Category Archives: Philosophy

Be Good for Goodness Sake?

…remind them that this phrase is a line from a Christmas song whose message is that you should be good so that you are rewarded for it on Christmas.

Source: Be Good for Goodness Sake?

Cecile the Lioness


No, not “Cecil”—that unfortunate feline whose death is the recent cause of a global (but undoubtedly faddish) uproar. Cecile, as in Mrs. Cecile Richards—the no less unfortunate president of Planned Parenthood.

This coincidental lexical similarity between the names of two major figures in separate, but heavily reported, current events is in this case more than a mere curiosity, for the apposition serves to illustrate a regrettable reality: a contemporary milieu which—if I may—doesn’t know its head from its ass, morally speaking. Though it is easy to over-generalize in such discussions, there is at least a prima facie truth to the morbidity lurking behind the apparent comedy currently unfolding in the media over the death of Cecil the lion. What is comedic is not the lion’s death, but the resulting overreaction (e.g., here and here); what is morbid is the relative quiet of those same incensed individuals with regard to recent footage (here & here) leaked from discussions with those in the upper echelons of Planned Parenthood and its affiliates, which at least appears to show them nonchalantly haggling over the price of aborted fetal body parts. Whether Planned Parenthood is guilty of such allegations is irrelevant to my point; for if they are even possibly guilty, then the case is worthy of our full attention. In any case, if abortion is in most instances but a particular brand of unjustifiable homicide—as it is in my view—then this latest scandal only renders more egregious the moral aberrations which comprise Planned Parenthood’s standard (and advertised) operating procedure. As aptly remarked by Brit Hume, these latest revelations have “parted the veil of antiseptic tidiness” behind which Planned Parenthood has couched its gruesome operation. But the real problem is not the sale of fetal body parts; it is that there are such parts to sell.

That a large segment of the population exhausts itself in paroxysmal fits over the killing of a large, if impressive, cat, yet barely manages to produce a stifled yawn over the killing (and possible sale) of human babies is nothing less than appalling. Jimmy Kimmel, while quite concerned to defend Cecil, has apparently not seen fit to devote any portion of his show to rousing the moral sensibilities of his audience with regard to the cavalier execution of underdeveloped children. Perhaps among his audience there are few such sensibilities left to rouse. I have no special distaste for Mr. Kimmel; I mention him as but one among a large swath of the population whose attitudes appear to confirm Francis Schaffer’s observation that what was unthinkable a short time ago has not only become thinkable, but commonplace.

Likewise, National Geographic, despite being a longtime advocate for the oppressed around the world, aired a regal portrait of male lion “in memory of Cecil” on its Instagram account, complete with an impassioned plea to stop the hunting of endangered animals—an entreaty any true conservationist could easily endorse. But when synchronically juxtaposed with the chorus of crickets surrounding the ongoing scandal at Planned Parenthood, signing a petition to “save the lions” is worse than hollow; it is evidence of a severe disorder among our moral priorities. If “lions are people, too,” perhaps it is time to remind ourselves of what ought to be a trivial truth: that “people are people, too.” To call this epidemic of moral confusion “unfortunate” insofar as it concerns the murder and mutilation of our young is an understatement on the order of calling Michelangelo’s painting in the Sistine Chapel “nice.”

It is in this vein that I have referred to Mrs. Richards as “unfortunate”: anyone who has convinced herself that an institution offering to screen you for cancer with the left hand and to crush your unborn child into pieces with the right is an important instrument in facilitating the common good is morally debased. Such a person is not to be hated, but pitied. I have no doubts that Planned Parenthood does provide services which are of benefit to various communities. Indeed, Mrs. Richards does not hesitate to remind us of this fact in an article—rife with euphemism of Orwellian proportions—that she penned for The Washington Post, lest we should undergo amnesia amidst all this malicious hullabaloo brought on by “the extremists.” Clearly, however, if abortion is the unjustified killing of a human being—and that is the issue—then there is no other healthcare “service” one may provide such that abortion is rendered morally justifiable. A single abortion is not made acceptable by performing a million successful STD screenings. Even including abortion under the “healthcare” umbrella is a sort of sick joke; for it does little for the health or the care of those aborted.

I wish to make one other point, and that is to register an observation regarding Mrs. Richard’s pejorative use of the term “extremists.” So long as they are willing to put forth an argument, two individuals might civilly disagree over the question of whether unborn humans possess an intrinsic right to life. But if the matter is epistemically unsettled (i.e., we do not know whether unborn humans possess an intrinsic right to life), then it is at least epistemically possible that unborn humans possess a right to life. If it is possible that unborn humans possess a right to life, then it is possible that killing them results in a moral transgression (i.e., it is possible that abortion is murder). In such a case, far from being an “extremist,” the person who maintains that unborn humans possess a right to life chooses the “safe” option; for if he is himself uncertain whether unborn humans possess a right to life, it is clearly preferable in the abstract to choose the option which is least likely to result in a moral transgression.

Moreover, if it is the deceptive methods used to obtain the footage in question that Mrs. Richards considers the criterion of “extremism,” I demur yet again. On the contrary, if a person believes that it is even possible that a moral transgression is taking place in the case of abortion, this is exactly the kind of activity in which he should engage. He should expose the practice for what it is. We laud (and ought to laud) the undercover operations of those involved in liberating women from the sex trade. Likewise, the person who sees abortion as a crime against human individuals has no recourse but to appeal to the moral sensibilities of his peers (if any remain) and to the Almighty. Even if we disagree with the conclusion of such a person, surely we must applaud his motives. Indeed, if an “extremist” is simply a committed abolitionist—someone whose actions reflect a serious commitment to ending the practice of feeding our children to the proverbial lions (or lionesses, as the case may be)—then I count myself among their number.

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Private Milk and Social Vinegar

Photo credit: biography.com

Photo credit: biography.com

According to the sort of wisdom one gleans from overhearing people at social gatherings and coffee shops, as with milk and vinegar one ought never to mix religion and politics. The degree to which this is true depends heavily on what is meant by the word “mix”; for theocracies have certainly in most cases been of the most tyrannical variety, tending as they do to place a divine impetus behind any and every moral atrocity. C.S. Lewis observed that “theocracy has been rightly abolished not because it is bad that learned priests should govern ignorant laymen, but because priests are wicked men like the rest of us” (The Weight of Glory). Indeed, history makes a truly damning case against any system of governance that grants tremendous power to broken and afflicted men – which is to say all men.

It is, however, a great error to suppose that, as Mr. Hitchens bitterly put it, it is religion that poisons everything. This is an increasingly popular sentiment, and its refrain echoes down the halls of the university and is reverberated by young atheists before they have scarcely learned how to spell “Nietzsche.”

But even if Mr. Hitchens were correct, then surely none of us, not even the ostensibly impervious Mr. Hitchens himself, is exempt; for whatever ill effects we may be forced by circumstance to endure at the hands of others – as in a theocrac­y – the greater and necessarily more potent dose of poison is the one self-administered. Philosophy – for that is what a religion is, after all – cannot be escaped. If a person believes anything, he believes in a religion. As any parent will attest, this religion is from the earliest moments of childhood one of Self. It is only later that some children learn clever nomenclature by which to declare in exalted tones their religion of Self as being one of utilitarianism or humanism or collectivism – all various philosophical rearrangements of social self-service.

Contrary to what one might initially be inclined to suppose on the basis of the terminology, there is no atheistic utilitarianism, no atheistic system of ethics, that is not at its very core selfish. Materialism has the very unpleasant consequence of making selfish even the motivations for altruism. The opening line of Oscar Wilde’s 1891 essay, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, reads, “The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody” (emphasis mine). Wilde’s honesty is exceedingly rare in such circles. Any notions of selflessness espoused by a materialist cannot be anything but farcical; and any materialist who is not a hedonist must be a very foolish materialist indeed, for he has been duped into thinking that there is some “greater good” that exists outside himself, beyond his short life, and for which he ought to sacrifice. Reflecting on his eventual abandonment of Leftist ideals in the conclusion to his memoir, Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens writes:

I suspect that the hardest thing for the idealist to surrender is the teleological, or the sense that there is some feasible, lovelier future that can be brought nearer by exertions in the present, and for which “sacrifices” are justified. With some part of myself, I still “feel,” but no longer really think, that humanity would be the poorer without this fantastically potent illusion. “A map of the world that did not show Utopia,” said Oscar Wilde, “would not be worth consulting.” I used to adore that phrase, but now reflect more upon the shipwrecks and prison island to which the quest has led. (p. 420)

The only kind of sacrifice that a materialist can consistently endorse is the kind that has some prospect of benefit in the here and now. Any notions of the “greater good” or objective progress, political or otherwise, necessarily assume the existence of a kind of transcendence that can only reside in the supernatural. Thus, the professing materialist who fiercely defends selflessness as a virtue is not really a materialist at all.

It cannot be called clever – cute, perhaps­­ – the way in which some atheists claim in bouts of counterproductive conceit to only “lack belief” in God, rather than believing positively that God does not exist. Nevermind that this places them squarely on par with rocks, cats, and every other thing incapable of thought or rationality. Theists, on this view, are literally the only exception to that which may be called “atheist.” Yet how mendacious it would be of theists to espouse a lack of belief in atheism rather than to assume the burden of proof that necessarily accompanies every positive claim! Atheists ought not to get a pass in fancying themselves devoid of religion simply because they have defined religion in such a way as to exclude themselves. They are like the politician who fancies himself above politics by referring to himself as an “independent.” The person who considers himself a strictly objective observer simply because he ascribes to a form of philosophical materialism exhibits a very crass sort of disingenuousness, as if because of his rejection of the supernatural his actions (and therefore his politics) do not arise as a direct result of his deeply held beliefs.

The person who thinks it possible to separate religious conviction from political influence shows that he understands neither religion nor politics. One’s religion necessarily touches everything, or else it touches nothing, and therefore cannot be said to be a religion in any meaningful sense of the word. A professing Muslim, for example, who neither prays, nor exercises charity, nor fasts, nor makes the hajj is as good a Muslim as any atheist, and indeed–if he were honest with himself–might very well be one. He is like the atheist who acts selflessly.

Acting on the basis of religious conviction does not necessarily imply a coercive governmental system (i.e. theocracy). A person is not only able to exercise his convictions without becoming onerous, he truly has no choice in the matter. He can choose not to oppress those with whom he disagrees, but he cannot choose to act apart from his convictions. Claims that any influence of religious conviction upon politics is oppressive (or preventable) cannot be regarded seriously. A person claiming to act in denial of his personal philosophy only serves to clarify just what is his true philosophy. A politician claiming, for instance, to value the lives of unborn children, yet who endorses legislation to the contrary by way of appeals to a Jeffersonian “wall of separation,” only shows that his true beliefs (and therefore his religion­) afford a higher value to personal “liberty” – a truly vulgar use of the word in this context – than to the preservation of life. We may well argue the degree to which one’s beliefs ought to take shape in public policy – a distinction similar to that between applied ethics and morality – but it is not my intent to do so here; only to suggest that a complete detachment is impossible.

Thus, conceptions of politics that envision policy derived apart from one’s fundamental beliefs are illusory. In justification for such a notion, however, one often hears atheists make monopoloid claims upon “reason” as being their sole guide. These atheists exhibit a fundamentalism worse than even the most legalistic Christian; for at least the Christian realizes he has a religion. This sort of atheist is so religious, so blindly devoted to reason, that he is not even aware of it. (Nevermind that, despite Kant’s impressive efforts, virtue seems not to be explained–at the very least not without great difficulty–by the proposal that it is grounded in rational principle.)

But a person need not be aware of his own religion in order to exercise it, for it is out of the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks (Mt. 12:34). Everyone lives his life by what he believes, consciously or not, to be true; that is his religion, and no amount of semantic squirming or disdain for the word is capable of severing the necessary dependence of his actions (and votes) upon it.

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Stereotypes, the TSA, and Christian Legalism

At the root of any stereotype there is at least some kernel of truth; for a stereotype, even if it is rarely true, is at the very least not always false. The fact that I tend to regard employees of the Transportation Security Administration as a largely disagreeable bunch is not because it is true that they are always disagreeable, but because in my experience they have seemed to make a peevish attitude rather the rule than the exception; though I suspect that anyone whose job it is to daily perform the practical equivalent of herding cats might find their patience understandably stressed. Still, if one is to be violated, it might at least be with a smile.

Likewise, there is a general sentiment among skeptics that Christians are essentially like the TSA: always patting people down and cavalierly putting fun or apparently useful objects into the rubbish. “Christian” may as well be synonymous with “killjoy.” I wish this sentiment were entirely untrue, but I have encountered these unpleasant types myself. They are like the person who thinks it their sacred duty to cheerfully broadcast their diet regimen to everyone in the vicinity of the hors d’oeuvres. There is nothing wrong either with diets or hors d’oeuvres, but there is something to be said for tact.

But poor tact is not the real problem of the legalist. Finding life much easier to navigate when separated neatly into clearly defined compartments, he can make little sense of the notion that it might be perfectly acceptable for him to drink alcohol in his own home and sinful for him to drink it at his alcoholic brother’s. For the legalist, “alcohol” is synonymous with “drunkenness”. He thinks that since recreational sex is immoral outside of marriage, recreational sex is always immoral. He thinks that an expletive uttered in pain is the same as an expletive uttered in anger. Rather than trouble himself with considerations of an act’s proper context, he finds it simpler either to perform it wantonly or to banish it altogether. The world in which the legalist lives is not the one in which he finds himself, but the one he fashions in his own conscience. He worships himself as Judge, at the feet of his own law. A legalist knows little about mercy and everything about judgment. Wielding a microscope, he is ignorant of planks but an expert on specks. In his own failings he grants himself a pardon; in the failings of others he issues only a sentence. In his zeal to subdue the world with his gavel, the legalist has forgotten his real place in the defendant’s chair.

Though there is some truth to the charge of Christian legalism, it would be equally in error to suppose legalism the result of Christian doctrine as it would be to suppose fascism the result of being German. If there was one thing that drew the ire of Christ, it was the religious hypocrisy and legalism of the Pharisees. Christ was, first, Savior and, second, the great anti-legalist; and to be Christian without following Christ is (crudely) even worse than being French and having no regard for cheese. Legalism is as much a thorn in the side of Christianity as it is annoying to the skeptic. Nevertheless, the skeptic, being predisposed to believe anything that might serve to justify his skepticism, will eagerly take any example of abuse and hold it up as doctrine. Thus, every Christian becomes a hypocrite, a Pharisee, an Inquisitor, and a Crusader; for the rejection of a faith which produces moral abominations is clearly much easier than one that produces Pauls, Livingstones, Müllers, Elliots, Bonhoeffers, and Liddells. The late Mr. Hitchens said quite soberly that religion poisons everything. It is difficult to take such statements seriously. That some religions poison some things is certain, but I think I should just as soon point to unruly school children as evidence that education poisons everything. Nevermind that atrocities are committed only in spite of Christ’s example; the skeptic would have us believe that He is at best a fiction and, at worst, Lucifer himself.

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The Regression of Progressivism: Chasing Ephemeral Carrot Sticks

If among the political factions into which America has carved itself there is one point of agreement, it is that one ought to seek progress above all else. I am well aware that it is precisely the differing opinions about just what the word “progress” means that form the party lines, but it is nonetheless the one truly common interest. It is for this reason that we must suspiciously regard any political sect that seeks to absorb the word “progress” into its title, as if this were not also the goal of every one of its competitors. It is as good as a sports team calling itself “The Winners” or adherents to secular philosophy, “Brights”; it is at best presumptuous, and at worst compensation for some real deficit.

Progress of any sort, if we are to avoid talking nonsense, is impossible if there is not some understood End towards which we are advancing. Practically, such an End may be arbitrary, and even a cursory historical survey will reveal that men have never found themselves at a loss in contriving plenteous and contradictory goals for which they are willing to sacrifice themselves (or, more likely, everything and everyone but themselves). Napoleon sought to attain land above all else; the Nazis sought to attain racial purity above all else; the American Revolutionaries sought to attain liberty above all else; and it is against these sort of Ends that every other action within a particular paradigm is weighed.

As it concerns progressivism, we must ask: just what does it regard as its supreme goal? Doubtless, in asking a hundred different progressives one is likely to get at least two-hundred different answers, but we may at least look at the cause as it has manifested itself thus far. One may take its regard for human life, for example; for “progressivism” is in this case really only a moral regression. It is a morbid fact that progressives cheerfully offer up the lives of children on the altar of “personal liberty”. It is made worse by the fact that they think they have done something truly revolutionary in human history, and all, quite ironically and reprehensibly, in the name of moral and political “progress”. The Canaanites were sacrificing their children to the Baals long before even the Greeks decided (very progressively) to leave theirs to die in the elements simply for convenience’s sake. Having more sophisticated instruments for such tasks only serves to advance one thing: efficiency; and it is the combination of moral depravity and efficiency that has birthed such monstrosities as Auschwitz. If societal efficiency is itself the goal, as it is with bees and ants and any other swarming creature, the progressive movement is very dangerous indeed; for there is no barbarity too great so long as it is committed in the name of the colony. There is not one vice which cannot be made more efficient through either science or politics.

On the subject of economics, the progressive is rather unsure how he feels about the matter. Though he feels strongly that he wants money (and as much of it as possible), he knows just as strongly that people who actually do possess a lot of money should not have it, or at least not as much. He seeks to raise taxes, but only on those who have more money than himself. He maintains that one ought always to act charitably towards the impoverished, but only when coerced by the state. He believes that the government exists to provide him with a job, and, if it fails, to pay him anyway. If there is something he cannot have, neither should anyone else; after all, it is only fair. Thus, progressivism is really just a kind of socialism masquerading under a different guise.

If liberalism was the correction of tyranny, progressivism is its vast overcorrection.

It might be suggested that not everyone desires political progress (in the case of anarchists and the politically apathetic, for example); but the anarchist merely regards the dissolution of the state as the height of political progress; that is his goal. It is his carrot on a stick, so-to-speak. As to the politically apathetic, I am fairly certain there are really no such persons, at least in an absolute sense. There would be none so unreasonable as to greet the Gestapo with a shrug of the shoulders and invite them in for tea; apathy meets its limit precisely when the state’s encroachment becomes impossible to ignore. It is then when apathy undergoes a fierce metamorphosis: it is changed in an instant from a grub into the fiery butterfly of revolutionary fervor. One who asserts his political apathy is like the Pompeiian who claims indifference to volcanoes: Either he will wake one morning to find his indifference suddenly buried under a heap of ash, or he will not wake at all.

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Postmodern Baby Strollers

Having previously swallowed the bitter pill of modernism, contemporary society, apparently having found lacking satisfaction in the acceptance of false truths, has given up the trouble of assessing propositions and seen fit to dispense with the idea of truth altogether. The embrace of the postmodern paradigm, properly understood as it pertains to the alleged relativity of truth, is an act as impossible as erecting a house without a foundation; but considerations of consistency have not seemed to bother its adherents or in any way slowed its societal advance.

The contemporary postmodern is at every turn plagued by contradiction. He regards tolerance as the highest virtue, though he grants himself a special exemption insofar as it concerns his treatment of the exclusivists. He will argue until he is blue in the face that, since there is no truth, arguing is pointless. He knows absolutely that we can know absolutely nothing. He repudiates morality on the basis of his own moral law. In the same breath he praises science and spurns the metaphysics on which science necessarily relies. He is worse than a pot calling a kettle black; he is a pot denouncing the very idea of cooking ware.

Postmodernism has in politics come under the auspicious title of “Progressivism”, and its spindly fingers have left almost nothing untouched; and whatever it has touched, it has turned squarely on its head. I mean, of course, that supreme guiding principle of American and European politics: political correctness. For instance, in thinking that by tolerating everything they are elevating the virtue of fairness, postmoderns have got it exactly backwards; for fairness is necessarily based on the assumption of justice, and justice must have some Standard. Though it knows nothing, postmodernism knows, at least, that words like “Standard”, “absolute”, and “universal” are only deserving of contempt. Thus, there is hardly any exception for which the postmodern or progressive is not perfectly happy to make a new rule. Nevermind that swimming is enjoyable, we must do away with it to prevent drowning. Nevermind that cake is delicious, it must be forbidden lest children become obese. Nevermind that young boys have always pretended to shoot each other, they must be suspended lest they become murderers.

I once saw a warning on a baby stroller that said “REMOVE BABY BEFORE FOLDING”. While I appreciated the manufacturer’s willingness to provide assistance to what must certainly be the most modest of intelligences, I wondered that it did not also say “DO NOT LEAVE BABY UNATTENDED IN AIRPORTS, STREETS, BARS, BEAR CAVES, ABORTION CLINICS, OR VOLCANOS, ETC”. But, more likely, the manufacturer was not trying to be helpful at all but was only taking precautionary measures against a potential lawsuit. A society in which a person can fold their own baby into a stroller and not only attempt to sue the manufacturer of the stroller, but win, has certainly not got long left.

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On the Nature of Rights

In speaking with advocates of some social or political cause, often one need not wait very long before the central justification of it is unearthed: “Well, it’s our right, of course” – a phrase which is not uncommonly uttered in such a way as is intended to make the inquiring party seem at least a little foolish for not having recognized this apparent fact at the outset. There seems to be a tendency to appropriate the term “right” too capriciously, however, apparently in view of its practical evangelistic value in lending to a cause some moral import, yet often in the absence of consideration of what the term actually means. We are told, for example, that access to marijuana is a social right; that socialized healthcare is a human right; that abortion-on-demand is a woman’s right; and, in every case, we are told these things with the implication that anyone who infringes upon these principles is guilty of some real moral infraction. If such infractions are indeed possible, then it is clearly of value to attempt to understand just what is a right. It it the aim of this essay to investigate some considerations relevant to this endeavor.

Rights can be understood, generally, in two ways: natural (what one might appropriately call “moral”) and civil. A civil right is a protection granted by a government or state, in which the state is understood to be the highest authority to which one can appeal in the case of transgression; that is, it is a protection codified in law, applicable to citizens of a particular state, but which is not necessarily considered to be applicable universally (1). For instance, a land owner might appeal to the law in seeking to prosecute those trespassing illegally on his property. In this case it is his civil right, granted by relevant state law, to prevent unwanted persons from stepping onto his property (it is only “his” property by civil right, also; as opposed to being his by virtue of some transcendent claim to ownership). His appeal may be upheld in court, or it may be struck down. If it is struck down, the land owner may challenge the ruling; but in the case of what he deems an unjustified rejection, he cannot possibly hope to hold the government accountable solely on the basis of his civil rights alone, but must appeal to some transcendent Principle. The Principle to which he appeals may, practically, be a rational ideal with respect to some particular end (i.e. self-interest or some other purpose which may be either empirical or subjective), but to be “transcendent” is to refer to its universal applicability to rational beings with respect to some real ontological ground. (2)

If, in this case, such a Principle exists at all (the example is purely hypothetical), it must be understood to be a natural right. Such a right is “natural” in that it is intrinsic to every rational being (person), so that, while a state may recognize it by inscribing it into law, no state has the power either to create or to annihilate it. This is precisely what was meant by the writers of the American Declaration of Independence in describing certain rights as being “inalienable.”

In contrast to civil rights, natural rights are not law, but Law; that is, they are metaphysical and in every way as immutable, universal, and eternal as the laws of logic. They differ, however, in that they possess the component of duty, since, if such rights exist, every person is inescapably bound by a moral necessity to uphold them. (3)

Moral values are conceptual subdivisions of the Moral Law in its totality. A natural right is a moral value stated in the form of a protection. For example, justice, aside from considerations of its administration in particular cases, is universally regarded as a moral value (4). One might frame it this way: “It is always morally good to treat other persons at least according their deserts.” (I say “at least” to leave room for the values of mercy and grace.) Stated as a right, it might read thus: “It is every person’s moral obligation to act justly with respect to other persons”; that is, every person is protected (in principle, not in actual circumstances) from injustice by a transcendent Moral Law. Every natural right is framed in such a way as to make it a protection against transgression of some moral value.

But how can natural rights be understood to exist? The answer is, I believe, tied to one of the most fundamental questions of philosophy: whether or not God exists (5). “God” is here understood to mean the greatest conceivable being. If God exists, then he exists necessarily, by virtue of his own nature, in every possible world.

While one might appeal to something like platonic forms as an explanation of natural rights, it is my view that God serves as at least a plausible, if not necessary, ground for the Moral Law and, therefore, rights; for a Moral Law necessarily implies Consequence; that is, either reward or punishment for compliance or transgression respectively; and Consequence cannot be understood without respect to some Law-Giver (or else some brute platonic principle). Those incredulous of such a claim need only consider the nature of moral values in order to realize this fact. For instance, to use our previous example, justice is conceptually meaningful only in the context of persons. Imagine a state of affairs in which no rational beings exist. Where, then, is justice? Can inanimate objects be either just or unjust? What would it even mean to assert that justice exists as an entity in the absence of rationality? An attempt to describe the nature of justice without the context of rational beings, so far as I can tell, is incoherent; and if there is any conceivable state of affairs in which justice does not exist as a transcendent moral value, it, like any other moral value, is clearly not metaphysically necessary in and of its own nature. However, if one does affirm justice as being a transcendent moral value (i.e. part of the Moral Law), then in the absence of a philosophical presupposition to the contrary, one must regard some Person as at least plausibly being its ontological ground.

In a state of affairs in which no Moral Law exists (we will call this a materialistic universe), it is difficult to comprehend how there can be real universal moral indictments of any person whatever; for the existence of natural rights is the necessary fundamental justification for indicting individuals or states in any case where they are perceived to have transgressed the Moral Law (e.g. the Nazis) (6). The question, then, is whether it is possible, or even coherent, for a Moral Law to exist in a materialistic universe.

In such a state of affairs, there is only one place for the materialist to turn in seeking justification for natural rights: reason. Given that the principles of metaphysics we refer to as the Laws of Logic are understood to exist necessarily, it is the only realm which contains any potential for establishing a foundation for natural rights. This was Kant’s endeavor, to establish morality firmly on the basis of reason alone, such that one should “act only according to that maxim whereby [one] can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law” (7). This was Kant’s “categorical imperative.”

However, reason is itself morally neutral and can be used to justify ends that are morally contradictory. G.K. Chesterton, in his book, Orthodoxy, described this potential contradiction in the context of madness:

“The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense, satisfactory. Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable; this may be observed especially in the two or three commonest kinds of madness. . . . If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators, which is exactly what conspirators would do. His explanation covers the facts as much as yours. . . . Nevertheless, he is wrong. . . . Now, speaking quite externally and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable mark of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction. The lunatics’ theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason” (8).

Kant said that rational beings must be viewed as ends in themselves, and not merely as means to an end; but on what basis are we to suppose that, if empirical or pragmatic concerns are to be discounted, there is any such moral obligation to view rational beings in such a way? If I do indeed view other rational beings as ends in themselves and act accordingly, by what Principle have I done anything of real moral worth? In order to differentiate between Good and Evil, there must exist some Standard. This Standard is the Moral Law.

Empirical and pragmatic concerns must necessarily be discounted as possible ontological foundations for natural rights; for they are inherently arbitrary (or, at least, not metaphysically objective); and reason, as we have seen, fails to provide adequate justification for real moral obligation, since it is morally neutral and therefore incapable of Consequence.

Thus, if God does not exist, it is impossible to assert any meaningful appeal to some right or “higher” ideal than that which is given by the state, or that which is otherwise a convention. Indeed, in a materialistic universe, there is no ideal, whether moral or otherwise, which can be understood apart from, or above, convention; for in every case would the conception of morality owe its existence to a cause or an end that is not metaphysically necessary (i.e. it could have been otherwise). Yet, any natural right to which one may make a meaningful appeal is inextricably tied to an ontological ground which is metaphysically necessary (e.g. God). For example, given materialism, a belief that rape is morally good cannot be disputed except by appeal to civil law, pragmatism (i.e. it hinders some subjective goal, such as human “well-being”), or outright opinion, each of which is inherently arbitrary. An appeal to apparently universal tendencies or beliefs supposedly invested in humans by natural selection might form the basis for an appeal to objectivity, but not necessity, and certainly not Goodness; for evolution could potentially have invested humans with moral beliefs in direct contradiction to those we currently possess.

Natural rights, then, are only reasonably grounded in God. To summarize, the argument may be formulated thus:

1.) God is the only explanation for the Moral Law

2.) Natural rights only exist if there is a Moral Law

3.) Natural rights exist.

4.) Therefore, God exists.

Now, given that rights are always stated in the form of a protection against moral transgression, how might an appeal to, say, universal healthcare as a natural right be formulated? (We must assume that such appeals are made on the basis of natural, rather than civil rights in the effort to achieve legal change, since it is impossible to appeal to civil rights which do not yet exist.)

1.) Persons possess a natural right to live.

2.) One’s health is directly related to one’s ability to live.

3.) Therefore, every person is morally obligated to contribute to every other person’s health. (This is, presumably, the guiding principle of proponents of universal healthcare, though it is clearly impossible for practical reasons to contribute to literally every person’s health.)

One need not consider this argument long before hitting upon several significant problems (though, perhaps the argument could be better formulated). First, to claim moral obligation with respect to something as unquestionably vague as another person’s “health” is quite a slippery slope indeed; for one could quite easily make a case for how just about anything could contribute to some facet of a person’s health. Second, given that contributing to another person’s health would require some positive action on my part; namely, providing financial support, it makes itself out to be not a protection from transgression, but a veritable enslavement. That is to say, one is alleged to have violated the Moral Law by not actively contributing to another person’s health. One might illustrate the insanity of such reasoning by any number of examples.

For instance, if we grant that the right to life is indeed a natural right, one can easily make a case for a right to self-defense. In the American Constitution, this right is recognized in the form of the 2nd Amendment (the right to bear arms) (9). However, an extrapolation analogous to that used to justify universal healthcare would suggest that other people are morally obligated to in some way contribute to my ability to defend myself; namely, by providing, or paying for, effective armament of some sort. Citing the police force or the military as such a contribution would be incorrect; for they do not and cannot cover every situation in which I would require self-defense as thoroughly as universal healthcare would, at least theoretically, regarding my health. For example, if I have a natural right to life, I have a natural right to defend myself in any situation in which my life is being threatened without just provocation. The police cannot possibly hope to protect me in every such situation or even in the majority of such scenarios. However, universal healthcare is supposed to apply to any and every situation in which my health requires attention, even to those aspects of “health” as remote as contraception. Therefore, in order to bridge the gap between the potential protection of my life by the police and the much more likely case that my self-defense will depend on some means directly available to me (e.g. firearm, tazer, knife, etc), one is forced to admit (if consistency is to be valued) that the public is under moral obligation to in some way contribute to my ability to defend myself. In other words, one has broken the Moral Law if they do not either pay for my armament or provide it directly. Also, in view of the specific provisions of the recent Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which levies a tax upon those refusing to purchase the government’s flavor of healthcare, should one be taxed, according to our previous example, for not contributing to every citizen’s personal armament? This is manifest nonsense; yet it is but the consistent application of the arguments implied by the movement to achieve universal healthcare.

Clearly, the example of the appeal to universal healthcare as a natural right, if I have accurately described it, is absurd and in no way such a right as they are generally understood to exist. The common trend of exchanging the word “privilege” for “right” owes its explanation, in my opinion, both to a genuine ignorance as to the very meaning of the word “right” (and how it differs from “privilege”), and to a recognition of the fact that one is only likely to get what one wants by use of the latter. The use of the term in the context of healthcare is but one example of its unscrupulous appropriation.

Thus, we have seen some general considerations, at least, of the nature of rights, though I have only but scratched the surface of the subject. In view of the frequency with which appeals to rights of any sort are made, we would do well to inquire of those from whom such appeals originate as to just what is meant. Indeed, in doing so we shall in some cases find that the word “right” is but one of many terms bandied about thoughtlessly for the purpose of personal or political gain. However, for those interested in truth and honesty and consistency, a more careful approach is warranted.

Notes:

1.) A civil law may be a natural right, by virtue of having been officially recognized (but not created) by the state, but in such a case the duty to uphold the law must necessarily find its ontological ground in something that transcends the state (i.e. the Moral Law).

2.) An “ontological ground” is that to which any thing, whether physical or metaphysical, owes its existence by virtue of an explanation of its being; that is, its foundation in reality.

3.) That is morally necessary which must be affirmed by the will (the disposition of the will is formed prior to, or at least simultaneous with action) or else incur fault in transgressing some real Moral Law to which all persons are beholden. There can be no such moral necessity, or duty, if there is no Moral Law, but only subjective inclination, the formation of which is shaped by arbitrary (not universally binding) criteria (e.g. a person may regard cruelty to children as evil, but in the absence of a Moral Law, his belief is as arbitrary as the cause of his belief, which may owe its being to genetics, social convention, or some pragmatic end).

4.) I would maintain that justice is universally regarded as a moral value because it is, in reality, a moral value; and not simply the product of an evolutionary or social mechanism (a convention).

5.) Leibniz declared the most fundamental question of philosophy to be: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” However, if God exists at all, he exists necessarily, such that it is literally meaningless to ask “why” God exists. Therefore, to ask whether or not God exists is, in effect, but to put forth another formulation Leibniz’s question.

6.) Curiously, (though not, in my view, surprisingly), even those that decry the existence of the Moral Law appeal to it, in many cases simultaneously with their denunciation and without the slightest hesitation.

7.) Kant, Immanuel; translated by James W. Ellington [1785] (1993). Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals 3rd ed., Hackett. pp. 30.

8.) Chesterton, G.K., Orthodoxy, Norwood, MA: Pumpion, 1908.

9.) It is worth noting that there is no such Constitutional Amendment regarding universal healthcare.

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Atheistic Moral Realism (part 1)

In discussions concerning the ontological foundations of objective morality, there has traditionally been an understanding among atheists and theists alike that if God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist. The word “objective” is being used here to mean that the ontological foundation (being) of moral values is not rooted in or subject to opinion or belief. This acknowledgement lay at the heart of nihilism, in which Nietszche famously proclaimed the death of God and, consequently, the destruction of any objective foundation for morality or meaning. Likewise, the French existentialist, Jean Paul Sartre, reflecting upon a statement uttered by a character in Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov (1880), says:

“Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself…. Nor, on the other hand, if God does not exist, are we provided with any values or commands that could legitimize our behavior.” (1)

Elsewhere, Sartre argues that value is attached to the choice itself, such that “…we can never choose evil.”  (2)

The affirmation that God’s existence is the necessary prerequisite for objective morality is still frequently recognized by many atheists as being consistent with materialism:

“The idea of political or legal obligation is clear enough… Similarly, the idea of an obligation higher than this, referred to as moral obligation, is clear enough, provided reference to some lawgiver higher…than those of the state is understood. In other words, our moral obligations can…be understood as those that are imposed by God…. But what if this higher-than-human lawgiver is no longer taken into account? Does the concept of moral obligation…still make sense? …The concept of moral obligation [is] unintelligible apart from the idea of God. The words remain but their meaning is gone.” (3)

“The position of the modern evolutionist is that humans have an awareness of morality because such an awareness of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate when someone says, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves. Nevertheless, such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, . . . and any deeper meaning is illusory.” (4)

“The central question about moral and ethical principles concerns their ontological foundation. If they are neither derived from God nor anchored in some transcendent ground, are they purely ephemeral?” (5)

Stated formally, one could construe the argument against objective morality this way:

  1. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
  2. God does not exist.
  3. Therefore, objective moral values do not exist.

While the second premise possesses a clearly insurmountable burden of proof, most atheists are content with arguments in favor of its plausibility rather than its certainty; and the inability to prove the truth of a negative does not render the argument invalid.

For many years, atheists nearly universally maintained the validity of this argument (or some variation thereof), but it has recently been scrutinized by such figures as Sam Harris and Richard Carrier, who have sought eagerly to make a case for the objectivity of moral values apart from the existence of God. While the attempt is undoubtedly worthy of some admiration in its intent, being an overt recognition that there is such a thing as “good” and “evil,” and therefore at least attempting to provide some sort of meaningful foundation for morality and ethics, the justification for the case made in its favor is suspect.

The basis for morality, suggests Harris, is the “flourishing and well-being of conscious creatures.” That is to say, that which contributes to the flourishing of conscious creatures constitutes the Good and that which harms conscious creatures is Evil. But this seems merely to define the “good” to mean “the flourishing of conscious creatures,” such that “…it makes no sense at all to ask whether maximizing well-being is ‘good.’ He continues: “It seems clear that what we are really asking when we wonder whether a certain state of pleasure is ‘good,’ is whether it is conducive to, or obstructive of, some deeper form of well-being” (6).

And yet Harris seems to have ignored the deeper question with which we are immediately presented: what good reason is there to think that the flourishing of conscious creatures actually is morally Good? An arbitrary definition certainly cannot constitute any kind of ontological ground; and if Harris’ definition is not, in fact, arbitrary, then by what criteria has he fashioned it? If there is such a thing as Good and Evil there must be a Moral Law by which to distinguish one from the other. The question, then, granting as Harris does that objective moral values exist, is not “what is good?,” since this concerns moral epistemology; rather it is “by what Standard do we differentiate between Good and Evil, and why is it the Standard at all?”

The flourishing of conscious creatures cannot be the Good simply because we, as conscious creatures, desire it. This seems an obviously insufficient ground; for desire is inherently subjective. Even so, a universal desire does not constitute an ontological foundation for why one ought to do anything. Indeed, Harris acknowledges that our apparently universal desire to flourish cannot itself form the foundation for the Good: “We must continually remind ourselves that there is a difference between what is natural and what is actually good for us” (p. 101). In other words, there is no necessary correlation between that which we desire and that which positively affects our flourishing. This seems evidently true; for one’s desire to achieve happiness through the use of methamphetamines, for example, will eventually end in ruin.

But again, why think that the “good” is that which contributes only to the flourishing of conscious creatures, rather than unconscious creatures, or why the “good” must involve flourishing at all? If materialism is true, are not we all destined for utter annihilation? Musing upon such thoughts, Soren Kierkegaard wrote:

“If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what would life be but despair?” (7)

Whence comes goodness? And life? And consciousness? “From the abyss,” answers the materialist, “And to it we shall return. But cheer up.”

Sources:

1. Sartre, Jean Paul, “Existentialism and Humanism,” French Philosophers from Descartes to Sartre, ed. Leonard M. Marsak (New York: Meridian, 1961), p. 485

2. Sartre, Jean Paul, “Existentialism,” Reprinted in A Casebook on Existentialism, ed. William V. Spanos (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1966), p. 279

3. Taylor, Richard, Ethics, Faith, and Reason (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1985), p. 83-84

4. Ruse, Michael, “Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics,” in The Darwinian Paradigm (London: Routledge, 1989), p. 262-269

5. Kurtz, Paul, Forbidden Fruit. Prometheus. 1988, p. 65

6. Harris, Sam, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010) p. 12

7. Kierkegaard, Soren, Fear and Trembling (Penguin Classics, 1985), p. 14

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Faith in Faith

I have occasionally encountered bumper stickers on cars or little decorative hangings in living rooms that say, simply, “Believe,” and every time part of me shouts inwardly, “…in what?” It is akin to hearing the last note of a song that does not resolve properly, which leaves one in a frustrated anticipation of the proper final note.

Though it is often seemingly regarded as profound, as a command to “believe” it is utterly meaningless, being altogether devoid of a context that would allow one to decide in what to believe, since it is just as possible to believe, for instance, that lying is a virtue as it is to believe that it is a vice. It is precisely the type of decoration one would expect to see in a home inhabited by people who have embraced a postmodern worldview, in which “truth” is that which one fashions for himself. Postmodernism or relativism regards the act of merely believing, of having faith in anything, as a virtue, and it has no regard for discerning what corresponds to reality because “truth” is neither objective nor absolute. As long as one has a belief, whatever it may be (though presumably not the belief that postmodernism is false), one can be a good postmodernist. Faith, and not its object, is what counts, and in that sense postmodernists embrace faith in faith.

Something so vague and ambiguous is to be expected of people who consciously affirm a relativistic philosophy, but it is even more curious when it is displayed by Christians. A bumper sticker on a Christian’s car that only says, “Believe.”, achieves exactly nothing aside from succeeding in making their car look tacky. Believe in what? In who? Jesus? Buddha? Allah? The Flying Spaghetti Monster?

It is a small thing, perhaps, but it seems to me to be just another example of the descent into the postmodernist milieu.

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Five Common Fallacious Arguments Against Theism

In the course of my discussions with atheists, and in hearing debates on the subject, I have found that there are a number of recurring arguments wielded against theism which are either logically fallacious or irrelevant. That is not to say that all arguments against theism are formally illogical, but many people repeat illegitimate objections without thinking through them; and while this is certainly as true of theists as it is of atheists, I want to address some of the more common objections made against theism. Though some of these objections are prevalent even among scholars, these arguments are especially common at the popular level. Note that this post is not intended to show that atheism is false, but merely to point out the fallacious nature of certain arguments given in its favor.

1.) Who made God?

This is a question very commonly asked of theists, and it is often regarded as somewhat of a “trump card.” However, this question merely demonstrates a misunderstanding of the nature of explanation.

In order for an explanation to be the best explanation, one need not have an explanation of the explanation. For instance, suppose some archaeologists unearth a bunch of primitive tools, pots, jewelry, etc, and they decide that the best explanation is that they have uncovered a village of some long-lost tribe that no one ever knew existed. Does it then follow that in order for the archaeologists to say that a lost tribe is the best explanation for their findings they must be able to explain the tribe (where they came from, who they were, etc)? Certainly not. If, in order to gain knowledge, one had to explain everything, it would clearly be impossible to learn anything.

This question is often posed in the context of the Cosmological Argument, which states:

1.) Everything that begins to exist has a cause.

2.) The universe began to exist.

3.) Therefore the universe has a cause of its existence.

Atheists very often misconstrue the first premise to say “Everything has a cause,” subsequently asking, “what caused God?” However, aside from the apparent caricature of the argument, there are several problems with this. First, if the intent is to attack the concept of God’s eternality, then an atheist is forced to accept one of the following: that the universe either came into being, uncaused, out of nothing, or that it is eternal. The former is logically absurd, since it violates one of the most basic axioms in metaphysics, which is ex nihilo, nihil fit (“out of nothing, nothing comes”); The latter espouses the very thing being attacked: namely, the concept of eternality (though it is also in conflict with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and the great body of evidence in favor of the “Big Bang” theory).

Much more could be said on the nature of this argument, but a full treatment of the Cosmological Argument and its objections is outside the scope of this post.

2.) Belief in God is a result of one’s environment.

Often, theists or Christians are told that their beliefs are the result of having been brought up in a Christian home, or in an environment conducive to apprehending a certain set of beliefs (i.e. Living in the “Bible Belt”), and that if they had been born somewhere else (India, for instance) then they might be Hindu or Muslim. This is certainly true. The problem, however, is that in making this statement, the implication that theism is therefore false is guilty of the Genetic Fallacy, which is attempting to explain away a particular view by showing how the view originated. It’s true that people often come to believe certain things as a direct result of their culture or home environment, but that fact has absolutely nothing to do with whether those beliefs are true or false.

3.) There is no evidence for the existence of God.

I strongly disagree with this assertion, but let us assume that there is no evidence for God. Among forensic scientists it is virtually an axiom that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. For instance, in a court of law, the fact that there are no fingerprints of the butler on the knife is not itself evidence that the butler did not commit the murder. In order to show that the butler is not the murderer, the defense would need to provide some positive evidence that he is in fact innocent (an alibi). But the mere absence of convicting evidence is not evidence that the butler did not commit the murder.

The absence of evidence is only evidence of absence when two conditions are met:

1.) Certain evidence of a particular entity would be expected.

2.) The field in which that evidence would be found has been thoroughly surveyed and found lacking.

An example: Sitting in class, I would have good reason to suspect that because I see no elephant in the room, there is no elephant in the room. However, the fact that I see no flea in the room is not a justifiable reason for believing that there are in fact no fleas in the room. The difference is that in the first case we would expect to have evidence of the elephant, but in the second case we would not expect to have evidence of the flea. What kind of evidence would we expect to see in the case of God? No one can presume to know. This is precisely why atheism is not a justified “default” position, since even if there were no evidence for God it would not justify a belief that God does not exist.

4.) Religious belief has been the source of much violence and evil.

This is obviously true. One could also make the case that the same is true of atheistic belief, but the fact is that the implications of a belief are completely irrelevant in regards to whether that belief is true or false. I would maintain that the horrors committed by Christians in the past, as in the Crusades or the Inquisition, were committed in spite of Christianity, not because of it, but even if were true that Christianity sanctioned such things, it would not follow that Christianity is therefore false. To paraphrase Augustine, one should “never judge a philosophy by its abuse.”

5.) There are false religions, therefore all religions are false.

This fallacious argument is not one typically articulated in this fashion, but it is one frequently implied. Atheists often like to point to the most extreme, the most ridiculous, and the most absurd religions and its followers and imply that all religion is essentially the same. I’m thinking of Bill Maher’s documentary “Religulous,” for instance. While such cases make very easy targets (and thus very appealing targets), it is as irresponsible to lump all religious beliefs into one undifferentiated category called “Religion” and attack it as one, given the diversity of religious claims, as it would be to lump all scientists into a category called “Science” and attack it. That is, unless one is a materialist, in which case he may attack all claims of the supernatural outright as a result of his own religious presuppositions.

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