Thursday, July 09, 2009

Intertwined Interests, Pt. II: Good and Evil

I. Evil

The interests of all matter just the same, for this is the Law of Love. Thus I must value your interests as I do mine. I may not, then, act in such a way that your interests are of necessity disregarded. But what sorts of actions are these? How might I act in disregard of your interests?

Two answers are possible. (1) I disregard your interests and have nothing to do with you. This is callousness. (2) I disregard your interests when I force you to act in such a way benefits only me. This is domination.

Here we have before us the two primary sorts of sin: callousness and domination. Of the two, the latter seems the worse. If I am callous, I at least leave you the space to pursue your own interests (whatever they may be). Granted I do not provide you the aid that you might need, but I least I do not seek to do you any positive harm. If I seek to dominate you, however, I do do you positive harm. I force you to act in disregard of your interests and thus, since we all of necessity think our own interests important, force you to act in a way contrary to our interests. (Do not think that Christian love of neighbor requires you to erase your own interests. It does not. It only requires that you not think them elevated over the interest of another. Christians are not required to be selfless. Instead they are required to hold that all selves - and this includes themselves - are of equal worth.)

Here then is evil: it is (conceived negatively) callousness, and it is (conceived positively) domination.

II. Good

Human interests are intertwined. (I'll shift, for sake of linguistic simplicity, to talk of goods.) We are made to love, and when we love perfectly, our good is achieved. But to love you is to seek your good. Thus my good is achieved only when your good is achieved, and your good is achieved only when my good is achieved. Our goods are then intertwined. I cannot achieve mine if you do not achieve yours; you cannot achieve yours if I do not achieve mine. Indeed my primary good is the role I play in the achievement of all goods, both yours and mine; and your primary good is the role you play in the achievement of all goods, both yours and all others.

There is only one good for humanity. The good for one is the good for all, and the good of all is the good of each.

Here then is good: it is the activity of all in the attempt to secure the good of each.

Infanticide and Intertwined Interests

A conversation at Thinking Christian led me to draw a conclusion about intertwined interests. Let me explain.

Th conversation turned (quite naturally it seems to me) to the fate of those who die in infancy and what this might imply about the permissibility of infanticide. The consensus of the Christian voices was that all who die in infancy are heaven-bound. (This is surely wisdom.) The skeptical reply was that, if this is so, should we not say that it is in the interest of an infant to kill it before it reaches the age of accountability and thus before its salvation might be jeopardized.

The reply to this was that it could never be in anyone's interest to commit so gross a sin as to murder an infant.

I'll pick up the thread of the argument here and in a moment draw a quite extraordinary conclusion. We should distinguish, say I, the interests of the one who sins from the interest of the one on whom the sinner acts. No doubt if Mr. Z were to kill an infant, that act is not in Mr. Z's interest. Such a gross violation of God's will must result in a harm to Mr. Z.; even if he is not caught and imprisoned, the harm to his soul will be severe. But that it is not in Mr. Z's best interestto kill the infant does not imply that it is not in the infant's best interest. Their interests need not coincide, it would seem. What would undoubtably do great harm to Mr. Z would, it seems, result in great benefit to the infant.

The only way out of this that I see is to insist that everyone's ultimate interests are the same. But this seems incredible on the face of it. It would seem that my interests are me-centered and your interests are you-centered, and what benefits me need not be what benefits you.

So the world would say. But might this be moral error? Should we say instead that all of our interests are ultimately we-centered? Do we have a hint of this in, say, family life? I don't take my interests to be mine alone. I do well only when my family does well (and they do well only when I do well), so closely are our interests intertwined; for I desire so strongly that they do well (and they desire so strongly that I do well) that, if they do not do well, one of my deepest desires is thrwated and I am thereby harmed.

Is this where humanity as a whole is headed? Is this where it should be now? Do none of us do well when any of us do poorly? Perhaps this is what love of neighbor implies. Strang as it may seem, the atheist Sartre, if a recall correctly, expressed in idea like this. If anyone anywhere, he said, is not free, I too am not free. A beautiful thought, even if I could never quite get my head around it. I always thought it was more a call to action than a literal truth. But perhaps for the Christian it is (near to) the literal truth.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The Atonement: Why I've Stalled

I'm at work on an essay about the Atonement. I realized soon on that any account of the Atonement must take on the issue of Original Sin too, for OS must be (or have introduced) the problem that the Atonement fixes. (I choose language here that's deliberately vague. OS is the "problem". The Atonement "fixes" it. All Christians would, I think, assent to this. What I'm after is an account of the problem and the fix.)

I'm overwhelmed. I began to think back over the arc of argument that began in May of '05 (when The Philosophical Midwife began). I've expressed various views about the Atonement and Original Sin, but I now think that those views are not self-consistent.

Here's the set of views that I've expressed in the past that now seem inconsistent to me:

1. All forms of Penal Substitution are false. There was no debt owed by humanity to God that was paid by Christ.
2. Original sin is real, and it consists in a defect in human nature.
3. Sin not only corrupted human nature; it corrupted the world in which we live. The world is not as God intended. It is a world of death and destruction, of a slow slide into maximum entropy, of inescapable danger to life and spirit.
4. Insofar as anything like original sin exists, it is mere spiritual immaturity.
5. The world is a classroom, and we are the students. The lesson is love, and evil is the means of instruction.
6. Christ's primary role was that of consummate teacher, and only he could teach the lesson we must learn, the lesson of perfect love. Our redemption will come through the mastery of this lesson.
7. Christ's life and death made possible the correction of our defective nature.

I still endorse 1, for just the reasons I've given before.

I still endorse both 2 and 3, and I think that 2 explains 3. The world is fallen because humanity is fallen; and the world's redemption will come about through humanity's redemption.

I still endorse 7. Indeed 7 is the claim that Christ makes possible our redemption, that Christ is the Atoner. I would add to it that Christ's life and death made possible the redemption of the whole of nature.

I have rejected 6. The Atonement was not at bottom pedagogical in purpose (though Christ was, among much else, a teacher). Rather, I said, we are not ready to learn Christ's lesson. We are defective in nature, defective in a way that makes us unable to act upon the Law of Love, and that defect must be corrected. The primary purpose of the Atonement is thus correction of a defective human nature. Christ came so that we might be made able to love.

Now, here's where the worry begins. I suspect that my rejection of 6 stands in tension with 4 and 5. Being immature is not identical to being defective. Indeed if we were only spiritually immature, we might be just as originally designed; and if we were as originally designed, there would be no need for Christ to fix us. Christ the perfect pedagogue we might need. Christ the healer of a broken human nature we would not.

Here's another way to make the point. If I continued to embrace 4 and 5, it seems that there would have been little need for God to become man; there would be no real need for Christ. If all we need is instruction, and evil is the means to it, then it would seen that a world without Christ would have all we need. But this is absurd. Christianity without a need for Christ is not really Christianity at all. The incarnation was necessary, and any theology with even the barest hint of plausibility must embrace this.

Here's where I am. We are more than simply spiritually immature (though we are perhaps that too). Instead there's a deeper, much deeper, issue. We are broken. We need a healer. Christ is that healer. I must then reject 4 and 5.

This marks a significant shift in my world-view. Perhaps I should say that I brought different parts of my world-view into contact, saw their inconsistency, and made a decision about what should stay and what should go. In later posts, I'll attempt to bring order and articulation to my views.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

When Commands Conflict

When presented with a multiplicity of commands as we are in the Decalogue, the possibility always exists that among those commands, we will find possible cases of conflict. Consider, for instance, the commands to keep the Sabbath holy and to honor father and mother. If I were to receive a call that my mother was in the hospital on a Saturday night, should I make the 6 hour drive to see her or should I say home and attend Mass? The answers seems obvious to me; indeed I would insist that it is obvious. But that point to the side, in this example commands conflict; and if we are to decide what to do, we cannot simply rely on these commands but must turn to a more basic command/rule/obligation that will allow us to adjudicate between the two. How will the more basic command accomplish this? It will rank the goods of the two commands; it will tell us which is more important and thus which is to be pursued in this case.

Thus commands can conflict, and I wish us here to consider the seek for the command/rule/obligation that will, as it were, break the tie . (Before I do, let me make a quick aside. I do not mean to say that any command can conflict with any other. Some commands are, no doubt, but special cases of others; and when this is so, no conflict is possible. Others might be strict logical consequences of other, higher-level, commands; and when this is so, again no conflict is possible.)

When commands conflict, we must have a way to decide what we are to do, and thus we must search for basic guides to action. Moreover, there must be a most basic guide; for if there were many that were equally basic, cases would arise where they conflict and action would become arbitrary or impossible.

Christ himself seems to have given us the way to decide. He says:

An expert in the law tested Jesus with this question, "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?" Jesus replied, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments." (Matthew 22:35-40)

This is the Law of Love. It is the one ultimate command, for as Christ says all others follow from it; and since all others follow from it, it can never contradict them. Rather, when lesser commands contradict, we must look to the Law of Love to adjudicate between them. Think back again to the case of conflict I considered above, where I must decide whether to keep the Sabbath holy or honor my mother. The Law of Love seems clearly applicable. My mother would wish to see him, and I would wish to see her. She loves me, and I her; and I would display the worst sort of lovelessness if I were not to see her. Moreover, that I would not keep the Sabbath seems, from the point of view of the Law of Love, of little importance in comparison. God will not suffer if I am not in church; and I will suffer much less if I go to my mother than I would if I did not.

My conclusion is this: the Law of Love, since it is the source of all other commands, must be allowed temper them all. None are absolute expect the Law of Love. All expect the Law of Love hold at best for the most part, and the duties they prescribe are, in part at least, situation bound. Only the Law of Love admits of no exceptions. When any other command contradicts the law of love, there we have an exception to it; and when commands conflict, the Law of Love must decide between them.

Moral absolutism, if taken to concern any command expect the Law of Love (and those commands that follow with strict necessity from it, if any there be) is fundamentally unchristian. Christians must not insist that all the various particular moral rules that are found in Scripture are absolute and without exception. By simple logical necessity, they are not. The only rule on which the Christian must insist is the Law of Love.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Reason and Morality

I argued here that our senses alone are not the source of all knowledge. In a reply to a comment, I extended the argument (in a way that I should have to begin); I now take it to prove that some knowledge cannot be traced back to the senses. Some of what we know we know by reason alone; reason does not always act upon the contents of sense.

Thus a certain possibility opens. Perhaps not just a little can be known by reason alone. Perhaps reason makes much known.

Below are a number of principles that seem to me rational in nature. They are not gotten out of the contents of sense by an inference either mediate or immediate. Indeed them seem to dictate which sorts of inferences made from the contents of sense are good ones and which are not. Some are stated. Others are merely referenced. (I would guess that none of the principles below is stated adequately. A lesson learned early on in philosophy is just how difficult it is to say something in a way that's not open to decisive, and in hindsight obvious, objections.)

1. Of all the possible explanations of a certain phenomena that present themselves, choose the one that is simplest. (What counts as simplicity in explanation is a matter of controversy, but most will agree to this: if two explanations are similar except that one posits more entities, or more kinds of entities, than the other, then the one that posits fewer is simpler.)

2. The principles of deductive and inductive logic (taken to encompass the injunction not to commit any fallacy).

3. The principles of probability, e.g. Bayes Theorem, a principle much beloved by philosophers

Let me add another to the list, one that might just have relevance to moral theory. (“F” is for “fair”. The principle is a principle of fairness.)

F. Treat similar cases similarly in ways demanded by their similarity; treat dissimilar cases dissimilarly in ways demanded by their dissimilarity.

An example will make the principle clear. Say that I have two figures before me, quadrilaterals let us say. I consider the first and find that, since it has four sides, it can be decomposed into two triangles; and from this I conclude that the sum of its interior angles must be 360º. (I know to begin that the sum of the interior angles of a triangle is 180º.) What then must I say about the other quadrilateral? It is similar to the other in respect of number of sides; thus it too must have interior angles that sum to 360º. The figures are similar in a respect relevant to the total degree measure of their angles; and thus the total degree measure of one must equal the total degree measure of the other.

Why might F have to do with moral theory? Here's my idea. I think that I matter (as you think that you matter). If you were to run roughshod over me, if we were to treat me as a mere thing to be used in any way that suits you, I would object. Indeed I would act to protect myself if necessary. But you and I are similar in a respect that is relevant here. You have needs and desires just as do I and would object if they were systematically disregarded. Thus principle F requires that I think that you matter too and so requires that, when I act, I don't discount how my actions will effect you.

My point is this: I don't think I matter just because I'm me. Being Franklin Mason is not what makes me value myself. Instead I value myself because I am a being with needs and desires, i.e. insofar as I am a being that places value on this or that, I count myself valuable. But sheer consistency then demands that I count you as valuable too, for that which makes my valuable in my own eyes is found in you just as much as in me.

If I'm right about this, then what seems to me the fundamental dictate of morality – that others are to be treated as if they matter just as much as me – seems to follow from a rational principle.

This conclusion has obvious consequences for the debate between moral relativists and moral absolutists. If some moral principle can be given a purely rational derivation, then it cannot be relative. I suspect that when relativists assert that all morality is relative, they have in mind the particular moral principles embraced by different peoples at different times. (Pork is verboten, a woman must walk 5 paces behind her husband, etc.) Such principles do seem relative; they likely have no foundation other than variable, idiosyncratic cultural practice. But I suggest that the relativist turn her attention from these particular principles to something more fundamental. I suggest she consider the principle that all are to be treated as if they matter just the same. This, it seems to me, has a claim to being absolute. (And it is my experiences that relativists come to their relativism out a deep respect for difference. But a deep respect for that seems to me to imply a deep respect for those people who hold those different opinions. And so it seems to me that relativists embrace, even if only tacitly, the very principle that I've articulated.)

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Reason and the Senses

I wish us to consider the means whereby we acquire knowledge of the world and which of those means are at work in our knowledge of the transcendent. (“God” will be my short-hand for the transcendent.) Now, one might suppose that the only way to gain knowledge of God is through some sort of causal interaction with God on one end and humanity on the other. On this model, God would be sensed much as would tastes or smells; and we would have to suppose that we have an organ of sense whose natural object is God. If one did suppose this, one might be tempted to reject the possibility of knowledge of God. Why? Science has given us no evidence that we have such a sense-organ, and science seems as well to rule out the possibility of a God-world causal interaction.

I wish us, then, to consider this claim, the claim that the sole possible access to God is through sense. In the end, I will reject it. It provides an overly restrictive account of the myriad ways in which we come to know the world.

The so-called senses – sight, taste and the rest - cannot be the only means whereby we come to know the world. Indeed even if we were to assume that our senses were increased in number and we thereby came to have access to aspects of the physical world hidden to us now, they still would not be, could not be, the only means whereby we come to know the world. Let me explain. The senses place us in causal relation to the world. The world acts, the senses receive; and at the end of this process, the brain takes in the input of the senses and produces a mental representations that bears the distinctive marks of the sensory modality that gives rise to them. (The mental representations of sight have color and shape, for instance.)

But our knowledge of the world is not always receptive in this way. Not all knowledge can be reduced to sensory representations. But what else is there? What is the source of this other sort of knowledge?

Reason must be part of the answer. Consider, for instance, a proposition like one that Reitan considered in his post on Logical Empiricism.

All genuine propositions, that is all propositions that actually manage to mean something or other, are empirical in the sense that their truth makes a difference in the empirical order of things.

This proposition self-refutes. (It itself has no empirical content – its truth makes no difference in the empirical order. Thus if true, it implies that it itself means nothing. Thus it cannot be true, and if it cannot be true, it must be false.) Thus we know that its negation is true. But its negation is a non-empirical proposition, and so some of what we know we come to know in a non-empirical way. How might we describe the way in which we come to know this? It looks like philosophical argumentation to me, and I know of no better name for the ability to do that than “reason”.

A point here about reason. It cannot be labeled as subjective. The little philosophical argument above is, it seems to me, quite objectively cogent. It does not merely report how I feel. It results in a conclusion that tells us a bit about the world outside our heads, and everyone, it seems to me, is obligated by sheer logic to grant the truth of its conclusion. (I grant that the knowledge it gives us is negative and thus not really that informative. But we do know something when its over that we did not know before, and that something is really quite important. We know that some genuine, non-empirical propositions are true.)

A second point about reason. Its deliverances aren't like the those of the senses. It has no distinctive phenomenological character as do each of the sense modalities. There's no color, taste or sound to it. There's no way that it feels. Moreover, there is no organ of reason as there is for sight or the other senses. There are no eyes of reason, or ears or nose. Reason is not a faculty whereby the world acts upon us and we as a result build up internal representations of one or another aspect of that world. Reason is rather of the nature of a mental activity. With this, we show that a certain view of how we come to know the world around us is false. On that view, all cognitive content, all that we know, can we reduced to sensory representations. Reason gives us truths that are not sensory in character.

Last point: it seems to me that, once we open to door to non-sensory means to acquire knowledge, we cannot assume that we've got a good grip on what those means are, either their nature or their number. Might there be moral knowledge, for instance? I suspect so, but if this post shows anything, it shows that we cannot rule such a possibility out from the get-go.

(Now, it is of course a very good question how the brain accomplishes this activity I've called reason. I don't have an answer. Indeed I'm not even convinced that the brain could do any such thing as this. At times, I suspect that a soul must be posited as the seat of reason. But my ignorance about this issue does not in the least undermine my argument. Good questions need not be objections.)

Let me reiterate: there are sources to knowledge of the world that do not require that there be a means of transmission of information from world to mind via any sort of causal interaction. Of course some sources of knowledge do require this, and these are the senses. But there is also an intra-mental source of knowledge whereby by reflection alone we can come to discover truths which before we did not know. Knowledge does not in all cases require interaction with the external world. Thus we cannot say that if we know anything of God, we must do so through a sensory apprehension of him. There are other possibilities.

I understand very well that the waters are deep here. I've said little about what I take reason to be, and I've said about how it relates to sense. Moreover, I've only barely hinted at the possibility of other non-sensory sorts of knowledge. But there is a germ of an idea here that I think the theist wise to seize. (I'll speak in metaphors for a moment. I can do no better at present. I apologize.) God is not wholly outside us. He is within us too, and thus we ought to expect to meet him in reflection upon ourselves. Indeed this is the only way in which we meet him. There is no organ with which to sense God, nor need there be. God is met when the mind detaches from the concreta delivered up by the senses and asks after such things as ultimate origin and ultimate purpose. The God who is in us – the only God there is or could be – is not to be found in sky or earth. There are found only the creations of God. Only when in reflection we turn to questions of the origin of the world and its significance do we find God.