Sunday, April 22, 2012

Karl Smith grapples with secular justification of morality

Here. Although I think he overcomplicates the issue. The real question for me is, why this obsession with justification in the first place?

Yes, secularists (I wouldn't say atheists... I'd think this applies to anyone who grounds their sense of ethics outside of religious mandate) have a tough time "justifying" morality. As Douthat (who Smith quotes) notes, there is no absolute human equality in evolutionary theory (quite true). But the whole point is that non-secularists have a tough time offering a reasonable justification too, they just don't seem to realize it.

"It's written in a book - that's the justification". OK. So if secularists point to a book that has their moral code in it, we're all cool? Of course not. All communities maintain their own constructions of the way the world works. Within a given community, of course that construction is taken as valid. But to someone outside the community, the non-secularist hasn't given solid justification at all! Think, for example, about white supremacists who ground their ethics in the Bible (and there is some pretty xenophobic stuff in there). Do we say that they have thoroughly justified their views? No - we think there are a lot of problems with that!

It seems to me that secular ethics distinguishes itself by recognizing the fundamental pluralism of society, and that while these community-level constructions of the world are useful for getting along in the world, in a community - they don't quite reach a standard of justification they claim for themselves. So we need a broader, more pluralist ethics and Douthat is right - that often consists of dismissing the justificationist, foundationalist project itself. Why? Because an ethics that you can get by writing a poetic book and waiting a couple centuries for it to gain mystical significance does not seem like a very laudable ethical code. You'll get some gems from that approach, of course. We humans learn how to get along with each other, and that is going to be distilled in these various books. But it's not a very strong justification. What much of the world has converged on is that since within-community justifications don't work outside of the community, we need to come up with an ethical orientation that allows the coexistence of multiple potentially contradictory communities, justification and foundation be damned. This is liberalism.

Another way of putting it is this: have an orthodox Jew tell someone who is deeply anti-circumcision like Andrew Sullivan that circumcision is morally jutsified. Have an orthodox Muslim tell an American that practically enslaving women is morally justified. Have an orthodox Christian tell a homosexual that they are beyond the pale of moral justification. Get the six of them (the Jew, Andrew Sullivan, the Muslim, the American woman, the Christian, and the homosexual) together in a room together to talk about this stuff, and then try and tell me with a straight face that non-secular ethicists have a solid justification for their ethics. They don't. The beauty of secular society (and I want to clarify - that does not mean "atheist society") is that it recognizes that you can't provide an ultimate foundation for these claims. They are claims about how society ought to live together, and they are claims that we assert based on our experience with the sort of society we'd like to live in - not claims that we can justify with proof or citation.

12 comments:

  1. A more interesting basic question, I think, is whether ethics need some sort of monotheism to function. Setting aside particular religious orthodoxies, is a necessary theoretical basis of morality some metaphysical ideal that can fund an ethical universalism (as opposed to the tribalism of various scriptures or customs)?

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  2. I think there are a couple issues all bundled up in that thought.

    First, the question of monotheism is a question of fact. It may or may not be a fact that we have sure access to with our faculties, but it either is or isn't the case.

    The other thing I'm caught up on is this line "whether ethics need...". It really gets to "what is ethics". I'm not an ethicist so perhaps I'm the wrong person to speak to this, but it seems to me that ethics is just normative parameters for living together in a way that's preferential for one reason or another.

    So let's bring this full circle.

    Monotheism is or is not a fact. If it's a fact it probably has ethical implications and thus ethics ought to be grounded in it (or can be grounded in it... you can still have functional secular ethics even if monotheistic metaphysics is also true. There are lots of monotheists who accept secular ethics in this country, for example, and it hasn't seemed to be a problem at all.) If it's not a fact you're suggesting that may imply the impossibility of ethics. That may be the case.

    I'm not sure why one would think ethics needs monotheism unless you just define it in a way that would need it (such as "ethics is an understanding of human interaction striving after a metaphysical ideal"). I'm not sure how you would demonstrate that that's what a relevant ethics is. It seems so common for people not to think of ethics strictly in that way (we often think of it as a general normative framework, or as an understanding of human interaction striving after some ideal - not necessarily a metaphysical ideal type) that I think trying to talk about it in this way would come across as assuming your own conclusions.

    The other thing about the tribalism you make at the end is that it seems like the tribalism emerges anyway even if you start with the metaphysical ideal.

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  3. Daniel, this is exactly what John Rawls sets out to do on A Theory of Justicr and Political Liberalism. He calls it political pluralism.

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  4. "It's written in a book - that's the justification"

    Daniel, Daniel, Daniel... it's not nice to put stupid things in the mouths of others.

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    1. If it's not nice why do you do the same thing below? It's true - that's probably just a synopsis at best.

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  5. "then try and tell me with a straight face that non-secular ethicists have a solid justification for their ethics."

    Aargh. Even worse. That's just like saying "Physicists have no basis for their science, since they disagree about string theory."

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    1. No, it's not like saying that at all. I never said there was no basis. I'm saying the justification is not strong for their particular grounding of ethics. Physics absolutely has a basis - why would you think I was saying anything like that? It also has strong justification. String theory has comparatively less justification its true (just like much of macroeconomics), which is why people argue it. But you're muddying the waters by claiming I said this. Why muddy the waters Gene?

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  6. What is your stance on ethics, Daniel? On what moral source do you make claims regarding right and wrong, proper and improper, moral and immoral?

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    1. "What is your stance on ethics"

      I am a proponent of them :)

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    2. Answer the second question please :)

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  7. "Among my experiments was this. In an hour I taught a cat and a dog to be friends. I put them in a cage. In another hour I taught them to be friends with a rabbit. In the course of two days I was able to add a fox, a goose, a squirrel and some doves. Finally a monkey. They lived together in peace; even affectionately.
    "Next, in another cage I confined an Irish Catholic from Tipperary, and as soon as he seemed tame I added a Scotch Presbyterian from Aberdeen. Next a Turk from Constantinople; a Greek Christian from Crete; an Armenian; a Methodist from the wilds of Arkansas; a Buddhist from China; a Brahman from Benares. Finally, a Salvation Army Colonel from Wapping. Then I stayed away two whole days. When I came back to note results, the cage of Higher Animals was all right, but in the other there was but a chaos of gory odds and ends of turbans and fezzes and plaids and bones and flesh -- not a specimen left alive. These Reasoning Animals had disagreed on a theological detail and carried the matter to a Higher Court."

    -- Mark Twain, "The Damned Human Race"

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