Suppose I want to convince you of something. I must use premises that you accept. For if I argue from premises that you do not accept, you will reject my argument no matter how rigorous and cogent my reasoning.
So how can we get through to those liberals who are willing to listen? Not by invoking any Bible-based or theological premises. And not by deploying the sorts of non-theological but intellectually demanding arguments found in my Abortion category. The demands are simply too great for most people in this dumbed-down age.
Liberals support inclusivity and non-discrimination. Although contemporary liberals abuse these notions, as I have documented time and again, the notions possess a sound core and can be deployed sensibly. To take one example, there is simply no defensible basis for discrimination against women and blacks when it comes to voting. The reforms in this area were liberal reforms, and liberals can be proud of them. A sound conservatism, by the way, takes on board the genuine achievements of old-time liberals.
Another admirable feature of liberals is that they speak for the poor, the weak, the voiceless. That this is often twisted into the knee-jerk defense of every underdog just in virtue of his being an underdog, as if weakness confers moral superiority, is no argument against the admirableness of the feature when reasonably deployed.
So say this to the decent liberals: If you prize inclusivity, then include unborn human beings. If you oppose discrimination, why discriminate against them? If you speak for the poor, the weak, and the voiceless, why do you not speak for them?
. . . the prevailing thought of the second decade of the 21st century is not like the mid-to late-20th century. Law, virtue, and a shame culture have risen to prominence in recent years, signaling that moral relativism may be going the way of the buggy whip.
[. . .]
In The New York Times last week, David Brooks argued that while American college campuses were “awash in moral relativism” as late as the 1980s, a “shame culture” has now taken its place. The subjective morality of yesterday has been replaced by an ethical code that, if violated, results in unmerciful moral crusades on social media.
A culture of shame cannot be a culture of total relativism. One must have some moral criteria for which to decide if someone is worth shaming.
I find the article confused, but in an instructive way. What is dying is not moral relativism but moral fallibilism. And what is on the rise is not moral absolutism but moral dogmatism. People are becoming more dogmatic in their moral commitments. But this is consistent with being a moral relativist. Or so I shall argue. There are two distinction-pairs in play and they 'cut perpendicular' to each other. Absolute-relative is one pair; dogmatic-fallible the other. This makes for four combinations.
A. Dogmatic moral absolutism. Moral values and disvalues and the truths that record them are absolute: not relative to individuals, cultures, historical epochs, social classes, racial or ethnic groups, or any other index. So if slavery is morally wrong, it is wrong period, which implies that it is wrong always and everywhere and for everyone. What makes one dogmatic in one's moral absolutism, however, is the further claim to know these values and truths with certainty, and/or the readiness to act upon them uncompromisingly, by say shouting down opponents.
B. Fallibilistic moral absolutism. Moral values are absolute, but the fallibilist admits that moral judgments are fallible or subject to error. Consider the claim that a pre-natal human being is greater in value than a healthy adult dolphin. An absolutist will hold that this claim, if true, is absolutely true. But if the absolutist is a fallibilist he will admit that he could be wrong about whether it is true. The fallibilist can be expected to tolerate those who disagree while the dogmatist can be expected to be intolerant.
C. Dogmatic moral relativism. Presumably everyone reading this will agree that slavery is a great moral evil. It is a fact, however, that it was not held to be a great evil at all times and in all places. This fact inclines some to maintain that moral values are relative, to historical epochs, say. Suppose Tom is an historical relativist about moral values, but Tim is not any sort of moral relativist. They can both be uncompromisingly committed to opposing slavery even unto shaming and shunning those who think otherwise. This shows, I think, that a moral relativist can be just as dogmatic (non-fallibilist) as a moral absolutist.
I conclude from this that a rise in moral dogmatism should not be confused with a decline in moral relativism. Moral relativism may be on the decline; but this cannot be shown by citing a rise in moral dogmatism.
D. Fallibilistic moral relativism. This is a consistent position. One might hold that that moral values are culturally relative while also holding that one could be wrong about which putative values within one's culture are the binding values within one's culture, or without agreeing how to rank order competing values within one's culture. For example, liberty and equality are both values. Suppose they are not absolute but relative to Western culture. One can still have doubts about whether liberty trumps equality or vice versa. If Tom says that liberty trumps equality, and Tom is a fallibilist, then Tom will be open to arguments to the contrary.
This entry continues the discussion with Jacques about patriotism begun in Is Patriotism a Good Thing? The topic is murky and difficult and we have been meandering some, but at the moment we are discussing the ground of patriotism's moral permissibility. What makes patriotism morally permissible, assuming that it is? We have been operating with a characterization of patriotism as love of, and loyalty to, one's country. (A characterization needn't be a definition in the strict sense of a specification of the necessary and sufficient conditions for the correct application of the definiendum. Or so say I.)
Here is part of our last exchange:
Now my surrejoinder:
I take you to be committed to the proposition that a logically sufficient condition of the moral permissibility of a person's being loyal to his family is just that he be a member of it. And similarly for the moral permissibility of loyalty to larger groups up to and including the nation.
But this is entirely too thin a basis for the moral permissibility of loyalty. Why? Because it allows such permissibility even if the group to which one is loyal has no worthwhile features at all. And surely this is absurd.
You might respond that in actuality no group is devoid of worthwhile attributes. You would be right about that, but all I need is the possibility of such a group for my objection to go through.
I think you agree with me that patriotism is not jingoism. In my original post I characterized jingoism as bellicose chauvinism. So imagine some jingoist who trumpets "My country right or wrong." He could invoke your theory in justification of his attitude. He might say, agreeing with you: My country is mine, and its being mine suffices to make it morally permissible for me to prefer my country over every other, and to take its side in any conflict with any other, regardless of the nature of the conflict and regardless of any moral outrages my country has perpetrated on the other. Do you want to give aid and comfort to such jingoism?
Is your loyalty to your rapist friend (or to your Muslim friend whom you have just discovered to have participated in the Paris terrorist attack) logically consistent with turning him into the police? Assume that 'ratting him out' will lead to his execution. Would you remain a loyal friend if you did that? Can a 'rat' be loyal? I would say No, and that you (morally) must turn him in. It is morally obligatory that you turn him in. It is therefore morally impermissible that you abstract away from his attributes and deeds and consider merely the fact that he is your friend.
I take that to show that the moral permissibility of loyalty to a friend cannot be grounded merely in the fact that he is your friend.
I'm sure you've heard a lot about the Mizzou [University of Missouri] protests so I'll spare you the details. But one particular debate caught my eye. Some of these student protesters claimed that the press has no right to photograph them because to do such is an intrusion on their privacy (obviously the press has a legal right to do such). Some people respond by saying that since Mizzou is a public space (it's a public university) you have no right to privacy in public spaces. But of course you still have some right to privacy in public areas (the right not to have your person searched without a warrant, the right to use a bathroom without people watching, etc.) So what are the moral grounds (as opposed to the legal grounds) for saying that the press should have unrestricted access to photograph things in plain view in public spaces?
Protests and demonstrations occur in public, and for good reason: the whole point is to make public one's concerns. So there is something deeply paradoxical about protesters who object to being photographed or televised. It is paradoxical to go public with one's protest and then object to reporters and other people who give you publicity. It is incoherent to suppose that a space in which one is noisily protesting and perhaps disrupting normal goings-on can be a 'safe space' into which the public at large cannot intrude, even at a distance, with cameras and such.
Paradox and incoherence aside, the protesters have no moral right not to be photographed given that they have occupied and disturbed the peace of public spaces. Does the press have the unrestricted moral right to photograph things in plain view in public spaces? No, not an unrestricted right. But surely they have the right to photograph what is in plain view in a public place if the ones photographed are protesting or demonstrating whether peacefully or violently.
Suppose a couple are enjoying a tête-à-tête under a tree in the quad. Does a roving photog have the moral right to snap a photo? I say No. He has a moral obligation not to do such a thing without permission. So I would say that is not just a question of good manners, but a question of morality.
Peter Lupu called me last night to report that it had occurred to him that the famous Euthyphro Dilemma, first bruited in the eponymous early Platonic dialog, reflects a difference between two conceptions of God. One is the God-as-Being-itself conception; the other is the God-as-supreme-being conception. After he hung up, I recalled that in June, 2009 I had written a substantial entry on the Euthyphro Problem. I reproduce it here with some edits and additions in the expectation that it will help Peter think the matter through. I look forward to his comments. The ComBox is open.
The Euthyphro Problem
The locus classicus is Stephanus 9-10 in the early Platonic dialog, Euthyphro. This aporetic dialog is about the nature of piety, and Socrates, as usual, is in quest of a definition. Euthyphro proposes three definitions, with each of which Socrates has no trouble finding fault. According to the second, "piety is what all the gods love, and impiety is what all the gods hate." To this Socrates famously responds, "Do the gods love piety because it is pious, or is it pious because they love it?" In clearer terms, do the gods love pious acts because they are pious, or are pious acts pious because the gods love them?
But leaving piety and its definition aside, let us grapple with the deepest underlying issue as it affects the foundations of morality. As I see it, the Euthyphro problem assumes its full trenchancy and interest in the following generalized form of an aporetic dyad:
1. The obligatory is obligatory in virtue of its being commanded by an entity with the power to enforce its commands.
2. The obligatoriness of the obligatory cannot derive from some powerful entity's commanding of it.
It is clear that these propositions are inconsistent: they cannot both be true. What's more, they are contradictories: each entails the negation of the other. And yet each limb of the dyad is quite reasonably accepted, or so I shall argue. Thus the problem is an aporia: a set of propositions that are individually plausible but jointly inconsistent. Specifically, the problem is an antinomy: the limbs are logical contradictories and yet each limb make a strong claim on our acceptance.
Ad (1). The obligatory comprises what one ought to do, what one must, morally speaking, do. Now one might think that (1) is obviously false. If I am obliged to do X or refrain from doing Y, then one might think that the obligatoriness would be independent of any command, and thus independent of any person or group of persons who issues a command. The obligatory might be commanded, but being commanded is not what makes it obligatory on this way of thinking; it is rightly commanded because it is obligatory, rather than obligatory because it is commanded. And if one acts in accordance with a command to do something obligatory the obligatoriness of which does not derive from its being commanded, then, strictly speaking, one has not obeyed the command. To obey a command to do X is to do X because one is so commanded; to act in accordance with a command need not be to obey it. So if I obey a divine command to do X, I do X precisely and only because God has commanded it, and not because I discern X to be in itself obligatory, or both in itself obligatory and commanded by God.
There is a difference between obeying a command and acting in accordance with one. One can do the latter without doing the former, but not vice versa. Or if you insist, 'obey' is ambiguous: it has a strict and a loose sense. I propose using the term in the strict sense. Accordingly, I have not obeyed a command simply because I have acted in accordance with it; I have obeyed it only if I have so acted because it was commanded.
Consider an example. If one is obliged to feed one's children, if this is what one ought to do, there is a strong tendency to say that one ought to do it whether anyone or anything (God, the law, the state) commands it, and regardless of any consequences that might accrue if one were to fail to do it. One ought to do it because it is the right thing to do, the morally obligatory thing to do, something one (morally) must do. Thinking along these lines, one supposes that the oughtness or obligatoriness of what we are obliged to do as it were 'hangs in the air' unsupported by a conscious being such as God or some non-divine commander. Or to change the metaphor, the obligatory is 'laid up in Plato's heaven.' William James, however, reckons this a superstition:
But the moment we take a steady look at the question, we see not only that without a claim actually made by some concrete person there can be no obligation, but that there is some obligation wherever there is a claim. Claim and obligation are, in fact, coextensive terms; they cover each other exactly. Our ordinary attitude of regarding ourselves as subject to an overarching system of moral relations, true "in themselves," is therefore either an out‑and‑out superstition, or else it must be treated as a merely provisional abstraction from that real Thinker in whose actual demand upon us to think as he does our obligation must be ultimately based. In a theistic ethical philosophy that thinker in question is, of course, the Deity to whom the existence of the universe is due. "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life" in The Will to Believe, p. 194.
James' point is that there is no abstract moral 'nature of things' existing independently of conscious beings. Thus the obligatoriness of an action we deem obligatory is not a property it has intrinsically apart from any relation to a subject who has desires and makes demands. The obligatoriness of an act must be traced back to the "de facto constitution of some existing consciousness."
Building on James' point, one could argue persuasively that if there is anything objectively obligatory, obligatory for all moral agents, then obligatoriness must be derivable from the will of an existing consciousness possessing the power to enforce its commands with respect to all who are commanded. A theist will naturally identify this existing consciousness with God.
Ad (2). In contradiction to the foregoing, however, it seems that (2) is true. To derive the obligatoriness of acts we deem obligatory from the actual commands of some de facto existing consciousness involves deriving the normative from the non-normative — and this seems clearly to be a mistake. If X commands Y, that is just a fact; how can X's commanding Y establish that Y ought to be done? Suppose I command you to do something. (Suppose further that you have not entered into a prior agreement with me to do as I say.) How can the mere fact of my issuing a command induce in you any obligation to act as commanded? Of course, I may threaten you with dire consequences if you fail to do as I say. If you then act in accordance with my command, you have simply submitted to my will in order to avoid the dire consequences — and not because you have perceived any obligation to act as commanded.
The Problem Applied to Islam
Now it seems clear that there is nothing meritorious in mere obedience, in mere submission to the will of another, even if the Other is the omnipotent lord of the universe. Surely, the mere fact that the most powerful person in existence commands me to do something does not morally oblige me to do it. Not even unlimited Might makes Right. It is no different from the situation in which a totalitarian state such as the Evil Empire of recent memory commands one to do something. Surely Uncle Joe's command to do X on pain of the gulag if one refuses to submit does not confer moral obligatoriness on the action commanded. In fact, mere obedience is the opposite of meritorious: it is a contemptible abdication of one's autonomy and grovelling acceptance of heteronomy.
And here is where Islam comes into the picture. The root meaning of 'Islam' is not 'peace' but submission to the will of Allah. But a rational, self-respecting, autonomous agent cannot submit to the will of Allah, or to the will of any power, unless the commands of said power are as it were 'independently certifiable.' In other words, only if Allah commands what is intrinsically morally obligatory could a self-respecting, autonomous agent act in accordance with his commands. In fact, one could take it a step further: a self-respecting, autonomous agent is morally obliged to act in accordance with Allah's commands only if what is commanded is intrinsically obligatory.
Of course, this way of thinking makes God or Allah subject to the moral law, as to something beyond divine control. But if there is anything beyond divine control, whether the laws of morality or the laws of logic, then it would seem that the divine aseity and sovereignty is compromised. For perhaps the best recent defense of absolute divine sovereignty, see Hugh J. McCann, Creation and the Sovereignty of God, Indiana UP, 2012. For my critique, see "Hugh McCann and the Implications of Divine Sovereignty," American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 88, no. 1, Winter 2014, pp. 149-161.
God is the absolute, and no absolute can be subject to anything 'outside' it. (If you say that God is not the absolute, then there is something greater than God, namely the absolute, and we should worship THAT. Presumably this is one of Anselm's reasons for describing God as "that than which no greater can be conceived.") Otherwise it would be relative to this 'outside' factor and hence not be ab solus and a se.
The antinomy, therefore, seems quite real and is not easily evaded. The divine aseity demands that God or Allah not be subject to anything external to him. A god so subject would not be God. On the other hand, the unlimited voluntarism of the Muslim view (see Professor Horace Jeffery Hodges for documentation here and here) is also unacceptable. A god who, at ontological bottom, was Absolute Whim and Arbitrary Power, would not be worthy of our worship but of our defiance. I am reminded of the late Christopher Hitchens who thought of God as an all-seeing, absolute despot.
The Muslim view is quite 'chilling' if one thinks about it. If God is not constrained by anything, not logic, not morality, then to use the words but reverse the sense of the famous BrothersKaramazov passage, "everything is permitted." In other words, if the Muslim god exists then "everything is permitted" just as surely as "everything is permitted" if the Christian god does not exist. In the former case, everything is permitted because morality has no foundation. In the former case, everything is permitted because morality's foundation is in Absolute Whim.
To put it in another way, a foundation of morality in unconstrained and unlimited will is no foundation at all.
To 'feel the chill,' couple the Muslim doctrine about God with the Muslim literalist/fundamentalist doctrine that his will is plain to discern in the pages of the Koran. Now murder can easily be justified, the murder of 'infidels' namely, on the ground that it is the will of God.
In the West, however, we have a safeguard absent in the Islamic world, namely reason. (That there is little or no reason in the Islamic world is proven by the fact that there is little or no genuine philosophy there, with the possible slight exception of Turkey; all genuine philosophy -- not to be confused with historical scholarship -- in the last 400 or so years comes from the West including Israel; I am being only slightly tendentious.) God is not above logic, nor is he above morality. It simply cannot be the case that God commands what is obviously evil. We in the West don't allow any credibility to such a god. In the West, reason acts as a 'check' and a 'balance' on the usurpatious claims of faith and inspiration.
A Thomist Solution?
But this still leaves us with the Euthyphro Problem. (1) and (2) are contradictories, and yet there are reasons to accept both. The unconditionally obligatory cannot exist in an ontological void: the 'ought' must be grounded in an 'is.' The only 'is' available is the will of an existing conscious being. But how can the actual commands of any being, even God, the supreme being, ground the obligatoriness of an act we deem obligatory?
Suppose God exists and God commands in accordance with a moral code that is logically antecedent to the divine will. Then the obligatory would not be obligatory because God commands it; it would be obligatory independently of divine commands. But that would leave us with the problem of explaining what makes the obligatory obligatory. It would leave us with prescriptions and proscriptions 'hanging in the air.' If, on the other hand, the obligatory is obligatory precisely because God commands it, then we have the illicit slide from 'is' to 'ought.' Surely the oughtness of what one ought to do cannot be inferred from the mere factuality of some command.
But if God is ontologically simple in the manner explained in my SEP article, then perhaps we can avoid both horns of the dilemma. For if God is simple, as Sts. Augustine and Aquinas maintained, then it is neither the case that God legislates morality, nor the case that he commands a moral code that exists independently of him. It is neither the case that obligatoriness derives from commands or that commands are in accordance with a pre-existing obligatoriness. The two are somehow one. God is neither an arbitrary despot, nor a set of abstract prescriptions. He is not a good being, but Goodness itself. He is self-existent concrete normativity as such.
But as you can see, the doctrine of divine simplicity tapers of into the mystical. You will be forgiven if you take my last formulations as gobbledy-gook. Perhaps they are and must remain nonsensical to the discursive intellect. But then we have reason to think the problem intractable. (1) and (2) cannot both be true, and yet we have good reason to accept both. To relieve the tension via the simplicity doctrine involves a shift into the transdiscursive — which is to say that the problem cannot be solved discursively.
One thing does seem very clear to me: the Muslim solution in terms of unlimited divine voluntarism is a disaster, and dangerous to boot. It would be better to accept a Platonic solution in which normativity 'floats free' of "the de facto constitution of some existing consciousness," to revert to the formulation of William James.
My friend Peter Lupu sees clearly that there is a connection between the horns of the Euthyphro Dilemma and the competing conceptions of God. The first horn -- The obligatory is obligatory in virtue of its being commanded by an entity with the power to enforce its commands -- aligns naturally with the conception of God as Being itself, as ipsum esse subsistens, as self-subsistent Being. God is not a norm enforcer, but ethical Normativity Itself. The second horn -- The obligatoriness of the obligatory cannot derive from some powerful entity's commanding of it -- aligns naturally with the conception of God as a being among beings, albeit a being supreme among beings. Supreme, but still subject to the moral order.
But of course there is trouble, and the alignment is not as smooth as we schematizers would like. For on either horn, God is a supreme commander, and this makes little sense if God is self-subsistent Being itself. One feels tempted to say that on either horn God is a being among beings.
Concluding Aporetic Postscript
We cannot genuinely solve the Euthyphro Dilemma by affirming either limb. Our only hope is to make an ascensive move to a higher standpoint, that of the divine simplicity according to which God is self-subsistent Being and Ethical Requiredness Itself. But this ascension is into the Transdiscursive, a region in which all our propositions are nonsensical in Wittgenstein's Tractarian sense. We are in the Tractarian predicament of trying to say the Unsayable.
So I submit that the problem is a genuine a-poria. There is no way forward, leastways, not here below. Both horns are impasses, to mix some metaphors. But here below is where we languish. The problem is absolutely insoluble for the Cave dweller.
Philosophers who simply must, at any cost, have a solution to every problem will of course disagree. These 'aporetically challenged' individuals need to take care they don't end up as ideologues.
Some opponents of the death penalty oppose it on the ground that one can never be certain whether the accused is guilty as charged. Some of these people are pro-choice. To them I say: Are you certain that the killing of the unborn is morally permissible? How can you be sure? How can you be sure that the right to life kicks in only at birth and not one minute before? What makes you think that a mere 'change of address,' a mere spatial translation from womb to crib, confers normative personhood and with it the right to life? Or is it being one minute older that confers normative personhood? What is the difference that makes a moral difference — thereby justifying a difference in treatment — between unborn human individuals and infant human individuals?
Suppose you accept the general moral prohibition against homicide. And suppose that you grant that there are legitimate exceptions to the general prohibition including one or more of the following: self-defense, just war, suicide, capital punishment. Are you certain that abortion is a legitimate exception? And if you allow abortion as a legitimate exception, why not also capital punishment?
After all, most of those found guilty of capital crimes actually are guilty and deserving of execution; but none of the unborn are guilty of anything.
My point,then, is that if you demand certainty of guilt before you will allow capital punishment, then you should demand certainty of the moral permissibility of abortion before you allow it. I should add that in many capital cases there is objective certainty of guilt (the miscreant confesses, the evidence is overwhelming, etc.); but no one can legitimately claim to be objectively certain that abortion is morally permissible.
I claim that the standard objections to the Potentiality Argument (PA) are very weak and can be answered. This is especially so with respect to Joel Feinberg's "logical point about potentiality," which alone I will discuss in this post. This often-made objection is extremely weak and should persuade no rational person. But first a guideline for the discussion.
The issue is solely whether Feinberg's objection is probative, that and nothing else. Thus one may not introduce any consideration or demand extraneous to this one issue. One may not demand of me a proof of the Potentiality Principle (PP), to be set forth in a moment. I have an argument for PP, but that is not the issue currently under discussion. Again the issue is solely whether Feinberg's "logical point about potentiality" refutes the PA. Progress is out of the question unless we 'focus like a laser' on the precise issue under consideration.
Of course, the removal of all extant objections to an argument does not amount to a positive demonstration of the argument's soundness. But at the risk of being tedious, the issue before us is solely whether Feinberg's objection is a good one.
The PA in a simplified form can be set forth as follows, where the major premise is the PP:
1. All potential persons have a right to life. 2. The fetus is a potential person. ----- 3. The fetus has a right to life.
What Feinberg calls the "logical point about potentiality" and finds unanswerable is "the charge that merely potential possession of any set of qualifications for a moral status does not logically ensure actual possession of that status." (Matters of Life and Death, ed. Regan, p. 193) Feinberg provides an example he borrows from Stanley Benn: A potential president of the United States is not on that account Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.
It seems to me that Feinberg's objection, far from being unanswerable, is easily answered. Let me begin by conceding something that is perfectly self-evident, namely, that inferences of the following form are invalid:
4. X is a potential possessor of qualifications for a certain moral or legal status S ergo 5. X is an actual possessor of qualifications for status S.
This is a glaring non sequitur as all must admit. If x potentially possesses some qualifications, then x does not actually possess them. So of course one cannot infer actual possession from potential possession. A five-year-old's potential possession of the qualifications for voting does not entail his actually having the right to vote.
But what does this painfully obvious point have to do with PP? It has nothing to do with it. For what the proponent of PP is saying is that potential personhood is an actual qualification for the right to life. He is not saying that the fetus' potential possession of the qualifications for being a rights-possessor makes it an actual rights-possessor. He is saying that the actual possession of potential personhood makes the fetus a rights-possessor. The right to life, in other words, is grounded in the very potentiality to become a person.
What Feinberg and Co. do is commit a blatant ignoratio elenchi against the proponents of PA. They take the proponent of the PA to be endorsing an invalid inference, the (4)-(5) inference, when he is doing nothing of the kind. They fail to appreciate that the potentialist's claim is that potential personhood is an actual (and sufficient) qualification for the right to life.
Of course, one can ask why potential personhood should be such a qualification, but that is a further question, one logically separate from the question of the soundness of Feinberg's objection.
I have just decisively refuted Feinberg's "logical point about potentiality" objection. What defenders of it must do now, without changing the subject or introducing any extraneous consideration, is to tell me whether they accept my refutation of Feinberg. If they do not, then there is no point in discussing this topic further with them. If they do, then we can proceed to examine other objections to PA, and the positive considerations in favor of PA.
I suspect that Vlastimil V's (neo-scholastic) understanding of potentiality is similar to the one provided by Matthew Lu in Potentiality Rightly Understood:
The substance view of persons holds that every human being either has the potential to manifest any and all properties essential to personhood or does actually manifest them. For the adherent of the substance view of persons, "potential" does not essentially refer to some possible future state of affairs. Rather, in this conception of what I will call developmentalpotential, to say that an organism has the potential to manifest some property means that that property belongs essentially to the kind of thing that it is (i.e., is among the essential properties it has by nature). Whether or not a specific individual actualizes the potentialities of its nature is contingent; but those potentialities necessarily belong to its nature in virtue of its membership in a specific natural kind.
I don't understand this. Let the property be rationality. Let organism o belong to the natural kind human being. We assume that man is by nature a rational animal. A human fetus is of course a human being. Suppose the fetus is anencephalic. It too is a human being -- it is not lupine or bovine or a member of any other animal species. But it is a defective human being, one whose defect is so serious that it, that very individual, will never manifest rationality. So how can every human being have "the potential to manifest any and all properties essential to personhood"? That is my question. Now consider the following answers/views.
A1: The anencephalic human fetus does not have the potentiality to manifest rationality. This is because it lacks "the largest part of the brain consisting mainly of the cerebral hemispheres, including the neocortex, which is responsible for cognition." (Wikipedia)
A2: The anencephalic human fetus does have the potentiality to manifest rationality because it is a member of a species or natural kind the normal (non-defective) members of which do have the potentiality in question.
A3: The anencephalic human fetus does have the potentiality to manifest rationality because the natural kind itself has the potentiality to manifest rationality.
I think (A2) is the most charitable reading of the above quoted paragraph considered in the context of Lu's entire paper. Accordingly, a particular anencephalic fetus has the potentiality to manifest rationality because other genetically human members of the same species do have the potentiality in question. This makes no sense to me. But perhaps I am being obtuse, in which case a charitable soul may wish to help me understand. To be perfectly honest, I really would like it to be the case that EVERY "human being either has the potential to manifest any and all properties essential to personhood or does actually manifest them." I would like that to be the case because then I would not have to supplement my Potentiality Argument against abortion with other principles as I have done in other entries.
What's my problem? Let's start with an analogy. It is narrowly logically possible and broadly logically possible that I run a four-minute mile. It is also nomologically possible that I run a four-minute mile. For all the latter means is that the laws of nature pertaining to human anatomy and physiology do not rule out a human being's running a four-minute mile. Since they do not rule out a human being's running that fast, they don't rule out my running that fast.
But note that the laws of human physiology abstract entirely from the particularities and peculiarities of me qua individual animal. They abstract from my particular O2 uptake, the ratio of 'fast twitch' to 'slow twitch' muscle fibers in my legs, and so on. And to be totally clear: it is the concrete flesh-and-blood individual that runs, 'Boston Billy' Rodgers, for example, that very guy, not his form, not his matter, not his nature, not any accident or property or universal or subjective concept or objective concept that pertains to him.
Now consider the question: do I, BV, have the potential to run a four-minute mile? No. Why not? Because of a number of deficiencies, insufficiencies, limitations and whatnot pertaining to the particular critter that I am. The fact that other runners have the potential in question is totally irrelevant. What do their individual potentialities have to do with me? The question, again, is whether I, BV, have/has the potentiality in question. It is also totally irrelevant that the laws of human physiology do not rule out my running a four-minute mile. Again, this is because said laws abstract from the particularities and peculiarities of the concrete individual. Surely it would be a very serious blunder to suppose that the nomological possibility of my running a four-minute mile entails the potentiality of my doing any such thing. That would be a two-fold blunder: (i) potentiality is not possibility, and (ii) potentiality is always the potentiality of some concrete individual or other.
Similarly, the anencephalic individual does not have the potentiality to manifest rationality. The fact that normal human fetuses do have this potentiality is totally irrelevant. What do their individual potentialities have to do with the potentialities or lacks thereof of the anencephalic individual? It is also totally irrelevant that man is by nature a rational animal, that the capacity to reason is 'inscribed' (as a Continental philosopher might say) in his very essence. For the question is precisely whether or not this very anencephalic individual has the potentiality to manifest rationality. My answer, as you may have surmised, is No.
I think I can diagnose the neo-Scholastic error, if error it is. (I hope it is not an error, for then the Potentiality Argument is strengthened and simplified.) Take a look at (A3):
A3. The anencephalic human fetus does have the potentiality to manifest rationality because the natural kind itself has the potentiality to manifest rationality.
This, I submit, is a complete non-starter. Whatever a natural kind is, it itself does not have the potential to be rational. It can no more be rational than humanity in general can run. (I once entered a 10 K event called 'The Human Race.' I did not compete against humanity in general, but against certain particular human critters.)
So it can't be the universal nature humanity that has the potential to be rational. What about the individual or individualized nature, the human nature of Socrates, of Plato, et al.? Could a particular individualized nature be that which has the potential to manifest rationality? No again. For it is but an ontological constituent of a concrete man such as Socrates. It is baby Socrates that has the potential to manifest rationality and excel in dialetic, not one of his ontological constituents. Socrates is more than his individual human nature; there is also the dude's matter (materia signata) to take into consideration. Our man is a hylomorphic compound, and it is this compound in which the potentiality to display rationality is grounded.
My diagnosis of neo-Scholastic error, then, is that neo-Scholastics, being Aristotelians, tend to conflate a primary substance such as Socrates with his individual(ized) nature. Since human nature in general includes the potential to be rational, it is natural to think that every individual(ized) human nature, whether normal or defective, has the potential to be rational. But surely it is not the individual(ized) human nature that has the potential to be rational, but the ontological whole of which the individual(ized) human nature is a proper part. In the case of the anencephalic fetus, this ontological whole includes defective matter that cannot support the development of rationality. Only if one confuses the individual(ized) human nature of the anencephalic individual with the concrete anencephalic individual could one suppose that it too has the potential to manifest rationality.
The fact that Lu's paragraph above is ambiguous as between (A2) and (A3) further supports my contention that there is a confusion here.
My view, then, is (A1). Abortion is a grave moral evil. The Potentiality Argument, however, does not suffice as an argument against every instance of it. This is not to say that the aborting of the anencephalic is morally acceptable. It rather suggests that the PA requires some form of supplementation.
This is a re-post with minor edits of an entry from March 1, 2012. I agree with it still. (Surprise!) I would like Vlastimil V., who is currently exercised by topics in this neighborhood, to tell me how much of it he agrees with, and what he disagrees with and why.
If you agree that infanticide is morally wrong, should you not also agree that late-term abortion is also morally wrong? Consider this argument:
Infanticide is morally wrong There is no morally relevant difference between infanticide and late-term abortion Therefore Late-term abortion is morally wrong.
To cast it in a slogan: Late-term abortion is pre-natal infanticide!
But of course the argument can be run in reverse with no breach of logical propriety:
Late-term abortion is not morally wrong There is no morally relevant difference between infanticide and late-term abortion Therefore Infanticide is not morally wrong.
To make a slogan of it: Infanticide is post-natal abortion!
Since the arguments and slogans 'cancel each other out,' the question arises whether we can move beyond a stand-off. The pro-lifer finds it evident that infanticide is morally wrong, violating as it does the infant's right to life, and extends that right to the late-term fetus, while the type of pro-choicer I will be discussing in this post finds it evident that late-term abortion is morally acceptable and extends that moral acceptability to infanticide.
My response to the problem makes appeal to two principles, the Potentiality Principle, and the Modified Species Principle. After I lay them out I will ask whether they help us avoid a stalemate.
The idea behind the Potentiality Principle (PP) is that potential descriptive personhood confers a right to life. In other words, the idea is that potential descriptive personhood entails normative personhood. For present purposes we may define a person in the descriptive sense of the term, a descriptive person, as anything that is sentient, rational, self-aware, and purposive. A person in the normative sense of the term, a normative person, we may define as a rights-possessor. We assume that actual descriptive persons are normative persons and thus have rights, including a right to life, a right not to be killed. Presumably we all accept the following Rights Principle:
RP: All descriptive persons have a right to life.
What PP does is simply extend the right to life to potential persons. Thus,
PP. All potential descriptive persons have a right to life.
I have undertaken the defense of PP in other posts and I won't repeat myself here. PP allows us to mount a very powerful argument, the Potentiality Argument (PA), against the moral acceptability of abortion. Given PP, and the fact that human fetuses are potential persons, it follows that they have a right to life. From the right to life follows the right not to be killed, except perhaps in some extreme circumstances.
It may be that the right to life has multiple sources. Perhaps it has a dual source: in PP but also in the Species Principle (SP) according to which whatever is genetically human has the right to life just in virtue of being genetically human. Equivalently, what SP says is that every member of the species homo sapiens, qua member, has the right to life of any member, and therefore every member falls within the purview of the prohibition against homicide.
The intuition behind SP is that killing innocent human beings is just plain wrong whether or not they are actual persons in the descriptive sense of the term. Now late-term human fetuses are of course human beings, indeed human individuals (not just clumps of cells or bits of human genetic material). And of course they are innocent human beings. it follows that they have a right to life.
Subscription to SP entails that a severely damaged infant, a Down's Syndrome baby, for example, would have a right to life just in virtue of being genetically human regardless of its potential for development, or rather its lack of potential. Some will object that SP is involved in species chauvinism or 'speciesism,' the arbitrary and therefore illicit privileging of the species one happens to belong to over other species. The objection might proceed along the following lines. "It is easy to conceive of an extraterrestrial possessing all of the capacities (for self-awareness, moral choice, rationality, etc.) that we regard in ourselves as constituting descriptive personhood. Surely we would not want to exclude them from the prohibition against killing the innocent just because they are not made of human genetic material." To deal with this objection, a Modified Species Principle could be adopted:
MSP: Every member of an intelligent species, just insofar as it is a member of that species, has a right to life and therefore falls within the purview of the prohibition against the killing of innocents.
The two principles (PP and MSP) working in tandem would seem to explain most of our moral intuitions in this matter. And now it occurs to me that PP and MSP can be wedded in one comprehensive principle, which we can call the Species Potentiality Principle:
SPP: Every member of any biological species whose normal members are actual or potential descriptive persons, just insofar as it is a member of that species, possesses a right to life and therefore falls within the purview of the prohibition against the killing of innocents.
Does the above help us move beyond a stand-off? Not at all. No committed pro-choicer will accept the principles I have articulated above. And of course I won't accept his rejection of them. For they are eminently rationally defensible and free of any formal or informal logical fallacy. And of course no empirical facts speak against them. Here as elsewhere, reason and argument can only take one so far. They are wonderfully useful in achieving clarity about what one's position is and the reasons one has for occupying it. But no argument will convince anyone who doesn't accept one's premises.
Here as elsewhere reason is powerless to decide the question even when informed by all relevant empirical facts. As I have maintained many times, there are few if any rationally compelling arguments for any substantive thesis in areas of deep controversy, this being one of them.
In the end it comes down to basic moral intuitions. Some people have moral sense and some people don't. I say: Can't you just SEE (i.e., morally intuit) that killing an innocent human being is morally wrong? And can't you just SEE that the location of that indivisual, its size, and its state of developement are morally irrelevant? If you say 'no,' then I call you morally obtuse or morally blind. I throw you in with the color-blind and the tone-deaf. And then I go on to call into question your motives for holding your morally outrageous view. I might say: "The real reason (i.e., the psychologically salient motive) for your support of abortion and infanticide is your desire to have unrestrained sexual intercourse without accepting any responsibility for the consequences of your actions. At the root of it all is your refusal to practice self-restraint, and your selfish desire to do whatever you please." But even in the cases where such a psychological explanation is true it will do nothing to convince the opponent.
Here is something to think about. Would the abortion/infanticide question be such a hot-button issue if it weren't for our innate concupiscence kept constantly aflame by a sex-saturated society? (Pardon the mixed metaphors.) Could it be that concupiscence unrestrained clouds our moral vision and makes us unable to discern moral truths?
The title leaves something to be desired as regards felicity of expression. 'Afterbirth' is either the process whereby the placenta is expelled from the uterus after the neonate has exited, or else the placenta itself. May I suggest 'post-natal'? And to call infanticide after-birth or post-natal abortion is an egregious misuse of language inasmuch as abortion in this context is the termination of a pregnancy by killing of the fetus. Infanticide is not the termination of a pregnancy. One cannot terminate a process that has come to fruition.
 The new atheists rarely mention Friedrich Nietzsche, and when they do it is usually to dismiss him.  This can’t be because Nietzsche’s ideas are said to have inspired the Nazi cult of racial inequality – an unlikely tale, given that the Nazis claimed their racism was based in science. The reason Nietzsche has been excluded from the mainstream of contemporary atheist thinking is that he exposed the problem atheism has with morality.  It’s not that atheists can’t be moral – the subject of so many mawkish debates.  The question is which morality an atheist should serve.
Five sentences, five comments.
2. Granted, the Nazis claimed their racism was based in science. But this is consistent with their racism having other sources as well. So it doesn't follow that it is an "unlikely tale" that the Nazis drew inspiration from Nietzsche. I say it is very likely. See Nietzsche and Nationalism Socialism.
3. Spot on!
4. Agreed, atheists can be moral. Indeed, some atheists are more moral that some theists — even when the moral code is the Decalogue minus the commandments that mention God. The question whether an atheist can be moral, however, is ambiguous. While it is clear that an atheist can be moral in the sense of satisfying moral demands, it is not clear that an atheist can be moral in the sense of recognizing moral demands in the first place. It is an open question whether an atheist, consistent with his atheism, could have justification for admitting objective moral demands.
5. Before one can ask which morality an atheist should serve, there is a logically prior question that needs asking and answering, one that Gray glides right past, namely,
Q. Is there any morality, any moral code, that an atheist would be justified in adhering to and justified in demanding that others adhere to?
If a negative answer is given to (Q), then Gray's logically posterior question lapses.
Most of us in the West, atheists and theists alike, do agree on a minimal moral code. Don't we all object to child molestation, female sexual mutilation, wanton killing of human beings, rape, theft, lying, financial swindling, extortion, and arson? And in objecting to these actions, we mean our objections to be more than merely subjectively valid. When our property is stolen or a neighbor murdered, we consider that an objective wrong has been done. And when the murderer is apprehended, tried, and convicted we judge that something objectively right has been done. But if an innocent person is falsely accused and convicted, we judge that something objectively wrong has been done. Let's not worry about the details or the special cases: killing in self-defense, abortion, etc. There are plenty of gray areas. The existence of gray, however, does not rule out that of black and white. Surely, in the West at least, there is some moral common ground that most atheists and theists, liberals and conservatives, stand upon. For example, most of us agree that snuffing out the life of an adult, non-comatose, healthy human being for entertainment purposes is objectively wrong.
What (Q) asks about is the foundation or basis of the agreed-upon objectively binding moral code. This is not a sociological or any kind of empirical question. Nor is it a question in normative ethics. The question is not what we ought to do and leave undone, for we are assuming that we already have a rough answer to that. The question is meta-ethical: what does morality rest on, if on anything?
There are different theories. Some will say that morality requires a supernatural foundation, others that a natural foundation suffices. I myself do not see how naturalism is up to the task of providing an objective foundation for even a minimal code of morality.
But of course one could be an atheist without being a naturalist. One could hold that there are objective values, but no God, and that ethical prescriptions and proscriptions are axiologically grounded. (N. Hartmann, for example.) But let's assume, with Nietzsche, that if you get rid of God, you get rid of the Platonic menagerie (to cop a phrase from Plantinga) as well. It needs arguing, but it is reasonable to hold that God and Platonica stand and fall together. That is what Nietzsche would say and I think he would be right were he to say it. (The death of God is not an insignificant 'event' like the falling to earth of a piece of space junk such as Russell's celestial teapot.)
No God, no objective morality binding for all. Suppose that is the case. Then how will the new atheist, who is also a liberal, uphold and ground his 'enlightened' liberal morality? John Gray appreciates the difficulty:
Awkwardly for these atheists, Nietzsche understood that modern liberalism was a secular incarnation of these religious traditions. [. . .] Nietzsche was clear that the chief sources of liberalism were in Jewish and Christian theism: that is why he was so bitterly hostile to these religions. He was an atheist in large part because he rejected liberal values. To be sure, evangelical unbelievers adamantly deny that liberalism needs any support from theism. If they are philosophers, they will wheel out their rusty intellectual equipment and assert that those who think liberalism relies on ideas and beliefs inherited from religion are guilty of a genetic fallacy. Canonical liberal thinkers such as John Locke and Immanuel Kant may have been steeped in theism; but ideas are not falsified because they originate in errors. The far-reaching claims these thinkers have made for liberal values can be detached from their theistic beginnings; a liberal morality that applies to all human beings can be formulated without any mention of religion. Or so we are continually being told. The trouble is that it’s hard to make any sense of the idea of a universal morality without invoking an understanding of what it is to be human that has been borrowed from theism.
Gray is right. Let me spell it out a bit.
Consider equality. As a matter of empirical fact, we are not equal, not physically, mentally, morally, spiritually, socially, politically, economically. By no empirical measure are people equal. We are naturally unequal. And yet we are supposedly equal as persons. This equality as persons we take as requiring equality of treatment. Kant, for example, insists that every human being, and indeed very rational being human or not, exists as an end in himself and therefore must never be treated as a means to an end. A person is not a thing in nature to be used as we see fit. For this reason, slavery is a grave moral evil. A person is a rational being and must be accorded respect just in virtue of being a person. And this regardless of inevitable empirical differences among persons. Thus in his third formulation of the Categorical Imperative in his 1785 Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant writes:
Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only. (Grundlegung 429)
In connection with this supreme practical injunction, Kant distinguishes between price and dignity. (435) "Whatever has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; on the other hand, whatever is above all price, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has dignity." Dignity is intrinsic moral worth. Each rational being, each person, is thus irreplaceably and intrinsically valuable with a value that is both infinite -- in that no price can be placed upon it -- and the same for all. The irreplaceability of persons is a very rich theme, one we must return to in subsequent posts.
These are beautiful and lofty thoughts, no doubt, and most of us in the West (and not just in the West) accept them in some more or less confused form. But what do these pieties have to do with reality? Especially if reality is exhausted by space-time-matter?
Again, we are not equal by any empirical measure. We are not equal as animals or even as rational animals. (Rationality might just be an evolutionary adaptation.) We are supposedly equal as persons, as subjects of experience, as free agents. But what could a person be if not just a living human animal (or a living 'Martian' animal). And given how bloody many of these human animals there are, why should they be regarded as infinitely precious? Are they not just highly complex physical systems? Surely you won't say that complexity confers value, let alone infinite value. Why should the more complex be more valuable than the less complex? And surely you are not a species-chauvinist who believes that h. sapiens is the crown of 'creation' because we happen to be these critters.
If we are unequal as animals and equal as persons, then a person is not an animal. What then is a person? And what makes them equal in dignity and equal in rights and infinite in worth?
Now theism can answer these questions. We are persons and not mere animals because we are created in the image and likeness of the Supreme Person. We are equal as persons because we are, to put it metaphorically, sons and daughters of one and the same Father. Since the Source we depend on for our being, intelligibility, and value is one and the same, we are equal as derivatives of that Source. We are infinite in worth because we have a higher destiny, a higher vocation, which extends beyond our animal existence: we are created to participate eternally in the Divine Life.
But if you reject theism, how will you uphold the Kantian values adumbrated above? If there is no God and no soul and no eternal destiny, what reasons, other than merely prudential ones, could I have for not enslaving you should I desire to do so and have the power to do so?
Aristotle thought it natural that some men should be slaves. We find this notion morally abhorrent. But why should we if we reject the Judeo-Christian God? "We just do." But that's only because we are running on the fumes of the Judeo-Christian tradition. What happens when the fumes run out?
It is easy to see that it makes no sense, using terms strictly, to speak of anything or anybody as a creature if there is no creator. It is less easy to see, but equally true, that it makes no sense to try to hold on to notions such as that of the equality and dignity of persons after their metaphysical foundations in Christian theism have been undermined.
So there you have the Nietzschean challenge to the New Atheists. No God, then no justification for your liberal values! Pay attention, Sam. Make a clean sweep! Just as religion is for the weak who won't face reality, so is liberalism. The world belongs to the strong, to those who have the power to impose their will upon it. The world belongs to those hard as diamonds, not to those soft as coal and weak and womanish. Nietzsche:
Here one must think profoundly to the very basis and resist all sentimental weakness: life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, conquest of the strange and weak, suppression, severity, obtrusion of peculiar forms, incorporation, and at the least, putting it mildest, exploitation - but why should one for ever use precisely these words on which for ages a disparaging purpose has been stamped?
Beyond Good and Evil, Chapter 9, What is Noble?, Friedrich Nietzsche Go to Quote
If I ought to do something, am I obliged to do it? And if I am obliged to do something, is it my duty to do it? I tend to assume the following principle, where A is an agent and X an act or rather act-type such as feed one's children.
P. Necessarily, A morally ought to X iff A is morally obligated to X iff A has a moral duty to X.
The necessity at stake is conceptual; so by my lights (P) is a conceptual truth. But, as if to illustrate that philosophers disagree about every bloody thing under the sun, a correspondent writes:
I don't see that "x is something I ought to do iff x is something I'm morally obligated to do" is a conceptual truth, or even true. [. . .] Non-consequentialist moralities allow room for good deeds that are not obligatory. If helping a stranger is a good deed and you are fully able to perform it without endangering others, then I am quite comfortable recommending to you that you ought to do it. But I am not suggesting you have any duty or an obligation to do so. [. . .] So, you ought to help does not imply you have a duty to help.
I will now try to show that you ought to help does indeed imply that you have a duty to help, assuming that one is not equivocating on 'ought' and is using 'ought' as it is used in (P).
I agree that there are good deeds that are not obligatory. Suppose my neighbor is away when an important-looking package is delivered to his door. I take it into my house for safekeeping until he returns. Surely I am under no obligation, moral or legal, to do such a thing. Yet it is a good deed.
But it does not follow that it is a deed that I ought to do, or that I have a duty to do; it is precisely a supererogatory action, one above and beyond the call of duty. (A supererogatory action can be something as trifling as this, and need not be grand or heroic, but more on this in a separate post on supererogation.) If I ought to X, and I omit to X, then I do something wrong. Therefore, if I ought to pick up my neighbor's package, but omit to do this, then I do something wrong. But obviously I do nothing wrong in leaving my neighbor's package where it lies. Hence it is not the case that I ought to pick up my neighbor's package. Nor do I have any duty to pick up my neighbor's package.
I suspect my correspondent is simply playing fast and loose with 'ought,' a word with several meanings in English. Some examples:
a. 'The car ought to start; I installed a new battery.' This looks to be a non-normative use of 'ought,' one with no relevance to moral theory.
b. 'If you want to get to Tucson from Phoenix by interstate highway, you ought to take I-10 East.' This sentence is a hypothetical imperative, and the subject-matter is morally indifferent.
c. 'If you want to be a successful hit man, then you ought to learn how to kill with a .22 caliber gun.' A second hypothetical imperative. Here the subject-matter is not morally indifferent, but the 'ought' has noting to do with a duty.
d. 'If helping a stranger is a good deed, and one wants to be helpful, then one ought to help.' Another hypothetical imperative, and close to what my correspondent said above. But this use of 'ought' is not the use in principle (P) above.
e. 'You ought to pay your debts.' A categorical imperative, and a morally relevant use of 'ought.' This is the use of 'ought' that is featured in (P) above.
In sum, (P) seems rock-solid and I will continue to adhere to it until someone can instruct me otherwise. But then I ask myself: Am I merely making precise how I shall use the relevant moral words? Is (P) above a merely precisifying, and thus partially stipulative, definition? If so, then ordinary language considerations won't tell against it.
Misattributed to Voltaire, the above saying yet captures his attitude. The parroting of the saying in the wake of the terrorist attack by Muslim fanatics on Charlie Hebdo is becoming tiresome. It is high time we take a squinty-eyed look at it. I will be arguing that it does not bear up well under examination.
Suppose you are talking with someone who publically asserts with a straight face, "No Jews were killed at Auschwitz by the Nazis." Will you defend your interlocutor's right to say it? And will you defend it to the death? I hope not. The right to free speech cannot reasonably be taken to include the right to state what is false, known to be false, and such that its broadcasting or public expression could be expected to cause social harm. (The characteristic claim of the Flat Earthers is false and known to be false, but not such that its broadcasting or public expression could be expected to cause social harm, and this for a couple of reasons: whether or not the earth is flat is not a 'hot button' issue; the vast majority consider Flat Earthers to be utter loons.)
Generalizing, will you defend to the death anyone's right to say, seriously and publically, whatever he wants to say? If you answer in the affirmative, then I will label you a free speech extremist, that is, one who holds that the right to free (public) speech is absolute. But what is it for a right to be absolute? And could the right to free speech be an absolute right?
There is a distinction between moral and legal rights. I will consider only whether there is an absolute moral right to free speech. Some rights are exercisable, other are not. The right to free speech is exercisable whereas the rights not to be killed and not to be spied upon are non-exercisable. Some rights are general, others are specific. The right to free speech is general: if any person has it, then every person has it.
To say that an exercisable right is absolute is to say that its exercise is not subject to any restriction or limitation or exception. This implies that an absolute right cannot be infringed under any circumstances. And if an absolute right is general, then it cannot be restricted to some persons only. So if the right to free speech is absolute, then everyone always in every circumstance has a right to free speech.
I believe I have clarified sufficiently -- for the purposes of a weblog entry -- the sense of ' The right of free speech is absolute.'
My thesis is that the right of free speech is not absolute. It is no more absolute than the other rights mentioned in (but not thereby granted to us in or by) the First and Second and other Amendments to the U. S. Constitution.
Consider gun rights. Is the right to keep and bear arms reasonably regarded as absolute, i.e., subject to no limitations or restrictions? No. I would put you down as a fool if you said otherwise. Felons are not allowed to own guns, and for good reason. Ditto for children and the mentally incomeptent. The right to keep and bear arms does not extend to nuclear arms or biological weapons. The firing of guns is subject to various restrictions, etc. In this case it should be perfectly obvious that the right to keep and bear arms cannot be an absolute right.
Is the right to own real property absolute? If it were, no use of eminent domain would ever be justified, when surely some uses are. Eminent domain laws are sometimes abused to benefit special interest. We cnservatives protest that absue. But the abuse of eminent domain is no argument against its judicious and limited use for purposes that truly serve the common good. Suppose there is a dangerous mountain road on which hundreds of people have lost their lives. The state engineers propose a bypass, but building it would involve the coercive taking, albeit with monetary compensation, of a little land from a fat cat who owns a parcel the size of Rhode Island, the coercive taking of a strip of land occupied only by a few prarie dogs. A rational and morally decent person would say that here the right to property must be limited for the common good. (And let's assume that the good really is common: the owner of the land himself must travel the dangerous mountain road.)
Third example. Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion. That is a near-quotation from the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. But what if the free exercise of some religion includes not having one's children immunized for measles or other highly infectious diseases? Would a reasonable person maintain that under no conceivable circmustances would the government ever be justified in forcing a parent to have a child immunized in contravention of a religious precept? I don't think so. There are some truly loony 'religions' out there.
I could go on, and you hope I won't. In the three cases just mentioned it ought to be clear that the rights in question cannot be absolute. Now is there something about the right to free speech that makes it different from the ones mentioned above in a way that justifies saying that free speech is an absolute right when the others are not? Not that I can see.
I have heard it said that speech is just speech; it not like discharging a firearm in a residential area or seizing a man's property or forcing parents to immunize a child. But this is a lame response because speech is not 'just speech.' Not only does public speaking and publishing involve all sorts of actions, it can and does reliably lead to actions both good and evil. People are susceptible of exhortation. One can fire up a lynch mob with well-chosen words. I don't need to belabor this: it is obvious. Speech is not 'just speech.'
The right to free speech meets a limit in the moral obligation to not inflame murderous passions. There is no absolute moral right to free speech. Whether certain forms of speech should be legally prohibited is of course a further question.
A recent Richard Fernandez column ends brilliantly:
We often forget that the sacred texts of mankind began as practical documents. They were checklists. And we may well rediscover this fact before the end. One can imagine the last two postmoderns crawling towards each other in the ruins of a once great city to die, and while waiting to expire engage in conversation to pass the time.
“Waldo,” the first said, “do you remember that tablet displayed in front of the Texas Statehouse. You know, back when there was a Texas?”
“Yeah, didn’t it have a whole bunch of stuff scrawled on it? Tell me again what it said,” replied the other.
“Waldo, it said, ‘thou shalt not kill.’ And ‘thou shalt not lie’.”
“Yes it also said, ‘thou shalt not steal’. Plus somewhere in the middle said, ‘thou shalt not have sex with people you weren’t married to.’”
“Yeah, I remember it now,” the second post-modern said. “What a bunch of hooey. It’s a right wing, nutjob, racist document called the Ten Commandments. It’s a religious document.”
“No Waldo,” the first replied. “That’s where you’re wrong. It ain’t no religious document. I just figured out it was a survival manual.”
A reader asks whether Israel's actions against Hamas are defensible according to the Doctrine of Double Effect (DDE).
According to the New Catholic Encylopedia, an action is defensible according to DDE if all four of the following conditions are met:
(1) The act itself must be morally good or at least indifferent.
(2) The agent may not positively will the bad effect but may merely permit it. If he could attain the good effect without the bad effect, he should do so. The bad effect is sometimes said to be indirectly voluntary.
(3) The good effect must flow from the action at least as immediately (in the order of causality, though not necessarily in the order of time) as the bad effect. In other words, the good effect must be produced directly by the action, not by the bad effect. Otherwise the agent would be using a bad means to a good end, which is never allowed.
(4) The good effect must be sufficiently desirable to compensate for the allowing of the bad effect.
My example. An obviously hostile knife-wielding intruder breaks into my house. I grab a gun and shoot him, killing him. My intention is not to kill him but to stop his deadly attack against me and my family. The only effective means at my disposal for stopping the assailant is by shooting him. But I know that if I shoot him, there is a good chance that I will kill him.
There are two effects, a good one and a bad one. The good one is that I stop a deadly attack. The bad one is that I kill a man. My shooting is justified by DDE. Or so say I. As for condition (1), the act of defending myself and my family is morally good. As for (2), I do not positively will the bad effect, but I do permit it. My intention is not to kill a man, but to stop him from killing me. As for (3), the good effect and the bad effect are achieved simultaneously with both effects being directly caused by my shooting. So I am not employing an evil means to a good effect. As for (4), I think it is obvious that the goodness of my living compensates for the evil of the miscreant's dying.
In the case of the Israeli actions, the removal of rocket launchers and other weaponry trained upon Israeli citizens is a morally good effect. So condition (1) is satisfied. Condition (2) is also satisfied. The IDF do not target civilians, but military personnel and their weapons. Civilians deaths are to be expected since Hamas uses noncombatants as human shields. Civilian deaths cannot be avoided for the same reason.
Condition (3) is also satisfied. The good effect (the defense of the Israeli populace) is not achieved by means of the bad effect (the killing of civilians). Both are direct effects of the destruction of the Hamas weaponry.
But what about condition (4)? Is the good effect sufficiently desirable to compensate for the allowing of the bad effect? The good effect is the protection of the Israeli populace. But the cost is high in human lives given that Hamas employs human shields.
Are numbers relevant? Suppose that 1000 Gazan noncombatants are killed as 'collateral damage' for every 100 Israeli noncombatants. Is the 'disproportionality' morally relevant? I don't think so. For one thing, note that Hamas intends to kill Israeli noncombatants while the IDF does not intend to kill Gazan noncombatants. There is no moral equivalence between the terrorist entity, Hamas, and the state of Israel.
It would be the same if were talking about fighters as opposed to noncombatants. If 1000 Hamas terrorists are killed for every 100 IDF members, the numbers are morally irrelevant. They merely reflect the military superiority of the Israelis. No one thinks that in the WWII struggle of the Allies against the Axis, the Allies should have stopped fighting when the total number of Axis dead equalled the total number of Allied dead.
My tentative judgment, then, is that condition (4) of DDE is satisfied along with the others.
Might does not make right, but neither does impotence or relative weakness. That weakness does not justify strikes me as an important principle, but I have never seen it articulated. The Left tends to assume the opposite. They tend to assume that mightlessness makes right. I'll dub this the Converse Callicles Principle.
The power I have to kill you does not morally justify my killing you. In a slogan: Ability does not imply permissibility. My ability to kill, rape, pillage and plunder does not confer moral justification on my doing these things. But if you attack me with deadly force and I reply with deadly force of greater magnitude, your relative weakness does not supply one iota of moral justification for your attack, nor does it subtract one iota of moral justification from my defensive response. If I am justified in using deadly force against you as aggressor, then the fact that my deadly force is greater than yours does not (a) diminish my justification in employing deadly force, nor does it (b) confer any justification on your aggression.
Suppose a knife-wielding thug commits a home invasion and attacks a man and his family. The man grabs a semi-automatic pistol and manages to plant several rounds in the assailant, killing him. It would surely be absurd to argue that the disparity in lethality of the weapons involved diminishes the right of the pater familias to defend himself and his family. Weakness does not justify.
The principle that weakness does not justify can be applied to the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict from the summer of 2006 as well as to the current Israeli defensive operations against the terrorist entity, Hamas. The principle ought to be borne in mind when one hears leftists, those knee-jerk supporters of any and every 'underdog,' start spouting off about 'asymmetry of power' and 'disproportionality.' Impotence and incompetence are not virtues, nor do they confer moral justification or high moral status, any more than they confer the opposite.
The principle that mightlessness makes right seems to be one of the cardinal tenets of the Left. It is operative in the present furor over the enforcement of reasonable immigration laws in Arizona. To the south of the USA lies crime-ridden, corrupt, impoverished Mexico. For millions and millions it is a place to escape from. The USA, the most successful nation of all time, is the place to escape to. But how does this disparity in wealth, success, and overall quality of life justify the violation of the reasonable laws and the rule of law that are a good part of the reason for the disparity of wealth, success, and overall quality of life?
A reader wants my thoughts regarding the following hypothetical scenarios.
I own a modestly nice car, say, a 2014 Honda Accord with some bells and whistles. I treat it fairly well, ensuring that it receives in a timely fashion all of the required maintenance. I get it washed and waxed with pride. The one deficiency I have is that I park my car with some indiscretion. I am not that vigilant with locking my doors. You warn me that this is a mistake. I counter by saying that there are other cars that are more valuable, say BMWs and Audis and that I don't park my car in so-called 'bad areas.' Nonetheless, to my foolish shock and surprise, my car is stolen one day. Could it then be said that I am at least partially responsible for having my car stolen?
Yes, you are partially responsible, and the thief is partially responsible, but his part is larger than yours. You are the victim of the crime and he is the perpetrator. I blame both of you for the crime, loading the lion's share of the blame upon the perpetrator. But I blame you too, and in blaming you, I blame the victim. Clearly, it is right, proper, and just to blame the victim within limits and subject to qualifications.
This is why the accusation, "You are blaming the victim!" cuts little ice with me. In some, but not all, situations some judicious blaming of the victim is perfectly appropriate. People who cannot see this are in many cases victims of their own political correctness and ought to be blamed for not using their faculties and thus for being victims of their own self-induced political correctness. This is a sort of meta-level blaming of the victim.
We ought to distinguish the legal, the moral, and the prudential aspects of the situation. I will set the legal questions aside since in the above scenario the victim hasn't done anything legally wrong. (In related scenarios, however, the victim would probably be criminally negligent under the law, e.g, you leave your child in the car, keys in ignition, engine running, while you enter a convenience store for a cup of coffee, and your child is abducted.)
The prudential and moral aspects alone interest me. But before I explain the difference, let's consider my reader's second scenario.
If we say yes, then I wish to change the elements of our hypothetical scenario in attempts to pump some uncomfortable intuitions. Say instead of owning a modestly nice car, I own a modestly nice female body. I treat it fairly well, making sure I go to the doctor in a timely manner and go to the spa. However, I lack vigilance with myself and drink a lot at frat parties. You warn me that this is not wise. I counter by saying that there are other women more foolish than I and that I don't frequent 'bad places.' Yet, to my foolish shock and surprise, some abuse occurs. Could it be said that I am then at least partially responsible for the abuse?
Yes, of course.
Contemporary sentiment is that there is no one to blame for sexual assault except for the perpetrator. And while I agree that the perpetrators are primarily the culpable ones, I also think that there must be some level of personal responsibility that must be practiced. I don't think it terribly offensive for us to encourage women to exercise a healthy level of skepticism of one's fellow human being, yet feminists will cry foul, that we are punishing women for the potential crimes of others when we say it is their responsibility to not party or dress a certain way or hang out with a certain crowd or drink themselves to oblivion, that we should focus our efforts on disciplining the would-be perpetrators with more education.
My reader obviously has his head screwed on Right (which fact is also part of the explanation of why he reads my weblog in the first place). I agree entirely with what he says. I would only add to it.
What the attractive young woman does when she 'struts her stuff' in dangerous precincts is both imprudent and immoral. I don't need to explain why it is imprudent. It is immoral because she is tempting others to commit immoral acts. Of course, if she ends up being raped, the lion's share of the moral blame lands on the rapist. But it would be absurd to suggest that she bears no moral responsibility for the rape. She did something morally wrong: she tempted testosterone-crazed drunken frat boys to have their way with her when she knows what such animals are like. (They didn't call the John Belushi flick Animal House for nothing. And look what happened to him: he rode the Speedball Express to Kingdom Come.) The principle here, one probably admitting of exceptions, is something like this:
(P) It is morally wrong to suborn immoral behavior.
'Suborn' is most often used in legal contexts, but as the hyperlinked definition shows, it has a broader meaning extendible to the moral sphere. Surely, it is in general morally wrong to tempt, entice, persuade people to commit immoral acts.
If you reject (P), what would you be maintaining? That it is morally acceptable to suborn immoral behavior? That is is morally obligatory to suborn such behavior? That the subornation of immoral behavior is morally neutral? None of the above, say I.
If you have moral sense, you will accept (P). Unfortunately, moral sense is in short supply in these benighted times. Can we blame this one on liberals too?
My points are made even more forcefully, and more elegantly, in the first two articles below, especially the second.
BV: The examples given above are not examples of solicitation as per the definition to which you linked. The well-endowed but scantily-clad female who advertises her charms in dangerous precincts is not soliciting the crime of rape or any other crime against her person. The definition also implies that solicitation must be between a person A and some other person B. But if a person acts in such a way as to tempt another to commit a crime, there needn't be any particular person who is being tempted.
Let's consider another example. I withdraw a large sum of money from an outdoor ATM machine at night in a bad part of town and then walk down the street ostentatiously counting my wad. I don't see that that foolish behavior would count as solicitation by the above definition. After all, I don't want to be robbed, and there is no specific person I am persuading to rob me. But if I offer you $10,000 to kill my wife so that I can collect on a life insurance policy, then that is a clear case of solicitation, as per the definition, whether or not you agree to attempt the dastardly deed and whether or not you succeed.
The problem with suborning is that many educated speakers understand it to mean bribing someone to say something false under oath. Bribing is crucial to suborning. A material element of the criminal charge is your use of corrupt or illegal inducements (e.g., a bribe) to bring about a perjury. If you merely "tempt, entice, [rhetorically] persuade people to commit immoral acts" (your terms), you are not suborning, though you may be soliciting immoral/criminal behavior.
BV: So you are saying that the offer of a bribe is essential to subornation? If memory serves, however, in the impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton, one of the charges was subornation of perjury. Was it alleged that Clinton offered a bribe to the person or persons he attempted to persuade to perjure themselves? I'm just asking. And what exactly is a bribe in the eyes of the law? A monetary inducement only?
In any case, I thought I made it clear that I was not talking above about the law but about morality. I linked to a dictionary definition of 'suborn' that is broader than a legal definition. But it may be that 'suborn' is not the best word for what I am trying to convey.
As a principle about suborning, I don't think there is anything controversial about (P)--but it has a pretty narrow scope. If you replace (P) with a much broader solicitation principle, to include things like tempting and speaking in favor, it's not clear to me at least that (P) will fly without a lot of qualification.
BV: The sort of counterexample to (P) that occurred to me was what goes on in a 'sting' operation by an undercover law enforcement agent.
"Tempting" has always puzzled me. If I put you in a position where it would be easy for you to embezzle a large sum of money, have I tempted you or just shown my faith in your honesty? And if you choose to steal the money, what blame should attach to me because of your (unsuspected) bad character? Am I to be blamed for not acting on the assumption that you will turn into a thief if given the chance? Similarly for the lady who dresses in a sexy outfit and gets attacked. Why are we blaming her because some men have no self-control or decency?
BV: Now that is a good point. You leave the bank vault open with me nearby while you go out for lunch. Are you tempting me to steal or evincing faith in my honesty? Well, if you don't know me, or don't know me well, then you ought to bear some moral responsibility for my pilfering of the pelf. But if you knew me very well and knew that I was hitherto always honest, then I think very little or perhaps no blame would attach to you.
The case of the sexually attractive and scantily-clad female who advertises her endowments around people she doesn't know is relevantly different. She knows what men in general are like and knows that her behavior is risky and yet she does it anyway. I say she bears some of the blame for the abuse she experiences.
Suppose I know that Jack is an alcoholic and I ply him with strong drink at my Thanskgiving feast. He drives off drunk and slaughters a family of four. Do I bear some moral responsibility for the slaughter? Of course I do. But suppose I don't know Tom, but in good faith I sell him a gun, having no reason to suspect him of criminal intent, but Tom then kills his wife using the gun I sold him. Am I to any degree morally responsible for the crime? No, not to any degree.
The muse of philosophy must have visited my otherwise undistinguished classmate Dolores back in the fifth grade. The topic was dirty jokes and that we should not tell them or listen to them. "But sister," Dolores piped up, "what if you laugh not because the joke is dirty but because it is funny?"
It was a good distinction then and a good distinction now.
Can Kant's ethical scheme accommodate the supererogatory?
If obligatory actions are those that one is duty-bound to perform, a supererogatory action is one that is above and beyond the call of duty. Michael A. Monsoor's throwing himself on a live grenade to save his Navy SEAL buddies is a paradigmatic example. But in a wide sense, a supererogatory act is any act, however trifling, that is in excess of what is morally required, any act that is morally good but the nonperformance of which is not morally bad.
One idea worth exploring is that there is room for supererogatory acts in Kant's scheme under the rubric of imperfect duties. Kant tells us that ". . . by a perfect duty I here understand a duty which permits no exception in the interest of inclination . . . ." (Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, AA 421, fn) A perfect duty can be either towards oneself or towards another. Kant gives the prohibition of suicide as a perfect duty to oneself and the prohibition of deceitful promises as a perfect duty towards others. These are proscriptions that admit of no exception, and I take it that perfect duties are perfect in that they are exceptionless: in no circumstance may one take one's own life, and in no circumstance may one make a deceitful promise. If so, then imperfect duties are prescriptions that admit of exceptions. This interpretation fits the examples Kant gives (423-424). There is the duty to oneself of cultivating one's talents, and the duty to to others of benevolent assistance. Both of these duties are prescriptions and both admit of exceptions. My general duty to cultivate my talents is not a duty to cultivate all my talents, or even any particular talent. And the duty of benevolent assistance cannot be a duty to assist everyone. Paul Guyer's reading is similar:
In the Groundwork, Kant's principle of morality gives rise to a fourfold classification of duties, resulting from the intersection of two divisions: between duties to oneself and to others, and between perfect and imperfect duties. Perfect duties are proscriptions of specific kinds of actions, and violating them is morally blameworthy; imperfect duties are prescriptions of general ends, and fulfilling them by means of performing appropriate particular actions is praiseworthy. The four classes of duty are thus: perfect duties to oneself, such as the prohibition of suicide; perfect duties to others, such as the prohibition of deceitful promises; imperfect duties to oneself, such as the prescription to cultivate one's talents; and imperfect duties to others, such as the prescription of benevolence (4: 422-3, 429-30 ). It is straightforward what a perfect duty prohibits one from doing; it requires judgment to determine when and how the general ends prescribed by imperfect duties should be realized through particular actions.
Note that Guyer states that the fulfilling of imperfect duties is praiseworthy. Now it is the supererogatory that we praise: it is inappropriate to praise people for doing what they are obligated to do. How morally absurd to praise a pater familias for paying the rent and putting food on the table! That is what he is supposed to do, what he morally must do. The failure to do such is blameworthy, but the performance is merely required, hence not praiseworthy. Since the fulfilling of imperfect duties is praiseworthy, it seems we can conclude that in Kant the class of supererogatory acts either is or is a proper subclass of the class of imperfect duties.
Further support for this interpretation comes at Grundlegung 429-430 where Kant speaks of "necessary or obligatory duties to others" and a "contingent (meritorious) duty to oneself." In English, 'obligatory duty' smacks of pleonasm, but that might not be the case for Kant's schuldige Pflicht. If duties divide into the obligatory (schuldigen) and the meritorious (verdienstlichen), then we can say that Kant accommodates supererogatory acts under the rubric of imperfect or meritorious duties.
There is more to it than this, of course, and there is a technical literature on this topic only a small amount of which I have read; but I think I can safely say two things: (i) a case can be made for Kant's being able to accommodate the supererogatory, and (ii) Kantians are more hospitable to the supererogatory than are utilitarians.
This is an old post from the Powerblogs site, written a few years ago. The points made still seem correct.
Peter Lupu's version of the logical argument from evil (LAFE) is committed to a principle that I formulate as follows:
P. Necessarily, agent A ought to X iff A is morally obligated to X.
This principle initially appealed to me, but then I came to the conclusion (with the help of the enigmatic Phil Philologos or was it Seldom Seen Slim?) that the biconditional (P) is correct only in the right-to-left direction. That is, I came to the view that there are moral uses of 'ought' that do not impute moral obligations. But so far I have not convinced Peter. So now I will try a new argument, one that explores the connection between the obligatory-supererogatory distinction and the thesis that there are two moral senses of 'ought.' Here is the gist of the argument:
1. There are supererogatory actions 2. Whatever is good to do ought to be done --- 3. There are two moral senses of 'ought,' one prescriptive the other commendatory.
Ad (1). I am using 'supererogatory' in a wide sense. Accordingly, an action can be supererogatory (roughly: above and beyond the call of duty) even if it is not heroic or particularly costly (financially or otherwise) to the agent. It can be something as trifling as leaving a 50% tip in a restaurant. (Not that hard to do given dives I frequent.) If an action is obligatory, then it is good to do, and bad to leave undone. If an action is supererogatory, then it is good to do, but NOT bad to leave undone. Suppose I have lunch in a restaurant in which the food is good and the service adequate. Then
a. I am legally and morally obligated to pay the bill. b. I am morally but not legally obligated to leave a 15% tip. (Or so I would argue.) c. I am neither legally nor morally obligated to leave a 50% tip.
Nevertheless it is a good thing to leave a large tip (other things being equal), but not bad if I fail to leave a large tip. So the action is supererogatory in the wide sense here in play.
Ad (2). The principle that whatever is good to do ought to be done is theoretically attractive. It is attractive because it forges a partial link between the axiological and the deontic which are two aspects of the normative. Axiological terms include 'good,' 'evil',' 'value,' 'disvalue,' 'ideal.' Deontic terms include 'obligation,' 'prohibition,' 'permission,' 'right,' 'duty.'
Note the difference between (2) and
4. Whatever is good ought to be done.
(2) is about the good-to-do; (4) is about the good-to-be, which is a wider category. (4) says that everything which would be good were it to exist ought to be brought about by someone. It suffices to refute (4) to adduce a state of affairs that would be good if realized, but is not in the power of any finite agent to realize. Well, it would be good if none of us had to to die; but the immortality of human beings is not a state of affairs that can be brought about by any finite agent or agents.
Much more needs to be said about the principle (2) but let's assume that one accepts it.
Now under what conditions can it be true both that (1) there are supererogatory actions, and (2) whatever is good to do ought to be done? On the face of it, these seem contradictory. The supererogatory is that which it is good to do but not obligatory. But if what is good to do ought to be done, then it seems to follow that what is good to do is obligatory — which contradicts (1).
The contradiction is avoided if we distinguish between two moral senses of 'ought.' In the prescriptive sense, what one ought to do is what one is obligated to do. In the commendatory sense, what one ought to do is good to do but not obligatory.
But are there any sentences that feature moral uses of 'ought' that do not impute obligations? Suppose my wife says to me, 'We ought to give more of our income to charity.' Suppose further that there is an obligatory percentage and that we are already giving that percentage. In saying what she says, my wife is not imputing an obligation to us; she is recommending that we do more than we are obligated to do. Since the context is moral, this seems to be a moral use of 'ought' that does not impute an obligation. This seems to be a clear counterexample to (P) above.
Suppose instead she had said to me, 'We ought to check out the Roy Orbison exhibit at the Tempe Center for the Arts before it is too late.' Visiting such an exhibit is a morally indifferent action: neither prohibited, nor obligatory, nor supererogatory. The use of 'ought' in this example is nonmoral. It like the 'ought' in 'If you want to get to Tempe from Gold Canyon by freeway, then you ought to head east on the Superstition Freeway.'
Robert Merrihew Adams (Finite and Infinite Goods, Oxford 1999, p. 235) offers this example: "The religious leaders of the world ought to launch an appeal to protect the physical environment in which humanity must live." Someone who says this is not saying that the leaders are under an obligation; he is saying that it would be a good idea were they to act as recommended.
To sum up. There are nonmoral and moral uses of 'ought,' but not every moral use is an obligation-imputing use. So the biconditional (P) is false. What is true is the conditional,
P*. If agent A is morally obligated to X, then A ought to X.
Our expat friend, Seoul man, and professor of English, Jeff Hodges, has been puzzling over whether an 'ought' statement can be validly derived from an 'is' statement. Here is his example, put in my own way:
1. Democratic regimes contribute more to human flourishing than do non-democratic ones.
2. If we want to maximize human flourishing, then we ought to support democratic regimes.
(1) purports to state what is the case. In this sense, it is a factual claim. On this use of 'factual,' a factual claim need not be true. ('I live in New Mexico' is false but factual as opposed to normative.) Factual claims on this use of 'factual' are opposed to claims as to what one ought to do or ought not to do, or what ought to be, or ought not to be, or what is better or worse or what is more valuable or less valuable.
It is worth noting that both (1) and (2) are in the indicative mood. Thus we ought to distinguish (2) from the hypothetical (as opposed to categorical) imperative
2*. To maximize human flourishing, support democratic regimes!
One difference is that while it makes sense to inquire whether (2) is true or false, it makes no sense to inquire whether (2*) is either true or false. It follows that our question is not whether an imperative can be validly inferred from an indicative.
Let us also note that (2) is a conditional. It is a compound statement consisting of two simple component statements, an antecedent (protasis) and and a consequent (apodosis). To assert a conditional is not to assert either its antecedent or its consequent. It is to assert a connection between the two. For example, if I assert that if the light is on, then current is flowing through the filament, I do not thereby assert that the light is on, or that current is flowing throught the filament; what I assert is a connection between the two, in this case a causal linkage.
Given this fact about conditionals, I do not consider Jeff's example to show that one can validily derive an 'ought' from an 'is,' a normative statement from a factual statement. Both (1) and (2) are nonnormative statements. The first is obviously nonnormative. But the second is as well despite the fact the 'ought' occurs within it. For all it asserts -- or, to be precise, all a person asserts who assertively utters a token of the sentence in question -- is a connection between two propositions, a connection that it nonnormative.
We could of course detach the consequent of (2) thusly:
1. Democratic regimes contribute more to human flourishing than do non-democratic ones.
2a. We want to promote human flourishing
2c. We ought to support democratic regimes.
(2c) is unabashedly normative. But it does not follow from the premises which are both of them nonnormative.
So Jeff has not given a counterexample to what philosophers claim when they claim that an 'ought' cannot be derived from an 'is.'
But I will irenically add that there is nothing wrong with Jeff's original argument. It is just that it is not an example of the derivation of a normative statement from a nonnormative one. It is an example of how a statement containing the word 'ought' can be validily derived from a statement not containing the word 'ought.' If this is all that Jeff means to show, then he deserves the coveted MavPhil imprimatur and nihil obstat.
Crucial here is the fact that not every statement containing 'ought' is a normative statement. Besides (2), there is this example: 'I just replaced the battery, so my car ought to start.' This is not a statement about what anyone ought to do, or even about what ought to be; it is a prediction. One could just as well say, 'I just replaced the battery in my car, so it is highly likely that the car will start.'
And now it occurs to me that 'ought' can be paraphrased away, salva significatione, even in the case of (2). Try this:
2p. If we want to maximize human flourishing, then it is necessary that we support democratic regimes.
Fr. Robert Barron here fruitfully compares the Catholic Church's rigoristic teaching on matters sexual, with its prohibitions of masturbation, artificial contraception, and extramarital sex, with the rigorism of the Church's teaching with respect to just war. An excellent article.
Although Fr. Barron doesn't say it explicitly, he implies that the two topics are on a par. Given that "the Catholic Church's job is to call people to sanctity and to equip them for living saintly lives," one who accepts just war rigorism ought also to accept sexual rigorism. Or at least that is what I read him as saying.
I have no in-principle objection to the sexual teaching, but I waffle when it comes to the rigorous demands of just war theory. I confess to being 'at sea' on this topic.
On the one hand, I am quite sensitive to the moral force of 'The killing of noncombatants is intrinsically evil and cannot be justified under any circumstances' which is one of the entailments of Catholic just war doctrine. Having pored over many a page of Kant, I am strongly inclined to say that certain actions are intrinsically wrong, wrong by their very nature, wrong regardless of consequences and circumstances. But what would have been the likely upshot had the Allies not used unspeakably brutal methods against the Germans and the Japanese in WWII? Leery as one ought to be of counterfactual history, I think the Axis Powers would have acquired nukes first and used them against us. But we don't have to speculate about might-have-beens. The Catholic doctrine implies that if Truman had a crystal ball and knew the future with certainty and saw that the Allies would have lost had they not used the methods they used, and that the whole world would have been been plunged into a Dark Age for two centuries -- he still would not have been justified in ordering the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Indeed, if the killing of noncombatants is intrinsically evil and unjustifiable under any circumstances and regardless of any consequences, then it is better that the earth be blown to pieces than that evil be done. This, I suppose, is one reading of fiat iustitia pereat mundus, "Let justice be done though the world perish."
This extreme anti-consequentialism would make sense if the metaphysics of the Catholic Church or even the metaphysics of Kant were true. If God is real then this world is relatively unreal and relatively unimportant. If the soul is real, then its salvation is our paramount concern, and every worldly concern is relatively insignificant.
But then a moral doctrine that is supposed to govern our behavior in this world rests on an other-worldly metaphysics. No problem with that -- if the metaphysics is true. For then one's flourishing in this world cannot amount to much as compared to one's flourishing in the next. But how do we know it is true? Classical theistic metaphysics is reasonably believed, but then so are certain versions of naturalism. (Not every naturalist is an eliminativist loon.)
If the buck stops with you and the fate of civilization itself depends on your decision, will you act according to a moral doctrine that rests on a questionable metaphysics or will you act in accordance with worldly wisdom, a wisdom that dictates that one absolutely must resist the evildoer, and absolutely must not turn the other cheek to a Hitler?
An isolated individual, responsible for no one but himself, is free to allow himself to be slaughtered. But a leader of a nation is in a much different position. Anscombe's case against Truman does not convince me. Let the philosophy professor change places with the head of state and then see if her rigorism remains tenable.
To sum up these ruminations in a nice, neat antilogism:
1. Some acts, such as the intentional killing of noncombatants, are intrinsically wrong. 2. If an act is intrinsically wrong, then no possible circumstance in which it occurs or consequence of its being performed can substract one iota from its moral wrongness. 3. No act is such that its moral evaluation can be conducted without any consideration of any possible circumstance in which it occurs or possible consequence of its being performed.
The limbs of the antilogism are collectively inconsistent but individually extremely plausible.
One of the tasks of philosophy is to expose and debunk bad philosophy. And there is a lot of it out there, especially in the writings of journalists who report on scientific research. Scornful of philosophy, many of them peddle scientistic pseudo-understanding without realizing that what they sell is itself philosophy, very bad philosophy. A particularly abysmal specimen was sent my way by a reader. It bears the subtitle: "Without recognising it, Oxford scientists appear to have located the consience [sic]." In the body of the article we read:
This isn't some minor breakthrough of cognitive neuroscience. This is about good and bad, right and wrong. This is about the brain's connection to morality. This means that the Oxford scientists, without apparently realising what they've done, have located the conscience.
For centuries we thought that the conscience was just some faculty of moral insight in the human mind, an innate sense that one was behaving well or badly - although the great HL Mencken once defined it as, "the inner voice which warns us that someone may be looking". It's been used by religions as a numinous something-or-other, kindly bestowed by God, to give humans a choice between sin and Paradise.
Now, thanks to neuroscience, we've found the actual, physical thing itself. It's a shame that it resembles a Brussels sprout: something so important and God-given should look more imposing, like a pineapple. But then it wouldn't fit in our heads.
Henceforth, when told to "examine our conscience", we won't need to sit for hours cudgelling our brains to decide whether we're feeling guilty about accessing YouPorn late at night; we can just book into a clinic and ask them for a conscience-scan, to let us know for sure.
Part of what is offensive about this rubbish is that a great and humanly very important topic is treated in a jocose manner. (I am assuming, charitably, that the author did not write his piece as a joke.) But that is not the worst of it. The worst of it is the incoherence of what is being proposed.
I'll begin with what ought to be an obvious point. Before we can locate conscience in the brain or anywhere else we ought to know, at least roughly, what it is we are talking about. What is conscience?
Conscience is the moral sense, the sense of right, wrong, and their difference. It is the sense whereby we discern, or attempt to discern, what is morally (not legally, not prudentially) permissible, impermissible, and obligatory. It typically results in moral judgements about one's thoughts, words and deeds which in turn eventuate in resolutions to amend or continue one's practices.
The deliverances of conscience may or may not be 'veridical' or revelatory of objective moral demands or or objective moral realities on particular occasions. Some people are 'scrupulous': their consciences bother them when they shouldn't. Others are morally insensitive: their consciences do not bother them when they should. If subject S senses, via conscience, that doing/refraining from X is morally impermissible, it does not follow that it is. Conscience is a modality of object-directed consciousness and so may be expected to be analogous to nonmoral consciousness: if I am thinking that a is F, it does not follow that a is F.
So just as we can speak of the intentionality of consciousness, we can speak of the intentionality of conscience. Pangs of conscience are not non-intentional states of consciousness like headache pains. Conscience purports to reveal something about the morally permissible, impermissible, and obligatory (and perhaps also about the supererogatory and suberogatory); whether it does so is a further question. Suppose nothing is objectively right or wrong. That would not alter the fact that there is the moral sense in some of us.
Can conscience be located in the brain and identified with the lateral frontal pole? If so, then a particular moral sensing, that one ought not to have done X or ought to have done Y, is a state of the brain. But this is impossible. A particular moral sensing is an intentional (object-directed) state. But no physical state is object-directed. So, by the Indiscernibility of Identicals, a moral sensing cannot be a brain state.
So that is one absurdity. A second is that it is absurd to suggest, as the author does, that one can examine one's conscience by examining a part of one's brain. Examination of conscience is a spiritual practice whereby, at the end of the day perhaps, one reviews and morally evaluates the day's thoughts, words, and deeds. What is being examined here? Obviously not some bit of brain matter. And if one were to examine that hunk of meat, one would learn nothing as to the thoughts, words, and deeds of the person whose hunk of brain meat it is.
If a person's feeling of guilt is correlated with an identifiable brain state, then one could perhaps determine that a person was feeling guilt by way of a brain scan. But that would provide no insight into (a) what the guilt is about, or (b) whether the guilt is morally appropriate. No brain scan can reveal the intentionality or the normativity of guilt feelings.
There is also a problem about who is doing the examining in an examination of conscience. A different hunk of meat, or the same hunk? Either way, absurdity. Examining is an intentional state. So, just as it is absurd to suppose that one's thoughts, words, and deed are to be found in the lateral frontal pole, it is also absurd to suppose that that same pole is doing the examining of those contents.
I have emphasized the intentionality of conscience, which fact alone sufficies to refute the scientistic nonsense. And I have so far bracketed the question whether conscience puts us in touch with objective moral norms. I say it does, even though how this is possible is not easy to explain. Well, suppose that torturing children to death for sexual pleasure is objectively wrong, and that we have moral knowledge of this moral fact via conscience.
Then two problems arise for the scientistic naturalist: how is is possible for a hunk of meat, no matter how wondrously complex, to glom onto these nonnatural moral facts? And second, if there are such facts to be accessed via conscience, how do they fit into the scientistic naturalist's scheme? Answers: It is not possible, and they don't.
Have I just wasted my time refuting rubbish beneath refutation? Maybe not. Scientism, with its pseudo-understanding poses a grave threat to the humanities and indeed to our very humanity. David Gelernter is good on this.
I still read your blog conscientiously, but sometimes stare at your words in ignorant awe.
I have a question for you this morning which may be of interest. In a recent conversation with someone who described himself as a "gay" Christian (or is it a Christian "gay" ?), I gave reasons for observing that "gay Christian" is an oxymoron. My interlocutor said I must not be judgmental and justified his position by the saying, “You have your way, I have my way. As for the right way, it does not exist.” I made no headway with my argument that a belief in moral relativism is incompatible with a belief in God. If God is the incontestable ground of moral absolutes, it seems to me you can't have one without the other. Am I on the right track ?
Thank you for reading. Several points in response.
1. Can one be a Christian and a homosexual? I don't see why not, as long as one does not practice one's homosexuality. So I don't see that 'gay Christian' is an oxymoron. (AsI am using 'practice,' a homosexual man who succumbs to temptation and has sexual intercourse with a man on an occasion or two, while believing it to be immoral, is not practicing his homosexuality. The occasional exercise of a disposition does not constitute a practice.)
2. To be judgmental is to be hypercritical, captious, cavilling, fault-finding, etc. One ought to avoid being judgmental. But it is a mistake to confuse making moral judgments with being judgmental. I condemn the behavior of Ponzi-schemers like Bernie Madoff. That is a moral judgment. (And if you refuse to condemn it, I condemn your refusal to condemn.) But it would be an egregious misuse of language to say that I am being judgmental in issuing either condemnation.
3. If your friend thinks it is wrong to make moral judgments, ask him whether he thinks it is morally wrong. If he says yes, then point out that he has just made a moral judgment; he has made the moral judgment that making moral judgments is morally wrong.
4. Then ask him whether (a) he is OK with contradicting himself, or (b) makes an exception for the meta assertion that making moral judgments is morally wrong, or (c) thinks that both the meta judgment and first-order moral judgments (e.g., sodomy is morally wrong) are all morally wrong. (C) is a logically consistent position, although rejectable for other reasons.
5. He might of course say that 'must not' in 'must not be judgmental' is not to be construed morally, but in some other way. Press him on how it is to be construed.
6. Is moral relativism compatible with theism? No. If the God of the Christian faith exists, then there are absolute (objective) moral truths. This is quite clear if you reflect on the nature of the Christian God. It is not clear, however, that the arrow of entailment runs in the opposite direction. A Christian could affirm that it does, but he needn't. Either way, moral relativism and theism are logically inconsistent.
7. A further point. When your friend 'went relativistic' on you, there was nothing unusual about that. Alethic and moral relativism in most people are not thought-through positions, but simply ways of avoiding further discussion and the hard thinking necessary to get clear on these matters. It is a form of 'psychic insulation': "You can't teach me anything, because it's all relative."
8. A final point. That there are moral absolutes leaves open what they are. While moral relativism is easily dismissed, especially if one is a theist, it is considerably less easy to say what the moral absolutes are, even if one is a theist. So there is no call to be dogmatic. One can, and I think ought to, combine anti-relativism with fallibilism.
I pointed out earlier that forgiving is triadic: x forgives y for z. There is the forgiver, the one to whom forgiveness is proffered, and that which is forgiven. Nominative, dative, accusative. It is of course correct English to say 'I forgive you,' but this fact about usage cuts no ice since 'I forgive you' is elliptical for 'I forgive you for what you did or what you failed to do.' 'I forgive you' is not evidence that forgiving is in some cases dyadic any more than 'Tom is married' is evidence that marriage is monadic. Forgiving is then at least triadic: it is a three-place relation. 'X forgives y for z' has three argument-places. But it doesn't follow that forgiving is in every case a three-term or three-relata relation. For if one one can forgive oneself, then x and y are the same person. Compare identity, which is a two-place, but one-term relation.
Why did I write "at least triadic"? Because we need to think about such examples as 'I forgive you both for conspiring against me.' That appears to involve three persons and one action. I set this issue aside for later discussion.
At the moment, the following aporetic triad is at the cynosure of my interest:
1. There are cases of self-forgiveness and they are instances of genuine forgiveness.
2. If a person forgives himself at time t for doing or failing to do z , then he cannot help but be aware of and admit his own guilt at t for doing or failing to do z.
3. Genuine forgiveness is unconditional: it is consistent with a non-admission of guilt on the part of the one who is forgiven.
Each limb of the triad is plausible. But the limbs cannot all be true: the conjunction of ( 1) and (2) entails the negation of (3). Indeed, the conjunction of any two limbs entails the negation of the remaining limb.
To solve the problem, we must reject one of the limbs.
(1)-Rejection. One might maintain that cases of self-forgiveness are not instances of genuine forgiveness. One might hold that 'forgiveness' in 'self-forgiveness' and 'other-forgiveness' is being used in different ways, and that the difference between the two phenomena is papered over by the sameness of word.
(2)-Rejection. I would say that (2) is self-evident and cannot be reasonably rejected.
(3)-Rejection. One might maintain that genuine forgiveness need not be unconditional, that there are cases when it depends on the satisfaction of the condition that the one forgiven admit his guilt.
I would solve the problem by rejecting both (1) and (3). As I see it at the moment, genuine forgiveness is an interpersonal transaction: it involves at least two distinct persons. Self-forgiveness, however, remains intra-personal. What is called self-forgiveness is therefore a distinct, albeit related, phenomenon. It is not genuine forgiveness the paradigm case of which is one person forgiving another for an action or omission that is in some sense wrong, that injures the first person, and that the second person admits is wrong.
I also maintain that forgveness cannot be unconditional. For forgiveness to transpire as between A and B, B must accept the forgiveness that A offers. But B cannot do this unless he admits that he has done something (or left something undone) that is morally or legally or in some other way (e.g., etiquette-wise) censurable. Thus B must admit guilt. That is a condition that must be met if forgiveness is to occur.
One who accepts both (1) and (3) will, via (2), land himself in a contradiction.
In my last post on this topic I advanced a double-barreled thesis to the effect that (i) unconditional forgiveness is in most cases morally objectionable, and (ii) in most cases conditional forgiveness is genuine forgiveness. But now we need to back up and focus on the very concept of forgiveness since deciding whether (i) and (ii) are correct depends on what exactly we take forgiveness to be. So here is my preliminary stab at an analysis. After this task is completed, it may be necessary to back up once more and ask how I arrived at my analysis. Ain't philosophy fun?
1. Forgiveness has a triadic structure: to forgive is for someone to forgive someone for something. X forgives y for z, where x and y are persons (usually but not necessarily human) and z is typically an action or an action-omission. We typically forgive deeds and misdeeds, but perhaps states can be forgiven, for example, the state of being insufferably arrogant. An interesting side-question is whether x and y could be the same person. Is it possible to forgive oneself for something? I mention this question only to set it aside.
2. Only those we perceive to be guilty can be forgiven. Necessarily, if x forgives y for z, then x perceive, whether rightly or wrongly, y to be guilty of doing or having done z, or guilty of failing or having failed to do z. The necessity of this necessary truth is grounded in the very concept of forgiveness.
3. It follows from (2) that only what one rightly or wrongly takes to be a moral agent can be forgiven or not forgiven. For anything one takes to be morally guilty one must take to be a moral agent. I can neither forgive nor not forgive my cat for sampling my lasagne. Not being a moral agent, my cat cannot incur guilt.
4. It also follows from (2) that what I forgive a person for must be a wrongful act or act-omission. Tom, unlike my cat, is a moral agent; but it is not possible to forgive Tom for feeding his kids.
5. Forgiving works a salutary change in the forgiver: it alters his mental attitude toward the one forgiven. True forgiveness is not merely verbal but involves a genuine change of heart/mind (a metanoia if you will) that is good for the forgiver.
6. Forgiving cannot remove the guilt of the one forgiven if he is indeed guilty. Suppose you steal my money. You don't admit guilt or make restitution. But I forgive you anyway. Clearly, my forgiving you does not remove your moral guilt. You remain objectively guilty of theft. The demands of justice have not been satisfied.
7. Forgiving cannot retroactively make a person innocent of a crime he has committed. Suppose again that you steal my money. You admit guilt and you make restitution. My forgiving you does not and cannot change the fact that you wrongfully took my money. Forgiveness does not retroactively confer innocence. It follows that you remain guilty of having committed the crime even if you do admit guilt and satisfy the objectve demands of justice by making restitution, etc.
Assuming that the above analysis is correct, albeit not complete, does it allow for the possibility of unconditional forgiveness? It does. Suppose again that you steal my money, but don't admit guilt let alone make restitution. If I forgive you nonetheless, then I do so unconditionally, as opposed to on condition that you admit guilt, make restitution, etc.
Note that unconditional forgiveness is not an inter-personal transaction between the forgiver and the person forgiven, but something that transpires intrapsychically in the forgiver. This is because unconditional forgiveness doesn't require the one forgiven to acknowledge anything or even to be aware that he is the recipient of forgiveness. One can unconditionally forgive dead persons and persons with whom one has no contact. Since unconditional forgiveness is merely intra-personal as opposed to inter-personal, one may question whether it is forgiveness in the strict sense at all. Accordingly, one might add to the list of the concept's features:
8. Necessarily, if x forgives y, then y perceives himself as having done something wrong and admits his wrongdoing to x.
Now I don't think that features 1-7 are controversial, but #8 is. For it rules out unconditional forgiveness. The underlying issue is whether forgiveness is an inter-personal transaction or merely an attitude change within the mind/heart of the forgiver. If forgiveness is inter-personal, the one forgiven must accept forgiveness. But he can do that only if he acknowledges guilt.
But if unconditional forgiveness is possible, and not ruled out by the very concept of forgiveness, it doesn't follow that it is morally acceptable. I say it is not. To forgive unconditionally is to refuse to take a stand against it. But I will leave the elaboration of this point for later.
The other main question is whether conditional forgiveness is genuine forgiveness. I say it is.
One might think that there is nothing left to forgive after the offender has admitted guilt, made reparations, etc. But there is something left to forgive, namely, his having committed the offense in the first place.
A second consideration. If unconditional forgiveness is possible, then what makes forgiveness forgiveness has nothing to do with the the one forgiven: it does not require his admission of guilt, his doing penance, or even his being guilty. If I forgive a person, I must take him to be guilty, but he needn't be in fact. Unconditional forgiveness is merely an alteration of the forgiver's mental state. Now if forgiveness is what it is whether or not there is any non-relational change in the one forgiven, then it doesn't matter whether or not the conditions are satisfied. So conditional forgiveness will be just as much forgiveness as unconditional forgiveness is.
So for these two reasons conditional forgiveness counts as genuine forgiveness.
Finally, a post on forgiveness. :-) But my spirit within me won't permit me to forgo responding to what you've written. You characterize the paradox this way: It is morally objectionable to forgive those who will not admit wrongdoing, show no remorse, make no amends, do not pay restitution, etc. But if forgiveness is made conditional upon the doing of these things, then what is to forgive? Conditional forgiveness is not forgiveness. That is the gist of the putative paradox, assuming I have understood it.
That is not quite right.
The problem is this. Forgiving unconditionally -- forgiving someone without their apology, repentance, penance, etc. -- seems to amount to little more than condoning what they've done; it's hardly forgiveness but more of an acceptance of the wrong. On the other hand, forgiving on the condition that the wrong has been atoned -- the wrongdoer has apologized, repented, made reparations, performed penances, etc -- seems to be superfluous, insofar as after atonement has been made, the wrongdoer is not guilty of anything any longer and thus there is nothing to forgive, nor would continued resentment be appropriate.
BV: That's exactly what I said, though in a lapidary manner. So I think we agree as to what the putative paradox is. I call it 'putative' because I don't see it as a genuine paradox.
You write that, The first limb strikes me as self-evident: it is indeed morally objectionable to forgive those who will not admit wrongdoing, etc. But this is contentious; not everyone sees this the way you do. For instance, Jesus seems to forgive wrongdoers unconditionally on two occasions, once in the pericope adulterae (at John 7.53-8.11) and again at Luke 23.34 when he is being crucified. A significant number of contemporary philosophers (e.g., David Garrard, Eve McNaughton, Leo Zaibert, Christopher McCowley, Cheshire Calhoun, Glen Pettigrove) defend the practice of unconditional forgiveness, as well. So it's unacceptable simply to accept the first horn of the paradox as is; there is the argumentation of all these philosophers to deal with!
BV: Yes, my assertion is debatable, but then so is almost everything in philosophy and plenty of what is outside of philosophy. I don't think bringing Jesus in advances your argument. Either Jesus is God or he is not. If he is not, then he lacks the authority to contravene the existing law and forgive the adulteress. If he is God, then two problems. First, your argument then rests on a highly contentious theological presupposition. (I will remind you that in conversation you said that you were not trying to work out the Christian concept of forgiveness, but the concept of forgiveness in general.) Second, granting that God has the authority to forgive and forgive unconditionally, that has no relevance to the human condition, to forgiveness as it plays out among mere mortals such as us. For one thing, God can afford to forgive unconditionally; nothing can touch him. But for us to adopt a policy of forgiving unconditionally would be disastrous.
At Luke 23:34, Jesus is reported to have said, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do." Note that Jesus is not forgiving his tormenters; he is asking God the Father to forgive them. So this passage is not relevant to our discussion. Besides, there is nothing here about unconditional forgiveness. Jesus could have been requesting his Father to forgive the killers after punishing them appropriately.
Your mention of contemporary philosophers who support your position is just name-dropping. To drop a name is not to give an argument. I would have to see their arguments. Is it unacceptable for me to hold to my understanding of forgiveness according to which it is morally objectionable to forgive the unrepentant in advance of studying the arguments of those you mention? No more unacceptable than holding to the view that motion is possible in advance of studying the arguments of Zeno and his school, or holding to the reality of time despite my inability decisively to refute McTaggart. I might just stand my Moorean ground: "Look, I just ate lunch; therefore time is real!" Similarly with forgiveness: "Look, it is a wonderful thing to forgive, but only on condition that the offender own up to his wrongdoing, make amends, etc."
You also write, I admit that once the miscreant has paid his debt, he is morally in the clear. His guilt has been removed. But I can still forgive him because forgiveness does not take away guilt, it merely alters the attitude of the one violated to the one who violated him. You are forgetting another important aspect of forgiveness beyond the change in attitude, however, namely that it is a way of responding to wrongdoers as wrongdoers. Another way of putting this is that forgiveness is only possible when someone stands before us as guilty for some wrong done and is thus an appropriate candidate for resentment, anger, etc. If someone has atoned for their wrong and is no longer guilty, then there's no ground for resentment and thus there's nothing more to forgive! So the change in attitude after atonement has been made may resemble forgiveness, but it's hardly genuine forgiveness since there's no wrong to forgive any longer.
BV: This is an interesting and weighty point, but I disagree nonetheless. You may be conflating two separate claims. I would say that it is a conceptual truth that if X forgives Y, then X perceives Y as having done wrong, whether or not Y has in fact done wrong. This truth is analytic in that it merely unpacks our ordinary understanding of 'forgiveness.' But it doesn't follow from this conceptual truth that there is nothing left to forgive with respect to a person who has atoned for his misdeed. I say there is: the mere fact that he has done me wrong in the first place. Suppose he stole my money, but then apologized and made restitution. In that case the demands of justice have been met. But there is still something left to forgive, namely, his having stolen my money in the first place. The apology and restitution do not eliminate the whole of the guilt, for the offender remains guilty of the misdeed. After all, his apology and restitution do not retroactively make him innocent. He remains guilty as charged. The fact of his having committed the misdeed can in no way be altered. Though contingent at the time, it now has the modal status of necessitas per accidens.
There is obviously a difference between one who is guilty of an offence and one who is innocent of it. That distinction remains in place even after the guilty party pays for his crime. Your position seems to imply that punishment retroactively renders the criminal innocent -- which is absurd.
Consider this. Forgiveness is commonly thought of as gracious; it is a generous way of responding to wrongdoers that goes beyond strictly what they deserve. How is it at all generous to change one's attitude towards a wrongdoer only once atonement has been made and she is effectively no longer a wrongdoer?
BV: I agree that forgiveness is gracious and not strictly a matter of desert. It is nevertheless generous to forgive even after atonement has been made. For one is forgiving the offender of having committed the misdeed in he first place. I deny that the offender is no longer a wrongdoer after the penalty has been paid. Again, your position seems to imply that punishment retroactively renders the criminal innocent.
Remember the Derrida quote I cited:
Imagine, then, that I forgive on the condition that the guilty one repents, mends his ways, asks forgiveness, and thus would be changed by a new obligation, and that from then on he would no longer be exactly the same as the one who was found to be culpable. In this case, can one still speak of forgiveness? This would be too simple on both sides: one forgives someone other than the guilty one. In order for there to be forgiveness, must one not on the contrary forgive both the fault and the guilty as such, where the one and the other remain as irreversible as the evil, as evil itself, and being capable of repeating itself, unforgivably, without transformation, without amelioration, without repentance or promise? Must one not maintain that an act of forgiveness worthy of its name, if there ever is such a thing, must forgive the unforgivable, and without condition? (On cosmopolitanism and forgiveness, pp. 38-9)
BV: John Searle once said of Derrida that he gives bullshit a bad name. So an appeal to the authority of Derrida will have as little effect on me as an appeal the supposed authority of Paul Krugman in an economic connection. The Derrida passage smacks of sophistry what with the rhetorical questions and the typically French amorphousness. He seems to be advancing the following sophism. If one forgives the one who has atoned, then "one forgives someone other than the guilty one." But that is to confuse numerical identity with qualitative identity.
Thus I have to hold, pace tua, that genuine forgiveness must be unconditional, and conditionalized forgiveness is less than true.
BV: And I continue to maintain, pace tua, that only conditional forgiveness is morally unobjectionable and that conditional forgiveness counts as genuine forgiveness.
I understand Aurel Kolnai has a paper on this topic. I haven't read it. But the paradox has been put to me as follows in conversation.
It is morally objectionable to forgive those who will not admit wrongdoing, show no remorse, make no amends, do not pay restitution, etc. But if forgiveness is made conditional upon the doing of these things, then what is to forgive? Conditional forgiveness is not forgiveness. That is the gist of the putative paradox, assuming I have understood it.
This is something I need to explore, but off the top of my head I fail to see a problem. The first limb strikes me as self-evident: it is indeed morally objectionable to forgive those who will not admit wrongdoing, etc. But I reject the second limb. I admit that once the miscreant has paid his debt, he is morally in the clear. His guilt has been removed. But I can still forgive him because forgiveness does not take away guilt, it merely alters the attitude of the one violated to the one who violated him.
Suppose you take money from my wallet without my permission. I catch you at it and express my moral objection. You give me back my money and apologize for having taken it. I forgive you. My forgiving you makes perfect sense even though you have made restitution and have apologized. For I might not have forgiven you: I might have told you go to hell and get out of my life for good.
By forgiving you, I freely abandon the justified negative attitude toward you that resulted from your bad behavior. This works a salutary change in me, but it also does you good, for now you are restored to my good graces and our mutual relations become once again amicable.
So I see no paradox. The first limb is self-evidently true while the second is false. Only conditional forgiveness is genuine forgiveness.
It is of course possible that I am not thinking deeply enough!
How much more immoral we would be if we didn't have to die! Two thoughts.
1. Death sobers us and conduces to reflection on how we are living and how we ought to live. We fear the judgment that may come, and not primarily that of history or that of our circle of acquaintances. We sense that life is a serious 'business' and that all the seriousness would be drained from it were there no Last Judgment. Some of us, like Wittgenstein, strive to make amends and put things to right before it is too late. (Do not scruple over his scrupulosity but take the message of his example.) We apply ourselves to the task of finally becoming morally 'decent' (anstaendig). The end approaches swiftly, and it will make a difference in the end how we comport ourselves here and now. One feels this to be especially so when the here and now becomes the hora mortis.
DRURY: I had been reading Origen before. Origen taught that at the end of time here would be a final restitution of all things. That even Satan and the fallen angels would be restored to their former glory. This was a conception that appealed to me -- but it was at once condemned as heretical.
WITTGENSTEIN: Of course it was rejected. It would make nonsense of everything else. If what we do now is to make no difference in the end, then all the seriousness of life is done away with. Your religious ideas have always seemed to me more Greek than biblical. Whereas my thoughts are one hundred per cent Hebraic.
(Recollections of Wittgenstein, ed. Rhees, Oxford 1984, p. 161.)
Death has been recognized from the beginning as the muse of philosophy. I supplement, or perhaps merely unpack, the Platonic thought by writing that death is the muse of morality.
2. Lives without limit here below would afford more time for more crime. Death spells a welcome end to homo homini lupus, at least in individual cases.
There is a well-informed discussion of the topic at Auster's place. I have serious reservations about Lawrence Auster's brand of conservatism, reservations I may air later, but for now I want to say that I admire him for his courage in facing serious medical troubles and for soldiering on in the trenches of the blogosphere. He courageously tackles topics many of us shy away from. I hope he pulls through and carries on.
A thousand times you do the right thing and receive no praise. But the one time you do the wrong thing you are harshly blamed. This is the way it ought to be. Praise should be reserved for the supererogatory. To praise people for doing what it is their duty to do shows that moral decline has set in. If memory serves, Kant makes this point somewhere in his vast corpus.
Dennis Prager once said that wives should praise their husbands for their fidelity. I don't think so. Being married entails certain moral requirements, and fidelity is one of them. One should not be praised for doing what one morally must do; one should be blamed for failing to do what one morally must do.
And yet we do feel inclined to praise people for doing the obligatory.
A related point has to do with expressing gratitude to someone for doing his job. I took my wife in for a minor medical procedure this morning. As we were leaving I thanked the nurse. I would have been slightly annoyed had she said, "I'm just doing my job." Was my thanking her out of place? Maybe not. Maybe my thanking was not for her doing her job, but for her doing it in a 'perky' and friendly way.
Ego is at the root of sin, but also at the root of obsessive preoccupation with one's sinfulness. If the goal is to weaken the ego, then too much fretting over one's sins in the manner of a Wittgenstein is contraindicated.
There is such a thing as excessive moral scrupulosity.
Though Wittgenstein's ego drove him to scruple inordinately, he was a better man than Russell. Russell worried about logic. Wittgenstein worried about logic and his sins.
I had a lucid dream the other night in which I lost my cool to an extent I would consider morally reprehensible in waking life. But was there any moral failure in the dream? And then there are the dreams in which I am having sexual intercourse with a woman not my wife. I'm aware I am dreaming and I think to myself: "Well, this is just a dream; I may as well enjoy it." So on occasion I grant nocturnal permission to a nocturnal emission.
Was there real, not merely dreamt, moral failure in the dream? (Augustine discusses this or a cognate question somewhere in his pelagic pennings, but I have forgotten where.)
Lucid dreaming while asleep is not the same as fantasizing while awake. But they are similar. Suppose I am entertaining (with hospitality) thoughts about having sex with my neighbor's wife. That sort of thing, I have argued, is morally objectionable. I mean the thinking, whether or not it results in any doing. Jesus just says it (MT 5:28). I argue it here and here. (Of course if he is God, he doesn't need to argue it, and because I am not God, I do.) Does the similarity support the claim that the nocturnal permission is as morally impermissible as the diurnal permission?
I have been following your blog with great interest for a couple of years now and I feel honored knowing that there are people like yourself on this planet in our times. I live in the Ukraine and represent the post-soviet cultural enviroment where philosophy has been practically persecuted and distorted by Marxists. I have a Licentiate in Philosophy from University Urbaniana in Rome and teach philosophy at the Diocesan Seminary of Ivano-Frankivsk.
I've been asked recently if currency trading (Forex) and stock trading are sinful. I mean, if they are done as income generating speculation. I've tried to look up official Church documents and just generally search the Internet and it's resources but am unable to find a clear and logically consistent answer. I can see how people who received socialistic education (like everybody in the Soviet Union), can find speculation morally wrong and sinful. But many of my Western friends don't think this. There is a difference in the basic comprehension of the "market" in its most fundamental components and things that define it. There is a problem of "property" as it is understood differently in socialist and capitalist views. Then I think of the American situation with your president pushing forward so many things that were clearly defined as socialist in the country where I was born (SU). And the underlying concepts of "property", "market", "goods" etc. that are substituted with other even in the question of the health reform.
I am happy that you have noticed that the present administration of the U. S. government headed by Barack Obama has accelerated the move in the socialistic and totalitarian direction. The move in this direction has been going on for a long time, since F. D. Roosevelt at least, but since the 1960s has achieved a 'metastatic' state of growth -- to employ a cancer metaphor. The irony in all this is that we won the Cold War only to become more and more like the Soviet Union which we labored so mightily to defeat. (I am old enough to remember the anxiety here in the States over Sputnik and the suborbital exploits of your cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin.) And like the SU, we may well collapse under the weight of our own fiscal irresponsibility, foreign overextendedness, and 'internal contradictions' -- to use a Marxist phrase. We are no longer "The land of the free and the home of the brave." We have become a land of wimps willing to sell our birthright for a mess of pottage, i.e., for cradle-to-grave security to be provided by an ever more intrusive nanny state. I am of course brushing in very broad strokes. The details of the situation are messy and complicated indeed.
You ask whether currency and stock trading are sinful. Such activities fall under the Seventh Commandment -- "Thou shalt not steal" -- in the Roman Catholic (RC) numbering of the Decalogue. The following, from the RC Catechism, is relevant to your question:
2409 Even if it does not contradict the provisions of civil law, any form of unjustly taking and keeping the property of others is against the seventh commandment: thus, deliberate retention of goods lent or of objects lost; business fraud; paying unjust wages; forcing up prices by taking advantage of the ignorance or hardship of another.192
The following are also morally illicit: speculation in which one contrives to manipulate the price of goods artificially in order to gain an advantage to the detriment of others; corruption in which one influences the judgment of those who must make decisions according to law; appropriation and use for private purposes of the common goods of an enterprise; work poorly done; tax evasion; forgery of checks and invoices; excessive expenses and waste. Willfully damaging private or public property is contrary to the moral law and requires reparation.
As I see it there is nothing morally wrong with buying and holding stocks and realizing a profit upon their sale. There is nothing wrong with buying and selling stocks in general. A stock is an equity. When I buy a stock I buy a bit of a company that produces goods and services, some of them indispensable for human flourishing. By buying stocks I contribute to human well being, not all stocks, but most. When I buy stocks I am engaged in a productive activity, not directly, but indirectly: I help fund a productive enterprise that produces food and medicine and books and computers, etc.
Same with bonds. A bond is a debt instrument. I loan you money so that you can engage in a productive activity such as open a book store. You pay me interest for the use of my money. That is perfectly reasonable and perfectly moral.
But what about day trading? This strikes me as morally dubious. Here what you are doing is playing a game in which you generate an income without directly or indirectly producing anything. It is entirely unlike buying a house when it is cheap, fixing it up, maintaining it, paying property taxes on it, and then selling it at a large profit. The profit, even if quite large, is justly acquired since one has engaged in activities with promote not only one's own good, but the good of others. One has improved the neighborhood by fixing up the house; one has made it available to others to rent; one has paid property taxes to support locals schools and fire departments, etc.
Currency trading? I don't know enough about the details of it to have a firm opinion, but I suspect that is shares the moral dubiousness of day trading. A Roman Catholic, I suspect, would consider it be "morally illicit: speculation in which one contrives to manipulate the price of goods artificially in order to gain an advantage to the detriment of others."
Let me add this. (I am now speaking for myself.)
1. There is nothing wrong with money. It is absolutely not the root of all evil. The most we can say is that the inordinatedesire for money is at the root of some evils. I develop this theme in Radix Omnium Malorum.
2. There is nothing wrong with making money or having money. There is for example nothing wrong with making a profit from buying, refurbishing, maintaining, occupying, paying propery taxes on, and then selling a house.
3. There is nothing wrong with material (socio-economic) inequality as such. For example, there is nothing wrong with Bill Gates' having a vastly higher net worth than your humble correspondent. And there is nothing wrong with the latter's having a considerably higher net worth than some of his acquaintances. (When they were out pursuing wine, women, and song, he was engaging in virtuous, forward looking activities thereby benefiting not only himself but also people who come in contact with him.) Of course, I am assuming that the inequalities have not come about through force or fraud.
4. Equality of outcome or result is not to be confused with equality of opportunity or formal equality in general, including equality under the law. It is an egregious fallacy of liberals and leftists to infer a denial of equality of opportunity -- via 'racism' or 'sexism' or whatever -- from the premise that a certain group has failed to achieve equality of outcome. There will never be equality of outcome due to the deep differences between individuals and groups. Equality of outcome is not even a value. We must do what we can to ensure equality of opportunity and then let the chips fall where they may.
5. We the people do not need to justify our keeping of what is ours; the State has to justify its taking. We are citizens of a republic, not subjects of a king or dictator or of the apparatchiks who have managed to get their hands on the levers of State power.
6. Private property is the foundation of individual liberty. Socialism and communism spell the death of individual liberty. The more socialism, the less liberty. The bigger the State, the smaller the citizen. (D. Prager)
7. The inidividual is the locus of value. We do not exist for the State; the State exists for us as individuals.
8. Property rights, contra certain libertarians, are not absolute: there are conditions under which an 'eminent domain' State seizure (with appropriate compensation) of property can be justified. "2406Political authority has the right and duty to regulate the legitimate exercise of the right to ownership for the sake of the common good."
9. Governments can and do imprison and murder. No corporation does. Liberals and leftists have a naive faith in the benevolence of government, a faith that is belied by that facts of history: Communist governments in the 20th century murdered over 100 million people. (Source: Black Book of Communism.) Libs and lefties are well-advised to adopt a more balanced view, tranferring some of their skepticism about corporations -- which is in part justified -- to Big Giovernment, especially the omni-intrusive and omnicompetent sort of governments they champion.
10. Our social and political troubles are rooted in our moral malaise, in particular, in inordinate and disordered desire. It is a pernicious illusion of the Left to suppose that our troubles have an economic origin solely and can be alleviated by socialist schemes of redistribution of wealth.
To wrap this up. I only hope that my question will not seem too naive, but I would really appreciate your input on the ethical aspects of trading. Thank you for your work and the blogging. It's like a breath of fresh intellectual sanity I get, every time I read your posts.
Rev. Iouri Koslovskii
Ivano-Frankivsk Theological Academy Assistant Professor 64 Vasylianok str. Ivano-Frankivsk 76019, Ukraine
о. Юрій Козловський Івано-Франківська Теологічна Акадеімя Доцент Кафедри Філософії вул. Василіанок 64 Івано-Франківськ 76019, Україна
Here is a little argument in support of the category of supererogatory actions:
1. Some good actions are praiseworthy. 2. No obligatory actions are praiseworthy. --- 3. Some good actions are not obligatory.
Since by definition a supererogatory action is one that is good but not obligatory, the above amounts to an argument for supererogatory actions. The argument is valid and the first premise self-evident. So the soundness of the argument rides on the second premise. Here, I suppose, an appeal to intuition is unavoidable.
So I will simply state that it is morally obtuse to praise someone for doing what he is obligated (whether legally or morally) to do. You don't praise a person for driving in accordance with the traffic laws, you blame him for failing to do so. It is a sign of moral confusion and moral decline to praise people for doing what they ought to do.
Praise and blame attach to the supererogatory and the prohibited, respectively. Neither attach to the obligatory.
While I'm on the topic of moral confusion, I saw an official sign on a pedestrian traffic signal in Tempe, Arizona. It read: Please do not cross against the light. The pertinent code was cited. Now what moral idiot formulated this sign? 'Please' is a word used in making a request, not in issuing a command. Am I being requested to not cross against the signal? If it is a request, then it is permissible for me to decline. "No thank you, I prefer to do as I please regardless of public safety and order." And if it is a request, why cite the traffic code? Or am I being commanded to not cross against the signal? But then 'please' is out of place.
Hitchens is a case worth studying. He is more interesting than Dawkins because evidently more psychologically complex and humanly engaging. If we Catholics are right about God and humanity, why was he so wrong? Or, put another way, what can we learn from his attitude about how to understand our own religious claims and about how our lives reflect them? Hitchens pointed to the record of evil associated with Christianity and with Catholicism in particular. It is glib to reply that humanism has its own tale of terrors, and problematic if we also claim that religious adherence brings transforming grace. If I were to take up Hitchens’s campaign against religion it would be to ask again and again: “Where is your grace and your holiness?”
This challenge has particular force against those who downplay human sinfulness and the extent of depravity. Not until we have taken seriously the idea that the effects of sin and ongoing sinfulness corrupt the soul will we be in a position to fashion an effective counter to the charges Hitchens brought against Catholicism and Christianity more generally. It will not be to say that we are better than he claimed. Rather, we need to explain effectively our failings and those of all humanity in terms of a shared supernatural identity. To which we might add, adapting a saying of Wilde’s, whose style of wit Hitchens sometimes echoed: “We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking to heaven in hope of salvation.”
First, I don't find it at all glib to point out the horrors of atheistic humanism which in the 20th century alone are greater than those inflicted over 20 centuries of Christianity. The purpose of pointing that out is to underscore the fact that it is not religion as religion that is the source of the horrors, but dogmatic adherence to a worldview, whether religious or anti-religious, that permits the suppression and murder of opponents. Bigotry and hate have their source in the human heart, not in religion or in humanism. Certain forms of religion and humanism may give carte blanche to the exercise of murderous impulsees, but the animating cesspool and prime mover ansd applier of doctrines is and remains the human heart. It is a fundamental mistake of leftists to seek the source of evil in something external such as religion or capitalism when its source is in a mind made dark by a foul human heart.
But I wholly agree with Haldane that religious people need to explain why their beliefs and practices are so ineffective in transforming their character. We all know people whose fervent religiosity has made scarcely a dent in their fundamental nastiness. Why does religion contribute so little to the amelioration of people? Twenty centuries of Christianity and even more centuries of Buddhism and we are still tearing each other apart, body and soul. As for glib remarks, Chesterton's takes the cake: "Christianity hasn't failed; it's never been tried." (Or something like that; I quote from memory. If you have the exact quotation in its context with references, e-mail me.) If it hasn't been tried by now, it will never be tried.
Of course, one can argue that the religious would have been worse without religion and I don't doubt that that is true. And not only are the religious better than they would have been without it, the irreligious are also better than they would have been without it. For religion supplies the morality that civilizes and humanizes, a morality that permeates the social atmosphere and affects even those who reject the metaphysical underpinnings. Unfortunately, Western civilization now appears to be running on empty, on the fumes of the Judeo-Christian-Athenian tradition, and one fears what happens when they too evaporate. A good question for the New Atheists: once your suppression of religion is complete, what will you put in its place? How will you inculcate morality, and what morality will you inculcate?
Although Haldane does not mention the Fall by name, he alludes to it. The explanation for religious inefficacy anent moral transformation has to involve the notion that man is a fallen being. Although the religious are not much better than the irreligious, they at least appreciate their fallen condition. They at least know they are in the gutter, and knowing this, are inclined to do something about it.
Addendum: My thanks to several readers who have quickly responded with the correct G. K. Chesterton quotation. It is at the end of the following paragraph:
Of course, I mean that Catholicism was not tried; plenty of Catholics were tried, and found guilty. My point is that the world did not tire of the church's ideal, but of its reality. Monasteries were impugned not for the chastity of monks, but for the unchastity of monks. Christianity was unpopular not because of the humility, but of the arrogance of Christians. Certainly, if the church failed it was largely through the churchmen. But at the same time hostile elements had certainly begun to end it long before it could have done its work. In the nature of things it needed a common scheme of life and thought in Europe. Yet the mediaeval system began to be broken to pieces intellectually, long before it showed the slightest hint of falling to pieces morally. The huge early heresies, like the Albigenses, had not the faintest excuse in moral superiority. And it is actually true that the Reformation began to tear Europe apart before the Catholic Church had had time to pull it together. The Prussians, for instance, were not converted to Christianity at all until quite close to the Reformation. The poor creatures hardly had time to become Catholics before they were told to become Protestants. This explains a great deal of their subsequent conduct. But I have only taken this as the first and most evident case of the general truth: that the great ideals of the past failed not by being outlived (which must mean over-lived), but by not being lived enough. Mankind has not passed through the Middle Ages. Rather mankind has retreated from the Middle Ages in reaction and rout. The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.
It is from What 's Wrong with the World, Part I, Chapter 5. I am now inclined to say, having seen the context, that my calling the quotation glib was itself somewhat glib.
You say: "I would argue that a naturalist/physicalist/materialist ought to be a moral nihilist, and that when these types fight shy of moral nihilism that merely shows an inability or unwillingness on their part to appreciate the logical consequences of their own doctrine, or else some sort of psychological compartmentalization. "
I agree with you that the naturalist/materialist/physicalist ought - intellectually ought - to be a moral nihilist. Of course, that's not a very popular position. So aren't we left with the case where the naturalist/materialist/physicalist 'ought' to pretend to be otherwise? In other words, when we see someone like Hitchens talking about moral oughts, is this necessarily a case of either compartmentalization or contradiction? What about the other option: they're lying, because what's important is advancing an agenda. After all, moral nihilism doesn't compel one to be up front about one's moral nihilism.
The reader agrees that naturalism logically requires moral nihilism. That it does is not obvious and requires argument. A naturalist might try to argue that objective values either supervene upon, or emerge from, pure natural facts. A huge topic! For one thing, it depends on exactly what sort of naturalism is under discussion. A nonreductive naturalist might escape the entailment, assuming he can make sense of nonreductivism, and good luck with that. But surely an eliminativist naturalist would not. So it seems obvious that eliminativist naturalism does entail moral nihilism. We can raise our question with respect to a naturalist of this stripe.
So, assuming that some versions of naturalism do entail moral nihilism, what ought we say about the naturalist proponent of one of these versions who refuses to accept the consequence?
I suggested that there are two options: either he is simply being logically inconsistent, something I wouldn't put past a 'public intellectual,' or he is compartmentalizing. (I saw a show last night on TV about one 'Mad Dog' Sullivan, mafia hit man. He was a good husband and father when he wasn't gunning people down in cold blood. He'd walk into a bar, shoot his victim through the head, and calmly walk out. He has about 20-30 murders to his 'credit.' He pulled off the compartmentalization by telling himself that his crimes were just 'business.' The most depressing bit came at the end when his wife and two sons insisted that Sullivan was "a good man.")
My reader suggests a third option: (some) naturalists are just lying. They see what their naturalism entails, and they are not compartmentalizing. They are lying to forward their agenda. After all, a fully self-aware moral nihilist would not consider truth to be a an objective value, and so could not have any moral scruples about lying.
I think my reader made a good point. If you are an eliminativist naturalist, and do not accept moral nihilism as a logical consequence of your naturalism, then you are either being logically inconsistent, or you are a self-deceived compartmentalizer, or you are a lousy no good liar!
You can guess what my strategy will be with respect to the other naturalisms. I will test whether or not they collapse into eliminativism in the end.
. . . [Christopher] Hitchens writes that he and other atheists “believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion,” thus implying that he and others have direct and incorrigible acquaintance with a natural moral law that informs their judgments about what counts as an ethical life.
But to speak of a natural moral law – a set of abstract, immaterial, unchanging principles of human conduct that apply to all persons in all times and in all places – seems oddly out of place in the universe that Hitchens claimed we occupy, a universe that is at bottom a purposeless vortex of matter, energy, and scientific laws that eventually spit out human beings.
Right. It is easy to confuse two very different questions, and Sam Harris, one of the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism, does confuse them as I argue here.
Q1. Given some agreed-upon moral code, are people who profess some version of theism more 'moral,' i.e., more likely to live in accordance with the agreed-upon code, than those who profess some version of atheism?
However it be answered, (Q1) is not philosophically interesting, except as part of the run-up to a genuine philosophical question, though it is of interest sociologically. Suppose we grant, arguendo, that the answer to (Q1) is in the negative. Now contrast (Q1) with
Q2. Given some agreed-upon moral code, are atheists justified in adhering to the code?
The agreed-upon code is one that most or many atheists and theists would accept. Thus don't we all object to child molestation, wanton killing of human beings, rape, theft, lying, and swindling in the manner of Madoff? Even swindlers object to being swindled! And in objecting to these actions, we mean our objections to be more than merely subjectively valid. When our property is stolen or a neighbor murdered, we consider that an objective wrong has been done. And when the murderer is apprehended, tried, and convicted we judge that something objectively right has been done. Let's not worry about the details or the special cases: killing in self-defense, abortion, etc. Just imagine some minimal objectively binding code that all or most of us, theists and atheists alike, accept.
What (Q2) asks about is the foundation or basis of the agreed-upon objectively binding moral code. This is not a sociological or any kind of empirical question. Nor is it a question in normative ethics. The question is not what we ought to do and leave undone, for we are assuming that we already have a rough answer to that. The question is meta-ethical: what does morality rest on, if on anything?
Beckwith is quite right that the naturalist/physicalist/materialist is going to have a hard time justifying his adherence to the moral prescriptions and proscriptions that most of us, theist and atheist alike, accept. I would argue that a naturalist/physicalist/materialist ought to be a moral nihilist, and that when these types fight shy of moral nihilism that merely shows an inability or unwillingness on their part to appreciate the logical consequences of their own doctrine, or else some sort of psychological compartmentalization.
I once knew a hard-assed logical positivist who during the work week practiced his positivism, but on Sundays attended Eastern Orthodox religious services. He avoided cognitive dissonance by compartmentalizing.
The compartmentalized life is the suboptimal life. Seek existential unity and consistency.
In The Stoic Ideal, I stated that the Stoic ideal is "is for us impossible, and so no ideal at all." The ideal of the Stoic sage is the attainment of a state of god-like impassibility by means of a retreat into the inner citadel of the self, a retreat of such a nature that one is no longer affected -- unless the sage wants to be affected -- by anything not in his power. My double-barreled thesis, aphoristically put, is that (i) Stoic impassibility is for us humans an impossibility, and thus (ii) cannot be an ideal for beings of our constitution. In illustration of my thesis I adduced Jesus on the cross: Jesus died in agony like a man, even though, if he was God, he could have realized the Stoic ideal. Of course my argument was not the following:
1. Christianity is true and Jesus is our Exemplar 2. Jesus did not exhibit on the cross or elsewhere the behavior of a Stoic sage Therefore 3. The Stoic ideal cannot be our ideal.
I did not argue this way because this is not the way philosophers qua philosophers argue. They argue from premises that do not rest on faith. My argument was this:
4. What is not in our power to achieve cannot be an ideal for us. 5. Stoic impassibiity is not in our power to achieve. Therefore 3. The Stoic ideal cannot be our ideal.
The evidence for (5) is overwhelming. I have never met a Stoic sage, and neither have you. Some people are more stoic than others, and there are some Stoic philosophers about; but a philosopher is not the same as a sage. A philosopher is a mere aspirant, a seeker of wisdom; a sage has reached the goal.
The background assumption, (4), is open to question. I have deployed this principle in other contexts, and it seems to me to be a sound one. It is a generalization of the 'ought' implies 'can' principle: if I morally ought to do X, then it must be in my power to do X. Contrapositively, if it is not in my power to do X, then I have no moral obligation to do X. My principle is a generalization of the familiar Kantian principle because it covers not only the obligatory but also the supererogatory. So I call it the Generalized 'Ought' Implies 'Can' Principle. Roughly, an action or state is supererogatory if it is good to do or achieve but not bad to leave undone or unachieved. But an astute reader took issue with my principle that genuine ideals must be achievable:
I wonder, do you really want to discriminate against ideals that may be practically impossible for us to achieve?
Take anamartia. Errorlessness. Every time I go out on the tennis court I aim for an errorless set & match. Never gotten close. Every time I write a long document (under time pressure) I try for an errorless document, but there are always some mistakes & typos. I don't want to back off and accept a certain error rate as OK. It isn't OK. In principle and ideally I could be errorless and that's what I want to be. That ideal motivates me. I keep trying. I am not discouraged.
It is not clear that this is a counterexample to my principle. The reader says that he "could be errorless" in his slinging of words or hitting of balls. If that means that he has the ability to be errorless, then I say that errorlessness is a genuine ideal for him, even if he has never yet achieved errorlessness. (Something can be achievable by a person even if it has never been achieved by that person.) Surely my man ought to strive to perform to the very best of his abilities. If 'ought' is too strong, then I say his striving to perform to the best of his abilities is better than his not so striving. Either way, errorlessness is a genuine ideal for him. It is a genuine ideal for him because it is achievable by him. But he said, "in principle and ideally." Those are vague phrases in need of analysis.
To be errorless in principle could mean that a) there is no narrowly-logical or broadly-logical bar to his being errorless; b) there is no nomological bar to his being errorless; c) both (a) and (b). Clearly, errorlessness is possible for my reader in either or both of these senses. Neither the laws of logic nor the laws of physics rule out his being errorless. But satisfying the logical and nomological conditions does not suffice to make errorlessness a genuine ideal for him. For that more is needed: he must have the ability to be errorless and be in circumstances in which his abilities can be exercised.
So I stick to my claim that nothing can be a genuine ideal for a person unless it is concretely achievable by that person given his actual abilities and circumstances and not merely achievable 'in principle' by that person.
It may help if we distinguish two senses of 'ideal.' In one sense of the term, any desirable goal that one sets for himself is an ideal. But that is a use of 'ideal' so loose as to be useless. Suppose I desire to slice two hours off my marathon time the next time I run that distance. In one sense, that would be an 'ideal' time for me. But in the strict sense in which I am using the word, such an accomplishment is not achievable by me and so no ideal for me at all. But it may be an ideal for you.
I am tempted to insist that (4) is a self-evident practical principle, as self-evident as the principle of which it is the generalization. I rather doubt that I can prove it using premises more evident than it, but talking around it a bit may help.
Ideals must be realizable if they are to be ideals. The ideal 'points' to a possible realization. If that be denied then it is being denied that the ideal stands in relation to the real when the ideal has its very sense in contradistinction to the real. At this point I could bring in analogies, though analogies seldom convince. The possible is possibly actual. If you say X is possible but not possibly actual, then I say you don't understand the notion of possibility. Or consider dispositions. If a glass is disposed to shatter if suitably struck, then it must be possible for it to shatter. Analogously, if such-and-such is an ideal for a person, then it must be possible -- and not just logically or nomologically -- for the person to realize that ideal.
I believe this is an important topic because having the wrong ideals is worse than having no ideals at all. Many think that to be idealistic is good. But surely it is not good without qualification. Think of Nazi ideals, Communist ideals, leftist ideals and of their youthful and and earnest and sincere proponents. Those are wrongheaded ideals, and some of them are wrongheaded because not realizable. The classless society; the dictatorship of the proletariat; the racially pure society; the society in which everyone is made materially equal by the power of the state. Ideals like these cannot be achieved, and if the attempt is made terrible evils will be the upshot. The Commies broke a lot of eggs in the 20th century (100 million by some estimates) but still didn't achieve their fabulous and impossible omelet.
Their ideals were not realizable, not warranted by the actual facts of human nature.
I suggest the same is true of the ideal of Stoic impassibility: it is not warranted by the actual facts of human nature. This is not to say that most of us would not be a lot better if we were more stoic and detached in our responses to what is not in our control.
I have been a follower and great admirer of you and your blog writing for some time. I enjoyed reading your most recent post, especially as this topic has been fresh in my mind from preaching a sermon last week from James 1:13-15 on the nature and power of temptation in the Christian life. While of course our conclusions will inevitably differ in many ways on this topic, given our differences of belief concerning Christianity, I wanted to write you to ask for clarification concerning what you distinguish as first-order temptations and meta-temptations (or perhaps second-order temptations?).
I believe the heart of your argument is: Meta-temptation is the worst form of temptation because one who succumbs to the temptation to reject the objective validity of the moral point view has removed the context in which dalliance with floozies, paying one's debts, not murdering one's rivals, etc. are morally evaluable.
My question is this: is not your definition of meta temptation true of all temptation? Since I always choose that which is most desirable to my mind’s eye in the moment (to paraphrase Jonathan Edwards on the Freedom of the Will), am I not choosing that which I perceive as the greatest good and desirable, even if in reality it is not good but evil? Of course self-deception is at work where I assent to contradictory propositions in the moment: I should not do [X] because it is evil (i.e. God has forbidden [X]); I should do [X] because it is good (i.e. [X] will satisfy me and thus I determine what is good and evil).
The distinction I was making was between being tempted to do what one's moral sense tells one is wrong in a particular situation, and the temptation to discount as illusory the entire moral point of view. These strike me as different because one can be tempted in the first way while having no doubts at all about the objective validity of morality. Consider an example. I am a married man in a distant city attending a convention. A woman I meet there makes it clear that she is attracted to me and is available for sex. Finding her attractive I am tempted to invite her up to my hotel room. This is a 'first-order' temptation in that it concerns a specific action. Let us assume that there is no prudential reason why I shouldn't act upon my desire. But my conscience or moral sense tells me that the contemplated action, adultery, is wrong because it violates a vow I took. I do not doubt at all the objective validity of the deliverances of conscience in general or even the validity of the present deliverance; I simply override the present deliverance. I just block it out. I don't even have to engage in any rationalization. I merely suppress the bite of conscience and go ahead with the action.
So I don't see that my definition of meta-temptation applies to this sort of case. I know (or rather believe) that what I am about to do is objectively wrong, but, in the grip of lust, I freely suppress this knowledge (or belief) and freely go ahead with the contemplated action. I am not choosing what appears to me at the moment most desirable (desire-worthy), for I believe I am about to do a morally shabby thing. But I do it anyway! I willfully do what I know or believe I ought not do. And I do it freely. Lust may have me in its grip but I am not powerless to resist it; I freely consent to going with the flow.
Is not the purpose of all temptation to construct on alternate reality/metaphysic of what is good and what is evil, to make the false “look more true than truth itself” (to quote Irenaeus from his Against Heresies), to make something look larger than life in order to tempt me to believe that it will slake and satisfy my vicious lusts? It reminds me of Romans 1:22-23 where the Apostle Paul writes, "Claiming to be wise, they became fools,  and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” What is interesting about verse 23 is that Paul lists the order of creation backwards as if to say, “The moment you exchange the glory of the Creator for the creature, all of reality becomes inverted and perverted and thrown completely upside down.”
I think that seems to be the nature of all temptation: an inversion and perversion of reality where the evil becomes the good and the good the evil.
I don't see that all temptation amounts to an erection of an alternative metaphysic of good and evil. The example I gave, which is common enough, involves no transvaluation of any received values. We value fidelity and disvalue betrayal.
Please note that the inversion you speak of where the evil becomes good and the good becomes evil presupposes the moral point of view. Suppose A agrees with B that there is an objective and absolute moral order. But they disagree about which actions are good and which evil. A might hold that it is objectively good to procreate while B, under the influence of Schopenhauer, holds that procreation is objectively evil. That is a deep disagreement but one that plays out within the context of the shared assumption of an objective moral world order. The meta-temptation I am referring to is far more radical: the 'Nietzschean' temptation to dismiss as illusory the very notion of objective good and evil.
Is it built into the very concept of temptation that if one is tempted to do something or leave something undone that the act or ommission is morally wrong? I should think so. This is not to say that in ordinary English 'temptation' is not used in looser ways. For example, 'I am tempted to answer my opening question in the affirmative.' Or, 'I am tempted to take some of my cash and buy precious metals.' These are loose uses of 'tempt' and cognates. I am here concerned with the strict use, the moral use. Accordingly, it is by my lights a conceptual truth, and thus a necessary truth, that if one is tempted to do X or forego doing Y, then the act or the omission is morally wrong.
So, strictly speaking, to be tempted to do something is to be tempted to do something wrong. One cannot be tempted to do the right thing, or the good thing, or what one ought to do. This is nonsense: 'The floozy at the Kitty Kat lounge shook her comely ass in my face thereby tempting me to go home to my wife.' If there is temptation in this situation, it is the temptation to dally with the floozy. There is no temptation in the desire to be faithful to one's spouse or in the even stronger desire to engage in sexual intercourse with her.
Nor can one be tempted to do something morally insignificant, i.e., morally neutral. 'Home fries or hash browns' in normal circumstances is not a morally significant choice. I cannot be temped either way.
I am inclined, though not tempted, to say that the worst form of temptation is the temptation to think that it doesn't matter morally what one does or leaves undone, that the moral point of view is illusory, that morality is buncombe, conventional at best, not grounded in rerum natura. Lacking a better name for this I will call it 'meta-temptation in order distinguish it from such first-order temptations as the temptation to commit adultery or to shoot my neighbor's barking dog.
Meta-temptation is the worst form of temptation because one who succumbs to the temptation to reject the objective validity of the moral point view has removed the context in which dalliance with floozies, paying one's debts, not murdering one's rivals, etc. are morally evaluable. Such a person 'beyond morality' may have prudential reasons for doing this and refraining from that, but not strictly moral reasons.
But if meta-temptation is a form of temptation, strictly speaking, then rejecting the moral point of view is itself immoral. Rejecting it is immoral, however, only if the moral POV is objectively valid and binding. If it is without validity, then it cannot be immoral to reject it. And if it is invalid, then what appears to be temptation cannot really be temptation, and the bite of conscience that accompanies the meta-temptation to reject the moral POV is illusory and not revelatory of any moral truth.
Nothing I have said resolves the question of the objective validitiy/invalidity of the moral point of view. I myself find it impossible to shake off the thought of its objective validity. Its objective validity is subjectively certain to me. That inability of mine is, however, arguably consistent with the illusoriness of the moral POV. And so my subjective certainty is not objective certainty -- even to me!
I suspect that here as elsewhere one must in the end simply decide what one will believe and how one will live. You are fooling yourself if you think you will come up with a knock-down argument proof against every objection and acceptable to all able and sincere investigators. Examine the question throughly and then decide. Once you have decided, don't let your decision be overturned lightly. What you have resolved upon in your best hours should not be put in jeopardy by passing fears and doubts.
Many liberals have the bad habit of confusing private and public morality. They think that moral injunctions that make sense in private ought to be carried over into the public sphere. Such liberals are dangerously confused. There are those who, for example, take the Biblical injunction to "welcome the stranger" as a reason to turn a blind eye to illegal immigration. Or consider the NT injunction to "turn the other cheek."
Although it is morally permissible for an individual to "turn the other cheek," "to resist not the evildoer," etc. in the letter and spirit of the New Testament, it is morally impermissible for government officials in charge of national defense and security to do the same. For they are responsible for people besides themselves. Consider the analogy of the pater familias. He cannot allow himself to be slaughtered if that would result in the slaughter of his spouse and children. He must, morally speaking, defend himself and them. With a single person it is different. Such a person may (morally speaking) heed the advice Ludwig Wittgenstein gave to M. O'C. Drury: "If it ever happens that you get mixed up in hand-to-hand fighting, you must just stand aside and let yourself be massacred." (Recollections of Wittgenstein, ed. R. Rhees, p. 149) That was presumably advice Wittgenstein gave himself while a combatant in World War I.
It is a serious mistake, and one oft-made by liberals, to confuse the private and public spheres and the different moralities pertaining to each.
Imagine a society that implements a policy of not resisting (apprehending, trying, convicting, incarcerating, killing) rapists, murderers, foreign invaders, and miscreants generally. Such a society would seal its own death warrant and cease to function. It is a fact of human nature that people, in the main, behave tolerably well only under threat of punishment. People for the most part do not do the right thing because it is the right thing, but out of fear of punishment. This is not pessimism, but realism, and is known to be true by all unprejudiced students of history and society.
As for turning the other cheek, it is a policy that works well in certain atypical circumstances. If a man has a well-formed conscience, and is capable of feeling shame, then turning the other cheek in the face of his affront can achieve a result far superior to that achieved by replying in kind. Nonviolence can work. Gandhi's nonviolent resistance to the British may serve as an historical example. The Brits could be shamed and in any case Gandhi had no other means at his disposal. But imagine what would happen if Israel turned the other cheek in the face of its Islamic enemies who would blow it off the face of the map at the first opportunity?
Once your enemy has reduced you to the status of a pig or a monkey fit only to be slaughtered, then there is no way to reach him, shame him, or persuade him by acts of forebearance and kindness. You must resist him, with deadly force if necessary, if you wish to preserve your existence. And even if you in particular do not care to preserve your existence, if you are a government official charged with a defense function, then you are morally obliged to resist with as much deadly force as is necessary to stop the attacker even if that means targeting the attacker's civilian population.
But is it not better to suffer wrong than to inflict it, as Socrates maintained? Would it not be better to perish than to defend one's life by taking life? Perhaps, but only if the underlying metaphysics and soteriology are true. If the soul is immortal, and the phenomenal world is of no ultimate concern -- being a vale of tears, a place through which we temporarily sojourn on our way to our true home -- then the care of the soul is paramount and to suffer wrong is better than to inflict it.
The same goes for Christianity which, as Nietzsche remarks, is "Platonism for the people." If you are a Christian, and look beyond this world for your true happiness, then you are entitled to practice an austere morality in your private life. But you are not entitled to impose that morality and metaphysics on others, or demand that the State codify that morality and metaphysics in its laws and policies.
For one thing, it would violate the separation of Church and State. More importantly, the implementation of Christian morality would lead to the destruction of the State and the State's ability to secure life, liberty, and property -- the three Lockean purposes for which we have a state in the first place. And bear in mind that a part of the liberty the State protects is the liberty to practice one's religion or no religion.
There is no use denying that the State is a violent and coercive entity. To function at all in pursuit of its legitimate tasks of securing life, liberty, and property, it must be able to make war against external enemies and impose discipline upon internal malefactors. The violence may be justified, but it is violence nonethless. To incarcerate a person, for example, is to violate his liberty; it is to do evil to him, an evil necessary for a greater good that can be attained in no other way.
The problem is well understood by Hannah Arendt ("Truth and Politics" in Between Past and Future, Penguin 1968, p. 245):
The disastrous consequences for any community that began in all earnest to follow ethical precepts derived from man in the singular -- be they Socratic or Platonic or Christian -- have been frequently pointed out. Long before Machiavelli recommended protecting the political realm against the undiluted principles of the Christian faith (those who refuse to resist evil permit the wicked "to do as much evil as they please"), Aristotle warned against giving philosophers any say in political matters. (Men who for professional reasons must be so unconcerned with "what is good for themselves" cannot very well be trusted with what is good for others, and least of all with the "common good," the down-to-earth interests of the community.) [Arendt cites the Nicomachean Ethics, Book VI, and in particular 1140b9 and 1141b4.] There is a tension between man qua philosopher/Christian and man qua citizen.
As a philosopher raised in Christianity, I am concerned with my soul, with its integrity, purity, salvation. I take very seriously indeed the Socratic "Better to suffer wrong than to do it" and the Christian "Resist not the evildoer." But as a citizen I must be concerned not only with my own well-being but also with the public welfare. This is true a fortiori of public officials and people in a position to influence public opinion, people like Catholic bishops many of whom are woefully ignorant of the simple points Arendt makes in the passage quoted. So, as Arendt points out, the Socratic and Christian admonitions are not applicable in the public sphere.
What is applicable to me in the singular, as this existing individual concerned with the welfare of his immortal soul over that of his perishable body, is not applicable to me as citizen. As a citizen, I cannot "welcome the stranger" who violates the laws of my country, a stranger who may be a terrorist or a drug-smuggler or a human-trafficker or a carrier of a deadly disease or a person who has no respect for the traditions of the country he invades; I cannot aid and abet his law breaking. I must be concerned with public order and the very conditions that make the philosophical and Christian life possible in the first place. If I were to aid and abet the stranger's law breaking, I would not be "rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's" as the New Testament enjoins us to do.
Indeed, the Caesar verse provides a scriptural basis for Church-State separation and indirectly exposes the fallacy of the Catholic bishops and others who apparently cannot comprehend the simple distinctions I have tried to set forth.
Warning to liberals: clear thinking, moral clarity, and political incorrectness up ahead! If you consider any part of the following to be 'racist' or 'hateful' then you are in dire need, not of refutation, but of psychotherapy. Please seek it for your own good.
There is no question but that slavery is a great moral evil. But are American blacks owed reparations for the slavery that was officially ended by the ratification of the 13th Amendment of the U. S. Constitution over 145 years ago on 6 December 1865? I cannot see that any rational case for black reparations can be made. Indeed, it seems to me that a very strong rational case can be made against black reparations. The following argument seems to me decisive:
1. All of the perpetrators of the crimes associated with slavery in the U.S. are dead. 2. All of the victims of the crimes associated with slavery in the U.S. are dead. 3. Only those who are victims of a crime are entitled to reparations for the crime, and only those who are the perpetrators of a crime are obliged to pay reparations for it. Therefore 4. No one now living is entitled to receive reparations for the crimes associated with slavery in the U.S., and no one now living is obliged to pay reparations.
Our old friend Vlastimil Vohanka from the Czech Republic asked me if moral objectivism is a respectable metaethical position. It depends on what exactly moral objectivism is. Let's first of all see if we can locate it on the metaethical map. Then I take a quick look at Mackie's 'argument from queerness.'
Let's think about sentences like
1. Slavery is a great moral evil.
Presumably anyone reading this blog will assent to (1) and also hold that everyone ought to assent to it. So our question does not concern the ground-level acceptability of (1) which is here simply taken for granted. Our concern is metaethical.
(1) is a grammatically indicative sentence that appears to predicate the property of being evil of an action-type or an institution-type. If it puzzles you how an action-type can be evil, I say: an action-type is evil just in case actual or possible tokens (instances) of the type are evil.
But is (1) a fact-stating piece of discourse? If yes, then it has a truth-value. But note that if sentences like (1) are truth-valued, it does not follow that some are true and others false. It might be that they are all false, as on J. L. Mackie's Error Theory, which I won't discuss in this entry. Now let's introduce some terminology.
It is not just some Christians who feel the moral dubiousness of joy and celebration at the death of evildoers. Here is Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld. "So our tradition is clear: Public rejoicing about the death of an enemy is entirely inappropriate." Here is a delightfully equivocal statement by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman.
Interestingly, Dennis Prager is still pounding on this theme. About twenty minutes ago I heard him repeat his argument against me and others. The argument could be put like this:
1. The Israelites rejoiced when the Red Sea closed around the Egyptians, drowning them. (Exodus 15) 2. This rejoicing was pleasing to God. Therefore 3. To rejoice over the death of evildoers is morally permissible.
This argument is only as good as its second premise. Two questions. First, does the Bible depict God as being pleased at the rejoicing? Not unequivocally. Prager could argue from Ex 15: 22-25 that God was indeed pleased because he showed Moses a tree with which he rendered the bitter waters of Marah sweet and potable. The Israelites were mighty thirsty after three days of traipsing around in the wilderness of Shur after emerging from the Red Sea. Unfortunately, Prager provided no support for (2).
But more important is the second question. Why should we take the fact that God is depicted as being pleased at the rejoicing -- if it is a fact -- as evidence that God is pleased? I grant that if God is pleased at some behavior then that behavior is morally acceptable. But the fact that God is depicted as being pleased does not entail that God is pleased.
And so, as a philosopher, I cannot credit the (1)-(3) argument. It assumes that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. But this is not to be assumed; this is to be tested. The Bible has to satisfy reason's criteria before it can be accepted as true. If the Bible violates the deliverances of practical reason (as it quite clearly does in the Abraham and Isaac story, see my Kant on Abraham and Isaac) then it cannot be accepted in those passages in which the violation occurs as the word of God.
We who have one foot in Athens and the other in Jerusalem face the problem of how we can avoid being torn asunder. On the one hand, philosophy can bring us to the realization that we need revelation; on the other hand, nothing can count as genuine revelation unless it passes muster by reason's own theoretical and practical lights. This is not to demand that the content of revelation be derivable from reason; it is to demand that nothing that purports to be revelation can be credited as genuine revelation if it violates the clearest principles of theoretical and practical reason, for example, the Law of Non-Contradiction and the principles that one may not kill the innocent or rejoice over another man's evil fate.
The problem is to reconcile divine authority with human reason and autonomy. Two nonsolutions may be immediately dismissed: fideism which denigrates reason, and rationalism which denigrates faith.
It's been an interesting morning. At 10:30 AM I noticed that my traffic was way up for the day. And then at 11:12 AM I heard Dennis Prager reading on the air the first paragraph of a post of mine from yesterday in which I express my disappointment at Prager for rejoicing over Osama bin Laden's death when the appropriate response, as it seems to me, is to be glad that the al-Qaeda head is out of commission, but without gleeful expressions of pleasure. That's Schadenfreude and to my mind morally dubious.
(Even more strange is that before Prager read from my blog, I had a precognitive sense that he was going to do so.)
In his response, Prager pointed out that the Jews rejoiced when the Red Sea closed around the Egyptians, and that this rejoicing was pleasing to God. (See Exodus 15) Apparently that settled the matter for Prager.
And then it dawned on me. Prager was brought up a Jew, I was brought up a Christian. I had a similar problem with my Jewish friend Peter Lupu. In a carefully crafted post, Can Mere Thoughts be Morally Wrong?, I argued for a thesis that I consider well-nigh self-evident and not in need of argument, namely, that some mere thoughts are morally objectionable. The exact sense of this thesis is explained and qualified in the post. But to my amazement, I couldn't get Peter to accept it despite my four arguments. And he still doesn't accept it.
Later on, it was Prager who got me to see what was going on in my discussion with Peter. He said something about how, in Judaism, it is the action that counts, not the thought or intention. Aha! But now a certain skepticism rears its head: is Peter trapped in his childhood training, and me in mine? Are our arguments nothing but ex post facto rationalizations of what we believe, not for good reasons, but on the basis of inculcation? (The etymology of 'inculcation' is telling: the beliefs that were inculcated in us were stamped into us as if by a heel, L. calx, when we were impressionable youths.)
The text that so impressed me as a boy and impresses me even more now is Matt. 5: 27-28: "You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery. [Ex. 20:14, Deut. 5:18] But I say to you that anyone who so much as looks with lust at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart."
Not that I think that Prager or Peter are right. No, I think I'm right. I think Christianity is morally superior to Judaism: it supersedes Judaism, preserving what is good in it while correcting what is bad. Christianity goes to the heart of the matter. Our hearts are foul, which is why our words and deeds are foul. Of course I have a right to my opinion and I can back it with arguments. And you would have to be a liberal of the worst sort to think that there is anything 'hateful' in what I just wrote about Christianity being morally superior to Judaism.
But still there is the specter of skepticism which is not easy to lay. I think we just have to admit that reason is weak and that the moral and other intuitions from which we reason are frail reeds indeed. This should make us tolerant of differences.
But toleration has limits. We cannot tolerate the fanatically intolerant. So, while not rejoicing over any man's death or presuming to know -- what chutzpah! -- where any man stands in the judgment of God, I am glad that Osama has been removed from our midst.
Is there any justification for talk of the ought-to-be in cases where they are not cases of the ought-to-do?
Let's begin by noting that if I ought to do X (pay my debts, feed my kids, keep my hands off my neighbor's wife, etc.) then my doing X ought to be. For example, given that I ought to pay my debts, then my paying a certain debt on a certain date is a state of affairs that ought to be, ought to exist, ought to obtain. So it is not as if the ought-to-do and the ought-to-be form disjoint classes. For every act X that an agent A ought to do, there is a state of affairs, A's doing X, that ought to be, and a state of affairs, A's failing to do X, that ought not be. The ought-to-do, therefore, is a case of the ought-to-be.
My question, however, is whether there are states of affairs that ought to be even in situations in which there are no moral agents with power sufficient to bring them about, and states of affairs that ought not be even in situations in which there are no moral agents with power sufficient to prevent them. In other words, are there non-agential oughts? Does it make sense, and is it true, to say things like 'There ought to be fewer diseases than there are' or 'There ought to be no natural disasters' or 'There ought to be morally perfect people'? Or consider
1. I ought to be a better man that I am, indeed, I ought to be morally perfect.
(1) expresses an axiological requirement but (arguably) not a moral obligation because it is simply not in my power to perfect myself, nor is it in any finite person's power or any group of finite person's power to perfect me. Now consider the following aporetic triad:
1. I ought to be morally perfect or at least better than I am in ways over which I have no control.
2. I lack the power to be what I ought to be, and this impotence is due to no specific fault of my own. (My impotence is 'original,' part and parcel of the 'fallen' human condition, not derived from any particular act or act-omission of mine.)
3. 'Ought' implies 'Can': one can be obliged to do X only if one has an effective choice as to whether to do X.
The triad is inconsistent in that (1) & (3) entails ~(2). Indeed, any two limbs, taken together, entail the negation of the remaining one. How can the inconsistency be removed?
A. One solution is simply to deny (1) by claiming that there is no sense of 'ought' in which one ought to be morally perfect or better than one is in ways over which one has no control. This strikes me as counterintuitive. For there does seems to me to be some sense in which I ought to be perfect. I feel the force of the NT verse, "Be ye perfect as your heavenly father is perfect." I have the strong intuition that I ought to be, if not perfect, at least better in respects where I simply lack the power to bring about the improvement.
B. A second solution is to distinguish between agential and non-agential oughts. We can then maintain (1) as true by maintaining that the 'ought' in (1) is non-agential and expresses an axiological requirement as opposed to a moral obligation. So interpreted, (1) is consistent with (2) and (3).
We can then transform the above triad into an argument:
4. (1)-(3) are all true. 5. (1)-(3) would not all be true if there were no distinction between agential and non-agential oughts. Therefore 6. There is a distinction between agential and non-agential oughts.
C. A third solution is to maintain the truth of (1)-(3) while also maintaining that all oughts are agential. But then how avoid inconsistency? One might maintain that, when restricted to my own resources, I lack the power to do what I ought to do; yet I am morally obliged to perfect myself; and since 'ought' implies 'can,' the power that I need must be supplied in part from a Source external to myself. "And this all men call God." So God exists!
In short, the inconsistency is avoided by bringing God into the picture as one who supplies individuals with the supplemental power to do what they are morally obliged to do when that power is insufficient from their own resources. This gives rise to an argument for the existence of an external source of moral assistance:
7. I am morally obliged (ought) to do things that I cannot do on my own. 8. 'Ought' implies 'can'. Therefore
9. I can do things that I cannot do on my own. Therefore 10. There is an external source of moral assistance that makes up the difference between what I can do on my own and what I cannot.
I have sketched two arguments which need closer scrutiny. The one based on the (B) response to the triad gives some, though not a conclusive, reason for accepting a distinction between agential and non-agential oughts.
This interesting missive just over the transom. My responses in blue.
I have been pondering your application of the Potentiality Principle to the question of abortion. It is undoubtedly the case that a one year old child has the potential to become an adult possessing rights-conferring properties. It is also undoubtedly the case, for much the same reasons, that a foetus in the third trimester of pregnancy possesses that same potential. However, as we move back along the chain of causality from childhood to birth to pregnancy and before, at some point we no longer have a potential person.
I agree that at some point we no longer have a potential person. Neither a sperm cell by itself, nor an unfertilized egg cell by itself, nor the unjoined pair of the two is a potential person. See 'Probative Overkill' Objections to the Potentiality Principle. This post refutes the notion that one committed to the Potentiality Principle is also committed to the notion that spermatazoa and unfertilized ova and various set-theoretical constructions of same are also potential persons.