Sunday, September 17, 2006

An Earnest Trilemma

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

In Looking for and Argument, Ernie stated two propositions that he was willing to defend, each corresponding to a core issue that differentiate our two positions. The first issue, in his words, is:

I. Ontological dependence on an omnipotent, benevolent Deity as the ultimate source of virtue and truth

Now, in The Ethical Trilemma Ernie begins his elaboration and defense of his corresponding proposition:

I. Belief in a transcendent moral purpose for the universe is as well-justified and essential for social inquiry as belief in the transcendent mathematical nature of the universe is for scientific inquiry.

Ernie poses what he calls the Ethical Trilemma, which asks how we can reconcile three competing ethical claims related to belief in truth, the welfare of society and personal happiness. Which of them, or which set of them, constitute the greatest good? Then he suggests three possible resolutions: that there is no absolute greatest good (relativism), that only one or two of them is necessary, or that the three claims, despite appearances to the contrary, are in fact ultimately in alignment and thus can be satisfied simultaneously. His assertion is that the third resolution is the case, and that this ultimate alignment is equivalent to the existence of a "transcendent moral purpose for the universe".

I make no claim to be an ethicist, but as I understand things, there remains fairly diverse views on the nature of ethics. For instance, the Wikipedia article on ethics discusses among other things truth-aptitude (can ethical statements be true or false, or is the concept of truth orthogonal to ethics) and normative versus descriptive ethics. Ernie's three "categorical imperatives", for instance, would fall under the deontic branch of normative ethics. On the other hand, my personal view is more descriptive in nature (but not necessarily in the same sense as the descriptive ethics described by the Wikipedia article, unfortunately). That is, within an ethical system actions can be judged as good, bad or neutral. Different ethical systems may judge the same action differently. I suppose that within such an ethical system, calling an action "good" might be taken to mean that one ought to do it, but I see these judgements more as guidelines for action than true obligations (sort of like the Pirate's Code). Of course, "wrong" actions may involve "bad" consequences, including both natural consequences as well as those imposed by society.

Now, I said that different ethical systems may judge the same action differently. According to an Egoist, an action should be judged according to its impact on me. According to an Altruist, an action should be judged according to its impact on others. According to a Utilitarian, an action should be judged according to its total impact on everybody. According to Divine Command Theory, an action should be judged according to its alignment with divine commands. But can we say that one of these systems (or any other) is true and the others false, or even simply that one is preferable to all of the others?

It appears that Ernie may be claiming that it does not matter because ultimately all ethical systems (or at least the ones he lists) will be found to be in alignment. And he rightly admits that this is "an enormously strong statement" which he asserts to be true despite the appearance of "strong evidence for conflict." He compares this unification to the sought-after physical "theory of everything".

While such a unification could possibly exist, the mere assertion that it exists is hardly sufficient. The statement that Ernie is defending states that "Belief in a transcendent moral purpose for the universe is as well-justified and essential for social inquiry as belief in the transcendent mathematical nature of the universe is for scientific inquiry.". In science, we have vast amounts of evidence that math can be used to accurately describe the universe, which is more or less what I understand Ernie to mean by "transcendent mathematical nature". And while we do not as yet have a "theory of everything", we have had a great deal of success so far in unifying what appeared to be separate phenomena under a small number of theoretical frameworks; to expect that a single theory may unify these few is not such a large leap. On the other hand, I am unaware of a comparable degree of support or development of any ethical theory, let alone that multiple such theories can be unified. Since Ernie admits that the evidence appears to suggest that these ethical theories are sometimes in conflict, he needs to provide strong evidence to the contrary. That is, for any real situation S with possible actions A1-AN, there exists a single Aopt which is the best choice under all of the ethical systems he claims can be unified. At least, that is what I understand such a unification to entail.

I must also point out what may be only a minor quibble, but I note that Ernie is comparing the "transcendent mathematical nature of the universe" to a "transcendent moral purpose for the universe". Why not the "transcendent moral nature"? Is it not possible for there to be a moral nature without a moral purpose? Or is it that Ernie thinks the evidence for a moral purpose is as strong as what exists for the mathematical nature of the universe? At this level of abstraction, it seems at least possible to me that a unified moral nature is possible without requiring a purpose (and therefore a source of purpose).

Ernie finished with a "deluge of questions":

  1. Do you accept my formulation of the Trilemma as a meaningful question?
  2. Might you phrase it differently, but still accept the fundamental tension between these three?
  3. If so, how (if at all) do you resolve that tension?
  4. If you choose (iii), do you have any rational basis for that belief?
  5. Do you have any empirical evidence for the viability of your approach?
  6. Do you see why I consider (iii) equivalent to asserting a "transcendent moral purpose for the universe"?

My answers:

  1. Your trilemma provides a meaningful basis for clarifying our positions. I am not sure that your three competing ethical claims are the only possible competing claims; I can imagine others. I also tend to view the "belief in truth" leg as being in a different category from the others so I would be tempted to formulate a simple dilemma. On the other hand, I agree that belief in truth is important and is very likely to align with the others.
  2. There is a tension at least between good for others and good for myself, though I agree that we should at least aim for the so-called "win-win" choice and that in many cases such a choice exists. I am unconvinced that in a community/ecosystem with finite resources such a choice always exists, thus giving rise to the tension.
  3. I resolve the tension by not requiring a single answer, by allowing that different ethical systems may give different answers. While I have preferences for certain kinds of answers, I cannot claim that they are singularly right. This is closest to your option (i), though I would state it rather differently. I would not claim there is a unique (valid) metric of goodness that implies a single greatest good for each situation.
  4. (Not applicable.)
  5. In order to discuss viability, I think I would need to discuss a particular system of ethics (what is right, what is wrong, and especially for the question of viability, what is the right way to respond to right or wrong actions). I might argue, though, that some systems are inherently viable since actions which lead to mortality could be defined (in those systems) as "bad", so that all "good" actions would be viable by definition. Whether we can know ahead of time whether an action is good or bad under such a definition is another question. Without describing my thoughts on ethics in any detail, I can say that I have very little actual evidence for or against their viability though I have conservative intuitive reasons for believing they are viable. I am also unconvinced that human nature is conducive to their realization. That is, if everyone lived according to my idea of ethics, I believe such a community would be viable. How many "cheaters" can be supported is a more difficult question. Whether to blame the ethical system for failures under such circumstances is also a difficult question. In other words, I do not claim to have any certain answers here.
  6. I can see why you might consider (iii) equivalent to asserting a "transcendent moral nature of the universe"; you would need to go further to establish a purpose. And, of course, you still need to defend your assertion.

If it is important (or if you are curious), I can try to elaborate on my views of ethics. I made the claim that a naturalistic theory "can provide more reliable foundation for morality than supposed divine authority." The difference between "divine authority" and "transcendent moral nature/purpose of the universe" may be large enough to render elaboration and support of my claim less worthwhile, but I am willing to do that as well. Since you said "this Trilemma has been bugging me for several months, and I'm dying to hear Alan's answers", I rather suspect that what I have said here will be insufficient to quench your curiosity, so in addition to defending your assertion, Ernie, let me know what I need to flesh out.

Update: As I reflect on what I wrote, I fear I may have given a wrong impression about the importance of ethical behavior. I do value such behavior highly; when I described ethical systems providing guidelines rather than obligations, my intent was to focus on how those systems can help me choose what to do to satisfy my values, as well as help me evaluate the choices of others. This distinction also recognizes that an "ought" is not a "can't help but"; that is, that alternative actions are possible, which is therefore consistent with allowing multiple ethical systems to inform decisions. Finally, and despite my use of the words "choose" and "choice" and the phrase "can't help but" in the last two sentences, I also value ethics in a descriptive sense because they remain useful even if free will is illusory. That is, even if we have no true choices, we can still describe actions as "good" or "bad", even if it no longer makes sense to speak of moral obligations. Since I remain open to the possibility that free will is an illusion, this property of my view of ethics is important.

No comments: