Euthyphro Problems and Bad Religion – or – The Imaginary Invalidity

by John Holbo on May 28, 2012

Andrew Sullivan links to a Ross Douthat-Julian Sanchez exchange (that started as a Douthat-Saletan exchange, and concerning which Karl Smith and Noah Millman get words in edgewise, if you care to follow up the links.) Douthat suggests that secular liberalism has philosophical-metaphysical problems:

Say what you will about the prosperity gospel and the cult of the God Within and the other theologies I criticize in Bad Religion, but at least they have a metaphysically coherent picture of the universe to justify their claims. Whereas much of today’s liberalism expects me to respect its moral fervor even as it denies the revelation that once justified that fervor in the first place. It insists that it is a purely secular and scientific enterprise even as it grounds its politics in metaphysical claims.

Sanchez makes the easy but surely correct response: Douthat is writing as though he’s never read Euthyphro and doesn’t see how all the same problems are going to arise for his own position, mutatis mutandis. It doesn’t prove anything to dunk secular ethics, but not theological ethics, in this skeptical acid. Either God’s commandments are arbitrary or they make sense. If they are arbitrary – well, that’s hardly an improvement over secular humanism, in the worst case scenario. If they make sense, they make sense. Secular humanists can help themselves to anything that makes sense. They can hold onto the commands but lose the Commander. So, whether the ethical news is good or bad, the news is the same for the secularist and the religious believer.

Douthat’s response is weak (see it below). As Sanchez says, it’s a ‘classic virtus dormativa.’ Here is Sanchez:

If God is the standard, why ought we accept the standard to emulate it? How could a natural fact about God — even if you call it a “supernatural” fact, whatever that distinction amounts to — constitute a reason? If the fact that some action will cause suffering isn’t adequate motivation to avoid it without something further, why is the fact that the divine nature abhors suffering (or sin, or whatever we think) supposed to do any better? Why do we imagine someone could (rationally?) greet the first fact with a shrug, but not the second?

That’s bad enough, but I think the problem is considerably worse for Douthat, bad religion-wise. Here is the passage to which Sanchez is objecting:

Virtue is not something that’s commanded by God, the way a magistrate (or a whimsical alien overlord) might issue a legal code, but something that’s inherent to the Christian conception of the divine nature. God does not establish morality; he embodies it. He does not set standards; he is the standard. And even when he issues principles or precepts through revelation (as in the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount) he isn’t legislating in the style of Hammurabi or Solon. Instead, he’s revealing something about his own nature and inviting us to conform ourselves to the standards that it sets.

Revelation does, in this sense, provide a kind of “expert validation” in the sense that Sanchez suggests, effectively putting a divine thumb on the scale of human moral debates. (Accepting that Jesus of Nazareth was the incarnation of the Absolute clearly has implications for moral theorizing, which is why Christianity’s triumph in the Mediterranean world worked a moral revolution as well as a theological one.) But in general, the point of invoking God in moral debates is not to pre-emptively solve the dilemmas that moral philosophers grapple with. Certainly no serious Christian moralist has ever suggested that moral problems are “a black box” that “we don’t need to worry our pretty little heads about” because God will always tell us what to do. Rather, the possibility of God’s existence — and with it, the possibility that moral laws no less than physical laws correspond to an actual reality, or Reality — is what makes those problems genuinely meaningful and interesting (as opposed to just innings in an “ethics game”) and lends the project of moral reasoning its coherence. The idea of God doesn’t replace secular moral reasoning, in other words, but it grounds this reasoning in something more durable than just aesthetic preference.

The problem is not that Douthat sounds like Moliére’s doctor – who was at least a Catholic, and classical in his way, as Sanchez says. The problem is that Douthat sounds like Richard Rorty, only Douthat is substituting ‘God’ for ‘poetry’. (It needn’t be Rorty. Pick your favorite post-Romantic literary figure or critic or thinker who responds to The Death of God by putting Poetry in His place. Matthew Arnold – or Heidegger. Follow your bliss, in this regard.)

Now we simply make appropriate substitutions.

Virtue is not something that’s commanded by [the Poet], the way a magistrate (or a whimsical alien overlord) might issue a legal code, but something that’s inherent to the [Poetic] conception of [Poetical] nature. [The Poet] does not establish morality; he embodies it. He does not set standards; he is the standard. And even when he issues principles or precepts through revelation [Lichtung, as Heidegger would say. Or you could just say ‘criticism’ at this point, if you prefer a more Arnoldian mode] (as in the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount) he isn’t legislating in the style of Hammurabi or Solon. Instead, he’s revealing something about his own nature and inviting us to conform ourselves to the standards that it sets.

Revelation [Lichtung/criticism] does, in this sense, provide a kind of “expert validation” in the sense that Sanchez suggests, effectively putting a divine [poetic] thumb on the scale of human moral debates. (Accepting that Jesus of Nazareth was the incarnation of the Absolute [Accepting that Shakespeare is divine] clearly has implications for moral theorizing, which is why Christianity’s triumph in the Mediterranean world [Shakespeare’s triumph in the English-speaking world] worked a moral revolution as well as a theological [poetic] one.) But in general, the point of invoking God [poetry] in moral debates is not to pre-emptively solve the dilemmas that moral philosophers grapple with. Certainly no serious Christian moralist [poet] has ever suggested that moral problems are “a black box” that “we don’t need to worry our pretty little heads about” because God [poetry] will always tell us what to do. Rather, the possibility of God’s [Poetry’s] existence — and with it, the possibility that moral laws no less than physical laws correspond to an actual reality, or [Poetic] Reality — is what makes those problems genuinely meaningful and interesting (as opposed to just innings in an “ethics game” [sectarian debate about theology]) and lends the project of moral reasoning its coherence. The idea of God [Poetry] doesn’t replace secular moral reasoning, in other words, but it grounds this reasoning in something more durable than just aesthetic [sectarian] preference.

I had to make an extra adjustment right there at the end. But I think you see the point.

The problem is: there is nothing Douthat finds more intolerably waffly than this sort of post-Romantic Power-of-Poetry stuff, I’m sure. (Matthew Arnold is the least objectionable figure in the lot. But he was a bloody Spinozist, man.) When Richard Rorty tries to float the boat of liberalism on literature, I’m sure Douthat thinks that’s laughable. (Likewise, when Rawls tries to downplay his propositions as ‘political, not metaphysical’, not even bothering to make a god of Poetry in passing, to substitute for the dead one.) I’m sure Douthat thinks Heidegger and the existentialists did their part, wasting the capital of Christian ethics, thereby making it easier rather than harder for the horrors of the early 20th Century to take place. But is what Douthat himself is saying more ‘metaphysically coherent’? I fail to see how so. So he should cut it out concerning “weak intellectual foundations”.

Douthat is shifting from ‘you need to believe in God to be moral,’ to ‘you need to believe in God to be moral, because you have to have a coherent philosophy to be moral.’ This is meant to sidestep standard Euthyphro-style objections, but ‘you have to have a coherent philosophy to be moral’ is a strange major premise.

The Moliérean lesson I would draw is, perhaps, a bit different from the one Sanchez suggests: yes, you shouldn’t relabel your problem ‘a solution to my problem’. But beyond that: what’s wrong with incoherent philosophy? Is it ‘invalid’ to live your life without a coherent philosophical account that Goes All the Way Down (or, barring that, a coherent philosophical account of why you can get by without such a fundament.) Couldn’t the insistence on philosophical coherence be a sort of hypochondria, in a practical sense? (I mean: yes, it would be nice. But if you don’t have it, does it follow that you are, as it were, sick or dying?)

Here is how Douthat philosophizes and moralizes: sometimes he puts his foot down hard. Sometimes he thinks better of it and sounds rather like Richard Rorty (not substantively, but formally.) Liberals are like that, too. Douthat is committed to the proposition that this kludgy approach to philosophy works. It works for him. Why shouldn’t something analogous work for liberals, potentially?

Suppose Douthat responded like so (I suspect he might, although I don’t know). It’s more an either/or. In order to believe in morality, you need either to believe in God or to have a coherent metaphysics of morality. The problem is that this is obviously empirically false. Every secularist would be a nihilist (because I doubt any secularist has a really coherent metaphysics of morality. They are as shameless as religious folk that way.) But that clearly isn’t true. Maybe Douthat would say that it’s only the legacy of Christianity that is helping us hang on. But why believe that? Rather than that we are genetically programmed to be ‘moral animals’, to pick an obvious (if vague) possibility. Nihilism doesn’t come naturally to us monkeys, on average. (This doesn’t prove that moral nihilism is a false philosophy. But it does prove that any argument of the form ‘we must do x to stave off widespread moral nihilism’ contains at least one false major premise.)

This post has a rather strange structure. It may look like I am preparing to blow up philosophy, just to defend liberalism against Douthat. In fact, I’m firmly of the belief that less drastic measures will suffice, all up and down the line. But I’m a collector of occurrences of Euthyphro-type dilemmas. Please pardon the excessive use of force that it took to add this one to my collection of argumentative oddities.

{ 224 comments }

1

Hidari 05.28.12 at 6:21 am

Er….sorry….what? I can’t speak for Rorty (although I suspect that what you said about his views are nonsense, at least qua his later writings) but the key point about Heidegger was that he didn’t have an ethical stance. It’s true that Heidegger talked about poetry a lot but he certainly didn’t think that it was in order to make himself into a better person: indeed, like Nietzsche, he was pretty sharp on the ‘poetry makes you a good chap’ view of literature.

Incidentally who, ever, has claimed that Virtue is something that is commanded by The Poet (or by Poets)?

I think that this is something that liberals/Marxists/atheists, whatever are just going to have to deal with. Materialism, naturalism, whatever you want to call it, simply does commit you to a certain form (or certain forms of) moral relativism. It just does. It may be that the Abrahamic religions, thought through, also commits you to these things, but it is certain that atheism does. (I think that most secularists fights bitterly against this proposition because they think, vaguely that if they ‘let in’ the demon of moral relativism, then the Satan of epistemological relativism will not be far behind, thus endangering the whole project. But just like things you are liable to read in the Bible, that ain’t necessarily so).

2

Jim Harrison 05.28.12 at 6:40 am

Douthat wants infinitely more from morality than guidance on how to live. Catholic thinking, indeed most Christian thinking, has always agreed with the serpent in the garden that those who understand the difference between good and evil are like a gods. The imitation of Christ is generally thought of as a discipline of humility, but it’s aim is, after all, apotheosis.

One can admire the metaphysical longing embodied in theological ethics or think that it is simply wishful thinking and vanity, but those who are looking for a transcendent absolute are always going to be unimpressed by secular people who are simply trying to figure out what they should do next. Insisting on a theological dimension to moral reasoning is all the more urgent to modern Christians because so many of the other justifications for belief in a supernatural deity have lost their force.

3

John Quiggin 05.28.12 at 6:44 am

My understanding of these things is that Christians are supposed to have a personal relationship with God such that they know God to be good in the same way that we know sugar to be sweet. So, doing what God tells you to do has to be good.

This doesn’t seem to leave any room for disagreements on morality and particularly on theology. If God is three persons in one, and wants us to abstain from pork, presumably He/They will tell this to everyone who has faith. So, anyone who thinks God has told them that pork is OK, must be wrong, not only about this, but about their belief that they have a personal relationship with God.

As far as I can see, that’s pretty much the stance of True Believers – everyone except them and the handful of people who share the same revelation, down to the last detail, is damned. What I can’t see is how you can get to the kind of position Douthat seems, I think, to want, one where belief is derived from God, but there is still plenty of room for disagreement among believers.

4

John Holbo 05.28.12 at 6:51 am

Hidari, you and I perhaps totally disagree about Rorty, Heidegger, Nietzsche, the overall arc of the history of writings about ethics and literature, the implications of materialism and the implications of Abrahamic religion. That is a bit much to address in a comment. Let’s start with: ‘poetry makes you a good chap.’ Heidegger would have disagreed with that, but the sticking point is not ‘good’ but ‘chap’, which can’t be translated into any German word that occurs in any poem by Hölderlin.

More seriously, I think the problem may be that you have misunderstood Douthat. Read the bit I quote above. He is distancing himself from the view that religion consists in a set of thou shalts and thou shalt nots. ‘Do this and you will be a good chap! ‘So it is the fact that Heidegger and Rorty are likewise distancing themselves from the crude ‘read this and you will be a good chap!’ philosophy of literature that makes them similar, not different. There is a murky sort of retreat into an ethics based on the revelation of authentic Being. This is supposed to finesse Euthyphro-type problems, so Douthat is trying this on for size. But it doesn’t suit him, to say the least.

5

Jamie 05.28.12 at 6:53 am

Perhaps I’m simply daft, but the alleged difficulty of moral reasoning from the baseline of a mere human confuses me. We don’t ask plants to justify themselves in terms of the environment they help create. We eat their fruit.

I suppose one response to this is, why do we eat, metaphorically speaking, Douhat’s fruit? (OK, ew. Sorry. )

6

John Holbo 05.28.12 at 7:00 am

“We don’t ask plants to justify themselves in terms of the environment they help create.”

But we do ask people to justify themselves in terms of the environment they help create. Yet we are both natural – people and plants. Whence the assymetry? That’s supposed to be the problem.

7

John Holbo 05.28.12 at 7:24 am

I guess you could translate ‘chap’ as ‘Jüngling’. And you could say that Hölderlin’s “Hyperion” expresses the thesis that ‘poetry [poesis] makes you a good chap’ Is good for your Jünglingsgestalte. Your ‘chapintodevelopingness’, as the English say.

8

Belle Waring 05.28.12 at 7:42 am

Darling husband, I think you should have just let Ross “I would do anything for love, but I won’t” Douthat drown. You have muddied the waters with this continental nonsense and now it won’t be as instantly obvious that he is going under. Why are you willing to set all of philosophy ablaze so that Douthat will come scuttling out at the end? Honestly.

I’m more surprised “I would do anything for love, but I won’t” Douthat didn’t avail himself of any number of handy Christian solutions to this time-worn problem. He’s a goddamn Catholic! He’s a member of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church etc., and he does not have to “worry his pretty [sic] little [sic] head about it.” On account of the Nicene creed and all. Or he can just pull a maneuver more popular among the rebel kids in their Pentecostal penny-loafers down at the sock hop and say he has had, or continues to have, an internal experience to which you, Skeptic Sanchez, will never be privy until you believe in Jesus as the Lord your Savior, at which point you will have access to secure foundations for your code of ethics, in such wise as it is impossible even to gesture at. I thought Catholics got to say “because God says so, and also He providentially arranged the world so that what He loved would be good, so you lose double, annoying philosopher guy, neener neener!” Someone wasn’t paying attention in 3rd grade Sunday school, I can tell you that, and Sister McIlhenny is very disappointed.

9

sean matthews 05.28.12 at 7:43 am

Looks to me like Douthat (who, I believe, is a good catholic) is channeling Aquinas, not Rorty. Aquinas tackled the Euthyphro problem by arguing that morality is of god’s (sorry ‘God’s') nature, but not of his will, which is a neat rhetorical flourish, but not, as far as I can see, sufficient to get you off the horns, so to speak.

10

themgt 05.28.12 at 8:46 am

Progressives are in desperate need of some secular buddhism to dig themselves out of this hole of materialism. Abrahamic religions are an amazingly special snowflake of incoherence, but trying to point that out from a worldview that you’ve basically cribbed off them, minus Teh God, leads to nonsense like this. Which was actually sort of Douthat’s point in the first place

11

R.Mutt 05.28.12 at 9:01 am

I guess you could translate ‘chap’ as ‘Jüngling’.

“Bursche”?

12

Emily 05.28.12 at 9:14 am

I haven’t read Euthyphro I’m afraid.

From the couple of theology subjects I’ve studied Catholic Christianity in principle is not so much about a personal relationship with God, and inherently recognizes the difficulties of remaining, say, pious, or living according to one’s culture/metaphysics under Empire, in this case Roman. Specifically, one might presumably posit it is about attempting to follow Christ’s commandment to love one another and attempting to keep faith and hope.

I have never read about a non- Enlightenment influenced secular culture – has anyone else?

I only speak English, but I presume on this basis that language always has a metaphysical component. I cannot for the life of me figure out how one can on the one hand insist only on a physical existence and then on the other use metaphysical words. Can someone help me out?

Regarding poetry, I guess it must depend on the poem and poet. Monotheism rules this degree of relativism out – there may be different schools or saints and so one, but only a single God. This doesn’t hold for The Poet, unless one goes Platonic and sees The Poet as a form…

13

Data Tutashkhia 05.28.12 at 9:16 am

Either God’s commandments are arbitrary or they make sense. If they are arbitrary – well, that’s hardly an improvement over secular humanism, in the worst case scenario. If they make sense, they make sense. Secular humanists can help themselves to anything that makes sense.

Social Darwinism makes sense. Eugenics makes sense. Any rationalistic view makes sense. What makes you pick yours?

14

Emily 05.28.12 at 9:22 am

Sorry, and so on, not one.

15

GiT 05.28.12 at 10:11 am

“I have never read about a non- Enlightenment influenced secular culture – has anyone else”

Confucian China?

16

bob mcmanus 05.28.12 at 11:03 am

I have never read about a non- Enlightenment influenced secular culture – has anyone else” Confucian China?

Syncretic Japan? Not that I believe very strongly in the possibility of a “secular” or nihilistic culture.

17

John Holbo 05.28.12 at 11:22 am

” I guess you could translate ‘chap’ as ‘Jüngling’.

“Bursche”?”

Since Greek is also acceptable, I guess we could translate ‘chap’ as ‘kouros’.

18

Peter Erwin 05.28.12 at 11:28 am

I have never read about a non- Enlightenment influenced secular culture – has anyone else?

Some aspects of Hellenistic society might qualify.

There are also historical traditions of atheism in India.

19

Emily 05.28.12 at 11:55 am

I guess secular is a difficult word (for me) – I was using it in the sense of without metaphysical faith, or where faith is non-important.
I think of pre-colonial China and Japan (in the former at leat one might say Chinas and Japans and so on) as polities of diverse, but often related or co-existing, faiths – regional animism, Shinto, Confucian ancestor worship and filial duties, Buddhism, daoism and so on.
However, upon reflection I’m not sure that many ‘Western’ cultures now or recently would classify as secular on my original terms either…

20

Peter Erwin 05.28.12 at 12:01 pm

I guess you could translate ‘chap’ as ‘Jüngling’.

Mmm… Jüngling means “youth/young man” (as does kouros, if I’m not mistaken); I’m not sure why you think those are good translations for “chap” (to me, at least, “chap” doesn’t necessarily imply youth).

Wiktionary suggests Kerl or Typ, which strike me as more appropriate.

21

John Holbo 05.28.12 at 12:03 pm

“I’m not sure why you think those are good translations for “chap”.

Sorry for the jokiness. I was actually trying to think of the silliest sounding translations ;)

22

Corey Robin 05.28.12 at 12:10 pm

I think John is right to see a Rorty/Heidegger/Nietzsche vein in Douthat. I made, in the different context of Douthat’s views on sex, a similar claim, only I emphasized the Nietzsche/Foucault dimensions of Douthat’s writing. But in both cases, the underlying point is the same. Or almost the same. http://coreyrobin.com/2011/09/13/the-mile-high-club-what-the-right-really-thinks-about-sex/

23

Freddie 05.28.12 at 12:22 pm

When Douthat talks about the metaphysical coherence of Christianity, he sounds like the guy who complains that his failed plan should have worked because it was elegant in its simplicity.

Incidentally, I don’t think your gloss on poetry as the dungeon master is fair to Heidegger, Rorty, or Arnold.

24

SusanC 05.28.12 at 12:27 pm

@22. Yes, I can see a Nietzschian element in Douthat’s argument.

I’d agree with the suggestion that the post-Christian west still follows an ethics that is basically Christian in origin, but the original justification for it has gone.

Scientific method is very good on how to do something, once you’ve decided you want to it, but pretty much silent on whether you should do it or not. Which leaves a “rational” politics in the strange position of needing to rely on a lot of irrational stuff for the “should” aspect.

But I don’t buy at all the argument that one ought to have a logically consistent system of ethics, that Christianity provides such a system, and therefore we ought to be Christian. I’d have more sympathy with a Christian apologist who argued that since you’re going to have to make completely irrational leaps of faith anyway, even if you’re an atheist, you might as well go the whole hog. But then I’m (a) a fan of Philip K Dick and (b) tend towards the “lunatic” conclusion of C. S. Lewis “Lord, liar or lunatic” argument.

25

John Holbo 05.28.12 at 12:29 pm

Thanks for that, Corey. I feel a bit better about what I said after reading your post. I was starting to think maybe I was reading too much in, and the whole thing was just supposed to be Aquinian, per a comment upthread. I think maybe I overstate it in the post, but I hope there’s a kernel of truth to it.

I listened to that bloggingheads between Douthat and Savage myself back when – six months ago, or whenever. I wasn’t thinking about it when writing this post, but I do remember thinking that Douthat was giving a lot of ground by even being willing to have the conversation.

26

R. Porrofatto 05.28.12 at 12:30 pm

Dear Ross,
I don’t exist. No, really, I don’t. I’m not even writing this, some commenter on a blog is. Which makes your entire codified moral belief system of “expert validation” — or what you call “revelation” — just one more product of the minds of human beings, so there ain’t anything remotely divine about it no matter how much you say or believe there is. And how whacked is that humans such as yourself can accept a set of moral principles only if some other human beings made up a bunch of stuff about Yours Truly validating or even authoring it? I don’t exist. That “thumb on the scale of human moral debates” you describe isn’t mine, it’s yours. Seriously. I don’t even have thumbs. So much for My Supreme Goodness validating your particular moral beliefs.
Sorry.
God
P.S. I hope you won’t want to rape or murder anyone now.

27

Tomas 05.28.12 at 12:30 pm

Sometimes sitting here in China, I get the feeling that this whole “faith” obsession is a western/monotheistic cultural quirk rather than a deep philosophical/metaphysical problem.

The Chinese (still) has a shitload of metaphysics, but it seems really practical and connected to everyday life and not overly concerned with justifying morality, much less by reference to creator gods.

Confucian ethics is, to the best of my knowledge, not justified by reference to faith in gods or the like or even to magical powers, but is more like a political/social philosophy with supernatural elements pasted on ex post. Likewise Daoism has its immortals and such, but its ethics is not founded in any belief about creators. Wuwei is “good” because it is better for you. It works or so it is claimed. Likewise Buddhism notoriously do not posit a creator god, much less one who creates the foundations of morality.

I am sure someone here might correct me on the specifics, but it seems that we never seem to consider the possibility that it is just the west than has weird ideas and get tied up in knots over nonproblems.

28

Tim Silverman 05.28.12 at 12:41 pm

Virtue is not something that’s commanded by liberalism, the way a magistrate (or a whimsical alien overlord) might issue a legal code, but something that’s inherent to the liberal conception of the liberal nature. Liberalism does not establish morality; it embodies it. It does not set standards; it is the standard. And even when it issues principles or precepts through revelation (as in the Bill of Rights or the Gettysburg Address) it isn’t legislating in the style of Hammurabi or Solon. Instead, it’s revealing something about its own nature and inviting us to conform ourselves to the standards that it sets.

Revelation does, in this sense, provide a kind of “expert validation” in the sense that Sanchez suggests, effectively putting a liberal thumb on the scale of human moral debates. (Accepting that representative democracy is the incarnation of the Liberal State clearly has implications for moral theorizing, which is why the Enlightenment’s triumph in the Western world worked a moral revolution as well as a theological one.) But in general, the point of invoking liberalism in moral debates is not to pre-emptively solve the dilemmas that moral philosophers grapple with. Certainly no serious liberal moralist has ever suggested that moral problems are “a black box” that “we don’t need to worry our pretty little heads about” because liberalism will always tell us what to do. Rather, the possibility of a liberal state’s existence — and with it, the possibility that moral laws no less than physical laws correspond to an actual reality, or Reality — is what makes those problems genuinely meaningful and interesting (as opposed to just innings in an “ethics game”) and lends the project of moral reasoning its coherence. The idea of liberalism doesn’t replace secular moral reasoning, in other words, but it grounds this reasoning in something more durable than just aesthetic preference.

29

bob mcmanus 05.28.12 at 1:07 pm

However, upon reflection I’m not sure that many ‘Western’ cultures now or recently would classify as secular on my original terms either…

Maybe we could take a break and go watch a not-jolly Green Giant smash up some space aliens. Not that we believe any of this is true, or could be true, but we suspend disbelief because as metaphor it can be useful as a moral exemplar…or something. Hulkology? One wonders what would drive an audience from a theater. Walking on water? Does Bruce Banner not exist in the same way or a different way than Nobodaddy doesn’t exist? Or “Liberalism” doesn’t exist?

I have never gotten Euthyphro. Okay, we can’t coherently or ground authoritative ethics in the transcendent or supernatural…but we do it anyway. Does that makes us un-rational? Duh. Most of the religious in some sense have always admitted a non-rational element to their system and practice. Platonist philosopher kinglets cluck their tongues in smug contempt. Also duh.

85% of the Japanese say they are non-religious and 60% have a Buddhist altar (even if only a magic stone) in their homes, says Wikipedia. Makes sense to me.

30

Corpus Christy 05.28.12 at 1:12 pm

God does not establish morality; he embodies it. He does not set standards; he is the standard.

Do statements like this explain anything? It is definitely Aquinian in its nebulousness, just like the statement, ‘God is not a being, God is Being.’ This doesn’t even rise to the level of a Daniel Dennett “deepity,” which has at least one trivial level of truth to it.

31

William Timberman 05.28.12 at 1:37 pm

There’s no god in my machine — at least that’s what a history of the images in my mirror tells me. On the other hand, if there were such a god, then unless there were also some sort of quantum entanglement between it and the rest of the universe, both the epistemological and ontological basis for morals and ethics would indeed come into question, and the bright lights and rubber hoses employed by the princes of the church militant in the course of their interrogations would seem to be adequately justified.

That still doesn’t give them the right to assume a transcendental God, write a book explaining it, and then attribute the authorship of that book to the god they just invented.

32

William Timberman 05.28.12 at 1:49 pm

And by the way…although the thread is young, I’m convinced that Belle has already won it.

33

Jon Margolis 05.28.12 at 2:10 pm

“If God is three persons in one, and wants us to abstain from pork…”

Bad example. The folks who think God is three persons in one also think said god has no problem with us scarfing down pork every day.

34

Steve LaBonne 05.28.12 at 2:26 pm

@10:

…trying to point that out from a worldview that you’ve basically cribbed off them…

Umm, speak for yourself.

Progressives are in desperate need of some secular buddhism to dig themselves out of this hole of materialism.

Genuinely secular Buddhism- in which I too find a lot of ethical value- is perfectly compatible with a thoroughgoing scientific materialism. (Even the Buddha himself might not have disagreed, if the Poison Arrow Parable is anything to go by.)

35

Steve LaBonne 05.28.12 at 2:28 pm

Do statements like this explain anything?

They aren’t even “statements”, since I would use that word only for an utterance that has some actual semantic content.

36

Freddie 05.28.12 at 2:36 pm

Although note that the vast majority of the world’s Buddhists practice a theistic, supernatural Buddhism. Outside of western Buddhism, only the most minimalist Theravadin sects could be called atheistic.

37

Freddie 05.28.12 at 2:39 pm

They aren’t even “statements”, since I would use that word only for an utterance that has some actual semantic content.

You go too far. I don’t agree, of course, but the claim is that God does not reveal or decree morality or truth, but that the substance of God itself is the substance of morality and truth. God doesn’t sit around and decide “you shouldn’t murder,” but rather the evil of murder is an inherent aspect of his being that he can reveal through one of his covenants. That’s the idea, anyhow; God’s morality is an ontology, not an ideology.

You don’t need to deny that this statement has denotative meaning to deny that it says anything of value about the universe.

38

R.Mutt 05.28.12 at 2:45 pm

85% of the Japanese say they are non-religious and 60% have a Buddhist altar (even if only a magic stone) in their homes, says Wikipedia. Makes sense to me.

I once asked a Japanese friend – after I found out she considered herself a Christian and regularly went to Church which surprised me a bit because I just had never thought of her as that kind of girl – if she really believed that Jesus Christ was the son of God, died for our sins and was resurrected on the third day. She looked at me as if I had gone completely crazy and said “no of course not.” To her being a Christian resembled the way other Japanese might be Shintoists; they take some thoughts and ideas from the religious texts, may perform rituals, but whether it is all true doesn’t really enter into it. I had a hard time explaining to her that actually believing in it, or professing to believe in it, is a fundamental part of the Western way of doing religion.

39

JanieM 05.28.12 at 2:51 pm

I agree with William T. @31 about Belle. :)

Also, Belle wrote: Someone wasn’t paying attention in 3rd grade Sunday school, I can tell you that, and Sister McIlhenny is very disappointed.

Wikipedia says this: As an adolescent Douthat converted to Pentecostalism and then, with the rest of his family,[8] to Catholicism.[9]

Maybe it takes a convert to have Douthat’s brand of extra special malevolent superiority. He was smart enough to choose it, after all.

Then again, Douthat seems to be like that about everything, so I wouldn’t want to slander converts in general by associating them with him.

And I do wonder why, since it would appear that he has been through two conversions in his life already, he thinks he’s finished changing his mind.

40

LFC 05.28.12 at 3:06 pm

I’ve read Corey Robin’s post that he linked above. I don’t really see the Foucauld-Douthat connection that Corey outlines in his “ardor of adversity” paragraph. According to that passage as I read it, Foucauld’s ‘adversity’ is the difficulty of constantly finding or inventing novel sexual experiences for oneself. Douthat’s (and the conservative’s in general) ‘adversity’ is the difficulty of constant self-denial or self-repression as he/she climbs the moral mountain of “excellence,” i.e. adherence to traditional norms of sexuality or of celibacy, I suppose. Yes, the metaphor of “adversity” might travel, but these kinds of ‘adversity’ are so different I don’t see much connection between them.

41

rea 05.28.12 at 3:07 pm

This is not central to the discussion, I know, but I have to express my bogglement at:

“Christianity’s triumph in the Mediterranean world worked a moral revolution as well as a theological one”

Does he think people were better behaved after the Emperor Constantine? Or is he just being circular?

42

Steven Hart 05.28.12 at 3:08 pm

Ross Douthat couldn’t persuade me that the sun rises in the east. But refuting him does lead to interesting arguments, like this one. That puts him a step above an intellectual clubfoot like Jonah Goldberg, whose attempts to be a Deep Thinker bring to mind a little girl playing dressup with mommy’s wardrobe.

43

Brad DeLong 05.28.12 at 3:11 pm

The belief that it is better to be *certain* even if *wrong* (especially if wrong?) than to be uncertain is remarkably common–it is, after all, the core of Alasdair Macintyre’s *After Virtue* and perhaps of Max Weber’s “…as a Vocation”. From an economist’s point of view, this is incomprehensible: to be certain and to be wrong is to do great damage with probability one…

44

Steve LaBonne 05.28.12 at 3:12 pm

Outside of western Buddhism, only the most minimalist Theravadin sects could be called atheistic.

Of course. But we are all free to take from any set of ideas what we can use, and in this case there is no fundamental logical contradiction to stop us.

45

Steve LaBonne 05.28.12 at 3:14 pm

Does he think people were better behaved after the Emperor Constantine?

Christians, especially bishops, were a hell of a lot worse behaved after Constantine. The temptations of worldly power and riches will do that.

46

Steve LaBonne 05.28.12 at 3:17 pm

You don’t need to deny that this statement has denotative meaning

But I do, nevertheless. You might as well say that the substance of Jello is the substance of sweetness and wriggliness. It’s merely a series of noises you make with your mouth.

47

Freddie 05.28.12 at 3:37 pm

You might as well say that the substance of Jello is the substance of sweetness and wriggliness.

That substance has semantic content. Which you know; after all, you formed it. Now, I know that the point here is to flatter yourself by coming up with an even stronger way to say that religion is hokum, but in the commission of doing so, you’re saying something stupid. That’s enough, you know, to call something stupid and wrong rather than pretending it literally has no semantic content. Unless you just don’t know what “semantic” means.

48

Freddie 05.28.12 at 3:37 pm

*sentence

49

Norwegian Guy 05.28.12 at 3:40 pm

R.Mutt @38:

Many Christians I know would have given you a similar answer, so I doubt it’s something unique to Japan.

50

Watson Ladd 05.28.12 at 3:43 pm

Steve et alia: the problem remains of religious faith as a guide to morality no matter how minimal the element of revelation. One can go full mystic and say “I know this to be true because I experience it as true in a particular way” but that makes convincing someone else hard. There are multiple experiences of religious belief, and no reason to suspect mystics of any tradition of lying. So then one has to judge between multiple competing revelations.

At this point we are back at square 1: there are multiple moral systems, each claiming to be the right one. How do we decide? The Catholic answer would be you don’t: through faith you know one to be the right one. Again, we’ve already ruled that out. So then the only other alternative is reason, in which case you might as well use that to decide what is right.

51

Chris Bertram 05.28.12 at 3:44 pm

Not sure I’m buying, John.

_Either God’s commandments are arbitrary or they make sense. If they are arbitrary – well, that’s hardly an improvement over secular humanism, in the worst case scenario. If they make sense, they make sense. Secular humanists can help themselves to anything that makes sense. They can hold onto the commands but lose the Commander._

If we chuck in some assumptions about human fallibility and God’s omniscience and infinite goodness, then we don’t get anything like that result. The fact that we lack the wisdom to discern the sense in His commands hardly establishes that they don’t make sense or that they are arbitrary. As His children, we should accept His epistemic authority in matters moral, were we to try to work out the right principles for ourselves, we’d certainly make a right old mess of the project ….

At least, it is open to Douhat to make an argument on those lines. He’s not in the Euthyphro bind. He can say God wills the good because it is good (and not that it is good because God wills it). We, however, finite creatures, lack the ability to discern the good independently.

52

Dave Maier 05.28.12 at 3:48 pm

I think I see what you’re saying, John, but let’s put this in the context of Rorty’s much larger disagreement with Douthat. As you quote him, the latter says:

Rather, the possibility of God’s existence — and with it, the possibility that moral laws no less than physical laws correspond to an actual reality, or Reality — is what makes those problems genuinely meaningful and interesting (as opposed to just innings in an “ethics game”) and lends the project of moral reasoning its coherence. The idea of God doesn’t replace secular moral reasoning, in other words, but it grounds this reasoning in something more durable than just aesthetic preference.

Moral problems are “genuinely meaningful and interesting” or even “coherent” only if “moral laws … correspond to an actual reality, or Reality.” Otherwise, they’re just an “ethics game” based on “aesthetic preference.” Now it’s true that Rorty [the "bad Rorty"?] sometimes talks as if he accepts this dichotomy and tries to fluff up the latter disjunct into something more substantial than it looks. (And sometimes he makes some interesting points in this vein, but overall I don’t think it’s worth it.)

But most of the time, or at least in the part of his work that I like, he attacks the dichotomy itself, often in the aspect of the “correspondence theory of truth” Douthat appeals to here (without argument, naturally, as if it made perfect sense). For [the "good"?] Rorty, it’s not that – in rejecting “authoritarianism” – we reject the “correspondence to Reality” of the truth we thereby abandon and try to make do with what’s left. It’s instead that we reject the idea that such “correspondence” – itself the incoherent idea by Rorty’s Davidsonian/Wittgensteinian lights – has anything to do with truth. This opens up the possibility of saying no, it’s not just aesthetic preference, our moral judgments are just as true as anything else is (and the question “and how true is that?” is just as incoherent as the notion of “correspondence”).

So Rorty’s secularist isn’t a physicalist hoping to cobble together transcendent truth from “mere” empirical observation (and surreptitiously borrowing same from Christianity and hoping no one will notice the incoherence of so doing). He sees normativity as irreducible but not thereby “transcendently real” in the platonistic manner. Unfortunately Rorty goes back and forth between his two strategies, which makes him frustrating to read.

Actually Douthat sounds more like Fish than Rorty here. He thinks he knows the real truth, and even thinks he has a rigorous argument to that effect, but secularists are so fallen away (through sin/rebellion/etc.) from the truth that they can’t recognize this (and so resort to theft). That’s not relativism – he thinks secularism is false, not just another worldview. That’s what Fish says too. This is what justifies his (Fish’s) sophistry: if argument worked on the likes of you, we’d use that, but since it can’t, we are justified, given the truth of what we believe, in manipulating you by rhetorical means. Douthat never says that, to my knowledge, but that’s the family resemblance that jumps out at me, rather than the one to Rorty and Poetry or whatever.

Oh, and it’s “Molière”, not “Moliére”. Sister Hélène is very disappointed.

53

Michael Drake 05.28.12 at 3:51 pm

“If we chuck in some assumptions about human fallibility and God’s omniscience and infinite goodness, then we don’t get anything like that result.”

There’s not reason to suppose our epistemic fallibility is any more of an impediment to our knowing the good than it is to our knowing God. So even with those assumptions, same result.

54

Watson Ladd 05.28.12 at 3:53 pm

Chris: not without being heretical! Catholic doctrine holds that the good can be known by all, even non-Catholics. Even if you adopt that extreme position, one does have to ask what exactly is wanted given the wide range of opinions on that subject, and once again we are back in the land of reason.

55

Emily 05.28.12 at 3:55 pm

Wasn’t one of Foucault’s points that the ‘death of God’ led necessarily to the death of the idea of ‘Man’ – as in the rights of man and so on? I think it was in the Order of Things, don’t know if he renounced it later.

56

Steve LaBonne 05.28.12 at 3:58 pm

Now, I know that the point here is to flatter yourself by coming up with an even stronger way to say that religion is hokum

No, apparently your point is to show how clever and superior you are by defending utter gibberish. Well, whatever floats your boat.

57

Freddie 05.28.12 at 4:04 pm

Again, that statement isn’t gibberish. After all, you knew what it meant enough to be offended by it. The statement “the substance of Jello is the substance of sweetness and wriggliness” has semantic content because it has syntactic coherence and the individual words have semantic meaning. You wouldn’t disagree that “the substance of Jello is the substance of nettles and bee stings” has a different meaning than the original. As soon as you concede that, your claim that it is completely semantically empty is invalid.

You are perfectly free to say that Douthat’s statement has no larger meaning, no access to truth, no pragmatic utility, etc. But you can’t claim that it literally without meaning. It has enough meaning for you to feel compelled to refute it.

58

Steve LaBonne 05.28.12 at 4:04 pm

Steve et alia: the problem remains of religious faith as a guide to morality no matter how minimal the element of revelation.

The Buddha, or at any rate whosever words got put in his mouth by the time these things were written down, actively discouraged people from taking anything (including his own teachings) on faith and adjured them to be guided by their own experience.

59

Steve LaBonne 05.28.12 at 4:05 pm

Yes Freddie, and colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

60

Freddie 05.28.12 at 4:08 pm

But, of course, you don’t think that the statement about Jello (or about God) is of equal semantic coherence as Chomsky’s example. After all, you chose actual qualities of Jello (wriggliness and sweetness) in order to build your example. That fact alone refutes what you’re saying.

I don’t know why you feel you have to gild the lily. Saying “Douthat’s claim is philosophically meaningless” is actually more damning than saying “Douthat’s claim literally lacks semantic coherence.”

61

jeer9 05.28.12 at 4:08 pm

When I first saw The Lion King with my children, I saw a plot resembling Hamlet but I stopped myself from pursuing the comparison further.

62

Steve LaBonne 05.28.12 at 4:14 pm

But, of course, you don’t think that the statement about Jello (or about God) is of equal semantic coherence as Chomsky’s example.

Wrong again.

After all, you knew what it meant enough to be offended by it.

And wrong yet again. (Offended? My, aren’t you the self-important one.) Bye.

63

Chris Bertram 05.28.12 at 4:35 pm

Well Catholics maybe Watson. OTOH, I think some Muslims take pretty much the line I outlined. So maybe Douhat is a closet Muslim.

64

GiT 05.28.12 at 4:55 pm

@40

“According to that passage as I read it, Foucauld’s ‘adversity’ is the difficulty of constantly finding or inventing novel sexual experiences for oneself. “

But that’s not all Foucault’s adversity is.

65

Marahall 05.28.12 at 5:07 pm

but ‘you have to have a coherent philosophy to be moral’ is a strange major premise.

Rationally that may be true, but being moral has to do with the ability to act on the fly in ways that transcend momentary temptations, and for that it is convenient to have a coherent framework wherein one has pre-thought somewhat and laid down imperatives that can be adapted to situations. It also helps to have a common language and environment to frame discussion.

To my mind MacIntyre’s point was that commitment is of the essence rather than unattainable epistemological correctness. Liberalism might have within it the seed of ethical commitment, but these days the birds come and eat what doesn’t fall on stoney ground, it seems.

66

LFC 05.28.12 at 5:14 pm

I misspelled Foucault @40. Sorry about that.

@64 — care to elaborate?

67

Lee A. Arnold 05.28.12 at 5:33 pm

I think the problem resides in the fact that levels of being are not levels of intellectual explanation. If you need to change emotionally or perceptually, and you have ALREADY learned how to do it, then you can do it employing your intellectual propaeduetic. It is not logical reasoning, but it appears to be. The process is still wordless, but you have a framework. However, if you are STUCK, then you can’t see a way out. That is why people find that they need to believe in God, or in Romantic poetry, or in psychotherapy, or whatever else works. The intellectual explanation of psychotherapy goes (briefly) something like this: “You tell your story in a new context (in the therapist’s office), and that reframes the experience and memory so that you can get a new perspective on it, and then you work through the ramifications, and then there is a moment of clarity.” It is not a terribly good intellectual explanation, because there may not be one. Let’s try, The new context performs the formal function of the metaphysical Absolute. The psychological process is the same as accepting Jesus as your saviour: you wake up! And indeed, there are people, you have met them, who run out of psychiatrists’ offices to proclaim, “You gotta try this!” Psychotherapy Douthats. Sanchez asks, “If the fact that some action will cause suffering isn’t adequate motivation to avoid it without something further, why is the fact that the divine nature abhors suffering (or sin, or whatever we think) supposed to do any better?” But the question should be: how do you avoid making YOURSELF suffer? You may need something outside yourself. The answer in not algorithmic, not a logic on one level only, although it may appear to be.

68

Lee A. Arnold 05.28.12 at 5:55 pm

After #66 — I meant to write, the answer is not algorithmic. What I am trying to get at, is that meaningful changes of context are not programmable from the level you are at, unless you have already done it. It is either a creative invention (which can be dangerous) or it is demonstrated from outside, by another person.

69

GiT 05.28.12 at 6:02 pm

@65 – Counter-conduct, parrhesia, technologies of the self, &etc need not be restricted to sexuality. In fact, early discussions of counter-conduct in Security, Territory, Population are about the church and the pastorate.

70

ponce 05.28.12 at 6:03 pm

@10 “but trying to point that out from a worldview that you’ve basically cribbed off them, minus Teh God, leads to nonsense like this. Which was actually sort of Douthat’s point in the first place”

Morality, what it means to be a decent human being, predates Christianity by many thousands of years.

71

Yan 05.28.12 at 6:07 pm

“Sanchez makes the easy but surely correct response: Douthat is writing as though he’s never read Euthyphro and doesn’t see how all the same problems are going to arise for his own position, mutatis mutandis.”

Isn’t this ultimately beside the more important point? That point (I don’t know if it’s Douthat’s) seems basically a pragmatic one: people who are happy with a religious explanation of morality are basically not the kind to worry about their moral beliefs’ incoherence, while those who worry about things like Euthyphro’s problem are basically not the kind capable of being indifferent to the incoherence of their moral beliefs.

So the upshot of the claim is that practically–theoretical foundations aside–religious faith promotes morality, secularism promotes nihilism. This claim could well be true in practice, even if both views have the same metaphysical dilemmas. So although I don’t know if it *is* true, it’s not as easily responded to as all that.

I’m inclined to suspect that, yes, if you want people to more or less consistently follow or try to follow a fixed set of norms, you probably will have better luck with a) religious people who are motivated by threat of eternal punishment and reward, b) people–religious or secular–who don’t mind incoherent or unfounded beliefs, or c) both, with (b) having perhaps a higher frequency among the religious.

I take it the historic cultural linkage between religious explanation and moral doctrines to be significant evidence: every culture in history has ignored Euthyphro and said: it’s good & and it’s God’s will and don’t worry which came first. Presumably because it works. Apparently “Be reasonable even though at bottom all your attempts at reasonableness are incoherent” doesn’t work as well.

72

themgt 05.28.12 at 6:07 pm

Genuinely secular Buddhism- in which I too find a lot of ethical value- is perfectly compatible with a thoroughgoing scientific materialism

To me, the core of buddhist thought is a rejection of materialism as the path to truth. It’s an almost total inversion of the dualistic western way of understanding the world. The separation of the world into things and in fact the belief in ourselves as entities which persist through something called time is our own self-perpetuated illusion. That doesn’t mean science has nothing of value to say, but it is put into a sandbox. (@27) I think saying we westerners have “weird ideas and get tied up in knots over nonproblems” is a pretty concise summary of the situation

That we’re even having this discussion proves people still take the whole “magic man in the sky” fairy tale way too seriously. Why not just stop talking to people who believe in childish fairy tales, and instead start thinking through and explicating your own system of beliefs about the world that aren’t merely a reaction to, or subtraction of, the fairy tale

73

David 05.28.12 at 6:08 pm

A happy life is having and maintaining a strong over riding delusion.
An unhappy life is having to living according to another’s strong over riding delusion.
A good life is supporting one another’s delusions that do not inflict rejection and pain on others or having another’s delusions inflicted on you.

Faith by definition is about believing without proof.

74

bianca steele 05.28.12 at 6:08 pm

Agree that Belle already won the thread.

There is no obvious reason why Douthat is worrying his head about this, much less why he’s bothering other people (most of whom are presumably not believers in his particular brand). If this is really the very most important question, then Fish (see @52) is absolutely right.

But the standard uses of Douthat’s It insists that it is a purely secular and scientific enterprise even as it grounds its politics in metaphysical claims. are things like this: How can you believe the sun will rise in the east tomorrow, unless you believe the truth of generalities is guaranteed by God as understood traditionally as laid out by Aquinas? How can you believe murder is wrong, unless you believe in the scriptural truth of the Old Testament? How can you live a good life, unless you incorporate yourself into a religious community the morals of which come via apostolic succession via ancient Rome?

The argument is used to exclude those who won’t accept the dichotomy, while allowing the non-”secular humanist” to lay claim to all the virtues that ever were (without having to actually demonstrate them–).

75

Bruce Baugh 05.28.12 at 6:33 pm

Bianca, that was a great explication of hidden claims. Funny and true, I think.

76

Lee A. Arnold 05.28.12 at 7:10 pm

Bianca, “murder is wrong” — In defense of Douthat, who I have often criticized here, this is also about where in life this is given to learn. If a kid becomes a Nazi skinhead, how is this to be accounted for? Inner pain; psychopathy; bad mother; teenage angst; a prior racial incident in the neighborhood; not hearing a proclamation of the Enlightenment’s principles? Or, any of them, because the world is complex? So from whom in authority would he necessarily hear that “murder is wrong”, as he was growing up? Douthat it seems to me is partly asking a question of the nature of how this is to be inculcated, — where it is, exactly, that the mumbo-jumbo is to be incanted, — and if so, then he is speaking in an older and cynically smarter Catholic tradition that is intendedly, confessedly sociological and control-orientated in part. That actually doesn’t bother me so much, now that science is here!, though I guess it will give others the heebie-jeebies. Where it goes wrong for me is where they unite the metaphysics of the psychotherapy with the INEXORABILITY of the judgement and penalty.

The left needs a religion policy.

77

ponce 05.28.12 at 7:38 pm

“The left needs a religion policy.”

Which minority groups shall we hate?

78

Data Tutashkhia 05.28.12 at 7:50 pm

The left does have a religion policy, though: vanguardism. Liberals are the ones missing it.

79

LFC 05.28.12 at 7:51 pm

GiT@69
Ok, but I was talking about Corey Robin’s paragraph in his linked post which is specifically about Foucault’s view of sexuality. I was not making a global comment on Foucault, which I wouldn’t presume to do given my fragmentary acquaintance w his writings, but rather making a specific comment on Robin’s specific point.

80

Patrick 05.28.12 at 7:59 pm

@Corey, #22. I think the association of “overcoming” with conservative ways of being is too simple by a long shot. And that has consequences for the connection with Nietzsche, who advocated the revaluation of all values, not just those about sex.

For example, conservatism is (They’d say “historically.” I wouldn’t.) not about overcoming “instinctive” revulsion when a biracial couple moves in next door. Or disgust at what teh gays are up to. Or a desire to make more money. Or a desire to throw a small country up against the wall to let the Muslims know the US doesn’t kid around. It’s about overcoming desires that have already been ruled out by other ideological strictures.

On the other hand, the left claims to be all about overcoming false consciousness. At least that’s what its members, especially the folks in the antiracism/antisexism and even environmental sections will say about themselves. And they’ll further say that the work is incredibly difficult, but ennobling. They approach the task with something that can only be described as zeal.

For some reason, the foot fetish example reminds me of a modernized O. Henry story.

It’s not a difference of approach or character, I don’t think. It’s a different in the analysis of what we should be overcoming first. And I think if we start overcoming where Nietzsche and Foucault tried to start, by the time we get to most political movements in the west, the particular historical obstacles will be always already overcome.

Conservatism, in its late capitalist form, seems to me to be about being able to indulge one’s urge to be seen as a manly, independent actor, individual and untrammeled by anything, even one’s deepest desires. That way you can combine economic license with repression of other things, to the benefit of the shareholders. (I invite others to come up with an equally invidious characterization of the left. It can be done. But since I’m in that camp, I’d probably pull my punches.)

Belle’s winning is undeniably an absolute truth.

81

Warren Terra 05.28.12 at 8:02 pm

Anyone who could read the Torah and think God was moral needs their head examined; just look at the petty cruelties and mass atrocities God commits – not to mention the daily injustices and massacres God commands to be performed. The most interesting lecture I ever had from my Rabbi growing up was the one where he explained that as far as he could tell God was a bit of a sh|t, and being his Chosen People meant we had his special attention, not that we were chosen for anything good. Eye-opening insights into the theology of a believer for someone raised in a Christian world of God Is Perfect Love, even for an Atheist Jew.

Of course, I’ve never been really clear how Christians handle the Five Books, and the Christian afterlife is a brilliant excuse: once nothing that happens in this life, where we can detect it, matters in the long term, God is free to be an utter bastard because he’ll make it up to the victims in the hereafter. But then you’ve gone beyond merely taking revelation on faith to relying on revelation to reject a logical and ethical interpretation of the evidence of your eyes and even of the holy text being cited itself.

82

andrew 05.28.12 at 8:02 pm

well, what do you expect when a feeble-mind like Douthat argues with a smart, fairly independent-minded libertarian like Sanchez? a demolition!

83

Steve LaBonne 05.28.12 at 8:10 pm

It’s an almost total inversion of the dualistic western way of understanding the world.

The modern development of science has in considerable part also been a story of getting out from under dualism. You will in fact find many popular books about “western” Buddhism which stress this point.

84

Steve LaBonne 05.28.12 at 8:13 pm

OK, can’t resist posting this Ashbery poem in this thread.

Just when I thought there wasn’t room enough
for another thought in my head, I had this great idea–
call it a philosophy of life, if you will. Briefly,
it involved living the way philosophers live,
according to a set of principles. OK, but which ones?

That was the hardest part, I admit, but I had a
kind of dark foreknowledge of what it would be like.
Everything, from eating watermelon or going to the bathroom
or just standing on a subway platform, lost in thought
for a few minutes, or worrying about rain forests,
would be affected, or more precisely, inflected
by my new attitude. I wouldn’t be preachy,
or worry about children and old people, except
in the general way prescribed by our clockwork universe.
Instead I’d sort of let things be what they are
while injecting them with the serum of the new moral climate
I thought I’d stumbled into, as a stranger
accidentally presses against a panel and a bookcase slides back,
revealing a winding staircase with greenish light
somewhere down below, and he automatically steps inside
and the bookcase slides shut, as is customary on such occasions.
At once a fragrance overwhelms him–not saffron, not lavender,
but something in between. He thinks of cushions, like the one
his uncle’s Boston bull terrier used to lie on watching him
quizzically, pointed ear-tips folded over. And then the great rush
is on. Not a single idea emerges from it. It’s enough
to disgust you with thought. But then you remember something
William James
wrote in some book of his you never read–it was fine, it had the
fineness,
the powder of life dusted over it, by chance, of course, yet
still looking
for evidence of fingerprints. Someone had handled it
even before he formulated it, though the thought was his and
his alone.

It’s fine, in summer, to visit the seashore.
There are lots of little trips to be made.
A grove of fledgling aspens welcomes the traveler. Nearby
are the public toilets where weary pilgrims have carved
their names and addresses, and perhaps messages as well,
messages to the world, as they sat
and thought about what they’d do after using the toilet
and washing their hands at the sink, prior to stepping out
into the open again. Had they been coaxed in by principles,
and were their words philosophy, of however crude a sort?
I confess I can move no farther along this train of thought–
something’s blocking it. Something I’m
not big enough to see over. Or maybe I’m frankly scared.
What was the matter with how I acted before?
But maybe I can come up with a compromise–I’ll let
things be what they are, sort of. In the autumn I’ll put up jellies
and preserves, against the winter cold and futility,
and that will be a human thing, and intelligent as well.
I won’t be embarrassed by my friends’ dumb remarks,
or even my own, though admittedly that’s the hardest part,
as when you are in a crowded theater and something you say
riles the spectator in front of you, who doesn’t even like the idea
of two people near him talking together. Well he’s
got to be flushed out so the hunters can have a crack at him–
this thing works both ways, you know. You can’t always
be worrying about others and keeping track of yourself
at the same time. That would be abusive, and about as much fun
as attending the wedding of two people you don’t know.
Still, there’s a lot of fun to be had in the gaps between ideas.
That’s what they’re made for! Now I want you to go out there
and enjoy yourself, and yes, enjoy your philosophy of life, too.
They don’t come along every day. Look out! There’s a big one…

85

Doctor Slack 05.28.12 at 8:14 pm

Yeah, the need to detour for a swipe at the Continentals really confuses the issue far more than it needed to. It’s sort of recognizable what you’re trying to get at for someone who remembers “the Higher Eclecticism” and its successors in your philosophical idiolect, but there are way, way too many background assumptions going on there — and they’re way, way too tenuous and idiosyncratic (or to put it another way, your take on the Continentals has never been compelling to many people and to me still isn’t) — for what you’re saying to make sense otherwise.

And you didn’t even any of need that to dispose of Douthat. All his stuff about how “God is the standard” and “Revelation [provides] ‘expert validation’ ” doesn’t compel a comparison to Rorty or Heidegger. The problem is simpler; like the Ephors said to Pyrrhus, it’s “if.” Douthat’s argument only hangs together if you concede Deity, the integral relationship between Deity and ethics, and the need for Revelation up front. Those are enormous “ifs,” and the catch is always that someone positing them will be hard-put to show their work.

86

Steve LaBonne 05.28.12 at 8:25 pm

Anyone who could read the Torah and think God was moral needs their head examined

And much the same applies to anybody who can read the news and still think the Catholic Church is a force for moral behavior.

87

ponce 05.28.12 at 9:20 pm

The whole argument falls apart when you start debating whose invisible magic monkey god is more credible.

Or whose holy scholars rape the fewest little boys.

88

bianca steele 05.28.12 at 10:01 pm

Lee,
What point are you trying to make? Obviously Douthat is not coming from a “sociological” version of Catholicism. He’ s saying something like: if you’re not a Christian you’re immoral (viz. ghetto kids can be helped by local churches); then, later, if you’re a different kind of Christian than a Catholic you’re immoral (too bad for the ghetto kids where the churches are often evangelical); then, later, if you’re actually moral and not actually a Catholic you’re some kind of free-rider or at least intellectually incoherent and with no right to make the claims you do. A “sociological Catholicism” surely would be slightly happier with whatever gets morals into the kids’ heads.

89

dbk 05.28.12 at 10:01 pm

Agree with those above who have noted that Belle @8 won the thread, which essentially ended with Sister McIlhenny and her disappointment.

Re: third-grade Sunday school, which I attended faith-fully, I wonder what my teacher would think of me now: a non-believer who espouses a secular (humanistic) ethics of “do unto others”. And “it is easier for a camel”. And “Blessed be the peacemakers”. And “Thou shalt not steal” …

I no longer understand why ethics/morality must be connected with a system of religious belief. Are we not our brothers’ keepers, regardless of where the apothegm was first recorded? And are not courage, wisdom, moderation, and justice virtues that those whom we admire and wish to emulate embody?

90

Doctor Slack 05.28.12 at 10:21 pm

Agree with those above who have noted that Belle @8 won the thread, which essentially ended with Sister McIlhenny and her disappointment.

Well, Catholics don’t really have it as simple as all that. But the rest of what she said is spot on.

91

Data Tutashkhia 05.28.12 at 10:24 pm

I think maybe ‘God’ is simply a category that represents the concern for humanity as a species. Absent that, it’s not clear to me why murder has to be wrong; is it because it “makes sense” for it to be wrong? Well, not to me, if I’m very hungry and you refuse to share.

92

Matt 05.28.12 at 11:03 pm

Wait – we’re supposed to anchor our morality in capital-R Reality by interpreting the interpretations of tenth-hand transcriptions of dreams that a bunch of Iron Age shepherds had about their imaginary friend in the sky? WAT.

Douthat must have a massive stash of weapons-grade crack to get this stoopid.

93

Steve LaBonne 05.28.12 at 11:15 pm

Gosh, Data, how odd that it would be difficult to construct an ethics in the absence of any concern for humanity. I’m flabbergasted by this deep philosophical insight. Do you have a newsletter to which can subscribe?

94

Warren Terra 05.28.12 at 11:24 pm

@#91 Data Tutashkhia, 10:24 PM
Douthat is explicitly referring to God as a Revelation, something with a name and a narrative. If you want to take an abstract core piece of morality, name that piece “God”, and say it is essential to morality (that it’s a core piece of morality, if you will) and that you think it could only could come as a Revelation, you can do that, but (1) it’s circular reasoning, with a bit of sleight-of-hand thrown in; and (2) it has little to do with anything anyone else is talking about.

Beyond that, if it’s not clear to you why murder would be wrong from first principles and without a Revelation dictating this is so, you might consider reading some of the work of people who’ve wrestled with this question before you rather than deciding that a Revelation must be necessary.

95

PJW 05.28.12 at 11:41 pm

“Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak. Historical law subverts it at every turn. A moral view can never be proven right or wrong by any ultimate test…Decisions of life and death, of what shall be and what shall not, beggar all quesion of right. In elections of these magnitudes are all lesser ones subsumed, moral, spiritual, natural.” (Judge Holden, Blood Meridian 250)

One for Professor Holbo’s collection.

96

ponce 05.28.12 at 11:49 pm

“Absent that, it’s not clear to me why murder has to be wrong; is it because it “makes sense” for it to be wrong? Well, not to me, if I’m very hungry and you refuse to share.”

That you Bibi?

97

mds 05.29.12 at 12:47 am

Say what you will about the prosperity gospel and the cult of the God Within and the other theologies I criticize in Bad Religion, but at least they have a metaphysically coherent picture of the universe to justify their claims.

This is even funnier than the John Goodman version from The Big Lebowski.

98

garymar 05.29.12 at 12:51 am

85% of the Japanese say they are non-religious and 60% have a Buddhist altar

Following up on this, I once read a book about religion by a Japanese author, who commented that a UNESCO multi-country survey of religious beliefs had asked the wrong question in Japan. The question asked was, Are You Religious?, but in Japan, he insisted, it should have been worded “What religion is your household?”

Phrased like that, people would have readily answered, “We’re Shinran sect”, “We’re Soto Zen”, and even, I suppose, “We’re Japanese Mountain Religion“. And even the loneliest little Shinto shrine on a remote mountain pathway is regularly, lovingly tended by someone.

99

Dave Maier 05.29.12 at 1:45 am

One for Professor Holbo’s collection.

That’s good, but he probably already has On the Genealogy of Morality.

This is even funnier than the John Goodman version from The Big Lebowski.

Or Repo Man.

100

hilzoy 05.29.12 at 2:14 am

I do love the idea that someone who has yet to master one of Plato’s more famous arguments gets to lecture us all about which views of morality are coherent and which aren’t.

The bit that made me mad, though, was this: “the possibility of God’s existence — and with it, the possibility that moral laws no less than physical laws correspond to an actual reality, or Reality — is what makes those problems genuinely meaningful and interesting (as opposed to just innings in an “ethics game”) and lends the project of moral reasoning its coherence.”

Really? Without God’s existence, figuring out what the right thing to do is, in a genuinely hard situation, is just innings in an ethics game, not genuinely meaningful and interesting? I honestly have a hard time wrapping my mind around someone saying that.

How could he *not* find a serious moral problem, like whether Gandhi or the early Mandela was right about the legitimacy of political violence (as asked by, say, a potential recruit to the ANC in the 70s), interesting all by itself? And how on earth would this alleged lack of interestingness and meaning be changed by God’s existence?

If you think about it, it’s fairly stunning. (To me, at least.)

101

Barry Freed 05.29.12 at 2:24 am

I think the thread winning award given by many to Belle Waring should at the very least be shared with mds for 97.

102

Bruce Baugh 05.29.12 at 2:33 am

Hilzoy, I’m guessing that Douthat’s answer to the question would break down into about this:

Your duty is to determine the authorities anointed by God, and then submit to them. Start with the Pope. Follow all their orders. Come back if, and only if, anything remains unclear.

Joining the ANC would therefore not be okay because the South African authorities were in better standing with the Pope than any of their challengers. Therefore, no interesting question remains.

103

Eric Titus 05.29.12 at 3:23 am

John’s broadsides are devastating but somewhat “mainstream.” They don’t question the concept of”morality,” which would be one of the first moves from a Marxist perspective. Cut to Marx’s oft-cited argument:
“Law, morality, religion, are to so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests.”
The consistency between Christian and secularist morality may just be a reflection of the Bourgeois obsession with coherent, axiomatic morality that distances itself from its application and from social relations. Maybe what secularism needs (from a Marxist perspective, of course) is to drop its obsession with morals and censoring actions and people as right or wrong, and focus instead on an ethics that understands power and social relations.

104

Lee A. Arnold 05.29.12 at 4:19 am

Bianca, You may be right but I think that someone who is arguing, not simply that Christianity is true, but that because it is true it is a better basis for morality, is sort of letting the cat out of the bag. Because if it is true, then what it means for comparative moral origins is really beside the point. It reminds me of a very long conversation I had with a Catholic priest who was willing to allow that the Christian story is true, is to be believed, as metaphor or allegory.

105

Keith Ewards 05.29.12 at 5:25 am

Douthat, like a good little fascist, is just looking for the Biggest Authority figure to justify his bigotry and disregard for secular culture. If we secularist liberals are able to be decent people, who still lead righteous lives (and tolerate those sinner queers!), and do so without God, then He becomes, at best, an accessory after the fact to human morality, and at worst, gets razored out by Occam.

106

Doctor Slack 05.29.12 at 6:20 am

hilzoy: “Really? Without God’s existence, figuring out what the right thing to do is, in a genuinely hard situation, is just innings in an ethics game, not genuinely meaningful and interesting? I honestly have a hard time wrapping my mind around someone saying that.”

Yeah, I agree.

And I think Sanchez was doing Douthat too much credit by assuming he knew his Euhtyphro. If he actually knew it, we would’ve been spared this excruciating display.

107

Data Tutashkhia 05.29.12 at 6:22 am

Beyond that, if it’s not clear to you why murder would be wrong from first principles and without a Revelation dictating this is so, you might consider reading some of the work of people who’ve wrestled with this question before you rather than deciding that a Revelation must be necessary.

Well, there you go, people have to wrestle with this question. Not much wrestling, obviously, when it’s taken as an axiom, beyond any intellectual framework. Isn’t it pretty much what the guy is saying?

108

Emily 05.29.12 at 7:31 am

Steve @84
So if Jello is not sweet is there any meaning in Ashbery?

Postlude and Prequel, John Ashbery (LRB 2011)

Would I lie to you? I don’t know what to say to you,
and the season is coming into season just now
with long- awaited words from back when we were
friends and still are, of course, but the tides
pursue their course each day. Perturbing elements
listen in the wings, which are coming apart at the seams.
Is it all doggerel and folderol? A cracked knowledge?
Monkey journalism?

This is better thank the other overlooked good
that dried up a while back and whispers.
The results, if any, won’t last too much longer
and I meanwhile am on my way to correct you
about the tickets and their availability.
We pitch and stiffen, elbowed by traffic mysteriously
descending the other lane of the avenue
as lamps burst in many-benched Central Park.

109

Warren Terra 05.29.12 at 8:24 am

@ Data Tutashkhia #107
To be frank, I don’t have the tolerance for Douthat to determine just what he’s saying. I’ve read enough thousands of words he’s written to have formed an opinion about him I’m unlikely to change unless someone I greatly respect tells me to read him again, that his recent writing shows merit.

But, yes: developing an ethos is easier if you can have it handed to you by someone wearing distinctive clothing and assuring you it’s the Truth than if you have to actually think about it. But it’s not that simple: Jewish teaching says not to kill, not to steal, and any number of other worthy things – and also gives us a list of our neighbors who must be eradicated root and branch (still must, I suppose, except that we lost track of them a couple thousand years ago); gives rules about slavery that while they are considerably more enlightened than those in Mississippi a hundred-sixty years ago still presuppose and endorse slavery; dictates horrible deaths for blasphemers, Gay folks, witches, and I don’t know who-all else; and has a list of dietary laws considerably longer than your arm, and considerably less useful.

And notably, basically no-one lives by all the rules in those books. The decision of which laws to follow and which not, and how, and why is every bit as time consuming as developing an ethos from first principles – and likely harder, given the conflicts. The people who really try to follow all those laws – the Hasidim and the like – often wind up devoting their whole life to the study of those laws. Where does that leave your efficiency argument?

And that’s for one faith tradition. You may have noticed there’s more than one, and they sometimes fail to agree.

110

Data Tutashkhia 05.29.12 at 9:02 am

Warren Terra, notice that I didn’t mention any particular religion, just a symbolic figure representing the concept of humanity. Or, in your example, a tribe.

You mentioned ‘first principles’ twice now, but the only one I know is ‘I think therefore I am’; how do you get from that to ‘murder is wrong’?

Anyway, I don’t think the problem is just efficiency. Of course we are free to incorporate (arbitrarily, as a matter of taste) concern for humanity into our model, but that still doesn’t produce, logically, the taboo on murder. Why shouldn’t I axe an old lady loan shark and donate the loot to cancer research?

111

Warren Terra 05.29.12 at 9:40 am

Data Tutashkhia,
I’m not a philosopher. But I am a biologist, and there’s a whole literature there on how evolution – cold, calculating statistics of fitness – can reward cooperative and ethical behavior, and punish selfishness. Some of that literature is flawed, and there are disputes and debates, but the core idea is impeccable.

Kant’s Categorical Imperative isn’t perfect, and I’m sure there are people all over this board who could rip my understanding of it to shreds, but it works pretty well not only as a moral guide but also as an evolutionary explanation towards understanding why morals can and must exist: before doing something, consider what would happen if everyone else behaved similarly. Thus, our societies frown on murder, because in a culture in which murder was a frequent occurrence you might find your prospects rather abruptly reduced, and the society permitting these murders will find itself at a disadvantage. In the example you cite, while you might indeed be correct that rare murdering Robin Hoods would materially benefit society, the mechanisms to permit such individuals would necessarily be corrosive to social cohesion and subject to abuse, and your old lady loan shark is likely to have friends, and children and grandchildren. Nero tried the approach you name, murdering wealthy individuals to pay for massive public works; I seem to recall it ended poorly. This is why in a civilized society we levy progressive taxes, including estate taxes, in part to promote social goods such as cancer research. You might even say that our societies have evolved away from the sanguinary scenario you concoct.

112

Data Tutashkhia 05.29.12 at 10:28 am

Warren, that was a reference to Crime and Punishment, which addresses exactly this issue.

So, then, morality is based on Law? And laws are based on what experts believe would be good for society? Well, that works, I guess, especially with Law being a 3-letter word and all, but, eh, I’d probably still require some sort of revelation to accept it.

113

Warren Terra 05.29.12 at 10:40 am

I missed the reference. I’m not generally great on literature, but now that you point it out I see what you were doing. I don’t recall a charitable motive in Crime And Punishment, which may be what threw me.

I’m arguing the opposite – that Law is an embodiment of society’s goals, including its ideas on morality, not a source of them. And I’m arguing that society’s ideas on morality are an emergent principle because morality that works gets rewarded with the society succeeding, and thus propagating and further adapting that morality, with no Revelation required.

114

Tim Wilkinson 05.29.12 at 11:36 am

The Euthyphro dilemma works as a dilemma in ontological terms only because the Olympian gods were like humans writ large, unlike Jehovah which is supposedly a perfect, all-singing-all-dancing being: self-sustaining, necessary and all the rest of it. It is certainly possible to resolve this ontological dilemma by stipulating as a brute fact that there is some such god and its word is neither arbitrary nor dependent on an independent standard of goodness (or what have you), but rather simply identical to The Good [o.w.h.y.]. (You can even spend a few centuries working out further details to try to flesh out such a stipulative position and come up with some convincing reason to think that being a first cause, etc., is related to being the moral authority for humanity (where ‘authority’ is intentionally equivocal as between ‘expert’ and ‘author’).

The trouble is that the key point is not ontological – coming up with a consistent and non-circular account of what = morality (and if it is, then various secular accounts can no doubt pass this test, see below); it’s epistemic. How can we tell what to do/what is good; why should I accept what you say is good, or you what I say? And unsurprisingly, in that case appeal to the revelation of the big J (or similar) does not after all provide a free lunch.

The lunch in question costs one proof that the particular word in question is indeed the word of such a being (where ‘such a being’ must be one whose word is identical to the Good). Which involves proving that there is just such a being, and, e.g., that some set of dogmas derived from some (not obviously consistent) set of documents is in fact an expression of that being’s commands. And that’s at least as difficult as coming up with some parables, sermons on mounts, rules, precepts, doctrines, exhortations etc which people will agree with, see the point of, want to adopt, grasp, etc., or indeed of taking a noble savage route to figuring out the moral law from first principles. Especially since the inetrpetation of whichever bits of writing made it into the authorised version of a holy book is, in actual cases, going to appeal to general considerations of what is in fact good, etc. in any case. For example (and this is one example of the reason why, as any fule no, the Catholic church holds that revealed morality can also be deduced by natural reason), Elizabeth Anscombe, with admirable frankness, takes a thoroughly constructivist turn in her War and Murder:

Christianity forbids a number of things as being bad in themselves. But if I am
answerable for the foreseen consequences of an action or refusal, as much as for the action itself, then these prohibitions will break down. If someone innocent will die unless I do a wicked thing, then on this view I am his murderer in refusing: so all that is left to me is to weigh up evils. Here the theologian steps in with the principle of
double effect and says: “No, you are no murderer, if the man’s death was neither your aim nor your chosen means, and if you had to act in the way that led to it or else do something absolutely forbidden.” Without understanding of this principle, anything can be–and is wont to be– justified, and the Christian teaching that in no circumstances may one commit murder, adultery, apostasy (to give a few examples) goes by the board. These absolute prohibitions of Christianity by no means exhaust its ethic; there is a large area where what is just is determined partly by a prudent
weighing up of consequences. But the prohibitions are bedrock, and without them the Christian ethic goes to pieces. Hence the necessity of the notion of double effect.

The doctrine of double effect is in the end untenable, as I show in my ‘Double Trouble for Double Effect’ (er, forthcoming), but the point is that the supposedly revealed ethics require this kind of fiddling about, and whether this is framed as applying to the principle of charity to the deity’s word in reconstructing its reasoning, or in doing that reasoning for oneself, or designing a positive morality from a position of deliberative reflection doesn’t seem to make any significant difference.

If we want to adopt a Christian-style morality (though note there is plenty of two-stepping involved in supposing that secular liberalism is Christian-style, cf social democracy is/isn’t basically capitalism) and want to accommodate those who claim there is an ontological gap which has to be filled by God (i.e. there is a gap and positing a certain rather specific kind of deity is preferable to just leaving the gap there), we can just put humanity in the gap, as IIRC Wiggins does, following a broadly Humean (and Piercean) naturalist approach. Roughly and briefly, a species- or beings-like-us relativism generates an ideal-observer type of objectivism (intersubjectivism). If humanity finally determines something to be the good, it will have found the actual good (-for-humanity), and the good (-for-humanity) is whatever humanity finally determines to be the good.

Replacing externally real but human-like gods with a merely ideal (godlike) observer created in our own image collapses the ontological dilemma just as CB’s monotheist does – but as well as being consistent and non-circular, the account also has the virtue of being parsimonious, not obviously made up on a foundation of old folk tales, and best of all, making sense – because there is no longer a bald stipulation (or a failed attempt to deduce) that there is a God of just the right kind so that its command and the good necessarily correspond (are identical) without either being prior to, causing, grounding the other. There is no longer any question of a command that might be thought arbitrary, only of humanity working out what to do.

The epistemic problem of actually working out what to do still remains, but is revealed as ontologically no more ‘subjective’ or ‘ungrounded’ than any other project.

Or something.

115

Data Tutashkhia 05.29.12 at 11:54 am

And I’m arguing that society’s ideas on morality are an emergent principle because morality that works gets rewarded with the society succeeding, and thus propagating and further adapting that morality, with no Revelation required.

What you said, it sounds like that would be an argument for conservatism, traditionalism. I’d say, society’s ideas on morality are an unconsciously formed (and constantly modified) response to the conditions prevalent in that society. But that’s in aggregate. It doesn’t help us, with respect to what Douthat sees as liberalism’s problem in justifying its claims.

116

Emily 05.29.12 at 11:55 am

“Law is an embodiment of society’s goals, including its ideas on morality, not a source of them. And I’m arguing that society’s ideas on morality are an emergent principle because morality that works gets rewarded with the society succeeding, and thus propagating and further adapting that morality, with no Revelation required.”

So there is no independent good or bad, no right or wrong but there is, according to you if not TINA Thatcher ‘society’ which collectively deliberates at any one time (the Borg-like) to determine it’s own (neither right nor wrong) goals and mores. So slavery is not wrong per se, nor war without cause, nor rape etc. Leaving only relativism and arbitrary claims against the mighty.

“I shot Ferdinand de Saussure on a night like this…”

117

Emily 05.29.12 at 11:55 am

That’s a Magnetic Fields reference by the way.

118

Niall McAuley 05.29.12 at 12:42 pm

Slavery is an interesting case, since God used to be OK with it in the Bible, yet now it’s a moral anathema.

So is it wrong per se or not, and if it is, why didn’t Jesus say so?

119

politicalfootball 05.29.12 at 12:50 pm

Really? Without God’s existence, figuring out what the right thing to do is, in a genuinely hard situation, is just innings in an ethics game, not genuinely meaningful and interesting?

Really. Per Douthat, absent God, there’s nothing left, ethics-wise.

120

bianca steele 05.29.12 at 1:19 pm

Lee,
You’re right but OTOH why the insistence that for secular believers the moral truths built up by the Western, Christian, etc., traditions are useless because they lack the basis provided by the church? Douthat talks about “consistency” and this is what got Sanchez and Holbo interested (and I’m sure that if pressed I could think of others who really do seem to care about it), but I get the sense that his problem is more with the lack of connection with the church. As if people were taking the church’s truths and not “paying” for them, in the coin of respect, deference and dependence, if not of direct membership and service. Maybe I’m reading somebody else’s concerns into Douthat’s writing. Or maybe I’m stuck on the question why anyone would think metaphysics has to be based in religion much less in Christianity (much less other philosophical questions about the usefulness of “metaphysics,” much less why Plato is supposed to be Christian all of a sudden (didn’t he crib from Moses?)).

121

politicalfootball 05.29.12 at 1:25 pm

I thought Euthyphro was the name of a male enhancement drug, so maybe I’m not the best person to address this, but where’s the dilemma? Morality equals God’s will, no?

Not for Euthyphro, of course, because his gods had different characteristics, but our Judeo-Christian-Islamic God is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. Asking “Can God act against morality” is one of those seeming paradoxes like “Can an omnipotent God create a rock so big he can’t move it.”

I say “seeming” paradox because, of course, Christian tradition has an airtight answer for this type of question, which is, (paraphrasing) “Shut up.”

122

Left Coast Bernard 05.29.12 at 1:36 pm

Douthat believes that the heart of Christianity is Christ’s suffering for humanity’s sins.

It is immoral to punish one person for the sins of someone else.

If the Christian god is the one who thought up this idea and made it happen, then he is immoral.

It strikes me that those who go around praising this immoral god for punishing the innocent instead of the guilty are also immoral.

123

bianca steele 05.29.12 at 1:56 pm

“secular believers”: what does that mean? I have no idea.

By “Western, Christian tradition” I mean all the books published in Greek, Latin, English, German, and French, over the past 2,500 years, which were studied and expanded on in Christian monasteries and Christian universities (arguably, well into the twentieth century).

124

ponce 05.29.12 at 2:45 pm

@121 Thatnks, for the laugh, football

@ 122 “I mean all the books published in Greek, Latin, English, German, and French, over the past 2,500 years, which were studied and expanded on in Christian monasteries and Christian universities (arguably, well into the twentieth century).”

What about the ones that were studied and expanded upon by Islamic scholars?

125

Gorgias 05.29.12 at 4:14 pm

What really bothers me about these discussions, when they pop up from time to time, is the way in which Douthat’s side seems to believe it’s discovered a magnificent GOTCHA. You can almost see the smirk on his face when he says “It (the liberal side) insists that it is a purely secular and scientific enterprise even as it grounds its politics in metaphysical claims.”, as though no one has ever thought about it before.

But it’s not as though Ethics Without Ontology is an obscure tome by an unknown author, or that there aren’t many similar books out there. This is pretty well-worn ground, and it seems pretty disingenuous to me when one side of the argument all but ignores what the other side has to say.

126

Lee A. Arnold 05.29.12 at 4:58 pm

Again, I think it all gets filed with the cases of People Who Need to Wake Up, But Don’t Know How. It is a lot of unknowing intellectual argument about something that is not an intellectual process. One reason I don’t read a lot of secular philosophy on the subject. And the religious pundits who jabber on about it can be tallied in their ignorance almost exactly by the number of words they bloviate. A self-purification is always involved, and a self-sacrifice. Words can only describe the process metaphorically, and I would guess that this incompleteness of our description will continue, even after we understand what the brain waves are doing. Jesus Christ as a “narratological actant” (how’s that for high-flown blabber) performs the functions of (1) example of lifestyle of purification (which almost none of his followers follows, it would seem) and (2) the savior to reach-to in your self-annihilation. (You get a self back, so don’t worry your little head about why anyone would want an extinction or “nirvana” or in the Islamic tradition, “fana”.) Jesus also got nailed to a cross, in its bloody horror a remarkable historical advantage in the Rhetoric of Sacrifice department.

127

Doctor Slack 05.29.12 at 6:16 pm

Tim W: The Euthyphro dilemma works as a dilemma in ontological terms only because the Olympian gods were like humans writ large, unlike Jehovah which is supposedly a perfect, all-singing-all-dancing being: self-sustaining, necessary and all the rest of it.

This is not true at all, by the way. Greek thought about God was far from being limited to “the Olympian gods” by the time Plato was writing; in fact Plato himself was a major source of the notion of God as an abstractly perfect being which was later applied to Jehovah (and is manifestly a graft onto the jealous, contradictory and sometimes lethally capricious deity depicted in the Old Testament). There is really nothing in the framing or execution of the Euthyphro dialogue to suggest it’s applicable solely to the Olympian gods.

128

Jeffrey Davis 05.29.12 at 7:14 pm

Which revealed truth is the real one?

129

Steve LaBonne 05.29.12 at 7:21 pm

You can almost see the smirk on his face when he says “It (the liberal side) insists that it is a purely secular and scientific enterprise even as it grounds its politics in metaphysical claims.”, as though no one has ever thought about it before.

And as if nobody understands that science itself needs to be underpinned by appropriate metaphysical and ethical commitments. There is no “purely” scientific enterprise, whatever that might even mean.

130

Data Tutashkhia 05.29.12 at 7:33 pm

Not everyone has read these great books, or understands these important things about science, so why don’t you guys kindly summarize them for me (and some others, I’m sure). A couple of paragraphs would suffice. Please.

131

Emily 05.29.12 at 8:12 pm

Um, late capitalist applied science doesn’t seem to me to be grounded in a whole lot of ethical precepts. I second Data: Can you explicate for us what the ethics and metaphysics of applied science are in the 21st C please?

132

Steve LaBonne 05.29.12 at 8:27 pm

You can’t have science of any kind without some sort of metaphysical commitment- need not be realist, could be, for example, purely pragmatist- underwriting the stability and intersubjective knowability of the phenomena under investigation. And some kind of set of ethical norms- some would call it a commitment to the truth, but there are other ways to express it- is necessary to discourage the kinds of cheating that would make the results unreliable and thus of no use to anybody. Yes, even in “late capitalist applied science” (don’t confuse ethical norms within a practice with those governing how its fruits are used.) These things frankly should be pretty obvious.

133

Doctor Slack 05.29.12 at 9:09 pm

Although it’s fair to say that positivism — which is inclined to misuse the term “metaphysics” to denote “any metaphysics that isn’t the metaphysics of positivism, and is therefore nonsense” — has significantly muddied the waters for some time. That empiricism is a specific metaphysical proposition seems like it should be obvious, but for many people it isn’t.

134

Emily 05.29.12 at 9:17 pm

Doctor Slack, can’t empirical observation only provide data or detail – the idiography of an argument – but not the nomothetic component?

135

SusanC 05.29.12 at 9:24 pm

@131 – western science has a ton of metaphyisical commitments, to be sure.

On the ethical commitments,

(a) Some common ideas about how science is done (we’re talking about how people think science is done, not how it’s really done) stress replication as the guard against cheating. In this kind of account, it is taken for granted that the first person to publish the result was quite likely a fraudster who made up the data and never actually did the experiment, but (the assumption goes) attempts at replication will eventually catch it.

(b) I’d argue that the capitalist system puts a severe strain on the ethics that is needed to make science work. See, for example, pharmacetical industry (particularly psychiatric drugs), where we’re reaching the point where scientific results about a drug’s safety or effectiveness meet considerably skepticism for a large portion of the populace, who think the scientists who did the work are, to put it bluntly, fraudsters who will falsify whatever experimental results will serve their employer’s interest. The economists’ hypothetical rational utility maximiser probably would falsify experiments when it’s in his interest to do so … and if we all think scientists are acting like this rational utility maximiser, science is in trouble. (Unless you’ve personally redone the safety tests on the drugs your doctor prescribes you …. personally as the scientist, and not as the experimental subject).

136

Data Tutashkhia 05.29.12 at 9:31 pm

Should I push that fat guy off the bridge to save five? What do The Books say?

137

Lee A. Arnold 05.29.12 at 9:31 pm

Sometimes I wonder if Christianity programmed the rise of science, because it turned to expectations of the FUTURE, where prior cultures had imagined themselves as being imperfect derivatives of a perfect past–a concept that was called the Great Chain of Being by Lovejoy. This is because it was expected that the return of the Messiah would end the world, but of course the world did NOT end when the story says that Christ reappeared. (None of the Gospels includes the line, “Despite this, the World did not end.”) Therefore the eschatology needed and invented another return, the Second Coming. Paul expected it in his lifetime, as did several more generations of early Christians no doubt, but I imagine that after a few hundred years Christian culture had completed a novel shift toward future-expectation or future-gazing until it became quite a common rhetorical trope. And if a culture started paying attention to the significance of future events (instead of glorifying and obsessing upon a perfect past from which emanated the current world as an imperfect copy), then the culture might develop the ideas and tools of prediction and experiment after another thousand-and-a-half years. It might, by the same time, invert the Great Chain of Being to its opposite: the Viconian, Darwinian, atomistic, bottoms-up approach. Thus the metaphysics of science perhaps could be rooted in a surprising non-ending of the world, having a consequence in a specific religious theology.

138

geo 05.29.12 at 9:32 pm

Steve @131: I’m not sure about calling such a commitment “metaphysical.” What does it mean to “underwrite” the stability and knowability of phenomena or propositions?

139

Gorgias 05.29.12 at 9:36 pm

@131: “You can’t have science of any kind without some sort of metaphysical commitment”

I don’t know.

It seems to me you can’t have science without observation, or ideas about rationality and justified inference, and trying to sort out what exactly counts of a confirming or falsifying observation, or a good or bad argument are not metaphysical questions. I don’t read Hempel for his metaphysics .

I’m really not trying to play word-games here, but it metaphysics strikes me as a discipline concerned about the Real, or the nature of substance, or the extracting of essence from accident, and it’s not obvious that scientists need to have views on these things to do their work, let alone resort to those views as justifications for their conclusions. I’m not a physicist, but I have read some of Schrodinger’s (really excellent) philosophical works. I don’t need to be a physicist to appreciate it; does a physicist really have to be a philosopher to appreciate Schrodinger’s contributions to her field?

140

Doctor Slack 05.29.12 at 9:40 pm

134: Not as I understand it. The natural sciences are arguably based on the principle that nomothetic propositions can be derived from empirical observation (some viewpoints go further, into proposing that the only valid nomothetic propositions are those derived from empirical observation; hence positivism).

141

Doctor Slack 05.29.12 at 9:48 pm

(Although technically, again to 134, it’s true that any individual observation cannot be a nomothetic proposition in itself, it can only provide a data point for potential propositions. That must be what you meant, right? Sorry, I’m reading the thread in between doing about three other things right now.)

142

Warren Terra 05.29.12 at 9:49 pm

Data,
I’m fond of that dilemma. I think it reveals something about the nature of morality as it lives in the human mind. Obviously, if at every moment you’re calculating how best to help the most people you should push the innocent guy off the bridge to save five other innocents. And yet, at least when hearing about the problem, I tend to think I wouldn’t, because I don’t want to actively kill another person, even if by doing so I passively condemn five more to death.

This is where it’s worth remembering the difference between morality and a social force and mechanism, something that has developed over time because it turns out to aid the reproductive success of a society and its members, and how that is expressed within the individual members’ minds. It turns out that widespread murder is inefficient and counterproductive; therefore we’ve evolved a repugnance for actively killing other people, and for those who do so. This remains so even when we can rationally see that we could do more good through the killing.

By the way, I think you should clarify what you mean when you say “these important things about science” – do you mean how morality functions within science? Or what science tells us about how morality functions within society? Because if it’s the latter, the Wikipedia article I linked earlier should give some ideas, or you could read the Book Reviews of a couple of books by Robert Wright (Non-Zero, and The Moral Animal; and I’ve not read either book, I merely know they’re fairly prominent books discussing these ideas, and the reviews of these books discuss the same ideas in a shorter format).

143

Emily 05.29.12 at 9:56 pm

But wouldn’t you need a non-empirical premise and logical thread to come up with the nomothetic proposition from the data?

144

Emily 05.29.12 at 9:57 pm

Sorry, that was replying to @140

145

Doctor Slack 05.29.12 at 9:58 pm

143: Sure you would. That’s why there are multiple different schools of thought about how best to synthesize such propositions from empirical data, what the goals of empirical investigation should be and how it should be carried out, and so on.

146

Doctor Slack 05.29.12 at 10:00 pm

(That’s why, say, British empiricism of the Locke, Hume and Berkeley variety is a specific set of metaphysical commitments.)

147

bianca steele 05.29.12 at 10:17 pm

ponce,
The tradition Douthat (not me, to be extra-clear) appears to be trying to defend presumably only includes Islamic works in Latin translation and is presumably not believed (by Douthat) to be available to the Islamic world any more than to “secularists” (whatever he means by that word).

148

Steve LaBonne 05.29.12 at 10:47 pm

What does it mean to “underwrite” the stability and knowability of phenomena or propositions?

It seems to me that you need some kind of ontology and epistemology that can’t themselves be a product of purely empirical observation, or you have no grounds for putting any trust in scientific results . And it also seems to me that this has been a commonplace in the philosophy of science for a long, long time.

149

Data Tutashkhia 05.29.12 at 11:23 pm

Warren, I agree almost completely with what you’re saying in 142, but this is also pretty close to what Douthat is saying. He, with his revelations, he has a coherent picture, and you and I don’t. All I have is some moral instincts, aversions and inclinations, that I can’t really justify, or even explain well. In my case, most of it probably comes from my grandmother who was born in the 19th century. And then there is a comment upthread (89) by the guy who says he got his instincts from a Sunday school, and then he dumped God but kept the instincts. He thinks this proves that Douthat is wrong, but it seems to prove the opposite.

150

Steve LaBonne 05.29.12 at 11:28 pm

He, with his revelations, he has a coherent picture, and you and I don’t.

Speaking as one who had a Catholic upbringing, the idea that Catholic moral teachings fit even the most elastic definition of “coherent” is simply laughable. (Not that there would be anything to be said, either, for a picture that’s coherent and wrong.)

151

Data Tutashkhia 05.29.12 at 11:59 pm

To call it ‘wrong’ in this context is a category mistake.

Should I push the fat guy, or shouldn’t I? I bet Douthat would immediately produce an answer, and an explanation, and without any meaningless mambo-jumbo.

152

Steve LaBonne 05.30.12 at 12:13 am

To call it ‘wrong’ in this context is a category mistake.

Not when it’s based necessarily on a premise in which there is no valid reason to believe. That’s as wrong as wrongness gets.

(And no, Douthat would not have a better answer than the next person. This is the typical drivel of somebody who retains a mushy-headed sentimentality about “traditional” religion.)

153

Keith Edwards 05.30.12 at 12:19 am

Lee. Al Arnold:
I imagine that after a few hundred years Christian culture had completed a novel shift toward future-expectation or future-gazing until it became quite a common rhetorical trope.

Really? Because I look around and all I see are a bunch of Christians saying we don’t need to concern ourselves about global warming, famine, disease, war, corporate corruption or creating a sustainable culture because Jesus is coming back next Tuesday, after lunch. The apocalyptic mindset is so pervasive that we’ve been saddled with doomsday cults for 2000 years, and even our current economic model is based entirely on short term gain, all apparently because the assumption is that there is no tomorrow and investment is for suckers.

If anything, the shift toward future-expectation or future-gazing is a result of secular science presenting evidence that we humans have actually been around for a few hundred thousand years (not just the 6K or so we’ve been writing shit down), our primate ancestors were around before us for several million years and in all likelihood, we will continue to be for a few million years more, so maybe we should try and keep that in mind when making decisions.

154

Warren Terra 05.30.12 at 12:35 am

Data,
As I understand it, Douthat is saying that morality must derive from Revelation and from God, and cannot come from first principles. You at times seem to be saying this as well, though at other times you seem not to.

I am saying that, contra Douthat, morality emerges naturally, without Revelation or God, because it works. Social animals with morality succeed relative to those without. Because we have gained consciousness and language, we are able to go even beyond this and to build more elaborate ethical frameworks. These constructs – “memes” seems too paltry a word, and I don’t know the lingo – take on a life of their own within our culture, and probably help our culture to achieve yet greater success. Arguably this might even be part of why having language, and having a long, slow development of our infants and juveniles, has paid off for us as a species. With language and consciousness we can also examine troubling questions like the knock-a-man-to-his-death-to-save-five dilemma you pose at a higher level than is provided by the instincts evolution has provided us, and perhaps come to different answers.

In your most recent comment you seem to concede something, perhaps this, perhaps not this, but you nonetheless express an admiration for the ability of Received Wisdom (perhaps religion, perhaps not) to codify and teach a society’s ethical framework. I’d agree with this in principle – for all I’m not terribly well informed in this area I’ve found it helpful to read about Kant rather than to simply go by my gut instinct or to work everything out for myself. But I’d argue that relying on Religion to provide this textual instruction in Ethics this is a huge mistake. I’ve expressed upthread the problems with trying to take your ethical guidelines from the holy texts of my own Jewish cultural background; given that I’m an (Atheist) Jew you can imagine how highly I think of the ethical accomplishments of Christianity, and especially Catholicism, as expressed in practice. Yes, it’s good to receive your ethical instruction in textual form – but not as Perfect Knowledge From God, because it turns out that receiving your Ethics in such a form leaves plenty of leeway for you to slaughter heathens, or bash Gays, or just be a sanctimonious miserly prig. And as a dozen or more people have pointed out in this thread, once God is telling you to do good things, he’s often telling you to do lousy things as well, and it turns out there are competing ideas about who God is.

In any case, we now seem to be arguing about whether the textual formulation of Ethical ideas is a good thing, and I suspect everyone here thinks it is. Unless I’m very much mistaken, Douthat is arguing that such a textual formulation is meaningless unless it starts with Divine Revelation; I very much disagree.

155

Chris Johnson 05.30.12 at 1:57 am

I’ve learned a lot from this discussion. I commend everyone for taking another stupid Douthat post and massaging it to produce an interesting question worth talking about. Since many of you are teachers, it reminds me of the standard technique good teachers use: take a student’s very poor question and reword it into a good question, then answer the good question.

Ross Douthat: Crooked Timer’s very own stupid student.

156

Lee A. Arnold 05.30.12 at 2:32 am

Keith Edwards 153: “future-gazing is a result of secular science presenting evidence”

Logically and psychologically, wouldn’t it have to be the other way around?

Pico della Mirandola wrote that God instructed Adam, “Neither a fixed abode nor a form that is thine alone nor any function peculiar to thyself have We given thee, Adam, to the end that according to thy longing and according to thy judgment thou mayest have and possess what abode, what form, and what functions thou thyself shalt desire. The nature of all other beings is limited and constrained within the bounds of laws prescribed by Us. Thou, constrained by no limits, in accordance with thine own free will, in whose hand We have placed thee, shall ordain for thyself the limits of thy nature. We have set thee at the world’s center that thou mayest from thence more easily observe whatever is in the world…” (Oration on the Dignity of Man, Rome, 1486)

Now yes, from the first the Church has resisted some of this stuff, indeed forbade about half of Pico’s proposed theses from being defended because they were heresy. But it is hard to argue that Pico, like Bruno about a hundred years later (and who was burned at the stake) did not begin in theology (and in Bruno’s case, hermeticism).

A little later of course, Bacon and Newton expounded true, forward-thinking, experimental science — and that occurred more than a hundred years BEFORE anyone had anywhere near a real idea of the age of the earth or how long humans have been around.

I may be wrong but I think that Catholicism had a sort of minor esoteric tradition in premodern times that the belief system was to be understood as metaphorical or allegorical, not for the laity’s consumption of course, (and the mystics danced politely around it, perhaps in mind of horrible ends such as that of poor Marguerite Porete or Bruno). I wonder if the rise of science and its enormous commercial success forced the Catholic story to become reified in the same way that matter and energy are real, and so cheapened the whole franchise, as it were. In fact, I would go so far as to assert that this was the true downfall, in a nutshell.

As to why there are “a bunch of Christians saying we don’t need to concern ourselves about global warming” perhaps Douthat should be put to work on that.

157

Data Tutashkhia 05.30.12 at 7:53 am

Warren, I agree that morality evolves heuristically, that is not the issue. And I don’t admire anything. Douthat’s moral intuition and mine are about the same, I’m sure, with minor differences. What I’m saying is that he has a framework to justify it, and I don’t. He can explain to his children why murder is wrong, and I can’t. Because when a child asks ‘why?’, saying ‘if people started killing each other for what they believe are good reasons, that’d probably be a mess’, while it’s an honest answer, and a good reason to criminalize murder (‘makes sense’, as the post says), it’s not something that would produce deep moral aversion, I don’t think. It’s just some intellectual shit, to doubt and to question. Maybe it’s a good thing, I don’t know; but Douthat certainly has a point there.

158

Niall McAuley 05.30.12 at 8:23 am

I have bad news for you, Data. If you tell a kid that murder is wrong because God says so, the kid will just ask “Why?”, which brings you right back to Euthyphro (and politcalfootball’s answer: “Shut up”.)

Your honest answer is actually a lot better for the purposes of making the kid think about and internalize the principle.

159

Data Tutashkhia 05.30.12 at 8:56 am

Niall, nah, that’s just not true. There is a reason Santa is still around. It works. You buy a beautiful red toy car, wrap it, put it under the tree. The kid finds it, has a Revelation, things get internalized. Honest explanations – not so much. Empirical fact.

160

Niall McAuley 05.30.12 at 9:33 am

You’ve never met an actual kid, then?

161

Data Tutashkhia 05.30.12 at 9:37 am

Oh, is this what you want to do? Sorry, I thought you wanted to talk. It’s hard to tell sometimes.

162

Niall McAuley 05.30.12 at 9:58 am

Being in the process of raising three kids, I can tell you as an empirical fact that answers of the form of your “honest” answer above are much more effective than “Just Because” anwsers like “God said so”.

Which do, indeed, just invite the question “Why?”

But go ahead and dismiss that with a “Nah” too, if that’s what you want to do.

And Santa? Fuck Santa.

163

Data Tutashkhia 05.30.12 at 12:02 pm

much more effective than “Just Because” anwsers like “God said so”.

Why, certainly. That’s why the guy readily concedes that one needs ‘revelation’, the illusion of direct communication.

Anyway, again, on purely empirical grounds, while those who maintain that stable secular-humanist indoctrination in basic traditional morality is not impossible at least may have a plausible argument (I hope they do), you, who seem to argue that it is, in fact, much stronger than religious one, look completely ridiculous.

164

Steve LaBonne 05.30.12 at 12:25 pm

Martin Luther King was more important to the changes (for the better) in the last half of the 20th Century than any secularist philosopher. In the first half you could say the same for Gandhi.

And none of their ideas and actions actually depended on religious mumbo-jumbo. (There is nothing in their ethical systems that cannot be derived from other traditions, such as the non-religious aspects of Buddhism- which in fact influenced both of them.) Both in fact had very significant associates (what, you think they magically did everything by themselves?) who were crucial to their impact and who did not at all share their religious ideas. Which leaves very little of your supposed point intact.

165

Steve LaBonne 05.30.12 at 12:27 pm

P.S. to 156: Learn to tell the difference between propositions and poetry. You’ll come across as less of an idiot that way.

166

Steve LaBonne 05.30.12 at 12:31 pm

If the poetry of X was music,
So that it came to him of its own,
Without understanding, out of the wall

Or in the ceiling, in sounds not chosen,
Or chosen quickly, in a freedom
That was their element, we should not know

That X is an obstruction, a man
Too exactly himself, and that there are words
Better without an author, without a poet,

Or having a separate author, a different poet,
An accretion from ourselves, intelligent
Beyond intelligence, an artificial man

At a distance, a secondary expositor,
A being of sound, whom one does not approach
Through any exaggeration. From him, we collect.

Tell X that speech is not dirty silence
Clarified. It is silence made dirtier.
It is more than an imitation for the ear.

He lacks this venerable complication.
His poems are not of the second part of life.
They do not make the visible a little hard

To see nor, reverberating, eke out the mind
Or peculiar horns, themselves eked out
By the spontaneous particulars of sound.

We do not say ourselves like that in poems.
We say ourselves in syllables that rise
From the floor, rising in speech we do not speak.

167

Peter Erwin 05.30.12 at 1:13 pm

Lee A. Arnold @ 137 and 157:

This ignores numerous other eschatological traditions, such as the whole Jewish messianic tradition that gave rise to the Christian tradition, the older Mazdean (aka Zoroastrian) tradition that influenced Jewish eschatology, and various Islamic traditions about the Last Judgment and the Mahdi. One can find eschatological themes in some varieties of Buddhism, and the idea of Ragnarök suggests that you don’t necessarily even need a literate religious tradition.

So it’s rather difficult to argue that Christianity was unique in having a specific vision of future events, or even in having people worry about trying to predict more exactly when those future events were going to happen.

… glorifying and obsessing upon a perfect past from which emanated the current world as an imperfect copy …

Which sounds like an awful lot of European intellectual history up until at least the Enlightenment. What was the Renaissance about, again?

A little later of course, Bacon and Newton expounded true, forward-thinking, experimental science—and that occurred more than a hundred years BEFORE anyone had anywhere near a real idea of the age of the earth or how long humans have been around.

Yes, well, so did Ptolemy fifteen hundred years before, without the benefit of Christian eschatology. The Ptolemaic model for the solar system — wrong though it proved to be — was very much a “forward-thinking” mechanism for making future predictions.

168

Steve LaBonne 05.30.12 at 2:31 pm

What sort of moral imperative does your verbose self-importance imply?

169

mattski 05.30.12 at 2:41 pm

He can explain to his children why murder is wrong, and I can’t.

Murder is wrong because nobody wants to be murdered. Murder is wrong because if I kill someone for a purpose which is dubious then I’ve given any and everyone license to kill for dubious reasons. And, obviously, there are rare occasions when murder isn’t wrong…

The statement, “murder is wrong” is equivalent to “murder is undesirable.” We confuse ourselves by thinking of morality as having some platonic reality. It doesn’t.

170

mattski 05.30.12 at 2:43 pm

What sort of moral imperative does your verbose self-importance imply?

Can you say “projection”?

171

Steve LaBonne 05.30.12 at 2:48 pm

I aim more for laconic self-importance, though I don’t always succeed.

172

Data Tutashkhia 05.30.12 at 3:00 pm

Everybody wants and doesn’t want a whole lot of things, so what. And when you talk about that license, is that a metaphysical license? Who issues the license?

173

Emily 05.30.12 at 3:38 pm

Steve, I don’t understand. Either poetry has content or it doesn’t. Ashbery’s Syringa is one of my favorite poems because I see it as meaningful. You appear to me to be arguing you appreciate poetry because it is meaningless ( then quoting poetry that to me evidently reads as meaningful). Is this the case?

Re Buddhism, in Oz most folks in their 20s and 30s probably came across Buddhism in the tv series Monkey – so it seems to me to be as related to concepts of Heaven and Earth, Gods, intercession, right and wrong as any religion from the Middle East. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is full of these concepts. By ‘secular Buddhism’ what are you referring to? Simply notions of retaining mindfulness or something else?

174

Steve LaBonne 05.30.12 at 3:46 pm

Ashbery’s Syringa is one of my favorite poems because I see it as meaningful.

The word “meaningful” is doing too much work here. Few things are as meaningful to me (in one sense) as, say, Mahler’s 6th Symphony, but this is not the same kind of meaning that inheres in the sentence “My car is parked in lot #3″.

175

mattski 05.30.12 at 3:49 pm

Data,

I think I’m echoing Warren in saying that morality is a social convention. We tell our children, “murder is wrong,” or “in our society we don’t do that.” For a child, “murder is wrong” is succinct and sufficient. As we grow up our understanding gets fuller and subtler. We eventually realize that “murder is wrong” is just shorthand for a more nuanced explanation.

License is precedent. It’s a very direct thing, and also fundamental to any decent system of jurisprudence. Who issues the license? Anyone who takes any action issues a license. If I kill my neighbor because they play loud music at night that sets a precedent. If society throws me in prison for 30 years on account of it that sets another precedent. And so on.

176

Niall McAuley 05.30.12 at 3:50 pm

I believe ‘secular Buddhism’ is the Indian variety, often called ‘clarified buddha’.

177

Steve LaBonne 05.30.12 at 3:55 pm

There have always been versions of “traditional” Buddhism in Asia that are austere virtually to the point of atheism (though they have never had a large following), but there is now also a large “western” growth of non-religious Buddhism outside Asia, reflected in such things as the meditation classes that no doubt meet in a town near you and in books on the religion shelf at your local Barnes & Noble with titles like “Buddhism Plain and Simple” and “Buddhism Without Belief”.

178

mattski 05.30.12 at 4:06 pm

Re Buddhism, this book is succinct and learned.

179

Lee A. Arnold 05.30.12 at 4:12 pm

Peter Erwin @168 — You are right. Archimedes and Ptolemy provide counterexamples to disprove my hypothesis. But neither of them so far as I know provided general statements of the possibility of new inventions to improve life as Pico intimated and Bacon explicitly called for (although Archimedes was also an inventor). Perhaps I have to look at the possible reasons for the processes of individuation that led to humanism and the views that started to be expressed in the Renaissance. It could be that the rediscovery of Aristotle’s works and their wide dispersion by the printing press gave an alternative explanation of the world that, while not science either, weakened the Church’s hold on the mind. The question is then, why did the Church allow it, and did not stop the return of Aristotle.

On your other points, I was trying to write, not that there aren’t other echatologies, but that Christianity introduced a new and rather poignant non-event into Jewish eschatology, because the Messiah came, but the world didn’t end. I imagine this to have caused some sort of strong psychological effect as to the imminence of events across a broad section of reality in the way that other eschatologies do not worry about. And yes, European intellectual history and literature up until the Enlightenment held the view of the Great Chain of Being, a profound idea from Plato that Christianity adopted along with everyone else. The Enlightenment might be most briefly characterised as the precise inversion of that story, flipping from the top-down emanation from the Absolute, to a bottom-up atomism, individualism, and evolution. See the book The Great Chain of Being by Arthur O. Lovejoy (1936).

180

Emily 05.30.12 at 4:14 pm

If your car happens to be parked in lot 3 of a particular car park that expression does seem to have semantic content to me, albeit of a kind of shorthand.
Why do you think, if true, the statement is without semantic content?

181

js. 05.30.12 at 4:24 pm

It’s actually pretty well established that poetry, fiction, etc., don’t have semantic content in the sense that ordinary propositions do. Obviously, they are not gibberish. But equally obviously, they don’t straightforwardly name and describe objects in or aspects of the world. As Steve has also pointed out, this is not at all to say that poetry can’t be “meaningful” in all sorts of ways. In several senses of “meaningful”, it is of course hugely meaningful. But this really isn’t about semantic content in the way that we in philosophy talk about it, for instance. And I think that’s the sense of semantic content Steve is intending.

Anyway, that poetry (or fiction, etc.) has no semantic content is a much stronger and I think much more controversial claim. You’re dealing with well-formed sentences etc., so there’s at least an ‘as if’ semantic content. (Relying on vague memories of Gareth Evans’ Varieties of Reference here.) People do work on figuring out how best to explain or account for the prima facie impression of semantic content in fictional discourse, but frankly it’s not my area and I don’t know a ton about it.

(Sorry a bit OT, but I thought it might help.)

182

Steve LaBonne 05.30.12 at 4:27 pm

Why do you think, if true, the statement is without semantic content?

I said exactly the opposite of that. That sentence obviously has a very definite semantic content in a way that a piece 0f music, or the kind of poem that can’t be paraphrased, doesn’t, even though in another, more emotive sense it can be very meaningful indeed.

183

Steve LaBonne 05.30.12 at 4:29 pm

“I love you” has semantic content, but content varies in every instance of its use.
“I love you” can mean “I hate you”.
You argue as if the focus on logic will enlighten us, when it dumbs us down.

If you focused more on logic it would prevent you from falling into silly kinds of confusion. I invite you to read #184.

184

Steve LaBonne 05.30.12 at 4:31 pm

Anyway, that poetry (or fiction, etc.) has no semantic content is a much stronger and I think much more controversial claim.

And for the record, not one I would make, even about music (which certainly has that kind of “as if” semantic content.)

185

Steve LaBonne 05.30.12 at 4:38 pm

The relevance to the thread topic, I think, is that religion (for some people) can certainly, as can art, provide the kind of emotional climate which promotes ethical behavior. However, there had better also be the sort of hard thinking which handwaving appeals to revelation can’t possibly provide, and of which those appeals are actually an evasion. A glance at the actual ethical track record of actually existing religions, and similarly at the biographies of great artists who were despicable people, can demonstrate how things can go awry without the thinking part.

186

s.e. 05.30.12 at 5:21 pm

The lonely mating hoot of the spotted troll rolls in echoes across the marshlands – ‘why is no-one listening to me?’

187

Steve LaBonne 05.30.12 at 5:32 pm

Steve, you’ve changed your argument. You started off mocking Freddy dB and now you end up saying things which neither of us would debate.

No, you chose to read into what I actually said, strawmen that I didn’t say, so that you would have an excuse to pick a fight. Not my problem, nor a reason for me to waste any more of my time.

(The opening sentence of your last paragraph, by the way, is yet another instance of your being wrong.)

188

Data Tutashkhia 05.30.12 at 5:33 pm

Whoa, Steve, this is not like you at all. Getting soft, eh?

189

Steve LaBonne 05.30.12 at 5:34 pm

I don’t know what happened to the comment I was responding to in 187. Anyway, who cares.

190

Data Tutashkhia 05.30.12 at 5:34 pm

185, that is, the first phrase.

191

Steve LaBonne 05.30.12 at 5:39 pm

185, that is, the first phrase.

Not going soft at all. I never have begrudged people whatever is helpful to them, as long as doesn’t lead to harm to others (though that’s a difficult condition for most religions to satisfy). But to pretend that a rigorous ethical thinker like King, for example, subscribed in any way to anything like the kind of “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” mush that Douthat is peddling, is a grotesque insult to King.

192

bianca steele 05.30.12 at 6:31 pm

If Douthat’s fans want to defend him on the basis that his essays have the same kind of meaning as “let the world say, his most wise music stole nothing from death,” that’s fine with me. Let’s read poetry as poetry and non-poetry as non-poetry–there’s no call to valorize “poetry” over “prose,” is there? It might not be fine with Douthat, though, since I think he’s claiming for himself the kind of logical consistency the OP says he is (and I doubt he shares Shelley’s politics or his views on poets).

193

jake the snake 05.31.12 at 1:41 am

I think Augustine is at the root of Douthat’s world-view. It boils down to dualism.
An obvious loathing of the body and its lusts. He view has not changed since Chunky Reese Witherspoon. He has just become more sophisticated in his self-loathing, but no more self-aware.

194

Doctor Slack 05.31.12 at 2:28 am

178: I believe ‘secular Buddhism’ is the Indian variety, often called ‘clarified buddha’.

Ghee-whiz, Niall. That’s a groaner.

195

Tim Wilkinson 05.31.12 at 10:29 am

Doctor Slack 127:

” Tim W: The Euthyphro dilemma works as a dilemma in ontological terms only because the Olympian gods were like humans writ large, unlike Jehovah which is supposedly a perfect, all-singing-all-dancing being: self-sustaining, necessary and all the rest of it.”

This is not true at all, by the way. Greek thought about God was far from being limited to “the Olympian gods” by the time Plato was writing; in fact Plato himself was a major source of the notion of God as an abstractly perfect being which was later applied to Jehovah (and is manifestly a graft onto the jealous, contradictory and sometimes lethally capricious deity depicted in the Old Testament). There is really nothing in the framing or execution of the Euthyphro dialogue to suggest it’s applicable solely to the Olympian gods.

Point of order, brother chair, concerning comrade Slack’s use of ‘by the way’ in the absence of any other remarks to which the so-introduced remarks could be considered an afterthought or aside. This looks like an attempt at Laddification: indicating that a supposed refutation is so obvious as to be barely worth making.

But in any case, I’d say introducing the whole gaggle of them, and pointing out they can’t agree on what’s good, then deciding (rather arbtitrarily) that the appropriate polling system is to require unanimity is a clear indicator that the Gods are being treated as superhuman but humanoid, rather flawed, and above all capable of conflicting, thus in some cases at least incorrect or arbitrary, conceptions of virtue. It’s not as if Chaos or Eros or something was given precedence, and there’s no attempt there IIRC to do any fancy footwork relating primordial deities to Ideas, or anything like that. Just a bunch of magical folk up on the hill.

My point is that the ontological dilemma (unconditioned but contingent or necessary but conditioned) can be resolved if you posit the right kind of being, spraying necessity around with sufficient abandon. If YHWH, say, is, necessarily, and necessarily is = Good and = Logos etc, then you can derive a set-up whereby necessary /contiongent and conditioned/unconditioned do not really apply, or do unexpected things. Similarly, the ‘will’ or ‘freewill’ of the being (there is an issue in there about running the supposed freewill v predestination/prediction dilemma backwards, from our knowledge of the god’s ‘decisions’) behaves oddly because a (dodgy) definition such as ‘could have done otherwise’ gets messed up – we can say god ‘could’ in some sense have been (and chosen) otherwise, but given its attributes, wouldn’t. And necessarily wouldn’t, on pain of not existing (essentially wouldn’t). And necessarily exists, etc. Being perfect doesn’t leave you a lot of elbow room. But you only get that if you can bundle up any number of (suitably defined) perfections and necessities into a single being.

My point was that this – and this has been the catholic church’s method, using faith and supposed revelation to shore up the structure of rationalisations – can get you an ontologically coherent (if obscure and to the intellegent infidel transparently reverse-engineered) position. The problem is that this (again to the intelligent infidel) only stores up problems elsewhere – when it comes to finding a suitable mooring for this raft of dogma. A consistent system is easy to come up with – giving reasons to accept it as an accurate description of something is trickier.

On the Old Testament YHWH, yes – a tribal, rather Olympian-style, god. But I was talking about current theological views, specifically Xian and especially RC ones – which is what the thread is about.

(btw something vaguely similar to Euthyphro-type problems, also to something like the Greek primordial god(s), occurs – to much youthful annoyance – at the end of CS Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Still reeling from the infuriating injury of a plodding resurrection allegory, BAM! the reader is hit with the insult of a doctrinally lazy and nebulous bit about a ‘deeper, older law’ that demands this (temporary) sacrifice.)

196

Tim Wilkinson 05.31.12 at 10:33 am

Also meant to add that if buddhism is not ‘atheistic’, does that mean we should call it ‘theistic’? Monotheistic? Non-deistic? ‘God’ or ‘divine’ etc can cover a lot of different things.

197

Doctor Slack 05.31.12 at 12:48 pm

Point of order, brother chair, concerning comrade Slack’s use of ‘by the way’ in the absence of any other remarks to which the so-introduced remarks could be considered an afterthought or aside. This looks like an attempt at Laddification: indicating that a supposed refutation is so obvious as to be barely worth making.

Comrade Wilkinson does me great injury, brother chair. My use of “by the way” merely indicated I was taking up a point tangential to his main argument; his reading into it so hastily makes me question whether indeed he might me more committed to his own gratification than to the Party. At any rate, it’s on now, because what follows calls for nothing less than full deployment of the “ummmm;” brace yourself:

But in any case, I’d say introducing the whole gaggle of them, and pointing out they can’t agree on what’s good, then deciding (rather arbtitrarily) that the appropriate polling system is to require unanimity is a clear indicator that the Gods are being treated as superhuman but humanoid, rather flawed, and above all capable of conflicting, thus in some cases at least incorrect or arbitrary, conceptions of virtue.

Ummmm, yes, Socrates does indeed introduce the pantheon in order to ridicule the naivete of the old myths, but the meat of the dialogue is about the abstract question of what constitutes piety, and is every bit as applicable to a monotheistic God as to a plurality of gods, which is why it continued to pose a problem for Christian theologians. The dilemma of the Divine command theory that it brings up cannot, in fact, be resolved if you posit the right kind of being. (I mean, there have been attempts to do so, via “divine simplicity” and arguments that Divine morality cannot be random because man was made in God’s image et cetera, but they’re a long way from having settled the question and at any rate are a bit more involved than saying “imagine a God that’s different from the flawed Olympian gods.”)

198

Doctor Slack 05.31.12 at 12:52 pm

(By “tangential,” I mean to say that I was disagreeing solely with the detail about Euthyphro and not staking out a position about the rest of your original post.)

199

Doctor Slack 05.31.12 at 12:58 pm

And to take it back to what you originally wrote:

It is certainly possible to resolve this ontological dilemma by stipulating as a brute fact that there is some such god and its word is neither arbitrary nor dependent on an independent standard of goodness (or what have you), but rather simply identical to The Good

In so doing one would surely have grapefruits to rival William of Ockham’s, but one will not actually have resolved or achieved anything except to make “The Good” effectively arbitrary, which is the point of the dialogue to begin with.

200

garymar 05.31.12 at 1:12 pm

only just now caught the “Ghee-whiz” in Doctor Slack’s #194.

It paneers to be a joke.

okay okay, no need for (groan) comments. I’m groaning myself.

201

Tim Wilkinson 05.31.12 at 1:39 pm

I mean, there have been attempts to do so, via “divine simplicity” and arguments that Divine morality cannot be random because man was made in God’s image et cetera, but they’re a long way from having settled the question and at any rate are a bit more involved than saying “imagine a God that’s different from the flawed Olympian gods.”

Aye, and that’s what I describe as paying for the apparently free lunch, storing up problems elsewhere, etc., and as involving an epistemological issue rather than just innings in an abstract ontological game. Hence your ref. to ‘settling the question’, I suppose.

202

Tim Wilkinson 05.31.12 at 1:40 pm

‘Epistemic’ rather than directly epistemological might have been better.

203

Data Tutashkhia 05.31.12 at 2:05 pm

Of course Steve is right that religion, as a tool of indoctrination, can be a scary thing. If it can be commonly replaced with some harmless kitsch, like pop-buddhism, that doesn’t seem too bad, I must say. Should watch for those morlocks, though.

204

Watson Ladd 05.31.12 at 2:12 pm

Mattski makes a good point. But not all moral/law codes have one class of people. The Mosaic law code sets up a system of hereditary priests with special powers and restrictions. No matter how basic the moral principal you advocate is, the question is “why is it moral?”. You have to define morality in a particular way to justify your system of morals. For Douthaut this is the Euthyphro problem: God has to be moral for that to work, but then how do we know he is moral? Is it just a vacuous statement? Even Kant has to tackle this problem when giving the categorical imperative, ultimately equating morality and freedom.

205

mattski 05.31.12 at 11:50 pm

Also meant to add that if buddhism is not ‘atheistic’, does that mean we should call it ‘theistic’? Monotheistic? Non-deistic?

Calling it ‘agnostic’ is a pretty good bet. If I can mangle a story about the Buddha: The Buddha was asked why he didn’t speak about the ultimate structure of reality, on the assumption that because of his enlightened state he had access to such rarified knowledge. His reply was, “Because it isn’t useful.” The Buddha was concerned with suffering and the path out of suffering. Anything else he regarded as a distraction.

No matter how basic the moral principal you advocate is, the question is “why is it moral?”

It’s moral because we agree that it’s moral!

206

Emily 06.01.12 at 9:04 am

mattski – you seem to be confusing concepts of good and bad with understandings of many contemporary political processes (eg. parliamentary majorities are empowered to enact laws under varied structural circumstances). In more hierarchical cultural structures this may differ.
Further, even in contemporary European or European influenced polities one person is quite likely to disagree with another, let alone with several others, about what constitutes good, bad and neutral acts. In the lack of an absolute or even majority (necessarily static?) social agreement on what is good and bad, one must fall back on one’s own faith or reasoning or, more likely, a combination of the both.

207

mattski 06.01.12 at 11:33 am

Emily,

I’m glad you responded. Look again at Warren Terra @ 113 and your reply @ 116. The essence of the exchange, from my pov, is that Warren is making some very solidly grounded empirical statements about what morality is and how it comes about. Your response is, when we get right down to it, a visceral discomfort, that’s all.

I highly recommend to you the writings of T.H. Huxley on the nature of the natural sciences and agnosticism. Science (and Buddhism for that matter) is the art of limiting one’s claims to that which can be supported by evidence. That takes a surprising amount of mental and emotional discipline.

208

Emily 06.01.12 at 1:04 pm

No, I quoted the Magnetic Fields to conclude that X ( Ferdinand de Saussure) despite de Saussurean linguistics and his amusing diagrams of heads talking to one another (at least in my edition)could be shot by Y (the ‘I’ in the song) – and that this could be and often is (but was not in this specific example) an actual event.

Such an event would be empirical data. However, whether that possible event was good or bad would not be empirical. Nor would the various parties (de Saussure, I, Holand Dozier Holand – the musical partnership-, and the various potential and actual members of the audience) agree upon whether the event was good or bad.

Doctor Slack replied correctly and in agreement in brackets @141 to my querying of false claims of empirical knowledge @134.

You are making one nomothetic claim, I am making another. We do not agree. You cannot prove to me with idiographic data that your nomothetic claim is more ‘empirical’ than my own. Hence, we have each relied upon our own faith and reasoning.

Do you disagree?

209

mattski 06.01.12 at 2:39 pm

You are making one nomothetic claim, I am making another.

This is not clear to me. Could you concisely state your nomothetic claim?

For my part, I am saying that moral claims are merely opinions. They have their basis in our subjective feelings of desire and aversion. When there is consensus among significant numbers of people about whether certain events are “good” or “bad” then we have… consensus! Which is wonderful. And often not the case.

But I have not heard from you a clear and specific claim about moral statements, but rather expressions of discomfort with the possibility that morality is subjective.

210

Emily 06.01.12 at 2:50 pm

“For my part, I am saying that moral claims are merely opinions.”

For my own, I am saying that actions can be good or bad and that this is not merely a matter of subjective opinion. However, I do recognise my own many deficiencies of judgement and knowledge.

211

mattski 06.01.12 at 5:32 pm

If by “good” you mean an action or event will tend to lead to less suffering and more happiness then I would agree.

But there is no authority external to ourselves–except the authority we willingly confer on persons who impress us as wise–for deciding moral questions.

212

Emily 06.01.12 at 5:48 pm

That is sort of what I think – but there is little way of knowing within the temporal limits of our lifetimes whether an action will bring about less suffering and more happiness in either the near or long term. Sometimes goodness involves a willingness to sacrifice in one’s own lifetime, with the hope that this will contribute to a better future – but no knowledge thereof.

I also tend to negatively associate the privileging of happiness with utilitarianism, which might not be your meaning. I remember in a university philosophy tutorial the utilitarian tutor arguing that it was morally sanctionable to, in war, bomb large numbers of civilians working in a munitions factory. Only one other student agreed with me that this was not a ‘good’ or sanctionable action, but a moral wrong. To me, that same logic would justify almost any action once one group decided it was at war with another, including an event like September 11, or, potentially, genocide or other crimes against humanity.

213

Data Tutashkhia 06.01.12 at 5:58 pm

If this is all about happiness vs suffering, the answer is simple: drugs. Prozac is the essence of goodness. And mix some morphine in, to relieve any suffering.

Better yet, you can stimulate the pleasure center in everybody’s brain directly, like in those rats in the famous experiment. And that’s all the morality you need.

214

mattski 06.02.12 at 1:19 pm

Data, pleasure & happiness not the same thing. Drugs are a good example. Addiction to pleasure is a manifestly morbid condition. And widespread, unfortunately.

Emily, it’s been nice talking with you. I do think it’s worthwhile to examine more closely the way you are using the words “good” and “bad” in #210.

215

Jim S. 06.02.12 at 6:08 pm

For those complaining that identifying God with the standard doesn’t explain anything, here’s the idea: the Euthyphro dilemma claims that if the standard is good because God commands it, it’s arbitrary; if God commands it because it’s good, then the standard is “higher” than him. The traditional Judeo-Christian response is that the standard is not arbitrary, it’s objectively good, but it’s goodness is not derived from something outside of God. The error of the dilemma is to put the two concepts (the standard’s goodness and God’s command of them) into a cause-and-effect relationship with each other. Jews and Christians (not Muslims usually) respond that the whole question has been misconstrued. They are both effects from a common cause, God’s nature. The idea is that the ground of morality is identical to the ground of reality.

As to how this explains anything, it would explain how the standard can be objective at all. Part of the problem with the Euthyphro dilemma is that if you don’t posit a metaphysical anchor or ground for morality then it is difficult to say they are really objective. But a standard or law is something that seems to involve a mind. The Judeo-Christian response thus provides this by splitting the horns of the dilemma.

216

Data Tutashkhia 06.02.12 at 6:46 pm

mattski, what do you mean – “morbid”? Pick a condition that you feel is the most wholesome, and I bet it can be reproduced chemically, and with addiction no stronger than that produced by chocolate. What is your objection, exactly?

217

mattski 06.02.12 at 8:10 pm

Pick a condition that you feel is the most wholesome, and I bet it can be reproduced chemically, and with addiction no stronger than that produced by chocolate.

I confess I don’t understand this sentence.

What do I mean by morbid? Obesity, for example. Or, as noted, substance abuse. Alcohol, opiates, cocaine. Sex addiction. Even physical exercise can become obsessive and harmful in excess.

218

mattski 06.02.12 at 8:21 pm

(Fwiw, I think “happiness” implies a degree of freedom from pleasure-seeking.)

219

Data Tutashkhia 06.02.12 at 8:35 pm

So, you want me to be happy, and yet you want me to restrain myself from making myself happy, because you consider my preferred means of making myself happy unwholesome. You have some nerve, mister. If that was some omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, and well-meaning supernatural being telling me this, I might have listened, but someone called mattski? Why should I take it seriously?

220

mattski 06.02.12 at 9:29 pm

If that was some omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, and well-meaning supernatural being telling me this, I might have listened…

Ha!

I have no idea what your deal is, Data. I’m certainly not telling you how you should live. I’m offering an opinion on the nature of happiness. I’m not an authority. Please, why don’t you share your insights. What makes you happy??

221

Data Tutashkhia 06.02.12 at 10:10 pm

I know that some things that should make me happy would, if I tried, make me feel guilty. Such was my upbringing. But even though I can’t help it, I don’t see any logical reason to feel guilty. Which means that I probably wouldn’t be able, if I tried, to pass this to the next generation. And I wasn’t even trying too hard. All I could say: I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing this or that, but I can’t explain why it’s wrong. And that is not very convincing.

Now, maybe there’s nothing wrong with it, I don’t know. We’ll see in a hundred or so years.

222

mattski 06.03.12 at 1:46 pm

Did you grow up Catholic?

223

Tim Wilkinson 06.03.12 at 1:49 pm

The combination of mattski’s not telling you how you should live and fevered speculation about Data’s forbidden pleasures irresistably brought to mind ‘Earache My Eye (1st 2 mins or so) Get the horn section!

It’s the wanton ‘ownership of apartment buildings and shopping centres’ bit I’m thinking of, of course.

224

Data Tutashkhia 06.03.12 at 2:14 pm

No, I grew up in a completely secular environment. But that was only one generation after God died; there’s still a very strong residual influence, I think. It’s not going to go on forever, though.

Comments on this entry are closed.