Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Gen Eds P8: How should we live as individuals?

This is my seventh philosophy post in a series called, "General Education in a Nutshell." Philosophy is the first of ten subjects to overview in this series. These are the subjects a person normally takes in college (or high school) as part of a general education (most of them also make up what is sometimes called the "liberal arts").

The first seven philosophy posts were:
1. Ethics, along with metaphysics (what is real) and epistemology (what is truth), is one of the three ancient branches of philosophy. Its core question has to do with living in this world. How should we then live or, perhaps, what constitutes the "good life"?

Ancient philosophers focused more on what virtue itself is than on the question of what makes an individual act right or wrong, "virtue based ethics" rather than "act based ethics." They assumed there was a "highest good," a summum bonum, and that a person should orient his or her life accordingly. So the focus was more on "being" than doing. How I should act is a secondary question. What kind of person I should be is the most important.

Aristotle suggested that happiness (eudaimonia) was the greatest good because every other good was good because it ultimately led to happiness. So pleasure is good, but we like pleasure because it leads to happiness. Participating in society is good, but it is good because it leads to happiness. Contemplation of truth is good, but it is good because it leads to happiness. Of the three paths, though, Aristotle considered contemplation the highest of the paths to happiness. Aristotle also spoke of the Golden Mean, "moderation in all things."

Plato and others spoke of "four cardinal virtues," which were intrinsically good for humans to cultivate. They are wisdom (which pertains to the head), courage (which pertains to the chest), self-discipline (which pertains to the abdomen, aka temperance), and justice (which pertains to all three working in proper balance and relationship.

As good pre-moderns, Aristotle, Plato, and others used reasoning to talk about these virtues and ethics, but they didn't really offer any strong basis for each one. Wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice are values that most cultures have affirmed, and happiness seems intrinsically desirable. In the late twentieth century, Alistair MacIntyre wrote a scathing critique of modern ethical thinking, wanting to go back to the age of virtue. [1] However, he provided no real basis in argument for doing so, in effect rejecting argument as a basis for ethics.

2. Jesus' ethic and New Testament ethics in general are also virtue based. In Mark 7, Jesus says that it is not external action that stands at the center of good and evil. Rather "from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts" (7:21, NASB).

Accordingly, the New Testament summarizes God's expectation for humanity in only two commands: "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets" (Matt. 22:37-40).

It seems difficult for people to leave God's expectations so general. Of course we must ask, "What does it mean specifically to love one's neighbor and enemy?" The New Testament plays out these general principles in a number of different contexts. But it is impossible to anticipate every circumstance before it happens. In every generation, communities of faith must reapply these principles again to new situations. Even then, no set of rules can anticipate every possible situation (which is arguably what the Pharisees tried to do).

3. Nor can we hide behind labels like "absolutism" and "relativism." The Bible frequently points to exceptional situations. Thus while we are to submit to those in authority (Rom. 13), there are clearly instances when we must disobey the government (Acts 4). Therefore, not every moral principle was meant to be "absolute," which by definition means without exception.

Similarly, there are instances where God's will is "relative." In Romans 14 Paul says that what makes eating meat offered to idols wrong is not intrinsic to the eating, but whether an individual's conscience is clear to eat it. Personal convictions are thus instances of God-approved relativism.

In other words, while crying "absolutism" and "relativism" may seem to make Christian ethics simple, it does nothing of the sort. First you must know whether God considers a particular issue absolute or relative in the first place. For this reason, these labels are little more than slogans. They do not answer the real question, which is what the love of God and neighbor looks like in a particular situation.

4. The drive to reduce ethics to do's and don't's seems pervasive. Popular Christian ethics often reduces God's expectations for humanity to whether or not we measure up to some perfectionistic standard. Take the (incorrect) NLT translation of Romans 3:23: "All have sinned and fallen short of God's glorious standard," as if God is concerned about whether we are absolutely perfect or not. [2] In popular thought, mistakes are considered a form of sin, even if they do no harm to anyone.

But the New Testament almost exclusively speaks of sin acts in terms of intentional acts. That is to say, there is almost no mention of unintentional wrongdoing in the New Testament. [3] Theologically, Christians rightly believe that there is such a thing as unintended sin, wrongs done to others unintentionally, but "unintentional sin" plays no role in New Testament theology.

Similarly, the idea that Christ had to suffer the penalty of every last sin in an almost mathematical way, a theory of atonement known as "penal substitution," is more a medieval and modern development than a biblical concept. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the Father graciously forgives his sinful son without anyone having to pay back his debt at all. The idea that Jesus had to suffer hell for at least a moment to satisfy some legalistic justice equation finds no support in Scripture.

So we see that less mature ethical understandings have made their way even into many Christian conceptions of God and atonement. [4] God's love comes to be something that fits within the overall context of his justice rather than his justice fitting within the overall context of his love. Sin comes to be conceptualized primarily as the violation of a perfect standard than as a matter of intention or one's "heart." [5]

Rather, God is love. His justice is usually redemptive or protective rather than punitive, and final justice is not unloving. Atonement satisfies the order of things, not least our intrinsic human sense of justice. But atonement is a matter of God's choosing, not some higher standard to which he was obligated.

5. The desire to express human ethics in terms that can be specified in detail with certainty has thus often lead to an inferior "act-based" rather than a "heart-based" ethic. There are two basic act-based approaches to ethics: duty-based ethics and consequence-based ethics.

Duty-based or deontological ethics is a right and wrong based ethics. In modern times, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is the best representative of this approach. His "categorical imperative" was an attempt to set out a rational way to decide whether an action was right or wrong. Choose as absolutely right any course of action that you rationally can argue should be a moral law. If doing the opposite in every situation would lead to disaster or contradiction, then you must not do that action in any situation.

This is embarrassingly ridiculous thinking, as most ethical thinking inevitably involves exceptions. By Kant's reckoning, all "must do" actions are absolute without exception. If something is right or wrong, then it is right or wrong categorically. His sense of how reasoning might work in such cases was so unconvincing that he tried to re-express the idea more than once. But the flaw was not in his communication of the idea. It was in the coherency of the idea.

"It basically is the Golden Rule," he finally said. The Golden Rule is to do to others what you would have them do to you. The Golden Rule is of course biblical (Matt. 7:12) and an excellent expression of God's command to love our neighbors and enemies. However, it does not seem to say anything close to what Kant was trying to say.

6. Consequentialist ethics evaluate action in terms of its consequences. What effect will this action have? We can question whether this approach should be the ultimate approach, but there is no question that a great deal of our ethical thinking does center around the consequences of our actions.

Egoist ethics is arguably a lower form of consequentialist ethics. It basically says that you should take that course of action that will most benefit you as an individual. Ayn Rand (1905-82) raised this approach to the highest level, considering self-centered action to stand at the center of moral thinking. To act altruistically--helping others at personal sacrifice--she considered immoral and evil.

More attractive is ultilitarianism, which asks what action will bring about the greatest good for the greatest number. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) is often considered the father of modern utilitarianism. In an attempt to change a world where being born into a certain family meant you were more important than others, he proposed that decisions of the state be made in accordance with what would bring the greatest pleasure to the greatest number.

John Stuart Mill (1806-73) would make some modifications to his approach. Some pleasures were more important than others. Further, there were other considerations to be made. Some courses of action should not be taken even if they bring a great deal of happiness to the majority (e.g., genocide).

We are generally taught that "the end doesn't justify the means." From a Christian perspective, that is certainly true in many cases. I cannot murder an innocent person even if they stand in the way of something that is really, really good. However, in everyday life, there is usually more than one way to reach a goal and most of them are equally ethical. This statement only applies to violating genuinely moral values to reach a goal.

And our values exist more in a hierarchy rather than all values being of equal priority. For example, being truthful is a universal moral value, but it is not likely as high a value as saving life. When Corrie Ten Boom's family lied to the Nazis about hiding Jews in their house, they did no wrong. They simply chose to keep a higher value (saving life) over a value that was slightly lower in the hierarchy (telling the truth). Or to put it in terms of virtue--they loved their neighbor rather than harming their neighbor.

7. As the existence of God and special revelation came into question during the Enlightenment, it became increasingly hard to find a natural basis for morality. David Hume (1711-76) suggested that morality was nothing more than sentiment. There was a "fact-value problem." Hume argued that it was impossible to base our values in facts.  In the twentieth century, J. L. Mackie spoke of us "inventing" right and wrong.

In the late 1800s, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) saw morality as something that "supermen" invented and then convinced broader culture to go along with. There really was no actual right or wrong. Christianity, to him, was a "slave morality," invented by the weak to stop the strong from persecuting them. It was like the person who tries to convince someone else not to punch them because you just don't hit someone with glasses.

Nietzsche thought it dangerous that the common person come to realize that "God is dead," even though Nietzsche firmly did not believe in God. But a world without God, he predicted, would be a world where the worst of atrocities would take place, because they would not fear the consequences of their actions. [6] In that regard he is sometimes considered a prophet of Hitler and the Holocaust.

8. Recently, Jonathan Haidt has categorized the moral impulses of people around the world. [7] He comes at the topic from an evolutionary and atheistic perspective, but his categories for human moral thinking nevertheless seem to capture some significant truths.

Let me rephrase the six moral categories he thinks describe human values (not prescribe, but describe):
  • care for others, don't harm
  • act fairly, don't cheat
  • be loyal, don't betray
  • respect authority, don't subvert
  • honor the holy, don't defile
  • fight for freedom, overthrow the tyrant.
The negatives seem to hold more power over us as moral thinkers than the positives. This is why, he would say, conservatives tend to have more political power than progressives. For example, Hillary Clinton's, "stronger together," is a fairly weak motivator next to "take America back."

Westerners today often do not have a well-developed sense of holiness and defilement. Even Christians often have different intuitions on certain moral issues because one person has a stronger sense of the sacred while another does not. Should you dress up for church? Are some sins "defiling" and thus worse than other sins?

Two people can even hold the same moral position and yet arrive at it from a different moral direction. One person believes that gay marriage is not God's plan for marriage but sees his or her presence at a gay wedding as the loving, Christian thing to do. Another person places homosexuality in the category of defilement and would see his or her presence at such a wedding as an endorsement and participation in sin. Even though both have the same position on the morality of gay marriage, they are approaching it from within differing moral categories.

9. Perhaps one of the most important insights of Haidt is that while most of us appear to use reasoning in our moral discussions, the basis for our moral impulses are usually not very rational at all. He likens our moral reasoning to a rider on an elephant, where the elephant represents our moral intuitions and the rider is our rational arguments and explanations.

The elephant generally goes where it wants to go, often in the company of other elephants. The rider can steer it a little, but not much. And the rider generally can only see in the same general direction that the elephant is already headed.

So it is with religion and politics. People pretty much believe what they want to believe. Few people actually change their minds about such things on the basis of argument or reasoning. For most people, it never mattered who the Republican or Democratic nominees for president would be. Their "elephant" was always going to vote for their party's candidate. [8] Their "rider's" job is to come up with any argument it can to support the elephant's foregone conclusion.

There is thus little of reason in religion or politics. We just play a game with ourselves to pretend like there is. [9]

Relationships stand a much better chance of changing the direction of elephants. This is why apologetics as a matter of rational argument mostly just makes the elephants who already believe feel better. Few people come to Christ through rational arguments.

Telling the "riders" of teenagers that they shouldn't have sex or teaching a set of orthodox ideas in a catechism will have little effect on someone faced with elephant-oriented forces. Ideas are the weakest of human motivators. Only the ideas that engage us on an elephant level have true power.

10. As Christians, we believe that the Holy Spirit can transform our elephants. "Walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh" (Gal. 5:16, NASB). The law of the Spirit can set us free from the law of Sin and death (Rom. 8:2). "If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" (2 Cor. 5:17).

Next Week: Philosophy 9: How should we live together?

Classic Reading
  • Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
  • Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals
  • John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism
  • David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature
  • Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality
  • Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness
  • John Rawls, A Theory of Justice
  • Alistair MacIntyre, After Virtue
[1] Alistair MacIntyre, After Virtue

[2] A better paraphrase would be, "All have sinned and are lacking the glory that God intended them to have within the creation."

[3] Only Hebrews 9:7, referring to the old covenant. James 3:2 alludes to the extreme difficulty of being perfect in our use of the tongue, but it does not use the word sin in relation to this wrongdoing.

[4] Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-87) set out stages of moral development, which probably should be seriously critiqued for their overly rational focus. However, as far as the rational side of moral thinking is concerned, there still seems some merit in his proposal. Stage 1 relates to moral thinking that is focused on either punishment or self-interest. This is the lowest kind of moral thinking. Stage 2 relates to a society based thinking--what pleases my group or what is the law. He then considered Stage 3 the most advanced morality--thinking in terms of a rational social contract with broader society and finally, being true to my principles (he assumed there were universal moral principles).

[5] Wesley reflects a more mature moral understanding when he defines sin "properly so called" as an action that intentionally goes against what someone knows God's expectation is. "A willful transgression of a known law of God." Of course this definition is still very "act-based."

[6] Nietzsche thus agreed with Fyodor Dostoevsky's sense that, "If there is no God, then everything is permissible." Nietzsche agreed, but unlike Dostoevsky did not believe in God.

[7] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind.

[8] Ironically, the Republican "elephant" does vote for an elephant, while the Democratic "elephant" votes for a donkey. :-)

[9] One of the most powerful forces in American politics is media that feeds its elephants what its wants to hear with one sided propaganda. The older approach, which at least aimed at objectivity and a fair presentation of all sides (the "fairness doctrine"), has faced serious financial difficulties in recent times.

One of the more ingenious "rider" rationalizations is to villainize rationality itself. Experts become subversive traitors. Media that presents contrasting points of view becomes the subversive "liberal media" (ignoring that the media decrying the liberal media is usually the far more powerful media).

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