Golden Rule, however, stealing is wrong because it does harm to others. Kant’s categorical prohibition is based on enlightened self-love while the Golden rule is based on love itself and on the value of life, which is purely objective.

    Question: can men be trusted to act ethically according to self-interest? Sans the example of the cross, what other rule do they have?

  109. 110
    William J. Murray

    Well, I was trying to get to the necessity of god via the whole “morality is meaningless in a determnistic, materialist world” route, but I guess it’s simpler to just say that no moral system has any real value unless there are consequences for violating it.

    Even if we consider morality a transcendent, objective fact, so what? Unless, like with gravity, there is a consequence for violating a moral law, who cares? You can just desensitize yourself until such acts do not bother you.

  110. —Toronto: “What we are really talking about is killing.”

    Murder is both a legal and moral issue. Your moral relativism is showing again. By your calculations[except that you have no moral standards with which to make those calculations] self defense is an immoral act.

    —“If Jesus couldn’t justify Peter raising his sword to defend the Son of God, just who does this exception apply to?”

    Jesus offered himself up freely because his mission was to give up his life. That doesn’t mean that we may not defend ourselves against aggressors. It is interesting that you believe that there is no objective moral code while also believing that the objective moral code requires pacifism.

    —“And who decides who has a right to the truth in any situation?”

    It is a matter of prudential judgment. We are not required to be omniscient or read minds in order to be moral. If it can’t be determined that the person is entitled to the truth, [and most are, requiring no such calculation] then we are under no obligation one way or the other. Similarly, if it can’t be determined whether we must kill someone in an act of self defense, we can only use our best judgment.

    —“You made a judgment about the guard that was wrong.”

    No, I didn’t. I made a judgment about a Nazi prison camp and concluded that no one in that regime is entitled to the truth, which means I can’t affirm that any of their guards are entitled to the truth.

    —“Your biggest mistake wasn’t that you erred in your conclusion, it was believing that you had the right to judge him at all.”

    I didn’t err in my conclusion; you erred in your analysis. I was well aware of the fact that the guard was not necessarily entitled to the truth. Of course, you can’t make up your mind one way or the other because you have no moral code to guide you. You rely solely on your feelings, which is why you are all over the map. First you tell me that the guard acted nicely and was, therefore, entitled to the truth and later you tell me in retrospect, that the guard was mean and not, therefore entitled to the truth—and yet, you also tell me that he was just pretending to be mean, but you aren’t sure. You don’t know what you think or what you believe because you have no moral standard to guide you.

    Also, the fact that I am not required to tell him the truth does not mean that I am required to withhold it either. I am under no moral obligation either way. Indeed, what you don’t understand is that either telling the truth or withholding the truth in a situation like that may send others to their death. The moral problem here is not a problem with the victim but with the oppressor.

    —“That guard was brutal and terrifying, but he acted as ethically as he could in his situation. He was deserving of the benefits of your absolute moral code, but you decided, wrongly, that he wasn’t worthy of it.”

    So, now are you back to saying that he is entitled to the truth? Is that your final decision or are you going to change your mind again? What if he was being dishonest? You are the one who is judging the guard. You insist that he is a moral man who acts immorally for strategic reasons, which means, in your judgment, that his immoral acts are really moral, except that there really is no objective morality with which to judge his actions. Good grief.

    Let’s just do it your way. There is no objective morality, so the Nazis were acting rightly according to their morality and their victims were acting rightly according to their morality. So, why all the fuss?

    I’ll tell you why all the fuss. Because you, like everyone else here who publicly disputes the reality of the moral law, do, after all, believe in it privately in spite of all your claims to the contrary.

  111. —Allanius: “Isn’t anyone going to challenge Allen on his use of Kant?”

    For my part, Allen is wrong to put Aristotle and company in the deontology category. In fact, I haven’t yet heard a word about eudaemonistic ethics. Also, I think it is, indeed, necessary to bring in the lawgiver in order to round out the meaning and texture of the moral law. But, alas, I just don’t have time to get into it. There is too much going on.

  112. StephenB @110,

    When the person I’m debating starts putting words in my mouth, I call it a day.

    Thanks for your response.

  113. Re composer in comment #106:

    “However, any ethical question that actually occurs to sane adults cannot be answered aside from context.”

    Would I therefore be correct in concluding that you would support the contention that the actions of the Nazis at Auschwitz/Birkenau cannot be judged as ethically wrong without reference to context or situation? I strongly suspect that Reinhard Heydrich and Adolf Eichmann could construct an argument whereby their actions following the Wansee conference were not only ethically valid (given the “Jewish situation”), but were indeed ethically required. In fact, Eichmann presented essentially that argument during his trial in Jerusalem in 1961. Who are we, who are not party to their “situation” to disagree?

    Or, are you asserting that each and every person who either participated in, facilitated, or did not resist the actions of the Nazis were ipso facto insane? Was the empirical fact that tens of thousands of otherwise “sane” Germans collaborated with the Nazis in the holocaust “absurd”?

    If all ethical judgments are entirely dependent on “situation”, then how can one rationally conclude that the actions of the Nazis were indeed wrong?

  114. I think Allen has done a good job of laying out several of the different areas of this topic. I was sort of expecting others who held that there was an objective and universal moral law to expand on Kant’s categorical imperative. Surely there is someone here who thinks that the objective and universal code which applies to all rational beings in the universe is more than that? Someone? Anyone?

  115. In comment #116 stephenB wrote:

    “For my part, Allen is wrong to put Aristotle and company in the deontology category.”

    In doing so, I was simply agreeing with vjtorley in comment #42 that one can make an argument for doing so. vjtorley provided an example of such an argument, in which he quoted extensively from an argument presented by Bill Kilcullen of Macquarie University, who referenced B. H. Baumrin (1968) “Aristotle’s Ethical Intuitionism” in The New Scholasticism, volume 42, pp.1-17. Perhaps it would be more appropriate for stephenB to address his comments to that argument.

  116. In comment #108 allanius wrote:

    “Allen is using Kant to do exactly the opposite—argue that God might as well be dead because he’s superfluous to ethics.”

    I have done no such thing. Please quote directly from either Kant’s works or my admittedly brief description of them where either he or I have asserted anything remotely like this.

  117. Allen,

    Would I therefore be correct in concluding that you would support the contention that the actions of the Nazis at Auschwitz/ Birkenau cannot be judged as ethically wrong without reference to context or situation?

    Um, “of the Nazis” and “at Auschwitz/Birkenau” are only the first of a set of contextual statements that saturate your comment.

    I’ll quote the following from Barbara Herrnstein Smith. I apologize for its length, but I have put some parts in bold for emphasis:

    Not all the calamities listed above are, of course, merely alarmed descriptions of a world without orthodox descriptions of the world. In certain cases . . . what sustains the idea that they are engendered by the questioning and critique of objectivist thought — which is to say by “relativism” — is the intractably self-prvileging logic of objectivist thought itself, here the conviction that only its own theoretical (logical, epistemological, theological. etc.) security and widespread affirmation bar the gate to the polis and keep the night, the jungle, and the jackals at bay. That conviction obviously requires a specific and highly dubious sociopolitical theory and, with it, a more general and equally dubious theory of the mechanisms — psychological, political, and other — by which individual and social behavior are motivated and constrained: dubious because, among other reasons, it is evident that the jackals, the Gulag, and the death camps have not been kept from the polis in spite of what has been, up to now, the theoretical dominance and widespread affirmation of objectivist thought.

    The question is often put: “But how would you answer the Nazi?” The reply has two parts. The first part is, it depends: it depends on where the Nazi and I — given, of course, my particular identity — each are, and what resources and power, institutional and other, are available to each of us. Under some conditions, I would not say anything at all to him or do anything else in particular (there are self-styled Nazis to whom I am not now saying anylhing, and about whom I am not now doing anything in particular either): under other conditions, I would look for the fastest and surest way to escape his power; under yet other conditions, I would do what I could, no doubt with others, to destroy him. The question to be asked in turn is whether, given a similar identity and under comparable conditions, anyone else, including an objectivist, could do or ever did otherwise. Second. I would suggest that “answering” the Nazi, in the sense of getting one’s ethical/ epistemological arguments in good axiological order, is not, in any case, what is wanted. What is wanted, I think, is a theoretically subtle and powerful analysis of the conditions and, even more important, dynamics or the Nazi’s emergence and access to power and, accordingly, a specification of political and other actions that might make that emergence and access less likely, both in one’s own neighborhood and elsewhere. It must be added, however, that any such analysis must expect to compete with others and. accordingly, with the specification of other political efforts, including — as we must never forget — those mounted by Nazis as well. The point is that, whereas “answering” the Nazi with axiologically grounded arguments will do nothing at all to prevent or destroy his power, developing theoretical analyses and political programs will not do everything. The latter will not be decisive: nothing can guarantee that the jackals will be kept at bay, neither axiology nor any specific alternative that replaces it.

    from Contingencies of Value, Harvard UP, 1988, pp 154-5.

  118. And for those who dispute that someone like Eichmann could possibly have justified his actions with reference to the “Jewish situation”:

    “I will leap into my grave laughing because the feeling that I have five million human beings on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction.”
    - Adolph Eichmann (1945), quoted at his trial for crimes against humanity in 1961

    Let me ask once again, is it the case that all arguments that Eichmann’s behavior violated an absolute standard of right and wrong are necessarily unjustified, because all ethical prescriptions are necessarily “situational” and “context-dependent/relative”?

  119. Allen, in my view a transcendent or absolute standard is neither necessary nor useful for opposing Eichmann and those like him. It may motivate you to act, but its absence does not stop me from acting.

    The supposed “need” for an absolute or objective standard shows rather the failure of the objectivist to imagine alternative views. In your comments, this is shown by repeated conflations of different words, conflations (such as “relative/ relativist” conflated with either “subjective,” “arbitrary,” or both) that inappropriately reframe the debate in your terms.

  120. Re composer in comment #100:

    “Even child abuse, from which we rightly recoil, cannot be prohibited without (relative and changing) definitions of what constitutes a child and what constitutes abuse.”

    But you have agreed that the prohibition of certain forms of child abuse (i.e. raping 2-year-olds) is universal, on the basis that no sane person would do so. In that case, why punish someone for doing so, rather than getting them psychological counseling for their “insanity”? And why lock them up, if preventing them from continuing such behavior isn’t predicated on the universal agreement that such behavior is, in fact wrong?

    It also strikes me that child abuse is only one of the ten examples of human behavior that are virtually universally prohibited in all human societies (the remaining nine are assault, battery, deliberate lying (for personal gain, to evade punishment, or to shift blame to others), extortion, kidnapping, murder, rape, theft, and vandalism. Are you therefore arguing that these behaviors cannot be considered to be ethically wrong absent a consideration of their “situation” or “context”?

    Yes, in Les Miserables Jean Valjean steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, and most people would argue that his was ethically justified in doing so. But making such an ethical judgment presupposes a hierarchy of ethical justifications, in which the higher ethical principles (and their justifications) become more “absolute” and “universal”, not less.

  121. In comment #117 composer wrote:

    “…a transcendent or absolute standard is neither necessary nor useful for opposing Eichmann and those like him.”

    If this is in fact the case, then what would be useful in opposing people like the Nazis (notice I didn’t ask what would be necessary, since from your comments it appears that you don’t think anything is “necessary” in the domain of ethics).

    Also:

    “It may motivate you to act, but its absence does not stop me from acting.”

    So, what would either motivate you to act or stop you from acting to oppose the actions of people like the Nazis? And, do you think that what would motivate you would necessarily motivate most people?

  122. Or, to bring this down to a more mundane level, if you discovered that your son (please assume for the sake of argument that you have a son) was extorting his classmates lunch money using threats of violence, how would you get him to stop? Specifically, would you tell him that it was wrong to do so, and if he asked why, would you tell him “that depends on the situation”?

    Indeed, would you feel that it was necessary for you to get your son to stop extorting his classmates, and if so, why?

  123. Allen you ask,

    In that case, why punish someone for doing so, rather than getting them psychological counseling for their “insanity”? And why lock them up, if preventing them from continuing such behavior isn’t predicated on the universal agreement that such behavior is, in fact wrong?

    I assume you’re asking because you think that, without a belief in absolute moral standards, we would have no moral standards at all. I dispute that. I would say that

    (a) abandoning absolute standards of judgment does not mean not judging from a particular perspective. That perspective may in fact be an imagined ideal of the “whole of humanity,” but such an ideal is still imagined, constructed, and perspectival.

    (b) judgments may be made, and are being made, socially and in context, and may be so enforced.

    Are you therefore arguing that these behaviors cannot be considered to be ethically wrong absent a consideration of their “situation” or “context”?

    I’m saying, among other things, that such behaviors are never considered at all absent situation/ context/ perspective. I’m also saying that they can be considered wrong but that nothing is gained, and in many cases much is lost, by saying that such wrongs must be considered objectively.

  124. And finally, it seems to me that the long quotation from Barbara Hernstein Smith reduces to “if I were confronted with a situation like the rise of the Nazis in Germany, I would either ignore them or avoid them if I could, but if I could not, then I would band together with others to use force to stop them.”

    Disregarding the historical fact that this was indeed what most people, both inside and outside Germany, did in response to the rise of the Nazis until it was nearly too late (indeed, was too late for 20 million+ people), the question remains, why would one take these approaches to the rise of the Nazis? To be as specific as possible, how would one justify taking the three alternative courses of action noted by Hernstein Smith?

  125. Allen,

    Or, to bring this down to a more mundane level, if you discovered that your son (please assume for the sake of argument that you have a son) was extorting his classmates lunch money using threats of violence, how would you get him to stop? Specifically, would you tell him that it was wrong to do so, and if he asked why, would you tell him “that depends on the situation”?

    What I would say or do would depend on the specifics, including how old my son is, who these people are, the history of his relationship with others, his motivation. (You’re not surpised.)

    I would ask you the same question, and further, if saying “it’s wrong” is likely to do a damn bit of good. What does an absolute standard give you beyond a way of closing off the difficult moral questions?

  126. Allen,

    To be as specific as possible, how would one justify taking the three alternative courses of action noted by Her[r]nstein Smith?

    The same ways one would justify any action: contextually. No moral decision confronts us absent context, and we make no moral decision absent context.

  127. 128

    Allen’s survey of ethical theory overlooks a third approach that has been gaining some favor among ethicists– virtue ethics.

    According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

    “Virtue ethics is currently one of three major approaches in normative ethics. It may, initially, be identified as the one that emphasizes the virtues, or moral character, in contrast to the approach which emphasizes duties or rules (deontology) or that which emphasizes the consequences of actions (consequentialism). [or teleological] Suppose it is obvious that someone in need should be helped. A utilitarian will point to the fact that the consequences of doing so will maximize well-being, a deontologist to the fact that, in doing so the agent will be acting in accordance with a moral rule such as “Do unto others as you would be done by” and a virtue ethicist to the fact that helping the person would be charitable or benevolent.”
    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-virtue/

    Virtue ethics in the west can be traced back to the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. I think also the best way to describe the teachings of Jesus is as virtue ethic. In many ways Christian ethics is compatible with the moral/ethical teachings of Plato and Aristotle. For example, Christians have no problem with Plato’s four cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, temperance (or moderation) and justice, though we like to add three more: faith (or compassion), hope and love, making a “perfect” seven.

    I think that one of the things that distinguishes a virtue ethic from either one of the other approaches (deontology and teleology) is the emphasis on the motive not the act.

    For example, one of the lessons of the story of the “Widows Mite” (actually it was two mites) is to contrast the motives of charitable giving. It is not simply that the widow gives sacrificially (all that she has) but that she does so for the right reasons. By contrast Jesus condemns the “moral ethicists” of his day for using alms giving to draw attention to themselves. The widow’s act is truly compassionate, while the rich moral teachers have mixed motives. That should serve as a warning to all moral ethicists everywhere.
    (See Mark 12:38-12:44) http://www.biblegateway.com/pa.....ersion=NIV

    The story of the “Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37) is another example of this.

    I would argue that in the gospels Jesus is actually condemning the strict deontological ethics which the Pharisees and Sadducees tried to live by. The heart, that what motivates us from the inside, needs to be pure and clean just like the inside of a cup or dish needs to be pure and clean.

    People that live that way are the kind of people that are willing to “go the extra mile” and give “the shirt off their backs” both phrases coined by Jesus of Nazareth. In other words, true ethical living is more than just doing our duty, it is going above and beyond duty.

    This also casts some doubt on a strict teleological ethic. What reward did the good Samaritan get for his kind act? Ironically, Jesus does not talk about any here. In other words, we should act compassionately not because it is rewarding but because it is compassionate. It is the kind of thing that we ought to do if we truly love our neighbor. And in this case Jesus mad it clear that neighbor =’s our fellow man.

    It is true that in the set up to the story a lawyer asked Jesus how he could gain eternal life, but that is lawyer’s motive not the Samaritan’s.

    I would argue that Jesus would condemn someone trying to do something just to gain eternal life. I think a careful reading of the Gospels bears this out.

  128. Allen,

    I’m curious about this:

    Disregarding the historical fact that this was indeed what most people, both inside and outside Germany, did in response to the rise of the Nazis until it was nearly too late (indeed, was too late for 20 million+ people) . . .

    Are you suggesting that an absolute standard would have helped? I think earlier responses could have been possible, but they too would have been (as all responses were) contextually made in response to contextual appeals. For example, appeals could be made to the shared interests of those on the side, to the loss entailed by Nazi victory, to their common humanity (and often common ethnicity and other more specific identities) with the victims of Nazi oppression. What would appeal to a universal moral code get you?

  129. Toronto, I think I was a little to hard on you at 110. Let me try another approach. Your original claim that a considerate guard had to play the role of a bad guy in order to protect victims. Thus, I agree that judging him to be deserving of the truth under those circumstances is a perfectly rational thing to do. On the other hand, some might just as easily be suspicious that he is setting someone up. It is a judgment call. Thus, if you believe him to be entitled to the truth, then it is morally acceptable to tell him the truth. I would likely have made the same choice. No one can know objectively whether someone is entitled to the truth because no one can know the depth of another person’s morality.

    We must make a prudential judgment. None of this changes the principle involved that we are obliged to tell someone the truth if we believe that they are entitled to the truth. So, your attempt to relativize the absolute moral code against lying by using the example of a prison guard who changes his stripes to protect his prisoners just doesn’t work.

  130. —Allen MacNeill: “In doing so, I was simply agreeing with vjtorley in comment #42 that one can make an argument for doing so. vjtorley provided an example of such an argument, in which he quoted extensively from an argument presented by Bill Kilcullen of Macquarie University, who referenced B. H. Baumrin (1968) “Aristotle’s Ethical Intuitionism” in The New Scholasticism, volume 42, pp.1-17.”

    I don’t think VJ was agreeing with you. I think he was acknowledging that an argument can be made for your position.

    —”Perhaps it would be more appropriate for stephenB to address his comments to that argument.”

    My address to that position has been on the record for a long time. I place Aristotle in the category of Eudaimonistic ethics. Inasmuch as you have not, as far as I can tell, even used that word in your renderings, I have to believe that your analysis and your categories are incomplete or, at the very least, skewed. I am sorry if that offends you. Unfortunately, I do not have time to go into it at the moment, but perhaps later I will.

  131. john_a_designer: “I think that one of the things that distinguishes a virtue ethic from either one of the other approaches (deontology and teleology) is the emphasis on the motive not the act.”

    That is exactly right. As I pointed out in an earlier post, the WHY matters just as much, and sometimes more, than the WHAT. Virtue ethics deserves its own category.

  132. StephenB: “we are obliged to tell someone the truth if we believe that they are entitled to the truth.”

    Entitled? Is that really what you meant? Seems like someone could ride that slippery slope for a long time.

    To make this topical, Jesus didn’t die for you because you were “entitled” to His forgiveness. Indeed, just the opposite is true.

  133. —riddick: “Entitled? Is that really what you meant? Seems like someone could ride that slippery slope for a long time.”

    That’s right. It applies only to those who are sincerely trying to do the right thing in an unusually difficult situaion. A cynic would try to use that same standard to avoid telling the truth in normal circumstances, and he would be immoral to do that. We are morally obliged to tell the truth when our listener is entitled to the truth, and that is almost always. On the other hand, the principle is obviously true–unless of course, you think the moral thing to do is say, “Yes, Mr. Nazi, I cannot tell a lie. The Jew is in my closet. Have at it.” That would be like saying a kindly prison guard who helps victims escape is immoral because he “disobeyed” his Nazi boss. Morality and good judgment are not enemies.

    —”To make this topical, Jesus didn’t die for you because you were “entitled” to His forgiveness. Indeed, just the opposite is true.”

    No, we were not “entitled” to Jesus forgiveness. Does the term” comparing apples and oranges” resonate with you?

  134. In comment #128 stephenB wrote:

    “I place Aristotle in the category of Eudaimonistic ethics. Inasmuch as you have not, as far as I can tell, even used that word in your renderings, I have to believe that your analysis and your categories are incomplete or, at the very least, skewed. I am sorry if that offends you.”

    On the contrary, stephenB, until reading your comment(s) here an following up your citations, I was unaware that a third category of Eudaimonistic ethics existed. So, my failure to mention them is simply the result of ignorance, pure and simple.

    And thank you in particular for the reference to Elizabeth Anscombe (commonly referred to in the literature as G. E. M. Anscombe). My only contact with her work to date has been a second-hand reference to her famous debate with C. S. Lewis, in which she purportedly so demolished Lewis’ arguments that he henceforth gave up writing formal (i.e. “academic”) articles on theology and switched to writing childrens’ books and popular apologetics. I intend to look up her work at Olin Library here at Cornell and try to remedy my ignorance.

  135. That said, I would also like to mention in passing that, in all of the textbooks I have in my own library on ethics and meta-ethical theory (upwards of a dozen volumes), there is no mention of Eudaimonistic ethics. There is, however, an article on “Eudaimona” in Wikipedia, which briefly mentions its application to ethics and the idea that Aristotle’s ethics (especially the Nichomachian ethics) are justified (or at least intended to bring about) the state of eudaimonia (literally “good” and “spirit”).

    Having now read through the description of Eudaimonia in the Wikipedia article and the biographical article on Elizabeth Anscombe, and given that Aristotle asserted that one should act in certain ways in order to bring about the end state of eudaimonia, it seems to me that eudaimonian ethics are actually a form of teleological ethics. This impression is further reinforced by Anscombe’s emphasis on “consequentialism” in ethics (indeed, she is credited with coining this term as a more precise characterization of teleology in ethics).

  136. Ah, having read further, it appears that Eudaimonian ethics are more often referred to as the ethics of virtue, which are covered (albeit briefly) in some of my ethics texts.

    Also, there seems to be agreement that “virtue ethics” are not consequentialist. Indeed, Anscombe coined the term “consequentialism” as a term in opposition to ethics formulated on the principle of “virtue”. That is, one either is or is not virtuous. To talk of becoming more or less virtuous is to fundamentally mistake the “quality” of being virtuous.

  137. 138
    john_a_designer

    Here’s an interesting story that I think illustrates a lot of the points that I was trying to make above in my discussion (comment #125) about virtue ethics.

    On March 23, 2008, in the Bering Sea off a Alaska, the fishing vessel the Alaska Ranger sent out a distress call that it was taking on water in it’s rudder room. When two coast guard helicopters arrived a couple of hours later, the Alaska Ranger was gone and 46 of it’s 47 crew members were in the water (The Alaska Ranger’s captain went down with his ship). Because of stormy seas and 20-25 foot swells, most of the crew had not made it into the life rafts. Spread over several miles the rest of the crew were struggling to survive alone or in small groups with only their survival suits to protect them from the freezing water.

    The first helicopter, a Sikorsky HH-60J Jayhawk, passed over a life raft (those men could survive the longest)and rescued about a dozen other men in the water. The second helicopter, a smaller Coastguard cutter based HH-65 Dolphin, however, only had room for four survivors, which meant after hoisting four men aboard, they would have to abandon the four other survivors they had located leaving them to face an almost certain death.

    It was then that Coastguard rescue swimmer, Abram Heller, volunteered to give up his place on the chopper so that one more man could live.

    It a risky and courageous decision that fortunately ended up happily. Abram was able to pull 3 more fishermen into a life raft and keep them alive till his chopper returned a couple of hours later to rescue them and him. In the end the Coastguard and another fishing vessel were able to rescue 42 of the 47 crewmembers of the Alaska Ranger from the Bering Sea alive. Tragically five lost their lives.

    For his heroism Heller received the Distinguished Flying Cross one of our countries highest awards.
    http://www.ktuu.com/global/story.asp?s=8845743

    Now here is what really I think is interesting about this story. If Abram had not volunteered to give up his place as a crewmember on the helicopter he would have done nothing morally wrong. It was his duty to risk his life to save others, but giving up his place on his helicopter was not his duty. That is why I think that any human ethic that takes up to duty and no further is insufficient. We know from our common human experience that often life demands us to do more than our duty. We need an ethic that teaches us that.

    Second, at least for me, what Abram Heller was willing to do is hard to reduce to some kind of rationalized self interest that Robert Wright and others try convince us is at the roots of human altruism . While it is true that Heller may have been initially attracted the idea of becoming a rescue swimmer because he thought it might be something cool to do (no pun intended), he soon discovered through his training, that it was going to be a very tough career for only the most tough minded individuals. The training that Coast Guard rescue swimmers go through ranks up there with the kind of training our other special forces (Navy SEALS, Army Rangers etc.) go through.

    There is no reason to think that Abram Heller did what he did for anything than the highest and purest motives. I don’t think he got up that morning thinking “gee maybe today I’ll rescue a lot of people and win the Distinguished Flying Cross.” His mission and motive was to save lives. That is what he was focused on. Saving lives is an end in and of itself. It is an intrinsically good thing to do.

    By the way, the rescue took place on a Sunday morning. Coincidently, in March 2008, it was Easter Sunday morning.

    Have a happy Easter everyone.

  138. Having now read about “virtue ethics”, it appears that most theories of virtue ethics assert that a “virtuous” person embodies (and therefore also exemplifies) a set of “qualities” that, taken together, constitute “virtue”.

    In the spirit of that idea, here is one such set of “qualities”:

    “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
    -Robert A. Heinlein

  139. Here’s another:

    “People in whom the Tao
    Acts without impediment
    Harm no other beings
    By their actions
    Yet they do not know themselves
    To be “kind”, to be “gentle”

    People in whom the Tao
    Acts without impediment
    Do not worry about their own interests
    And do not despise
    Others who do
    They do not struggle to make money
    And do not make a virtue of poverty

    They go their own way
    Without relying on others
    And do not pride themselves
    On walking alone
    While they do not follow the crowd
    They don’t complain of those who do.

    Rank and reward
    Make no appeal to them
    Disgrace and shame
    Do not deter them
    They are not always looking
    For “right” and “wrong”
    Always deciding “yes” or “no”

    The ancients said, therefore:

    People of Tao
    Remain unknown
    Perfect virtue
    Produces nothing

    “No-self”
    Is “True-self”
    And the greatest person
    Is nobody”

    - Chuang Tzu (translated by Thomas Merton, with modifications by Allen MacNeill

  140. In comment #128 stephenB wrote:

    “I don’t think VJ was agreeing with you. I think he was acknowledging that an argument can be made for your position.”

    Except that I wasn’t stating my “position”, as in “ethical position”, I was stating what I perceived to be the logic of the argument for classifying Aristotle’s ethics as deontological, rather than teleological. Now, having read some brief descriptions of eudaimonic ethics and virtue ethics, it seems to me that an argument can be made that Aristotle’s ethics partake of all three types: deontological, eudaimonic, and teleological, depending on one’s perspective and the particular case to which his ethical views are applied.

  141. 142

    Allen MacNeill: “Now, having read some brief descriptions of eudaimonic ethics and virtue ethics, it seems to me that an argument can be made that Aristotle’s ethics partake of all three types: deontological, eudaimonic, and teleological, depending on one’s perspective and the particular case to which his ethical views are applied.”

    I would argue that if we were to draw a Venn diagram all three ethical approaches would have areas of overlap. All three would overlap in places and there would be area’s where just two would overlap. However, there are also things that make each approach unique.

    I think there are ways that Virtue ethics is distinct from the deontological and teleological approaches. If nothing else virtue ethics is unique because it’s emphasis on virtue. But I think there are other things that set virtue ethics apart– for example, it’s emphasis on motives.

    The SEP article on “Virtue Ethics,” for example, has this to say about motives.

    “To possess a virtue is to be a certain sort of person with a certain complex mindset…

    “The most significant aspect of this mindset is the wholehearted acceptance of a certain range of considerations as reasons for action. An honest person cannot be identified simply as one who, for example, practices honest dealing, and does not cheat. If such actions are done merely because the agent thinks that honesty is the best policy, or because they fear being caught out, rather than through recognising “To do otherwise would be dishonest” as the relevant reason, they are not the actions of an honest person…

    “An honest person’s reasons and choices with respect to honest and dishonest actions reflect her views about honesty and truth — but of course such views manifest themselves with respect to other actions, and to emotional reactions as well. Valuing honesty as she does, she chooses, where possible to work with honest people, to have honest friends, to bring up her children to be honest. She disapproves of, dislikes, deplores dishonesty, is not amused by certain tales of chicanery, despises or pities those who succeed by dishonest means rather than thinking they have been clever, is unsurprised, or pleased (as appropriate) when honesty triumphs, is shocked or distressed when those near and dear to her do what is dishonest and so on.”
    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-virtue/

  142. Allen,

    John,

    For me, what sets virtue ethics apart is the emphasis on being rather than doing. By practicing good habits and eliminating bad habits, the individual comes to a point at which he instinctively does the right thing because he has trained his “will” to prefer it. One of the most important aspects of virtue theory is that the will can be trained to prefer what it ought to prefer.

    This, of course, ties in nicely with Allen’s contention that morality is, indeed, an objective reality, that some behaviors really are to be encouraged more than other behaviors. Naturally, that takes us to Aristotle’s notion of the golden mean, which expresses virtue as the optimum mid-point between the two extremes, both of which are vices. Hence, courage stands tall as the preferred virtue as the midpoint between cowardice at one extreme and mindless recklessness at the other extreme.

    Equally important, this formulation also provides the roadmap both for growing in virtue and even for making the transition from vice to virtue. From a psychological point of view, the intellect provides the “target,” by understanding the virtue [the golden mean] and the will “shoots the arrow” by aiming at, practicing, and perfecting that virtue. If, as it turns out, the individual is immersed in vice and cannot practice the hoped for virtue, Aristotle has the solution.

    Just as a bent twig is made straight by twisting it in the opposite direction, the individual bends his habit of vice, so to speak, by acting in ways that bend his will in the opposite direction. Thus, the coward begins acting in courageous ways even though his inclinations are tugging away at him and begging him to do otherwise. In like fashion, gluttony can be transformed into temperance, greed can moderate into self interest, anger can be transformed into constructive initiatives, sloth can be transformed into industry, and lust can be transformed into altruism.

    Of course, if the individual, or society for that matter, denies or militates against the idea of objective morality, there can be no moral growth—only decay. There are no moral planes for individuals or societies. Obviously, one cannot hit a moral target that one does not aim at or even acknowledge. This, by the way, is the way that we measure a culture. A good culture is one in which it is easy to practice virtue and hard to practice vice; a bad culture is one in which it is easy to practice vice and hard to practice virtue.

  143. 144
    john_a_designer

    StephenB,

    Good point.

    Because the virtuous person is virtuous, he lives a virtuous life and does the virtuous or right things.

    The goal of a virtue ethic is to create a virtuous person.

  144. Re john_a_designer in comment #144:

    Just a slight quibble: if virtue ethics have a “goal” (that is, one “emulates” or “pursues” virtue in order to “create a virtuous person”, then (according to this view) virtue ethics are teleological and seem to me also to be consequentialist. However, G. E. M. Anscombe argued for the position that virtue ethics were not consequentialist. How does one reconcile these diametrically opposed viewpoints?

  145. 146
    john_a_designer

    Allen,

    Did you read my earlier post? (#142) I wrote:

    “I would argue that if we were to draw a Venn diagram all three ethical approaches would have areas of overlap. All three would overlap in places and there would be area’s where just two would overlap. However, there are also things that make each approach unique.”

    I don’t think that is contradictory to suggest that virtue ethics (or deontological ethics for that matter) share the idea of “goal or goals” with teleological ethics. It’s an area where they overlap. On the other hand, however, I think there is some distinction as far what constitutes a goal from the perspective of virtue ethics vs. consequentialist ethic. For example, in consequentialist ethics the goal is attached to the ethical act itself. In other words, to determine if some act is ethical we look at it outcome or consequence or it’s “goal”. After all, isn’t that what an outcome or consequence is? So in consequential ethics, ethical acts themselves are seen as having goals.

    When I said that “The goal of a virtue ethic is to create a virtuous person.” I wasn’t talking about the act but the actor. The goal I was talking about was the actor’s moral education. Teaching a person so he or she would be able think and act morally. Do you see the difference?

  146. Yes, indeed, John. Indeed, I have argued in other venues that the semantic distinction between deontological and teleological ethics (to which I would now add virtue ethics) that turns on the “hinge of time” – that is, which depend on whether or not one considers what happens after one formulates one’s ethics – seems both forced and pointless.

    That said, I find it very interesting that most people can very easily understand the concepts of teleological and/or consequentialist ethics, but find it difficult to get their head around deontological ethics (and, I presume, virtue ethics as well). I think this is because most people automatically and almost universally think teleologically, but have somewhat more difficulty grasping something that is simultaneously law-like and non-teleological.

    Personally, I think that all valid ethics are teleological, at least at some level. I have already pointed out how virtue ethics can be “reformatted” as teleological ethics, and I believe that a similar “semantic operation” can do the same for deontological ethics.

    Indeed, in my seminars on these subjects at Cornell, some of my students have independently come up with arguments that “reformat” deontological arguments as teleological ones.

    For example, Kant’s “categorical imperative” against lying can be reformatted as a kind of “balanced equilibrium” between the effects of lying and telling the truth. If I am allowed to lie, but I expect others to tell me the truth, and if this is “universalized” to everyone, then the effect is render all statements as suspect as potential lies. This means that, summed over time, the most effective course of action at the level of society is to both exhort others to tell the truth and to do so oneself. Yes, some people will still lie, but their effect on the overall veracity of most people’s statements will be relatively small.

    That is, an equilibrium will be reached between lies and true statements in the interactions between individuals in society>.

    If the equilibrium shifts toward the “lying is okay” end of the spectrum, then people will tend to generalize their experiences to every statement, and social interaction in general will grind to a halt as everyone suspects everyone else to be lying, and those individuals tell lies cannot benefit from doing so. Under such conditions, even liars will eventually start telling the truth, as doing so is the only way for effective social interactions to resume taking place. Overall, therefore, it seems likely that “universalizing” lying is inherently self-limiting.

    By the same argument, if the equilibrium shifts toward the “only true statements are okay” end of the spectrum, people who continue to lie will gain an advantage, as most people will assume they are telling the truth. Once again, an equilibrium sets in, whereby a certain fraction of all statements are true, counterbalanced by a corresponding fraction of false statements. As in the case of “universalized lying” it seems likely that “universalizing” telling the truth is also inherently self-limiting.

    Which, of course, leads to the “universal” advice to “trust, but verify.”

    Notice that both of these examples are both teleological and consequentialist in that both involve ethics that are based on intentions, rather than “states of being”, and both involve ethical prescriptions that have consequences that affect their justification over time.

    Ergo, it seems to me that even apparently non-teleological and non-consequentialist ethics (e.g. Kantian formalism and virtue ethics, respectively) are, in effect teleological and consequentialist.

  147. Finally (as it seems this thread is finally fizzling out), let me say how much I have enjoyed our discussion here, not the least because it has helped me clarify in my own mind what I think about these issues. It has also been very gratifying that almost all of the comments here have been generally free of the rancor and personal attacks that seem all to common in the discussions here (and elsewhere).

    We have been discussion matters of the absolute first importance – how should one conduct one’s life, and why – and yet have been able to discuss these things with honesty and openness, even when we have disagreed. I thank you all for this, and hope that it will not be the last such discussion.

    And, in closing: for those who are about to celebrate it, Happy Easter!

  148. I’ve enjoyed this thread as well, Allen.
    It’s amazing how much better it goes when you don’t introduce yourself by attacking the civility and honesty of those you’d wish to have a discussion with … no?

    Happy Easter!

  149. To me, consequential ethics differs from virtue ethics to such an extent that it seems unwise to place them in the same category. Let’s take a very brief look at both:

    The formulation for consequential ethics seems simple enough at first glance: An act is ethical if it produces good consequences. But if we probe the issue a little further, we realize that there is no way to measure that which we had hoped to measure.

    First, no one really knows much about the immediate consequence of any act, let alone its long term consequences. Did a sensitive friend in the throes of depression commit suicide because we inadvertently forgot to say good morning? We will likely never know if we played a role, nor will we likely perceive how that tragic result affected the actions of others, or how drove the chain of events that followed. Indeed, every word we speak and even every thought that we have has repercussions into eternity, yet we haven’t a clue about how it will play out.

    Equally important, we cannot even define a “good” consequence without knowing what, if anything, we were made for. If we are supposed to be in the business of becoming saints so that we will be fit for the next life, then any act that interferes with that development is not a good consequence, even if pleases us and everyone around us. Conversely, if we are supposed to be in the business of enjoying life, and in no other business, then any act that furthers that aim is good, even if we do not grow in virtue, assuming that such a thing as virtue is possible under those circumstances.

    With virtue ethics, on the other hand, the act is inseparable from the disposition and intent that informed it. We can, for example, console someone who is depressed solely for the purpose of impressing onlookers, in which case we are not practicing virtue at all. Put another way, we can do the right thing for the wrong reasons. Conversely, if we do it for the right reason, namely compassion, we confirm and even strengthen that virtue, making it easier for us the next time until, after a time, it becomes second nature and we literally become a compassionate person.

    While providing a teaching that resembles Aristotle’s ethics in many important ways, Christianity also brought virtue ethics to a new level, especially with respect to the thought that gives rise to the action, which I discussed on another post. No one ever fussed much about anger and lust until Christ came along, a truly monumental and revolutionary development.

    Adding yet another component to the mix, Christ rearranged some of the virtues and even contradicted one or two of them. For Aristotle, virtue is often expressed in terms of pride and greatness; for Christ, it takes the shape of humility and seeking the lower place. Aristotle’s ethics, if perfected, produces Alexander the great; Christian ethics, if perfected, produces martyrs. Christian virtue practiced without compromise always leads to the cross because it speaks truth to power. On the other side of that cross, though, is the hope of a ressurection.

    Happy Easter.

  150. 151

    Before you run off Allen consider this critique of consequential/ teleological ethics by G. E. M. Anscombe, in her paper “Modern Moral Philosophy.“

    She writes that, “the consequentialist has no footing on which to say ‘This would be permissible, this not’; because by his own hypothesis, it is the consequences that are to decide, and he has no business to pretend that he can lay it down what possible twists a man could give doing this or that; the most he can say is: a man must not bring about this or that; he has no right to say he will, in an actual case, bring about such and such unless he does so and so. Further, the consequentialist, in order to be imagining borderline cases at all, has of course to assume some sort of law or standard according to which this is a borderline case, Where then does he get the standard from? In practice the answer invariably is: from the standards current in his society or his circle. And it has in fact been the mark of all these philosophers that they have been extremely conventional; they have nothing in them by which to revolt against the conventional standards of their sort of people; it is impossible that they should be profound. But the chance that a whole range of conventional standards will be decent is small.- Finally, the point of considering hypothetical situations, perhaps very improbable ones, seems to be to elicit from yourself or someone else a hypothetical decision to do something of a bad kind. I don’t doubt this has the effect of predisposing people–who will never get into the situations for which they have made hypothetical choices-to consent to similar bad actions, or to praise and flatter those who do them, so long as their crowd does so too, when the desperate circumstances imagined don’t hold at all.”

    In other words, even to begin using the moral calculus that the consequentialists use you need to have some kind of moral/ethical framework with which to begin. I think you are assuming that just because someone considers some future consequence that makes him a consequentialist. That is simply not the way it is described in the literature, by either consequential ists or their critics.

  151. Allen,

    I only have time for a quick post.
    Re the great debate between Anscombe and Lewis, you might like to read this:

    http://books.google.com/books?.....38;f=false

    (“The Green Witch and the Great Debate: Freeing Narnia from the Spell of the Lewis-Anscombe Legend” by Victor Reppert.)

    Re dolphin altruism: can a dolphin tell us why it did what it did, when it rescued someone? Can a dolphin explain to another dolphin why rescuing someone is a good thing to do?

  152. By the way, happy Easter everyone.

  153. Anscombe never believed in that myth about the debate and felt it derived more from Lewis’ friends than anything he felt in its aftermath.
    She pointed out flaws in his argument, not his conclusions, and he recognized that she was right and improved his case in clarifying.

  154. Great post Stephen B (150)

    Happy Easter.

    He is risen!

    Indeed He’s risen!

  155. Happy Easter:
    Don Francisco – He’s Alive – music video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DX1pShR4cww

  156. 157

    Vjtorley and Charlie, Great points about the Anscombe C.S. Lewis debate (comments 152 & 154). There is no excuse for creating myth and legend when we have accurate contemporaneous historical accounts of actually what happened.

    Indeed, here is Ms. Anscombe’s own clarification of what happened:

    “The fact that Lewis rewrote that chapter, and rewrote it so that it now has those qualities [to meet Anscombe's objections], shows his honesty and seriousness. The meeting of the Socratic Club at which I read my paper has been described by several of his friends as a horrible and shocking experience which upset him very much. Neither Dr. Havard (who had Lewis and me to dinner a few weeks later) nor Professor Jack Bennet remembered any such feelings on Lewis’s part [...] My own recollection is that it was an occasion of sober discussion of certain quite definite criticisms, which Lewis’s rethinking and rewriting showed he thought was accurate. I am inclined to construe the odd accounts of the matter by some of his friends—who seem not to have been interested in the actual arguments of the subject-matter—as an interesting example of the phenomenon called projection.”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G._E._M._Anscombe

    Wikipedia adds:

    “As a result of the weaknesses pointed out in the contest, Lewis did substantially rewrite his argument for future editions of the book.”

    That’s how give-and-take discussions and debates should proceed– shouldn’t they?

  157. Re the Anscombe v. Lewis debate:

    http://dangerousidea.blogspot......egend.html

    http://ralphriver.blogspot.com.....lewis.html

    Personally, I don’t have a dog in this fight, but I find it very interesting. Another example of the “Rashamon” effect vis-a-vis famous encounters between philosophers is this one:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W.....ilosophers

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/book.....tbookaward

    Apparently, which person you think “won” the debate (i.e. Anscombe or Lewis, Popper or Wittegenstein) depends on which “side” you were on. This observation extends to descriptions of the event, which makes one wonder about the veracity of “eye witness” accounts, especially concerning controversial events in which there are two diametrically opposed sides.

    So, what is “truth” and how is one to ascertain it?

    P.S. I also find it interesting that the two debates cited here have one factor in common: Ludwig Wittgenstein. G. E. M. Anscombe is widely recognized as the foremost scholar of Wittgenstein’s works. She learned German in order to translate them, and worked with Wittgenstein for most of his life, becoming his de facto literary executor following his death.

    P.P.S. The other thing these two events have in common is that they both happened at meetings of student-organized and student-run “philosophical societies”. If only such organizations existed today…

  158. I tried to start one at Cornell a few years ago, but no students showed up. It was billed as a “philosophy café” and was scheduled in one of the most popular coffee houses/snack bars in the center of the student housing area called “North Campus” at Cornell, on a weekday evening in a week without major exams. And the subject was “evolution and design”, so you might think that at least somebody from one side or the other would show up, if for no other reason than to see if there were any fireworks. And, lest you jump to the conclusion that it had something to do with me, my name was not on any of the publicity.

    But, much to my chagrin and disappointment, nobody showed up, from either side. such is the state of philosophy in the mind of university students today (at least at Cornell)…

  159. Re stephenB in comment #150:

    Once again, I can find almost nothing to disagree with in your comment. And let me close once again by saying, I really appreciate your dedication and the forthright and lucid way in which you express what are clearly very strongly held opinions on your part. I believe I have already quoted Ernst Mayr on this. He was famous for his equally uncompromising presentation of his views. When questioned about this, he stated that he believed that one should state one’s views as clearly and as forcefully as possible, with as little equivocation as possible, given the current state of knowledge of the subject under discussion. This way, everyone would know exactly where one stands on the subject being debated, and can more effectively formulate their own responses, regardless of whether they agreed or disagreed.

    Of course, Mayr also believed that one should attack arguments, not the character of those presenting them. This is, of course, difficult to do, and although I have tried to emulate Mayr in both of these ways, I have often found myself falling short. Whenever this happens, I tell myself to do better next time. Thus do we approach that state captured by the Greek work arete’, which is often translated into English as “virtue”, and which Robert Pirsig translated as “quality” in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (one of a half dozen or so books that forcefully changed my life).

  160. Sorry, “work” should be “word”

    (multiple meanings intended, of course)

  161. Once again, go out and enjoy this luminous and very special day!

    …and, for my part, I shall once again remind myself that all days we are alive and in each others’ company are equally luminous and special.

  162. —Allen: “And let me close once again by saying, I really appreciate your dedication and the forthright and lucid way in which you express what are clearly very strongly held opinions on your part. I believe I have already quoted Ernst Mayr on this. He was famous for his equally uncompromising presentation of his views. When questioned about this, he stated that he believed that one should state one’s views as clearly and as forcefully as possible, with as little equivocation as possible, given the current state of knowledge of the subject under discussion. This way, everyone would know exactly where one stands on the subject being debated, and can more effectively formulate their own responses, regardless of whether they agreed or disagreed.”

    Thank you for the comments and the context. Even on difficult subjects, I try to reduce the complexities to their simplest essence, provided our course, that I have waded through the complexities such that I know what is absolutely essential and what isn’t. Some excellent bloggers on this very site do things differently, preferring to round off the edges as they go. I choose to go straight for the bottom line and round off the edges after the debate has started. Here is what I have found: If I try to round off all the edges early on, providing every conceivable qualifyer and possible exceptions to my point, my adversaries obsess over the qualifyers, ignore the main point, and try to reframe the issue in terms of the qualifier. I try to discourage that tactic. Thus, while my style does not render me totally impervious to distractions, it clearly seeks to minimize them. The important thing about going for the bottom line, in my judgment, is to know in advance and as much as possible, which edges may need to be rounded off if necessary.

    —”Of course, Mayr also believed that one should attack arguments, not the character of those presenting them. This is, of course, difficult to do, and although I have tried to emulate Mayr in both of these ways, I have often found myself falling short. Whenever this happens, I tell myself to do better next time.”

    Yes, and the good news is that we can, if we falter, repent of our excesses even during the interchange itself.

  163. off topic:
    Here is the new documentary on the Shroud of Turin that was on the History Channel last night:

    The Real Face Of Jesus
    http://www.youtube.com/view_pl.....EBD3C6212A

  164. 165
    Barry Arrington

    This has been a fantastic thread. Thank you, Allen, for leading it with a very becoming combination of verve and lucidity. StephenB, as always, your comments are invaluable. To all the commenters, thank you.

    Happy Easter,

    Barry

    This thread is now closed.

  165. 166

    composer,

    they are absolute, for you cannot escape it in any way, relativism is an illusion. If you starve the body it’s natural food, it will gobble poison, and that is what happens when you replace absolutism with relativism.

  166. 167

    bornagain77,

    I watched that documentary last night, I thought it was very, very interesting. But please, keep the comments on topic.