Posts Tagged ‘morality’

On Taking the Law into One's Own Hands

Monday, 17 May 2021

In almost every instance in which the admonition Don't take the law into your own hands! is used, the intention is that one should defer to some other party. But there are various parties to whom one could defer, some of them rival. A choice to defer at all is itself a choice about what is the law and implicitly about how it should be applied. In choosing to defer to one of these parties, rather than to another, one has already taken the law into one's own hands, if only then to let it go. A person is always responsible for such choices. Sometimes, deference is a very appropriate choice, and perhaps even the only appropriate choice, but one is responsible for choosing when and to whom to defer. The only way that a person could perhaps not at all take the law into his-or-her own hands would be in utter passivity — not even acting to draw some other party into the situation as giver or enforcer of law. And, still, to choose passivity would be a choice, and sometimes a morally unacceptable choice.

Those who insist that we should not take the law into our own hands almost always intend that we should defer to those with the most social power concerning law. Various concerns might motivate that intention, but most often the admonition comes from members of that group (state officials), or from people who take it that the social power somehow arises from virtue of some sort, or from those who believe that the only alternative to deferring to those with the most social power is so obviously barbarism that no argument need be made. If a reader believes that I need to critique any of these cases, then he-or-she should comment below to that effect.

Judging the Past in the Present

Monday, 28 December 2020

I often hear or read someone objecting to judging an historical person or act by present moral standards. Although there seems to be some element of reasonableness entangled in this objection, it's very problematic.

It is especially problematic as expressed. Technically, we cannot judge anyone or anything at all, except by whatever may be our present standards. If we judge historical people and acts differently from how we do present-day people and acts, it is exactly because our present standards incorporate a recognition of historical context.

I don't see that the real issue is historical context as such, but context more generally. If we are to make allowances for historical person or acts, it is because of what informed them and what did not inform them; and, similarly, acts by persons in some present-day contexts are very differently informed from acts by other persons in other present-day cultures. As L.P. Hartley usefully noted, The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

Cultural relativism, in application to other places or to other times, is sensible when it warns one against presumption that one's own culture is doing things the only right way. (One's culture may be doing things a wrong way, or there may be other ways that are just as good.) But a cultural relativism that instead claims that something is automatically acceptable simply because it prevails in the culture of that place or prevailed in the culture of that time dissolves into nihilism because each person at each time and at each place is him- or herself a subculture.

And I think that some allowances should be made; but I think that too much allowance is often made.

For example, is the case against slavery now available really all that much better than the case that was available in America a few hundred years ago? Inverting that question, was the case against slavery available a few hundred years ago really much worse than the case available now? There is a sound argument, even to-day, for not waging war against slavery in the territories ruled by other states; and there may be a case for making treaties or even forming alliances with such states; but those are different practices from engaging in slavery or actively enabling slavery. Is there really a meaningfully better defense of the slavery of two hundred years ago than there would be of slavery now?

I   don't   think   so.

Nor do I think so for a great deal else that I am told not to judge by modern standards.

Good Lord!

Sunday, 23 August 2015

[This entry is a reworking of a less carefully written entry that I posted to Facebook on 26 March.]

ἐννόησον γὰρ τὸ τοιόνδε· ἆρα τὸ ὅσιον ὅτι ὅσιόν ἐστιν φιλεῖται ὑπὸ τῶν θεῶν, ἢ ὅτι φιλεῖται ὅσιόν ἐστιν;[1]

as related by Platon
in Εὐθύφρων [Euthyphro] 10a

A classic question is of whether goodness — in the sense of that which is moral or otherwise objectively to be desired — determines the will of G_d, or is determined by the will of G_d.[2]

The notion that whatever G_d wills is, ipso facto, good is called the Divine Command theory of goodness. A fair number of people profess to believe this theory, but few people actually do. One way of testing belief would be to ask, for various X, whether it would be bad for G_d to do X. For example, whether it would be bad for G_d to create innocent souls, and then, beginning immediately, subject them to an eternity of unrelieved suffering. A person who reached for some theoretical greater good somehow achieved wouldn't be accepting that G_d's will were ipso facto good; a person who cried out that G_d would not do such a thing because it were evil wouldn't be accepting that G_d's will were ipso facto good. Only a person who could honestly declare that it would not be bad for G_d to do any X would accept the Divine Command theory.

Phil Robertson's infamous speech, in which he presents a hypothetical scenario within which ghastly things are done to an atheïst famly,[3] is an exemplar of an attempt to advance a Divine Command theory that violates the essential feature of that theory. Robertson presumes that atheïsm in turn implies moral nihilism. But he also presumes that none of the things done to the family could be good; that presumption implies that even G_d could not make them good. Robertson expects his audience — even the non-believers in his audience — to be able to see that these assaults are actively wrong. Indeed, he is apparently prepared to bet that, in spite of their unbelief, atheïsts undergoing such trials would form an opinion that something about this just ain’t right.

Well, if G_d cannot make a thing good merely by willing it to be good, then fundamental goodness is independent of the will of G_d. And if goodness is independent of the will of G_d, then the case for goodness is independent of the will of G_d. If G_d should not do things because they are evil, then men and women should not do them because they are evil, for pretty much the same reason as G_d should not, whatever that reason might be.

Possibly G_d might be more morally discerning than ordinary persons. But ordinary persons plainly have great difficulty recognizing whatever principles are communicated by G_d, which is why there is so much disagreement amongst theïsts about alleged communications. Faith is not a mechanism of discernment; it is guessing without the guidance of evidence, and a leap of Faith can carry one in any direction. If we are not to make uneducated guesses about morality, then we must hope that some human beings amongst us can make a case that does not itself rely in its foundations upon unproved assertions about what G_d declares — a case, thus, that can be made to atheïsts.

[Insertion (2015:08/31): (Hypothetically, it might be proved that G_d were more morally discerning and had made some moral declaration the basis of which were not understood by other persons. Still, if that proof were not apprehensible to atheïsts, then it would not be a proof by which human beings could reasonably be guided. And I certainly haven't encountered such a proof.)]

That's not to say that the will of G_d would be irrelevant to a manifestation of ethical principles; the will of other persons can be important to such manifestations (as, for example, when I think myself morally required not to hurt the feelings of a child); and G_d would perhaps be the most important of persons. But the fundamentals would be prior to the desires of all persons.

Actually, those of us who believe that morals are prior to the will of anyone have a hard time seeing any real difference between taking morality to be no more than the commands of G_d and taking morality to be no more than the commands of some other powerful party of persons. For us, that looks like no morality at all, just the rule of a bully or of bullies.[4]

And, really, a belief in a morality greater than the demands of any person is what underlies the emotional commitment of so many atheïsts to their atheïsm. They believe that G_d would be good, and that G_d therefore could not cause nor allow certain things to happen; but they see those things happen, and so conclude that G_d is not there. It is an implicit and often unrecognized commitment to morality that makes these people atheïsts. (A potential counter-argument to this case for atheïsm might be found in claiming that some greater good were served by the ills observed.)

[1] For consider such as this: Is that which is hallowed loved by the gods because it is hallowed, or is it hallowed because it is loved by the gods?

[2] Of course, one may more generally write and speak in terms that allow for multiple gods (as did Platon). This allows for consideration of disagreement amongst gods, but otherwise adds nothing but verbal awkwardness, and irrelevant discomfort for monotheïsts. Since I expect a greater share of my readers will be monotheïsts rather than polytheïsts, I'll concern myself less with the discomfort of the latter.

[3] “I’ll make a bet with you. Two guys break into an atheist's home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him. And then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot them and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And then they can look at him and say, ‘Isn't it great that I don't have to worry about being judged? Isn't it great that there's nothing wrong with this? There's no right or wrong, now is it dude?’

“Then you take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say, ‘Wouldn't it be something if this was something wrong with this? But you're the one who says there is no God, there's no right, there's no wrong, so we're just having fun. We're sick in the head, have a nice day.’

“If it happened to them, they probably would say, ‘something about this just ain't right.’”

[4] See my entry of 20 February 2008 for discussion of the notion that rights are creäted by powerful parties. It is unsurprising that the typical response of classical liberals and the typical response of conservatives to atheïsm should differ one from the other, given that classical liberals and conservatives have very different notions about a need for bullies in human society.

Moral Symmetries

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

It is recurringly claimed that omission and commission are morally equivalent, that failing to assist someone is as blameworthy as injuring that person. But, were that really the case then, by the same token, failing to injure someone would be as every bit as laudable as acting to prevent his or her injury by some other agency. The man who did not kill a random stranger upon whom he chanced would be as much the hero as one who rushed in to save one stranger from another.

A Whiter Shade of Pale

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

The term ambiguity is often applied to matters that are in fact not at all ambiguous. Sometimes the mis-application is simple carelessness, but in one application it is hard not to see a more active perversion.

Characters (fictional or actual) who are called morally ambiguous almost never are. Instead, the label is most often applied to two sorts of characters.

One sort is morally compromised. Those characters are not all bad; they may even be mostly good; but they are discernibly not all good. The person labelling them as morally ambiguous typically very much seems to be trying for a sort of special pleading on behalf of the character or of the moral short-comings exhibited by the character.

The other sort exhibits a combination of characteristics, some of which the audience will find attractive but some of which the person applying the label finds disagreeable, without his or her being able to make a sound case (or seemingly sound case) against those traits. By labelling the character as morally ambiguous, the labeller is insinuating doubt without reasoned foundation. Challenged, he or she will likely deny having issued a condemnation of the characteristics against which he is directing that doubt.

In application to situations, the term moral ambiguity is more likely to be legitimately applied than in application to characters. But calling a situation morally ambiguous is also often an attempt to introduce by back door a special plea for bad behavior.

(One of the papers on which I am presently working, and the paper of that lot that is likely to end-up the least mathematical, compares and contrasts some decision-theoretic states that are often mistaken one for another. One sort of these states entails ambiguity. So I have been thinking about real and specious ambiguity more generally.)