Saturday, October 30, 2010

Why Ethics?

Why Ethics?

The field of ethics is a grand narrative thousands of years old. It is filled with every narrative genre, but it is essentially a love story about the kind of love that endures all circumstances. Many different kinds
 of circumstances bring us to this field. A lot of us just get bored or over-burdened with the same old thing and begin to wonder if there is actually a greater point to this life. Some of us never have a care in the world for anyone other than ourselves until someone gives us a rude awakening that causes us to wonder why they affected us so much, why we began to empathize with others we affected in the same way, and what all this might imply about how things are supposed to go. A few of us oddballs analyze everything to smithereens, finally getting past psyching ourselves out about whether or not we really exist, or whether or not we are the only self in existence and all others are just our imagination (41), and are now ready to start digging deeper into the ultimate purpose to which every self should treat every self, asking, “What is the ultimate end, the Why behind how we should be or behave towards the Other and self?

This question is a sort of rational hunger (57) that is common to all humans. “We remain conscious of a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy. But is there any reason to suppose that reality offers any satisfaction to it? ‘Nor does the being hungry prove that we have bread.’ But I think it may be urged that this misses the point. A man's physical hunger does not prove that that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man's hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist,” (C.S. Lewis, 57).

Would we have evolved a hunger for true meaning, if there were nothing to satisfy that hunger (57; Appendix B)? This is the sort of hunger spoken about in Plato's Symposium (5a) (as Socrates tells it) when Diotima refers to a type of love we know intuitively, as being "the love of having the good for oneself always," a hunger that is "common to all." There is not a culture in existence or in history which has not demonstrated this hunger in an attempt to answer “How and why should we be or behave with the Other and self?” It is no coincidence that some version of the Golden Rule is found in the creeds of every major culture in history (9 and 10) (see Objection 12 in Appendix E).

Whatever may bring us here, in the field of ethics there grow many alternatives, some old, some new. Different theories in the field of ethics place emphasis on the sort of character we should cultivate (virtue theories), the sort of conduct we should be doing (deontological theories), and/or the sort of consequences or end-goals for which we should be aiming (consequentialist theories). How can we tell the true morality from the artificial, if a true alternative is even possible (see Objection 5 in Appendix E if “if” sounds heretical to you)? We need some way of examining and weighing each alternative, the way we examine our food sources to make sure they are tasty, nutritious, and fresh. After all, we may intuitively know we hunger (57) for something, but it takes more than just hunger to know whether or not the food we have chosen is actually good for us. The section titled Moral Truth Litmus (43) is a way of ensuring we select only that which edifies. Before the three-part litmus is presented and used to examine the major theories in ethics, we will discuss the controversial issue of faith and reason, as concerns the Moral Truth Litmus.

A Word on Faith and the Moral Truth Litmus

First, to differentiate between “morality” and “moral truth”. Morality means standards and ends (the ‘how’ and ‘why’), of social character or conduct. Morality may be created by the individual or cultural will, and/or perceived to be discovered (71) in evolving human nature (69), or in an eternal social essence. While it may be true that a given morality exists in reality (the way all thoughts exist in reality), its standards may or may not be “truth”.

Truth is that which corresponds to reality (that which is). Moral truth (or the real ought), if it exists (see Objection 5 in Appendix E if “if” sounds heretical to you), is those standards and ends (hows and whys), of social character or conduct which are true (corresponding to reality). If there are none which correspond, then the truth about morality (a descriptive statement about morality, rather than a “real ought”) is that what is moral is a matter of opinion (61). There ‘is’ a fact of the matter when it comes to morality (or unicorns)—that fact—that truth—that moral (unicorn) truth (descriptive statement)—may be that there ‘is’ no moral (unicorn) truth (real ought, real unicorn) (67). Normally, and particularly in this paper, the term ‘moral truth’ is used to mean ‘real ought’ (70).

In Sam Harris’ “Moral Landscape” (66), though he uses the word “well-being” in place of “perfection,” he does not (90) overcome 1) mapping an imperfect landscape, but claiming that it is the source of perfection (69), and that the very existence of the landscape justifies its map as mapping perfection (69), committing David Hume’s (1711-1776) is-ought fallacy (12) of reification (70) (see Objection 2 in Appendix E), or 2) denying the existence of the very perfection (69) which must exist in order for his map to correspond, committing the ought-is (82) fallacy of reification (70) (see Objection 3 in Appendix E). To have this explained in numerical steps, skip to the section “The Sword and the Sacrifice Philosophy” at the end of this work-in-progress.

If there is justified moral truth (see Objection 5 in Appendix E if “if” sounds heretical to you), it is justified if it answers “How and why should we be or behave with the Other and self?” and it is always true only if it corresponds to an Other/self who always is and does what we should be and do (an eternally perfect being—God) (69). If you put faith in the Golden Rule, then you must put faith in a God which it describes, a God to which the Golden Rule corresponds, or else in your inconsistency you will commit the ought-is (82) fallacy of reification (70) (see Objection 3 in Appendix E)—in other words, you will commit the error of saying the Golden Rule corresponds (is true), without there being anything to which it can correspond (be true) (God). The only other way to maintain consistent beliefs is to put faith in the impossibility of moral truth. Moral statements are only always true, if there is always a being to which they correspond. We know (only intuitively, at this point in the discussion) that humans are not always good, so they do not qualify as such a being. If we compare geographical maps, to the moral map we call the “Golden Rule,” we see that geographical truth does not need to correspond to an eternal, unchanging landscape, but the Golden Rule requires there be an eternal, morally perfect being to which it corresponds (69).

However—you could instead opt to reject the Golden Rule as objective moral truth (see Objection 4 in Appendix E). Just because it is the only theory to fully answer the question of Ethics (83), does not guarantee its truth (82) (see Objection 3 in Appendix E). And so, the Moral Truth Litmus cannot “prove” with certainty (89) the existence of God (see Objection 5 in Appendix E if the lack of certainty sounds heretical to you).

Likewise, the Moral Truth Litmus cannot prove true any particular theory in ethics, it can only rule out theories as not passing as objective moral truth. If a theory does not pass all three parts of the Moral Truth Litmus soon to be discussed, then it is made up (70), even if claimed to be discovered (71). If no theory passes the litmus (see Objection 5 in Appendix E if “if” sounds heretical to you), the moral truth (descriptive statement) is that there is no moral truth (real ought)—just morality based on opinion. Granted, if it can be shown that a theory passes the litmus, then it must be true that the theory is objective moral truth, however—we cannot prove that any theory passes parts two and three. We can only rule out theories which clearly do not pass those parts. The Golden Rule is the only theory that is not ruled out (and see Appendix G), but this does not mean we can have certainty (89) that it is true [to suggest it is true merely because it is justified would commit the ought-is fallacy (82) of reification (70) (see Objection 3 in Appendix E)] (see Objection 5 in Appendix E if the lack of certainty sounds heretical to you). That it passes the litmus (or at least is not ruled out by it), that we intuitively know (hunger for) it (57), that we find it in the creeds of every major culture throughout history (9 and 10)—that gives us good reason to put faith in it, to live according to it, to teach it to our children. Certainty, however, is reserved for the omniscient. It is impossible to prove a belief (as strong rationalism requires) (89) but beliefs can be evaluated to be more reasonable than others (the task of critical rationalism) (2), though still rationally avoidable.

The Moral Truth Litmus is a tool that will only be found in the toolbox of the critical realist, because it only permits truth that is discovered, and rules out all constructs. The litmus can migrate to other fields of inquiry. The only thing that would change is the question being asked (L1); the truth of the answer would still be discovered instead of created (L2), and it would still be universal instead of relative (L3)—in other words, it would still be mind-independent (see Objection 10 in Appendix E). The litmus is most helpful and illuminating in the field of ethics, where, more often than in any other field, constructs are passed off as truths. Skeptics and anti-realists will never use the Moral Truth Litmus—they will not want to follow its implications. Skepticism, anti-realism and critical realism (76) are all reactions to the realization that what we once thought we knew (na├»ve realism), turned out to be wrong. Skeptics have faith that we can therefore never know anything, whereas anti-realists have faith that there is therefore no “truth” independent of minds, and critical realists have faith that there are truths waiting to be discovered by minds, and so employ tools like the Moral Truth Litmus to narrow down the search. After all, we only realize that we are wrong because we trust the evidence that something else was right, before we knew it was right.

Nevertheless, skeptics discard all tools, and anti-realists consider all tools to be used for construction, rather than discovery. Critical realists understand that there may be evidence to which we do not have access, which would influence a different conclusion, but a true conclusion is true despite whatever evidence we have available to us—its truth and our knowing or discovering it are two separate issues. A fact is true before we have the evidence to know it, just as food is not produced by hunger, though hunger is a clue to the existence of food. If something is true, it is true even if we never find evidence supporting it—even if the idea of it never enters our mind. Granted, ideas and statements cannot be true unless a mind thinks or utters them, however—if they are true, they are true independent of any mind. The only mind-dependent facts are facts “about” minds, however—their truth is still not justified by the existence of the mind(s) of which they are about, for that would commit the is-ought fallacy (12) of reification (70) (see Objection 10 in Appendix E). A true fact, or a true conclusion, is true (has objective certainty) despite the evidence, and we must have faith (subjective certainty) in the strongest evidence (89).

Faith in the strongest evidence is mere intellectual assent, mere subjective certainty, and means confidence (75) or trust in the evidence, but lacking absolute subjective certainty (see Objection 5 in Appendix E if the lack of certainty sounds heretical to you). Of how many of your beliefs are you really certain (89)? Of the rest—what is your evidence? All belief below absolute certainty involves varying degrees of subjective certainty (faith) (91). The stronger the evidence, the stronger the subjective certainty (faith) (80).

But, if a person is going to hold on to beliefs with blind faith “in the teeth of evidence” (meaning counter-evidence) as Richard Dawkins first said in "The Selfish Gene" (77)—then reason (including smack-you-in-the-face revelation) is not going to persuade. Blind faith, belief supposedly without any evidence, is a form of bad faith. To do something in bad faith is to betray confidence or break trust—it is to deceive, to put up a false front, false evidence. An example used by Sartre, discussed in the section on Existentialism, is that to refuse to choose, is a choice, and so it is a choice made in bad faith. To do something in good faith, with authenticity (a word used by existentialists), is to provide confidence or build trust—it is to tell the truth, it is to be genuine, to be honest. Applied to beliefs, it is bad faith to decide not to decide what one believes about this or that—it is good faith (authenticity) to believe the conclusion to which all the strongest evidence points, and not to rule out (or in) any (counter-)evidence without first critically examining it. One reason some people don’t take Christians seriously is because some Christians believe things which clash with science. For example, the evidence for evolution weighs too much, and the early stories of Genesis ring too poetic for young-earth creationism to be a reasonable position (26). Many scientists believe the evidence for evolution and are Christians (like Dr. Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, director of the National Institutes of Health and founder of, who believe the Bible’s account of creation is poetic, and that this does not affect the fundamentals of theistic faith. The stronger the evidence, the less tentative the belief (good faith). The weaker the evidence, the more tentative the belief (good faith). It is the sort of faith that is necessary before we can trust or put faith in another person. Faith “that” a person exists, or intellectual assent to the evidence that a person exists, is different from and precedes putting your faith, or trust, “in” that person.

Those who feel that we should just have faith may wonder why the Moral Truth Litmus, or a rational examination of the theories in ethics, is even necessary (see Objection 5 in Appendix E). They may feel that it shows how strong our faith is, when we do not question anything, and that it shows how weak our faith is, whenever we do question. They may feel we should just trust in the revelation of the Bible; that this paper goes through a lot of trouble to explain why the Golden Rule is the only viable theory of moral truth, when all we needed to do was search the Scriptures, and live out the great principle in our lives. Soren Kierkegaard, the great Christian philosopher and father of existentialism, is often misunderstood as being such a fideist (42). However, fideists like Kierkegaard would say that “Subjectivity is Truth”—that having objective evidence of the real ought (God, described by the Golden Rule) is a mere shadow of actually living it out (see Objection 6 in Appendix E)—faith “that” God exists is not enough—we must live faith “in” God. Golden Rule love is about subjective faith, not objective certainty (see Objection 5 in Appendix E if the lack of certainty sounds heretical to you), as John Nash discovered in the marriage proposal scene of the movie “A Beautiful Mind”. There is truth in making truth personal, in going beyond mere intellectual assent and putting our faith in God, but before we can do that we are encouraged in the Bible to “reason together” (Isaiah 1:18) with God, to “examine everything” (1 Thess. 5:21) and to “give a reason” (1 Peter 3:15). If “faith” is the ultimate goal, then the object of our faith could very well be anything, as long as “faith” is accomplished. But we know this is not true. Kierkegaard was angered by clergy who focused on evidence (knowing/believing "that" God exists) and never demonstrated saving faith (knowing God "personally" and believing "in" God). That's why he focused so much on faith. But he wasn't "against" evidence—he just knew nothing can be proved/known with certainty (and that much of Christianity feels like counter-evidence, like the God-man, which seems paradoxical), and that the 'virtue' sort of faith (trust "in" God) is where it is at (but see Objection 24 in Appendix E). That is where we will find true satisfaction. However, when a person exalts blind faith, they think they are exalting the sort of faith that puts trust in a person, when actually they are insulting the person by saying there is no evidence that they are trustworthy.

You will not find blind faith in the Bible. What you will find when you research the several heroes of faith listed in Hebrews 11 is a lot of people who struggled with doubt, and a God who did what he could to provide evidence that he would be there for them. But, ultimately, they had to have faith that God would do what he promised, even though everything in them said run the other way. Believing—faith, for all us finite folk—is a virtue when new evidence is battling against an old worldview over territory in the mind—but only when we commit ourselves to believing only what is true (even if we don't at first get it right), despite the sometimes overwhelming "pull" of the familiar worldview or trending new evidence. All else is bad faith. The most common passage used by those who disagree that blind faith is not found in the Bible (fideists, 42, and atheists who think all religious faith is blind faith), is Jesus’ dialogue with Thomas on believing without seeing. Jesus is not speaking of blind faith when he tells Thomas about those who believe without seeing—he is speaking of those who trust God to fulfill his promises, before they see the fulfillment. Faith is trust, and no one trusts blindly. But, it comes without certainty (see Objection 5 in Appendix E if the lack of certainty sounds heretical to you), as no one has faith and trust is not required if the thing is certain (89). Faith is important in every relationship—it is important for a wife to believe in, have faith in, her husband, and vice versa. You must say "I do" as a risk you consider worth taking. A relationship without any trust cannot be considered "blessed". The same is true of our relationship with God. If it is a genuine relationship, it is not blind, but it comes without certainty.

And so we must reason about which “object of faith” is worthy of our faith—we must be able to explain why the Golden Rule is more worthy than any other theory in ethics. If we do not know why our object of faith is worthy of our faith (or that it even exists), are we not committing idolatry? It was because they put blind faith in Jim Jones that the People’s Temple “drank the Kool-Aid” (36). In order to filter true revelation from false, reason is required. All else is idolatry.

Dialectic is used in this paper to pan out the fool’s gold, to sift and winnow out the chaff of artificial morality. It is not guaranteed that we will be left with the genuine nugget or the edifying kernel—it is not guaranteed we will be left with anything at all—but it does ensure we do not settle for anything less than the truth. Dialectic resolves what appeared to be a contradiction. Reality does not permit contradiction, so all contradictions are merely apparent, not real. If a theory contains any contradiction, it means the theory is wrong at some point, because contradictory language is meaningless and cannot correspond to reality. An antithesis appears to contradict a thesis, but then a synthesis resolves the apparent contradiction by keeping the parts of both thesis and antithesis which correspond to reality (and so are consistent), and discarding the parts inconsistent with reality. It’s a lot of drama with a happy ending—and the synthesis is our (tentative) hero, saving us from a life of paradox and contradiction (assuming it has arrived at truth and does not eventually become the thesis of a new dialectic, as seen in the many theory-revisions in science). The dialectic method (58, 66) being used in the Moral Truth Litmus and throughout this paper is synonymous with the scientific method. The thesis is synonymous with the hypothesis, the antithesis is synonymous with counter-evidence, and the synthesis is synonymous with the revised theory (58). We can flesh this out:

The Scientific Method Dialectic

Thesis: Hypothesis.
Antithesis: Counter-Evidence.
Synthesis: (Revised) Theory.

Here is an example of one such dialectic:

The Reasoned Faith Dialectic

Thesis: We should have blind faith (fideism).
Antithesis: Don’t drink the Kool-Aid (36).
Synthesis: We should have reasoned faith.

The dialectic method (58, 66) does not conflict with faith, only with ‘bad’ (or seemingly blind) faith, because not even the scientific method can provide certainty (89) and so requires varying degrees of faith (91). If the dialectic isn’t good enough to settle on something we can have reasonable faith in—then the scientific method, too, is a fail, and it isn’t. It is possible to arrive at a final synthesis, to which there can be no further antithesis, but, for the sake of intellectual humility, one must be open to the possibility of a future antithesis. This is the flexibility to which we can credit every advance in scientific progress—every leap of faith in the absence of the certainty even science cannot provide (89). In this spirit, any and all are challenged to attempt to find antitheses to the syntheses of the Moral Truth Litmus and of the rest of this paper. So far, the many who have attempted it have not succeeded (see Appendix E).

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