Answers for Nick

As I mentioned before, I’m not shutting down this blog completely, and we have a new guest in the comments, with some interesting questions. Since Nick asks such good questions, I’m promoting them to a post of their own, so that I can answer them more completely.

DD: What I have is not so much a definition of goodness as an objective approach to discerning goodness. One of the major flaws I see in Lewis’ reasoning is a tendency to assume that “goodness” is defined by a list somewhere, and that’s not really realistic or workable, as I’ve discussed extensively in my discussion of the “Book 1″ portion of Mere Christianity.

Reply: So let me get this straight. You don’t have a definition of goodness, but yet you’re basing your argument on what goodness is. C.S. Lewis was a Thomist. Do you know how Thomism describes goodness? Do you know how Aristotle did? Do you know how that relates to the central doctrine of Thomistic thought, the doctrine of being?

If you do not believe goodness can be described (A more accurate word than defined) then there’s no point in you going on about it and the privation of it, evil.

Hello, Nick, and welcome once again. I’m afraid that you do not quite have things straight yet, but perhaps I can explain myself a bit better. What I’m saying is that Good (as in Good vs. Evil or Right vs Wrong) is not a singular standard with a singular definition. Moral standards are a cultural convention arrived at through a combination of factors including (a) accumulated experience of the consequences of certain things, (b) natural human empathy and (c) sentient self-interest, as they relate to the group in question. There may be other factors as well, but these are the big three.

The reason I did not give you the definition of goodness that you asked for is because your question was too vague. You did not specify any particular social/historical/cultural context, and that’s an important prerequisite for any such definition. Trying to define “Good” without reference to any particular social group is like trying to define marriage without any reference to either of the spouses: it’s not strictly impossible, but it leaves undefined a number of significant variables without which your definition is going to have problems. (More on that below.)

As for Thomistic thought and Aristotle and such, my critique of Lewis is based specifically on the job he does explaining his concept of Moral Law to the average layman, which is why I’m speaking in layman’s terms instead of invoking technical philosophical jargon. If you are suggesting that Lewis’ explanation is misleading, or that it fails to properly explain the topics he is discussing, such that the layman must first master Aquinas and Aristotle before he can properly understand Lewis (!), then perhaps we ought to warn people not to read Mere Christianity, as it will only confuse them.

And lastly, if all you want is a description of goodness, that’s a bit easier. I apologize for the brevity of my first reply, but I’ve got a bit more free time today, so perhaps I can go into more detail. In particular, I’d like to discuss how my understanding of the source of morality is different from (and better than) Lewis’.

The flaw I see in Lewis’ explanation, and in the concepts of natural law and eternal law which underlie it, is that it attempts to reduce the difficult question of Right vs. Wrong down to a relatively simple rule of fiat: somewhere “out there” is a list of things that are always Right/Good, and a list of things that are always Wrong/Evil, and thus morality is merely a matter of finding which list contains the thing you are trying to judge. (For purposes of this discussion it doesn’t matter as much whether this list springs from God’s mind or His will or His nature; the main problem is that it is there at all, by whatever means.)

There is a strong, naive appeal to such a notion. People are always hoping to find an easy, sure-fire way to lose weight, to get rich, to enhance their (*ahem*) “personal characteristics,” and they feel pretty much the same way about any system that offers an easy, sure-fire way to know what’s right and what’s wrong. Screw up morality, and you screw up your life, and people know it, so they’re eager to “buy.” The problem with the “rule of fiat” approach to morality, as it is with other such nostrums, is that it doesn’t actually work in real life.

For example, if there were, somewhere, an eternal law that enumerated all the things that are Good and all the things that are Sin, then that would be an absolute, eternal, and universal constraint. A thing is either right for all people, at all times, in all circumstances, or it is wrong for all people, at all times, in all circumstances. Its moral quality is defined, not by the circumstances attendant on it, but by an independent and extrinsic standard or ideal to which it must relate, and that standard must be arbitrary (i.e. not dependent on circumstances or consequences) or else it is reduced to merely relaying some other, more fundamental source of morality based on circumstances and consequences.

Thus, if genocide is a sin, then it’s a sin even when the Israelites do it; conversely, if it was ok then, it must also be ok now. If suicide is a sin, then it’s a sin for everyone, including those who commit suicide by provoking the Pharisees until they arrange a crucifixion. The rule of fiat is a fixed and absolute morality, not a kind of moral relativism, so it cannot and indeed must not modify its demands to suit some contemporary circumstance or other. But that causes theological problems, because sooner or later God Himself ends up doing something immoral like, say, getting another man’s fiancee pregnant.

The only way to “fix” this hypothetical law is by modifying it so that it becomes contingent upon circumstance: genocide is wrong IF you’re wiping out this group of people rather than that one; suicide is wrong UNLESS you are doing it to benefit someone else, it’s ok to impregnate an unmarried woman IF you are Almighty, etc. In other words, the “eternal law” approach fails unless it is reduced to merely relaying some higher moral standard based on real-world considerations—what we might call the “rule of consequences” as opposed to the rule of fiat. That’s an oversimplification, of course, but like I said, layman’s terms.

In other words, “absolute” goodness sounds good and is easy to sell, but it’s not the ultimate answer. There’s an even deeper and more fundamental source of morality, by which we can judge whether or not the Moral Law needs to be fixed to make it come out right. It’s the difference between theory and practice. In theory, Moral Law is natural law (in the Thomistic sense), but in practice, it is relativism, and we judge the rightness or wrongness of God’s actions by a more flexible standard so that things that would be sin for anyone else are fine for Him. Circumstances and contingencies, and not the inherent rightness or wrongness of the act itself, are the final measure believers use to get God’s conduct to come out “right.”

Lewis’ Moral Law argument suffers from many other, similar flaws, as I’ve discussed over the course of the past several weeks. And it’s not just that Lewis’ argument (and the philosophy behind it) fails to fit the facts, it’s that there exists an alternative that does describe human morality as we observe it in the real world, even among Thomists and other believers, without the caveats and twists and rationalizations that Lewis’ approach requires.

That description, of course, is the one I’ve already alluded to above. Right and Wrong, Good and Evil are social conventions that arise within a certain group based on their perception/consensus regarding which set of consequences they want to encourage and which they want to avoid. It’s complex, changeable, and often results in conflicts between different groups with different moral standards (with one or both sides trying to promote their standard as Eternal and Immutable Law), as we see in action in real life every day.

That’s not a popular description (people like their diet pills and their Ten Commandments) but it’s the objectively accurate one. Like it or not, that’s the way the real world is. Moral standards evolve within particular groups at particular times, and are tied to those groups but not necessarily to others. That’s why, for example, slavery is evil today, and eating pork is not, whereas in Old Testament Israel it was the other way around. Circumstances change, social conventions change, and morality changes right along with them. So you see, I can describe how morality works, but I cannot give you a specific definition of what “good” is, because that definition can be different for different groups at different times. All I (or anyone else) can do is to describe how it works—and my description, unlike Lewis’, accurately matches the way we see real morality function in real life.

DD: As to your second question, I have a feeling you’re leading up to something by the reference to “goodness in relation to being,” but I’m not sure what exactly you have in mind.

Reply: Correct. If you are not sure what I have in mind, then it’s time to learn. If you do not know this concept, then it’s really difficult to take the account seriously. Of course, if you want to learn an accurate description, I’m ready to give it.

I’m sure I and my readers would be glad to hear it. Share, by all means, what you know.

DD: I do have a few decades of experience as an evangelical, Bible-believing conservative Christian, so I am fairly comfortable with my understanding of how Christians see “goodness.”

Reply: No you’re not. I’m not talking about how Christians see goodness. It’s irrelevant to me. Goodness is what it is regardless of if Christians see it and goodness had an ontology before Christianity came along. I’m talking about what it is and I don’t need the Bible for that or the revelation of God at all.

Good for you! I don’t need the Bible either, with the caveat that we are entitled to examine any book that claims to be inspired by the Author of that ontology, to see if its claims are consistent with itself and with the real world evidence. As I’m sure you would agree.

By the way, I apologize for misunderstanding which group you were thinking of when you said “Lewis and others,” but you’ll have to admit you were a bit vague there. I’m glad to see that you’ve been more specific in your response.

DD: No doubt you could find a point or two to quibble over, but I daresay you could do the same with any number of believers as well, so I’m not worried about falling outside the mainstream.

Reply: You bet I could because sadly, most Christians don’t even know this due to the dumbing down of the church that leads to the apostasy you’ve just described yourself as fulfilling. You didn’t know about goodness then and you still don’t now.

I’m afraid you have jumped to a false conclusion there; I hope that was unintentional. If you can address the points I’ve raised, then I would encourage you to do so. Anyone who merely wishes to indulge in innuendo and premature boasting, without demonstrating an awareness and understanding of opposing arguments, would risk coming across as ignorant and obstinate. That applies to me as much as to you, naturally.

I think the most productive approach would be for each of us to attempt to address the points under discussion as they are raised, and if there is any relevant argument or information that has not yet been raised, we should raise it, and actually see if the other party is familiar with it before drawing any conclusions about their level of knowledge. Fair enough? I have addressed the points raised by Lewis in his book, just as you are free and welcome to address the points I raise in my posts. And if you feel like there’s anything Lewis said in the first several chapters that I’ve overlooked, and/or that I’ve incorrectly omitted in order to make spurious claims of ignorance on Lewis’ part, feel free to point those out as well, and I will gladly correct any errors that warrant correction.

DD: If you think I’ve missed anything important, feel free to share.

Reply: Just the big picture and an education on what you’re talking about. You don’t have a working idea of what goodness is and you aren’t interacting with the metaphysics that C.S. Lewis held to, which would be a good Thomistic metaphysics.

You seem to have rather strong feelings on the subject. Are you by any chance letting these feelings bias your conclusions? That would explain why you seem to think you’ve plumbed the full extent of my knowledge even before we’ve started, as it were. And that would indeed be a shame. Still, I’m glad you showed up and gave me the opportunity to explore the topic a little further. The Lewis book was very disappointing, and you’ve made the discussion a lot more lively. Thanks much.

 
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Posted in Atheistic Morality, Comment Rescue, Unapologetics. 61 Comments »

61 Responses to “Answers for Nick”

  1. Nick Says:

    As for Hunt, I see he doesn’t like to play when someone doesn’t follow his song and dance. That will be his problem.

  2. g Says:

    Nick:

    You say “It depends more on the person”. That is exactly my point: the fact that someone is or isn’t a moral realist tells you very little about how likely he is to steal your spoons; what matters much more is his character. (And, if his character should happen not to be so good, his incentives.)

    I’m not at all convinced that anything so broad as a human society ever has an “ontological basis for morality”. That would require much more thought about metaethics than most people ever put in. And what was most loathsome about Stalin’s USSR, Mao’s China, etc., was not any defect in the *society’s* morals (though defects there may have been) but the callousness and brutality of their *leaders*. It’s possible that those leaders were moral nonrealists and that that’s part of why they felt able to do the things they did; but I find that unconvincing in view of the Not-Very-Nice-ness of, for instance, Franco (Catholic), Pinochet (Catholic), Ahmadinejad (Muslim), and the Tsars (Russian Orthodox).

    Of course I’m aware that there are times when pain is necessary or even good. That’s why I said “generally”. (But your example is a poor one. When I see a dentist and they have to do something drastic, the first thing they do is to arrange for me *not* to feel the pain it would otherwise entail.) And I don’t see any reason why there needs to be any sort of universally-identical human nature in order for the approach I think EdW is taking to be viable. (The claim is not “Right and wrong are the way they are because of a universally-identical human nature”. It’s more like “Right and wrong are the way they are because of what the people involved are like”; on such a theory, in cases where the people involved are unusual, right and wrong may also be unusual.)

    A sufficiently perverse Thomist could, I am absolutely sure, convince himself (say) that what spoons aim at is to be used for eating, and that he would eat more or better with your spoons than you would. Or that for a person to attain perfection according to their mode of being requires that they have an environment in which their human life can flourish, and that he needs your spoons to provide such an environment. Or any number of other things. And yes, my examples are unconvincing to normal moral people who don’t have strong inclinations to steal your spoons, whether they’re Thomists or not; that’s the point. Most people, in fact, won’t steal your spoons.

    I don’t think it’s accurate to say that you’ve based your argument on the relationship between goodness and being, since you’ve said essentially nothing about that relationship other than to assert that there is one and it underpins Thomist (meta)ethics. Your argument so far has been all about how CSL is allegedly a sophisticated Thomist and DD is being unfair by not treating him as one. Whether that is true is entirely independent of whether goodness and being are actually related in the way you say they are — or, rather, the way you decline to say they are, since you seem awfully reluctant to actually set out your position as opposed to saying that you have one and it’s very clever and CSL had it too.

    This discussion would be much more interesting if you were to take the trouble to (1) sketch the (meta)ethical position you are talking about, for the benefit of those who happen not to have read the Summa theologiae, and (2) explain briefly how it relates to what CSL actually wrote in “Mere Christianity”, a work which on the face of it neither states nor uses any such (meta)ethical theory.

  3. Deacon Duncan Says:

    If someone believes that social convention defines which side of the road you should drive on, are they more likely to die in a head-on collision?

  4. Nick Says:

    G: You say “It depends more on the person”. That is exactly my point: the fact that someone is or isn’t a moral realist tells you very little about how likely he is to steal your spoons; what matters much more is his character. (And, if his character should happen not to be so good, his incentives.)

    Reply: For the non-realist in morality, the only reason they wouldn’t is some self-interest, in which case they become a realist of some sort. No one can function without affirming the objectivity of goodness somehow.

    Also, I believe our society has been Christianized. What we see as moral today would not have been seen as moral in the Roman world pre-Christ. There is a background of Christianity influencing even non-Christians.

    G: I’m not at all convinced that anything so broad as a human society ever has an “ontological basis for morality”. That would require much more thought about metaethics than most people ever put in.

    Reply: People usually rely on the intelligentsia. In an ancient society, they would have formed groups and got their identity from followers of Aristotle or Plotinus or Epictetus or some moral teacher, including Christ, although for them He would have been more than a moral teacher.

    Aristotle and Plato believed in ontological goodness. They just didn’t have a place for it as they never tied in their religion with their morality.

    G: And what was most loathsome about Stalin’s USSR, Mao’s China, etc., was not any defect in the *society’s* morals (though defects there may have been) but the callousness and brutality of their *leaders*. It’s possible that those leaders were moral nonrealists and that that’s part of why they felt able to do the things they did; but I find that unconvincing in view of the Not-Very-Nice-ness of, for instance, Franco (Catholic), Pinochet (Catholic), Ahmadinejad (Muslim), and the Tsars (Russian Orthodox).

    Reply: Ah yes. “Well they did bad things, but so did some Christians.” The difference is the Christians did evil, and that is condemnable, in contradiction to the teachings of Christ. Tell me. What tenet of atheism did Stalin and others violate? Not a one. All that’s required is that you deny that God exists. The Communist Manifesto was quite clear. Religion is the enemy. Stalin was picked by Lenin for his hatred of things religious.

    Atheists in one century murdered far more than Christians ever had in nineteen.

    G: Of course I’m aware that there are times when pain is necessary or even good. That’s why I said “generally”. (But your example is a poor one. When I see a dentist and they have to do something drastic, the first thing they do is to arrange for me *not* to feel the pain it would otherwise entail.)

    Reply: Rather, they try to prevent it. Mine does the same, but it is not perfect. However, the point is you look outside the pain or pleasure to determine if it is good. This was what concerned Mill with his theory. He would say that appreciating fine poetry, learning Greek, and seeking knowledge for its own sake were higher pleasures. However, most men today will go with sex, gluttony, watching sports all day long, etc.

    G: And I don’t see any reason why there needs to be any sort of universally-identical human nature in order for the approach I think EdW is taking to be viable. (The claim is not “Right and wrong are the way they are because of a universally-identical human nature”. It’s more like “Right and wrong are the way they are because of what the people involved are like”; on such a theory, in cases where the people involved are unusual, right and wrong may also be unusual.)

    Reply: You base morality on human nature. Which human nature? Which ones are considered human? You do realize that is how totalitarian societies begin don’t you? They start by characterizing one group as non-human. It could be Jews. It could be blacks. It could be children in the womb.

    G: A sufficiently perverse Thomist could, I am absolutely sure, convince himself (say) that what spoons aim at is to be used for eating, and that he would eat more or better with your spoons than you would. Or that for a person to attain perfection according to their mode of being requires that they have an environment in which their human life can flourish, and that he needs your spoons to provide such an environment. Or any number of other things. And yes, my examples are unconvincing to normal moral people who don’t have strong inclinations to steal your spoons, whether they’re Thomists or not; that’s the point. Most people, in fact, won’t steal your spoons.

    Reply: Most won’t because they do know the natural law, and in fact a Thomist says all do. That is, all know the first principles, although the second principles can be wiped out. This is our claim. Those who cite moral relativism do not live it out. They are absolutists when it impinges on them. They are relativists when they want to justify themselves.

    G: I don’t think it’s accurate to say that you’ve based your argument on the relationship between goodness and being, since you’ve said essentially nothing about that relationship other than to assert that there is one and it underpins Thomist (meta)ethics.

    Reply: Then you would be wrong. The problem is not that I am not explaining enough but that people are not asking enough.

    G: Your argument so far has been all about how CSL is allegedly a sophisticated Thomist and DD is being unfair by not treating him as one. Whether that is true is entirely independent of whether goodness and being are actually related in the way you say they are — or, rather, the way you decline to say they are, since you seem awfully reluctant to actually set out your position as opposed to saying that you have one and it’s very clever and CSL had it too.

    Reply: Simply because I do not do my thinking for my opponents. I prefer that they be willing to follow along for themselves. If you are to argue against a view, you need to know all the counter-arguments that you can. When you read the great philosophers like Aquinas, Scotus, Hume, Kant, and others, they not only know their position, but they know the first objections you’ll raise and how they’ll answer them.

    G: This discussion would be much more interesting if you were to take the trouble to (1) sketch the (meta)ethical position you are talking about, for the benefit of those who happen not to have read the Summa theologiae, and (2) explain briefly how it relates to what CSL actually wrote in “Mere Christianity”, a work which on the face of it neither states nor uses any such (meta)ethical theory.

    Reply: I told DD where he could go to find more information.

  5. Nick Says:

    DD: If someone believes that social convention defines which side of the road you should drive on, are they more likely to die in a head-on collision?

    Reply: What side of the road we drive on is a principle based on instrumental use. We don’t drive on X side of the road because it’s moral. We do it because we have agreed on it for a good of saving lives. We do realize there are rules of convention as moral realists.

    When we make the rules, we can change them. Do you think we create the rule “Do not murder” or discover it?

    Are you willing to accept my challenge?

  6. Deacon Duncan Says:

    So you’re saying that a person’s behavior can be motivated by concerns other than ontological goodness, and that a mere lack of ontological goodness does not necessarily imply a person’s willingness to violate the principle in question? Fair enough. Now then, what if, in fact, all morality consists of principles based on instrumental use? Would the results be objectively any different than what we see in the world today?

    As for challenges, I’m not really interested in appeals to emotional arguments. I believe you yourself have expressed similar convictions, have you not?

  7. g Says:

    Nick, it is simply not true that the only options are moral realism or self-interest. What makes you think those are the only options?

    (A caveat: One can argue that *everyone*, *always*, does what they want to do — by definition: if they do it, that shows that they want it — and thereby claim that what they may prefer to describe as altruism, concern for truth, commitment to their religious obligations, etc., is all really a matter of “self-interest” in the sense that they are doing what, all things considered, *they* choose to do. But that applies equally to everyone, moral realist or not.)

    Sure, our society has been Christianized. And Romanized. And Utilitarianized. And all-sorts-of-other-things-ized. For that matter, Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany had also been Christianized. How’s that relevant?

    It is entirely reasonable to say “yes, they did bad things, but so did some Christians” in response to an argument of the form “see how bad atheists are: these atheists did bad things”. Yes, you are quite correct that doing awful things doesn’t violate any “tenet of atheism” because atheism has scarcely any tenets. Likewise, doing awful things doesn’t violate any tenet of theism. It does, however, violate tenets of (for instance) Christianity, or of any number of non-religious ethical systems. What’s your point here? That atheism doesn’t do all the things Christianity does? No one ever claimed it does: atheism (like theism) is only only one part of anyone’s worldview. So what? Nothing about atheism (any more than about theism) requires you to have no other beliers or values.

    It is beyond me how anyone can say with a straight face “The Communist Manifesto is quite clear. Religion is the enemy”. The *ruling classes* are the enemy; the CM portrays religion as an irrelevant distraction, not as The Enemy.

    Yes, of course there are other things that matter besides pleasure and pain. I never said or suggested otherwise. If you wish to argue instead with Jeremy Bentham, I believe there’s a waxwork of him in one of London’s universities. (Personally, I wouldn’t want to be without poetry *or* sex.)

    It’s very mystifying that I remark about EdW’s position (which is not mine; I’ve said nothing about mine) that it doesn’t (as you claimed it does) involve an appeal to a fixed human nature — and then you respond by saying “You base morality on human nature”. First, I haven’t been talking about what, if anything, *I* base morality on. Secondly, I’d just attempted to explain how EdW’s position, as I understand it, is *not* based “on human nature”. (And then you segue into some irrelevant stuff about declaring some groups non-human. Bah.)

    Your comments about everyone knowing that natural law, etc., amount to this: “Deep down, everyone thinks the same as I do, but the Other Guys are insincere and dishonest, unlike me”. I don’t think there’s anything useful to be said in response to that, especially as you’ve offered no sort of evidence or argument to justify your claims about what everyone allegedly knows and how moral nonrealists (I wish you wouldn’t keep saying “relativists”; that means something different) allegedly behave.

    It is not merely a matter of not wishing to do your opponents’ thinking for them. You apparently wish them to do your thinking for you. You are of course entitled to want that, and not to deign to engage with anyone unless they first prove their worthiness by stating your position for you; but if you don’t get a lot of takers, you should be aware that there are plenty of possible reasons other than that your “opponents” are stupid and ignorant and lazy.

    I do not find that the objections considered and rebutted by the great philosophers are always the same as mine. Sometimes they appear to be straw men (though of course it’s possible that those really were the best objections at the time). Sometimes they’re just coming at things from a direction quite different from mine (e.g., the objections considered by Aquinas in the Summa theologiae often presuppose a particular sort of religious or philosophical position that I don’t share). Sometimes it just happens that my notion of what arguments are strongest differs from theirs.

    And if *they* don’t always anticipate their readers’ objections correctly, why on earth should you expect anyone here to anticipate your position correctly? — And if, as seems obvious to me, it’s likely that even a very intelligent and well-read person making a serious attempt to guess what you might say will guess wrongly a lot of the time, why on earth should you expect anyone to do so when instead you could simply say what your position actually *is*?

    (I can think of some answers, but they’re all rather unflattering.)

  8. Nick Says:

    DD: So you’re saying that a person’s behavior can be motivated by concerns other than ontological goodness, and that a mere lack of ontological goodness does not necessarily imply a person’s willingness to violate the principle in question? Fair enough. Now then, what if, in fact, all morality consists of principles based on instrumental use? Would the results be objectively any different than what we see in the world today?

    Reply: To begin with, everything is based on ontological goodness whether we know it or not. Some practices are instrumental but they are instrumental for a good end and unless there is a good end, it makes no sense.

    Would the world be different if everything was instrumental? Yes. We would treat everything not based on what it is, but based on what ends it serves. The end something serves is important, but only one part of the question.

    DD:As for challenges, I’m not really interested in appeals to emotional arguments. I believe you yourself have expressed similar convictions, have you not?

    Reply: I have, and I do not use emotional arguments. I have issued you a challenge. If you think that goodness can be explained apart from God, then by all means come and challenge.

  9. Nick Says:

    G: Nick, it is simply not true that the only options are moral realism or self-interest. What makes you think those are the only options?

    Reply: Nor have I said such. I say we only do things because we perceive that there is some good that will come of it.

    G:(A caveat: One can argue that *everyone*, *always*, does what they want to do — by definition: if they do it, that shows that they want it — and thereby claim that what they may prefer to describe as altruism, concern for truth, commitment to their religious obligations, etc., is all really a matter of “self-interest” in the sense that they are doing what, all things considered, *they* choose to do. But that applies equally to everyone, moral realist or not.)

    Reply: Correct. That’s my stance. Everyone does something because they perceive some good will come of it.

    G: Sure, our society has been Christianized. And Romanized. And Utilitarianized. And all-sorts-of-other-things-ized. For that matter, Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany had also been Christianized. How’s that relevant?

    Reply: Actually, Russia and Germany were being moved away from that Christianization and the further one moves away from it, the worse the society will become. Today, you can rip apart a live baby in the womb of a mother and society calls that a moral right.

    G: It is entirely reasonable to say “yes, they did bad things, but so did some Christians” in response to an argument of the form “see how bad atheists are: these atheists did bad things”. Yes, you are quite correct that doing awful things doesn’t violate any “tenet of atheism” because atheism has scarcely any tenets. Likewise, doing awful things doesn’t violate any tenet of theism. It does, however, violate tenets of (for instance) Christianity, or of any number of non-religious ethical systems. What’s your point here? That atheism doesn’t do all the things Christianity does? No one ever claimed it does: atheism (like theism) is only only one part of anyone’s worldview. So what? Nothing about atheism (any more than about theism) requires you to have no other beliers or values.

    Reply: The point is that when Christians do evil, they are acting in direct contradiction to Christianity. When the atheist societies did evil, they were not violating atheism. In fact, granting what Nietzsche said, it’s the logical outworking of the Uberman. Atheistic societies have wanted to eliminate God and put man in his place. Which man will it be?

    G: It is beyond me how anyone can say with a straight face “The Communist Manifesto is quite clear. Religion is the enemy”. The *ruling classes* are the enemy; the CM portrays religion as an irrelevant distraction, not as The Enemy.

    Reply: It also sees it as part of the style used to dominate over people by holding them under power. Karl Marx hated it for a religion and Lenin hand-picked Stalin for his hatred of the religious.

    g:Yes, of course there are other things that matter besides pleasure and pain. I never said or suggested otherwise. If you wish to argue instead with Jeremy Bentham, I believe there’s a waxwork of him in one of London’s universities. (Personally, I wouldn’t want to be without poetry *or* sex.)

    Reply: Then the question comes by what standard do you determine what pleasures are good or evil and what pains are good or evil and for that, you need to look outside of pleasure and pain to something beyond them by which you judge them.

    g:It’s very mystifying that I remark about EdW’s position (which is not mine; I’ve said nothing about mine) that it doesn’t (as you claimed it does) involve an appeal to a fixed human nature — and then you respond by saying “You base morality on human nature”. First, I haven’t been talking about what, if anything, *I* base morality on. Secondly, I’d just attempted to explain how EdW’s position, as I understand it, is *not* based “on human nature”. (And then you segue into some irrelevant stuff about declaring some groups non-human. Bah.)

    Reply: If that’s not your view, feel free to give your view. What are you going to base morality on?

    g: Your comments about everyone knowing that natural law, etc., amount to this: “Deep down, everyone thinks the same as I do, but the Other Guys are insincere and dishonest, unlike me”. I don’t think there’s anything useful to be said in response to that, especially as you’ve offered no sort of evidence or argument to justify your claims about what everyone allegedly knows and how moral nonrealists (I wish you wouldn’t keep saying “relativists”; that means something different) allegedly behave.

    Reply: Feel free then to explain what you think the difference is and how you justify morality. Again, I state what I say because that is what the evidence says. All societies condemn the murder of innocent human beings, cowardice in war, and approve of such practices as honoring parents.

    G: It is not merely a matter of not wishing to do your opponents’ thinking for them. You apparently wish them to do your thinking for you. You are of course entitled to want that, and not to deign to engage with anyone unless they first prove their worthiness by stating your position for you; but if you don’t get a lot of takers, you should be aware that there are plenty of possible reasons other than that your “opponents” are stupid and ignorant and lazy.

    Reply: Nope. I go by what my opponents show me. I’ve stated before that I think you’re above a lot of the others here. However, most that I see really have not studied the other side.

    G: I do not find that the objections considered and rebutted by the great philosophers are always the same as mine. Sometimes they appear to be straw men (though of course it’s possible that those really were the best objections at the time). Sometimes they’re just coming at things from a direction quite different from mine (e.g., the objections considered by Aquinas in the Summa theologiae often presuppose a particular sort of religious or philosophical position that I don’t share). Sometimes it just happens that my notion of what arguments are strongest differs from theirs.

    Reply: Which objections of Aquinas do you have in mind?

    G: And if *they* don’t always anticipate their readers’ objections correctly, why on earth should you expect anyone here to anticipate your position correctly? — And if, as seems obvious to me, it’s likely that even a very intelligent and well-read person making a serious attempt to guess what you might say will guess wrongly a lot of the time, why on earth should you expect anyone to do so when instead you could simply say what your position actually *is*?

    Reply: Because the position I’m given can be found by doing some basic reading, that is, if you refer to the three parts of an action that constitute its morality. Unfortunately, the generation I speak of relies on the computer to do all their thinking for them.

    However, if DD doesn’t want to accept my challenge to come to TheologyWeb, I could just move on. I haven’t come by due to lack of time and if he doesn’t want to back his position against me on TWeb, I shall just move on.

    (I can think of some answers, but they’re all rather unflattering.)

  10. g Says:

    Nick, you said “For the non-realist in morality, the only reason they wouldn’t is some self-interest”. And now you indignantly deny saying that the only options are moral realism and self-interest. May I suggest that you might want to express yourself a bit more clearly?

    If all you’re saying is that everyone does what they choose to do, and that you choose to call that “self-interest”: why, then, you’ve just declared that the only option is self-interest, full stop. Which is doubtless true, if you adopt that particular definition, but only because it’s tautological. Personally, I think it better to give “self-interest” a less broad meaning, not least because using it so broadly pretty much guarantees being misunderstood.

    (Inflammatory rhetoric about the irrelevant topic of abortion: ignored.)

    Yes, as I already agreed, doing (some kinds of) evil things contravenes principles of Christianity but not of atheism; for the same reasons, it contradicts principles of humanism, and none of theism. What bearing does that have on whether Christianity is preferable to secular humanism, or theism to atheism? (Of course humanism in this sense is not the only alternative to Christianity, any more than Christianity is the only alternative to humanism. It’s just an example.)

    I deny, or at least decline to accept without actual evidence, your claim about what “atheistic societies” have wanted to do. Not least because “atheistic societies” could mean all kinds of things, some of them entirely irrelevant (in case you hadn’t noticed, no one here is advocating Soviet communism) and different sorts of “atheistic society” presumably have different aims. Also, it looks like you’re equivocating on “man”.

    I don’t see what Lenin’s or Stalin’s attitude to religion has to do with what the “Communist Manifesto” says; I repeat that it simply does not present religion as the enemy. (I would, just out of curiosity, be interested to know your source(s) for the assertion about why Lenin picked Stalin; also, picked him for what? Lenin didn’t pick Stalin as his successor; he didn’t pick anyone as his successor.)

    Yes, obviously any position that values and disvalues things other than pleasure and pain has to make reference to things other than pleasure or pain. It sounds as if you think there’s some problem with that, but it’s not clear why. And I’m not sure why you’re asking about *my* views on morality; we were talking about EdW’s.

    It is not true that all societies condemn the killing of innocent humans; some societies have practiced infant sacrifice. I’m sure, though, that there are things that just about every society approves of, and things that just about every society disapproves of; but of course that isn’t at all the same thing as saying that everyone deep down acknowledges the Natural Law.

    Which objections in the Summa? Huge numbers of them. Picking at random (really truly at random) I find the question: Whether an effect of law is to make men good? and the first objection runs as follows: “It seems that it is not an effect of law to make men good. For men are good through virtue, since virtue, as stated in Ethic. ii, 6 is “that which makes its subject good.” But virtue is in man from God alone, because He it is Who “works it in us without us,” as we stated above (Question 55, Article 4) in giving the definition of virtue. Therefore the law does not make men good.” Well, (1) I am not an Aristotelian and see no reason why I should accept Aristotle’s definition of “virtue”, especially if it’s interpreted as Aquinas’s hypothetical opponent seems to be doing as saying that *nothing other than virtue* can make anyone good by definition; and (2) I do not believe that “virtue is in man from God alone” (nor even that Christians ought to believe that). So the first objection Aquinas considers to this proposition is founded on philosophical and religious assumptions that I don’t share.

    I repeat that this example was chosen at random; if I picked another proposition at random from the Summa I think there’s at least a 25% chance that at least one of Aquinas’s objections would be based on entirely different presumptions I don’t share.

    I think this “three parts of an action” thing is extremely silly. Here’s one reason. DD has offered one answer: “object, intention and circumstance”. One can support this by quoting, say, IIa.18.2-4 (note: I don’t guarantee that this is the standard notation for Summa references) where Aquinas argues that the goodness or badness of an action is derived from each of these things. Or one could say that what matters is whether a thing is virtuous, useful and pleasant, and support this on the basis of I.5.6. Or one could say that goodness is to be analysed into mode, species and order, on the basis of I.5.5. (I’m not sure whether one could plausibly make these out to be *the three parts of an action that constitute its morality*, I suppose. But, if it comes to that, I’m not sure one could with the other proposals I’ve mentioned either: e.g., the circumstances or the virtuousness of an action are not *parts* of it.) And we haven’t even got into answers that (in line with your expressed preferences) make “being” or “actuality” central to goodness. In other words: Aquinas says lots and lots of things about goodness, including *multiple* triplets into which the goodness of an action could perhaps be analysed; demanding that others here come up with whatever particular triplet you happen to have in mind amounts to demanding that they play some silly guessing game with you. Which they have, so far as I can see, no particular reason to do. You might as well ask them to pronounce “Shibboleth” and see if they do it the way you prefer.

    (Note: As I’ve already said, I am not an Aquinas expert. It would not astonish me if some details of the previous paragraph were wrong. If you’re inclined to say that this invalidates my point, consider: Do you really want to say that only Aquinas experts are worth talking to? And, if so, what on earth are you doing here?)

  11. Deacon Duncan Says:

    @Nick

    I do not use emotional arguments. I have issued you a challenge. If you think that goodness can be explained apart from God, then by all means come and challenge.

    Splendid. So the actual substance of the challenge is to address the specific issue. The matter of where I happen to post my response is an irrelevant triviality of circumstance that has no bearing on whether or not I have responded to your challenge. Agreed?