In which I am disappointed

Last week I pointed out to Nick a fairly serious logical flaw in C. S. Lewis’ argument for Moral Law, as presented in Chapter 1 of Mere Christianity.

By asserting the existence of a disobeyable Law, therefore, Lewis is implicitly assuming, in his premise, the existence of the intentional law-giver that is the goal of his conclusion… By incorporating the assumption of an independent Observer/Participant into his definition of “law,” he biases the fundamental vocabulary of the discussion, and makes it difficult or impossible to argue the case, using his terms, without being led inevitably to the predetermined conclusion.

This is a very serious logical fallacy which, if unaddressed, undermines the validity of all subsequent Thomistic argumentation regarding natural law. I then posed a fairly simple question for Nick:

My main question is about Mere Christianity, and about Lewis’ apparent failure to produce a logically valid introduction to Thomistic thought. A sound and correct philosophical foundation should have made it easier for Lewis to produce a coherent and non-fallacious summary, albeit a potentially incomplete one. How then do you account for this discrepancy…?

I was frankly looking forward to Nick’s reply, given his extensive readings (especially as compared to my own). How would he address this problem? Would he agree that Lewis was presenting an unsound argument, and try to excuse him on the grounds that he was summarizing something much more complex? Would he try and make a case for the existence of a disobeyable law independent of any Observer with opinions and preferences about our behavior? Would he admit that “disobeyable law” already assumes the existence of a Divine Law Giver, and plead that in this special case it’s ok to assume one’s conclusion?

I was very interested in seeing how he would reply, but I didn’t expect him to reply like this:

I believe the question, if I’m understanding it rightly, concerns if Lewis is contradicting himself about a law of nature that cannot be broken supposedly and a law of morality that can.

Also, it concerns why we should believe if it cannot be measured or is not tangible in some way.

As they say in lolspeak, I am disappoint.

First of all, with regards to the second point, I did not ask why we should believe in the intangible/unquantifiable, I asked how a layman can verify the validity of complex philosophical constructs, in the absence of tangible by-products. Most of us have no hope of understanding the math behind Einstein’s equations, but when we see the mushroom cloud we at least have some idea that e does equal mc^2. Is there any way, then, that we can verify the validity (or lack of validity) of Thomistic conclusions regarding goodness?

I would suggest that there are some standards even a layman can apply, such as the test of whether or not the whole structure is built on a simple logical fallacy. When we read Chapter One of Mere Christianity, we find Lewis committing the fallacy of incorporating the assumption of his conclusion into the specification for the terms he uses to define his premises. For the simple layman, that would seem to rule out any possibility that his argument is sound. That’s why it’s so important for us, as presumptively unread laymen, to get a straight answer to the question of whether or not Lewis’ first step is a logical misstep, and if so, is this implicit fallacy a fair depiction of the actual foundation of Thomist thought.

If the answer to both questions is yes, that would be extremely damaging to the argument for natural law, so hopefully Nick will address this issue in his next reply.

Meanwhile, I’ll take a stab at answering another one of his questions, since he has repeated it more than once. Nick is wondering whether any of us know know the three criteria for moral goodness: object, intention, and circumstance. It’s an interesting topic in and of itself, so let’s have a quick tour.

According to Thomas Aquinas, the primary criterion for assessing the moral goodness of a particular action is the object of the action. Note that’s “object,” not “objective.” When discussing the object of a moral act, we’re talking about describing what the act is, not what it is intended to accomplish. For example, murder, witch-burning, capital punishment and suicide all have human death as their object, even though many different intentions are involved (sometimes multiple intentions for the same act!). Thus, “object” has to do with “what,” not “why” or “how much” or so on.

Before an action can be morally good, it must first be good in its object. Thus, to judge the goodness of any action whose object is human death, we must first assess whether human death is good in and of itself. That’s a point that has interesting implications, as discussed below.

Next, we must look at intention. Is the action intended to accomplish a good result? The caveat here is that if the object is immoral then no amount of good intentions can make the act morally good. The end does not justify the means, at least according to the 3 criteria for moral goodness.

And lastly we must look at circumstance. This is kind of the loophole in Thomistic morality. In theory there can be no such thing as “extenuating circumstances” capable of making an action good when its object is not good (otherwise we don’t really have 3 criteria for moral goodness, because the real determining factor is circumstance). Thus, in theory the circumstance can tell you, e.g. that stealing someone’s parachute is a worse offense than stealing someone’s handkerchief, but both actions are still immoral because the object of the action is taking someone else’s property against their will, which is an immoral action.

The gotcha with the 3 criteria is that the actions of God Himself are, in many cases, immoral by this standard, and thus in practice theologians end up having to invoke the idea of extenuating circumstances, which means claiming that the last criterion overrules the first two. Without extenuating circumstances, no act of genocide can be good unless its object (wiping out an entire ethnic group of people, including children and babies) is also good; thus in commanding genocide, God is requiring His people to behave immorally. The only way to avoid this conclusion is either to decide moral goodness based on circumstance despite one or both of the other two criteria. Either that or decide that wiping out entire populations is morally “good,” or course.

And yet, even though you will find Catholics, for instance, who argue that the extermination of the Amalekites was not immoral, due to extenuating circumstances, they will still use the 3 criteria standard as an argument for why abortion can never be moral under any circumstances. As so often happens, the “absolute standard” isn’t always absolute. It’s what you might call a “flexible” standard—it allows us to determine what is and is not moral, except when it doesn’t, in which case we fall back on the argument from circumstance (which sometimes sounds suspiciously like my basis for morality 😉 ).

You could almost make the 3 Criteria standard work, if you said that you have to consider all three criteria as a whole. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t really solve the problem: either all three criteria are in agreement, in which case the question is trivial, or else there is some conflict between the three criteria, in which case you need some kind of higher principle of morality to which you can refer in deciding how much of a “vote” to give to each of the 3 criteria in determining the outcome. But if you have to appeal to a higher standard of morality to referee between 3 conflicting criteria, then it is the higher standard that is the real criterion for moral goodness, and you’re just fooling yourself by claiming to base moral goodness on the 3 criteria.

So like I said, it’s an interesting topic, and one I’m sure Nick will have more to say about (and with my blessing). I wouldn’t call it a solid philosophical approach, though, unless Nick can convince me otherwise.

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Posted in Atheistic Morality, Realism. 10 Comments »

10 Responses to “In which I am disappointed”

  1. Tony Hoffman Says:

    Well, it looks like the “Question and Answer” section of the talk has been cancelled.

    I can’t say I’m surprised. In my experience, self-proclaimed Thomists are long on the lecture portion, and very short on the part where we get to stop taking notes and asking questions. They have so much, they seem to feel, that they need to teach us. They just can’t ever seem to quite figure out why it is we need to know it.

  2. David D.G. Says:

    Personally, I favor Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. With some slight adaptation (most notably of the Second Law), they make a decent formula for human moral behavior.

    ~David D.G.

  3. Hunt Says:

    To be fair, it’s quite a challenge to show up at a site with a dissenting opinion and defend it from the barrage of inquiry. If nothing else, it requires a substantial investment of time unless you’re willing to supply quick and low-quality answers, as Nick was starting to do. When you start returning “because it’s true” to honest questions, you’re not going to make it many more rounds.

  4. pboyfloyd Says:

    I don’t know, Hunt, I think he gave it his best shot and that’s the answer he’s sticking with. It was becoming obvious that his original rebuttal of Deacon Duncan’s criticism was simply a diversion, a kick in the balls that he wasn’t supposed to be able to recover from, a table-leg kick that was going to knock down Deacon Duncan’s ‘house of cards’.

    Nick’s only reason to continue the ‘debate’ would be to apologize away any complaints by the usual method of glancing off any points made.

    I’d like to believe that i’m not right here, but I don’t see anywhere else for Nick to go with this.

  5. Nick Says:

    No Hunt. It’s quite obvious. The only reason you should believe something is because you believe the evidence indicates that it is true. What? Do you prefer to believe things you don’t really think are true? I don’t accept a moral position on a pragmatic approach but a realistic one.

    As for DD, if he thinks that the argument from goodness does not establish theism, he’s welcome to come to where I’ve said he could and challenge me.

  6. Deacon Duncan Says:


    Do you know, they have tests now that can measure the amount of testosterone in your blood? Sadly, this test has so far proven ineffective in determining the logical validity and factual accuracy of one’s philosophical arguments. I therefore have no interest in pursuing “challenges” or turf-oriented confrontations. If that’s all you’re really after, then I’m afraid it’s going to be my turn to disappoint you.

    The philosophical issues do interest me, and I would be interested in hearing your response, if you are still able to give it. You have expressed some concern over what you see as a lamentable and unhealthy ignorance among both believers and unbelievers, and now you have a chance to actually do something about it. I am giving you a forum in which you can educate people who might never read you on theologyweb, but will read what you write here. If you really have got the goods, and your answers will stand up outside TW’s ivory walls, then I would think you would find this a golden opportunity.

    I’m assuming, of course, that you sincerely believe the things you’ve posted here, and are not just out looking for a target to vent some abuse on (as so many TW’ers seem to be, unfortunately).

  7. Arthur Says:

    How come the argument from goodness doesn’t establish deism?

  8. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Oo oo, I know that one. The argument from goodness is consistent with both theism and deism, being (as it were) one piece of evidence that supports theism without necessarily being sufficient in and of itself to establish the whole Christian doctrine of God. The Thomist would thus admit that his doctrine of ontological goodness does not prove his God, but would point out that he never claimed it should.

    Am I right Nick?

  9. mikespeir Says:

    Why does Nick keep pressing for a change of venue? Looks like the debate’s already going strong here.

  10. Hunt Says:

    “The only reason you should believe something is because you believe the evidence indicates that it is true.”

    Well, the evidence would indicate moral relativism is true (a position we both reject), especially when we juxtapose that with something you said on another thread,

    Reply: Not at all. It’s just the way it is. The reason I believe in objective morality is because I believe it describes the world as it is. Now if you want to know why I think that, that’s another question.

    (Yes, I’d like your reasons. This is like asking someone if they know the time and having them say “yes.”)

    Hunt:“It’s the way we’ve thought for years” is irrelevant to its truth value. “

    Reply: Not at all. If you wish to take down a fence, find out why it was put up in the first place. If civilizations have believed this for years, find out why before saying they were wrong.

    As I said above, civilizations have merrily supported moral relativism for thousands of years. By your own standard, you have a real challenge trying to overturn the idea. Even cultures that were nominally totally morally absolutist like the Holy Roman Empire were recognizably morally relative. Your hero Thomas Aquinas advocated death for heretics, a morally relative position completely dependent on his frame of reference (I hope you agree.) ALL moral systems to date have been patently relative.