decision circle

Public Ethics

Public ethics in court
I swear to tell the truth…

Public Ethics in Question

One of the deepest issues of our culture today is determining which ethical principles apply to our lives and our conduct with one another.  We call these public ethics. This is especially true when we attempt to find an ethical pathway in a landscape which seems to be filled with hidden pitfalls and changing rules.  For example, Nancy Gibbs writing in a recent Time magazine article states,

 We all learned back on the playground that whoever makes the rules of the game stands a better chance of winning it. It’s an uncomfortable lesson, one that requires us to accept that norms are fluid, that expectations shift, that people’s actions are not only judged as right or wrong, but are also measured against the depravity or valor of their peers.

The Fluidity of the Rules

Notice that she does not say that the rules are a given. No, these days the rules are “fluid.”  People’s actions are not only judged or evaluated to determine if those actions are right or wrong. We judge a person’s actions by the depravity or valor of peers. Unfortunately, she gives no definition of either term. An online dictionary gives us a succinct definition of depravity. Depravity goes beyond mere bad behavior — it is a total lack of morals, values, and even regard for other living things.” The same dictionary defines valor as “honor plus dignity. It is gallant bravery and strength. Especially on the battlefield or in the face of danger.”    Just to round out this group of definitions we should note that the word “norms” is given a singular form when defined. “A statistical average is called the norm.”

Public ethics decision circle
Decision Circle

So, we discover that it is the statistical average that dictates the norms for behavior. In a culture of habitual liars, a person who tells the truth is outside the norm. But does that make the truth teller  a morally suspect person?  If the norms are fluid and are determined by someone else’s depravity and still another’s valor, then there is very little that can be called good.

Public Ethics is Fraught With Pitfalls

I define our topic as follows. “Ethics is the motivation to do what is good.” I read a story today of another newsworthy example of this ethical quandary. Google recently set up a public ethics  advisory board of people from outside their company. This board’s task was to give advice on ethics in Artificial Intelligence. Google ran into a stunning event. Thousands of their employees (actually about 2-3 %) decried the membership on the board of a person known to be a “conservative.” The woman engaged in “hate” speech toward some members of society (allegedly). See the article at the link https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/4/4/18295933/google-cancels-ai-ethics-board  So Google hastily disbanded the ethics advisory board. Google hopes that this puts the mistake behind.

Public ethics questions

 This blog entry demonstrates how important the subject of ethics, justice, mercy and moral reasoning has become.  We, as a culture, are unable to even agree on the rules that we attempt to live by.  And as Nancy Gibbs says, the rules are changing and those who make the rules often do well because they made the rules. (Emphasis added) How shall we as a culture interact with each other? Which statistician will come up with the averages accepted as the norm? Whose rules will we agree to live by? More discussion will come!

Declaration of Independence: Justice

Introduction

Roy Clouser is my friend and partner (I’m the junior partner, just to be clear) in this effort to create a blog that addresses the issues facing philosophy. In the past couple of posts, I have began thinking on the subject of justice. Recently, I found a transcript of Roy’s lecture at Harvard Law School in October of 2007. He presents many insights into what our western culture considers to be justice and how to address this culture philosophically. A very short excerpt follows in which he speaks of the Declaration of Independence. Also, just to be clear, I believe it is rare for someone to be invited to give a lecture on justice at Harvard Law School!

I must hasten to say that this excerpt begins right after the introduction in which Dr. Clouser lays out his format for the content of the lecture.

A THIRD VIEW OF RIGHTS AND LAW: A critique of assumptions behind the Declaration and the Constitution The 13th Annual Kuyper Lecture for 2007, Harvard Law School 18th October 2007

natural law theory illustrated
This illustration does not necessarily reflect Dr Clouser’s description of natural law theory, but it does show something of how it is developed.

The Declaration’s Source for Rights

Let’s start with the Declaration’s version of natural law theory. The truth behind the words of that document may, I think, be summarized as follows. The truth is that all humans have a sense of justice. Every people, tribe, tongue, civilization, and culture that has ever existed recognized that it is a norm for life that people should “give to all their due” and be treated likewise by others. So I think it’s correct. Humans are “endowed by their Creator” with an awareness of this norm. And neither their awareness of it nor the norm itself are human inventions or anything they can make go away. Both seem instead to be “natural” and to generate obligations on people’s thoughts and actions whether they wish it or not. That is the element of truth I think the Declaration came close to getting right.

Is There A Universal Ought the Declaration Recognizes?

      But the Declaration doesn’t quite put the point the way I just did. It doesn’t say there is a norm for justice built into created reality, which all people have the ability to recognize. Nor does it identify that norm as the source of the obligation they feel to obey the statutes government enacts. The Declaration does not appeal to a universal norm that obliges all humans simply because they’re human. Rather, it skips the norm for justice and speaks only of rights.

This is a serious omission because such rights as it envisions could only result from the norm of justice. So as I see it, the Declaration gets things backwards. It assumes that people have rights and that those rights are the basis for justice. In fact unless people first recognized the norm of justice the whole notion of rights would make no sense. For a right can be nothing other than: a benefit or immunity that cannot be denied someone without injustice.

  Do Women and African Americans Have Rights?

   By getting the relation between the norm and rights backwards, the Declaration bases the authority for human law-codes on the subjective condition of individuals rather than on a universal norm. It was this significant distortion that led to arguments over exactly who is and isn’t born with rights. For example, in early US history political leaders actually debated whether women or African-Americans had rights. But such a debate would make no sense if rights were the result of a universal norm; in that case all people would have rights because the norm of justice holds for all people. But the Declaration reversed this and tried to make the rights of individuals the basis for knowing what is just. Then – sadly enough – it did make sense to argue over who was and was not born with those rights.

Does the Declaration Think Social Organizations Have Duties?

     The individualism of the Declaration is also deficient in yet another way. By making rights the possessions only of individuals, it fails to see that social organizations have rights (and obligations) as well. It is not only individuals who have rights and obligations vis a vis government. But so do marriages, families, churches, schools, businesses, and so on. For are not they, too, recipients of free speech and press? Are they not also to enjoy freedom from search and seizure? Should not each be guaranteed the freedom to conduct its own internal affairs rather than be dictated to by government? And do they not also have an obligation to obey the laws government enacts?

By speaking only of individuals and government, the Declaration has bequeathed to America a habit of thinking in a truncated way that misses an important point. That point stems from the universality of the norm of justice. That is, justice requires that there be rights and obligations not just between individuals and government but between individuals, between individuals and all types of organizations, and among the various organizations as well.

I hope this gives you some grist for your mill. We will continue this in my next post.

Doubt: A Response to William Irwin

Preface

Philosopher William Irwin teaches at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, PA. He recently published a book entitled God Is a Question, Not An Answer.  In this volume Irwin contends one could find companionship with others who struggle with doubt about God. The title comes from a line in a novel, The Meursault Investigation, by Kamel Daoud. Apparently Irwin’s book responds to the statement uttered by an impious man in the novel, “God is a question, not an answer.” In an article in the New York Times in 2016, Irwin makes this statement, “It is impossible to be certain about God.” In this post, Prof. Roy Clouser gives his response to Irwin’s thought.

Some history of “Doubt”

There is a long history in the western intellectual tradition of opposing doubt to certainty.  Ancient skeptics argued that we have no genuinely certain knowledge because there is nothing that cannot be doubted. Further, the father of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes, thought he had to answer the skeptic’s claim in order to rescue the future of both philosophy and science.  His proposal for the one belief that cannot be doubted is each person’s own existence. No one, he said, can doubt his or her own existence so long as he or she is conscious of anything because existence is a precondition for consciousness.  The fact is – and no matter how far-fetched it may seem –  the Buddhist Pali Canon teaches the doctrine of Anatta which rejects the certainty of the self!  The result is that there are Buddhist monks who have cultivated doubt as to their own existence for centuries.

A Delusion?

So does that really mean we have no certainty?  Is it somehow a delusion innate to humans that causes billions of normal people to regard themselves as certain of countless beliefs all day every day?  David Hume, a sceptic, dismissed their certainty when he derisively referred to average folk as “the masses of the ignorant, unlearned, children, and savages”?

My Contention is…

I contend that the real illusion is that there is no good reply to skepticism along with its contention that there is no certainty. The illusion is the product of a category mistake.  The two categories confused are:  1) doubt as a subjective psychological condition, and 2) doubt incurred because of the actual grounds for a belief.  My point is that we can and often do have excellent grounds for a belief so that it deserves to be certain, while at the same time our subjective condition can prevent us from feeling fully confident about it.  What is more, we can be justifiably certain of a belief and doubt it at the same time because doubt is not the denial of certainty, disbelief is.  

We are entitled to be certain of whatever cannot be reasonably disbelieved, not of whatever cannot be doubted.  Thus, the proper reply to the claim that everything can be subjectively doubted is:  So what?

An illustration

Think of it like this. I start across the street and see a bus headed directly at me. I am fully justified in being certain I will be hit by it unless I move out of its way.  The certainty of that belief cannot be affected in the least by the fact that I happen to feel invincible that morning. My feeling gives me the idea, “I doubt the bus will hurt me.” By the same token, if I see a jeep drive over a rope bridge that spans a 1000- foot-deep gorge, I have every reason to believe it will hold me if I walk on it.  All the same, I may be terrified to walk that bridge. In fact, I may find myself in subjective doubt that it will support me with every step I take.

Doubt

Doubt and Belief in God

The same is true with respect to belief in God.  The New Testament speaks of faith as certainty derived from experience, and never as belief without – or beyond – the evidence. In a number of places the New Testament uses language for this experienced certainty. It echoes what mathematicians and philosophers had long called “self-evident” truth. Thus, people experience seeing God’s reality to be a self-evident truth. That belief may very well be fully justified. They are entitled to regard it as certain.

Pascal likened the recognition of the truth of God’s existence to the intuitive recognition of “the first principles of number, time, space, and motion.” Then he added: “Therefore those to whom God has given religion by intuition are blessed and justly convinced.”

Similarly, John Calvin compared seeing the truth about God to normal sense perception. He wrote “scripture bears on the face of it such evidence of its truth as do black and white of their color, sweet and bitter of their taste.” Nevertheless, Calvin also thought the life of the believer in God to be “a constant struggle with doubt.”

Conclusion

Many non-Christian thinkers – Prof Irwin among them – claim that the only beliefs worth having are those we in fact doubt. They assert that doubt renders a belief less than certain. As a result they conclude (quite confidently!) that it is impossible to be certain about God.

But, in fact, they have never given us any good reason to believe either of those claims are true.

Roy A. Clouser                                          

Prof Emeritus   of Philosophy & Religion           

Belief in God: Does Science Make This Obsolete? Part 2

Definition of Materialism

One last thing. The prevalent form of contemporary Naturalism today is materialism. This is the belief that some (unspecified) exclusively physical realities are the self-existent (divine) realities. The two most popular versions of materialism are: 1) all that exists are purely physical things governed only by physical laws, and 2) purely physical things and laws produce all that is non-physical. Many of those who hold to these materialist views of reality try to justify them by claiming they are necessary to science or are somehow endorsed by science. For example,  George Johnson composed a review of two books by theists who are distinguished scientists. In the review, he dismissed their point that they saw no conflict between their science and their Christianity.  Johnson writes, “But theism and materialism don’t stand on equal footings. The assumption of materialism is fundamental to science.” (Scientific American, Oct. 2006, p. 95).

Proposing a Thought Experiment

That claim should at least look mighty suspicious even to those who wish it were true! For in fact every major figure in the rise of modern science was a theist. But that aside, what the claim asserts is literally nonsense. The reason is, that no one can so much as frame the idea of anything as purely physical. When we take “physical” to refer to that which is subject to physical laws, then our inability to provide any idea of “purely physical” can be confirmed.  We accomplish this by the simple thought experiment of trying to conceive of anything as purely physical.

Take as a first example, your concept of a stone. Now strip from that concept every quantitative property since these are not physical (numbers are not subject to physical laws). That will mean there is no “how much” to the stone so that it cannot be counted or measured. Now likewise strip away every spatial property so that it has no size or shape or location (spatial shapes and locations are also not governed by physical laws).

Next in our little experiment, remove any content of the concept that is in any way biotic so that the stone will not have any of these features. For example, the stone cannot be dangerous to life or able to be part of a bird’s digestive processes. Then divest it of any sensory property so that it is in principle unable to be perceived (this will mean, among other things, that no observations could possibly confirm any theory about it). Next subtract from your concept the stone’s logical property of being able to be distinguished from other things, and finally take from it the linguistic potentiality of being able to be referred to in language.

Now tell me what you have left. Have you any idea whatever?

What is Left of the Stone in the Experiment

Granted, some of the properties I’ve just mentioned are true of the stone only passively; the stone doesn’t actively possess sensory, logical, or linguistic properties. But unless it had the passive potentialities to be perceived, to be distinguished, and to be referred to, none of those actions could be performed on it by us. Each one of those potentialities requires that it be subject to other-than-physical laws: laws of perception or logic or linguistic rule.

Moreover, this result  accrues when this experiment is applied to concrete objects. The result is equally valid when it is applied to abstract properties that are physical. To see why this is so, you need only repeat the experiment using an abstract property as our test case. Let’s use the property of (physical) weight. What is weight which has no amount or is nowhere. Is weight unable to be perceived?  Could weight be distinguished from any other property? Can weight not be referred to in language?

Therefore, …..

This experiment destroys materialism as a plausible theory and exposes it as a divinity belief which is as unprovable as is belief in God. It’s unprovable because there is no recovery from the point that materialists cannot so much as frame the idea of what they claim to be true, and what cannot be conceived of cannot be proven. The real ground of the materialist belief, then, is the person’s experience of having it appear self-evidently true to each person individually, not that it is necessary to science.

Our thought experiment shows materialism to be a divinity belief with the special difficulty that nothing can so much as be conceived as purely physical.  As such, materialism is a belief in worse shape than the assertion that there are square circles. When we speak of a “square circle” we at least have an idea of what we’re talking about. That’s how we know the expression names an impossible entity. But when we say the words “purely physical” we have no idea whatever of anything it could name. The thought experiment shows that the expression “purely physical” is literally meaningless.

Materialism Is An Inconceivable Myth

For this reason, materialism is not an assumption scientists actually employ in their work. Even scientists who are avid materialists are forced to treat the concrete objects and the abstract properties and laws they work with in physics as possessing quantitative, spatial, sensory, logical, linguistic, and many other kinds of properties. For example, they do mathematical calculations upon the data being investigated. They regard their sensory perceptions of observed tests as evidence. They take precautions when working with materials that can be biologically hazardous. Each one has to have economic concerns about the cost of their experiments. In short, no one ever actually works with the mythical class of the purely physical. Because that myth is literally inconceivable, it has zero explanatory power even as a theory of reality, let alone as a part of physics.[i]

The thought experiment exposes the fact that as materialists do science, the term “physical” means that what they focus on are the physical properties of entities that all the while plainly exhibit other kinds of properties as well. And when they discuss materialism they shift the meaning of the term to designate their fictional “purely physical” entities. Thus, although they hold the view that the purely physical entities are the ultimate (divine) realities, they work in physics with theories and experiments that never deal with anything as exclusively physical. Moreover, this is not just a slip-up on their part that could be overcome if only they were more attentive. Rather, as we’ve just seen, it’s because they can’t so much as frame the idea of anything as exclusively physical.

Theism On the Other Hand

Belief in God, on the other hand, played an important role in the rise of modern science.  Alfred North Whitehead, a Naturalist philosopher of science, made this observation. First, I’ll quote him concerning his Naturalism. Whitehead says:

What is the status of the enduring stability in

the order of nature? There is the summary

answer, which refers nature to some greater

reality standing behind it. This reality occurs

in the history of thought under many names,

the Absolute, Brahma, the Order of Heaven, God…

My point is that any summary conclusion

          jumping from… such an order of nature to the

easy assumption that there is an ultimate reality…

constitutes the great refusal of rationality to

assert its rights. We have to search whether

nature does not in its very being show itself as

self-explanatory.[ii]

 

Then there is Whitehead’s observation about belief in God and the rise of science:

 

…the greatest contribution of [the middle ages]

to the formation of the scientific movement [was]

the inexpugnable belief that every detailed

occurrence can be correlated with its antecedents

in a perfectly definite manner, exemplifying general principles…

When we compare this

tone of thought in Europe with the attitudes

of other civilizations when left to themselves,

            there seems to be but one source for its origin.

It must come from the medieval

insistence on the rationality of God… [iii]

 

Roy Clouser

[i]           This argument and a non-reductionist theory of reality are both developed in my book, The Myth of Religious Neutrality (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005).

[ii]           Science and the Modern World, (NY: Free Press, 1967), 92.

[iii]“The Origins of Modern Science” in Science and the Modern World. Ibid., 12.