Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Clarifications, Hopefully

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

My brother-in-law once asked me what the point of this dialog with Ernie is, since we "have been going it at for months with little or no progress." Sometimes I feel like that too, but for the most part I find that it has been a helpful exercise for me to clarify my thinking and to force me to address questions from new directions. Just the act of writing is good practice as well; as I have noted before I am a dreadfully slow writer and the results still do not always communicate what I intend. In his latest brief post, Ernie is still trying to get a handle on what I am saying (or trying to say) about ethics, but I fear I still have not been sufficiently clear. In trying to clarify one point, I seem to have confused another. Let me try to clarify what appears to be the current confusion.

First, remember that ethics can be objective without being universal; that is, we can agree on a particular theory of ethics and within that theory we can make objective statements about what is ethical and what is not. We can only say that goodness is an objective attribute of an action after agreeing on the ethical theory under which the description is meaningful. Goodness is therefore not an objective attribute of the action itself isolated from ethical theories. Only if we can show that there is in fact a unique valid theory of ethics would it make sense to say that goodness is an objective attribute of an action.

Now, in responding to Ernie's questions about whether belief in truth is inherently good, and how that compares to other candidates for inherently good actions, I said basically that belief in truth is instrumentally good (thanks, Ernie) but not inherently good, as might be said of pursuit of happiness and love of others, which I said "reflect the true ends of ethics." That last phrase was misleading and I must apologize for being so unclear. Those two things are certainly examples of what might qualify as the "true ends" under some theories of ethics, but I did not intend to state categorically that they must be so.

Despite my efforts to the contrary, I may also have given the impression that an ethical "theory of everything" will be found when I said "... the hypothetical ethical theory of everything will have a place for [belief in truth]." I am not confident that such unified theory can be constructed, and I only meant that if there were such a thing, belief in truth would play a part in it. Where Ernie appears to see not only a moral nature but a moral purpose in the universe, I see only abstractions that people use to describe their actions, according to a variety of criteria. While it might be simpler and even more meaningful if one particular theory were found to be uniquely true and all-encompassing, we have both good foundations and plenty of room for progress without such a thing even being possible.

I hope that, having said all that, it will not be suprising that I do not believe all of Ernie's latest statements (I-VI), not as stated. (I) is only true within a particular theory of ethics. (II) and (III) are similarly dependent. (IV) is a claim that Ernie has made; depending on exactly what he means I may or may not agree, but that agreement would be based on my intuitive sense more so than being deeply rooted in a particular ethical theory so I would not claim this belief is justified. (V) and (VI) are mostly accurate. I might add a (V'): "It is both possible and important to pursue better practice of ethics."

In the end, I realize that I have left you, the reader, with entirely too little concrete description of what I believe about ethics and morality. I suppose I can try to correct that deficiency in my next post. I hope, however, that Ernie will develop his position more fully as well.


Dr. Ernie said...

Hi Alan,

I seem to keep finding less and less that we both believe in. :-) Still, if you stand by:

(V'): "It is both possible and important to pursue better practice of ethics."

Could you at least answer "Why?" you believe that? Do you consider (V') a "real" statement that is objectively true (or maybe false), or just an "imaginary" subjective choice?

Alan Lund said...

The possibility of better ethical practice (at least within the context of a chosen theory of ethics) can, I think, be stated objectively. The importance of doing so is a value judgement and therefore subjective.

The reason I added that statement was to emphasize that even if the state of ethical theories leaves something to be desired, our practice (as a society) has not even caught up to what theory we have. Again, just my opinion.

As far as finding less and less that we both believe, we *both* need to explain our reasons why. I remain concerned that I am not hearing your explanations. I appreciate that you want to understand my position better, but I would like to understand your position as well, and not to wait until you feel you understand mine. Know what I mean?