Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Ethical Universe (No, Not That Kind)

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

As I suspected, my last post, An Earnest Trilemma, was less than a model of clarity, leading to a number of questions by Ernie in "Good" and "True". The core of the last couple of posts and of his questions relate to ethics and morality (two terms which I have been treating more or less interchangeably). I will try to explain a bit more fully my current thoughts on the subject; after that description, I will also answer Ernie's specific questions.

Let me start with the idea of moral law, analagous to the physical laws that describe the regularities we observe in our universe. The thing about physical laws, as Chesterton was so kind to point out, is that they cannot be broken (at least, barring supernatural intervention). The laws, as descriptions of reality, may be incorrect, but to the degree that they are correct they describe constraints on the way things work. According to the simplest translation to the realm of moral action, we can see that moral laws do not work that way. That is, we are not prevented by nature from anti-moral action. So if there is a real moral law, its existence would impact us in some other way. The possibility that makes the most sense to me, and which I believe is at least roughly in line with what Ernie described a few months ago, is that such a moral law would make itself known through some sort of personal consequences beyond those implied by mathematical and physical considerations. Of course, those consequences that are only observable after death are hidden from us, and those consequences that are observable now must be disentangled from physical causality. Ernie may think we can extract that signal from the noise, while I think that "normal" causation can account for what we observe.

So what makes something "good" versus "evil"? First, as ethical or moral descriptors, I would use those terms primarily as descriptive of actions, and secondarily as descriptive of actors according to their capacity and tendency to engage in good and evil actions. If there are moral laws and if we knew what they were, we would be able to identify specific actions as being good or evil (possibly to some degree of goodness or evilness) according to the agreement between law and action. But if there are no moral laws (in the sense of otherwise-unexplainable consequences), what would it mean to call something "good" or "evil"?

People give various answers to that question. Some people look at consequences, some people look at motivations Some people look for cultural or societal answers (descriptive ethics in the generally-used sense) wherein good and evil are defined simply in terms of what some group of people agree is good and evil.

Now, when Ernie first brought up his trilemma, he said:

Put another way, I can readily see why atheists might (and do) believe in such noble ethics as above, but I've never been quite clear why it is not equally possible for them to believe in something else.

Certainly people affirm a variety of systems of ethics, some of which strike me as, well, evil and others as merely misguided. Others strike me as well-intentioned and helpful, but incomplete. So I can agree with what Ernie wrote in the paragraph prior to the one I just quoted:

The short answer is that the atheistic ethics I've seen feel a bit to me like Aristotelian physics: useful and well-thought out as far as they go, but lacking the sort of deep grounding we've expected from physics since Newton established a coherent mathematical foundation for physical inquiry.

The answer to this current state of affairs is not to give up and conclude that secular ethics is a dead end, but rather to keep working on it, just as we did not give up physics.

In the universe of proposed ethical theories, preference utilitarianism probably comes closest to describing where I fall, but I find admirable ideas in a variety of places; the original position described by John Rawls is one such example. But these various theories do not presently compose a unified whole. Given this situation, I choose to use what I can from various theories to inform my decisions without finding it necessary to claim that any unified ethical theory presently exists.

As I said, I find preference utilitarianism to be a helpful way to frame many moral questions, wherein actions are judged according to the alignment between the consequences of an action and the preferences of those affected. Using this particular ethical theory as an example (though similar conclusions can be reached from a variety of starting points), belief in truth is important for several reasons. First, my own preferences will be affected by what I believe. I prefer those things that I think will make me happy, but false beliefs may result in preferences that in fact cause undesired pain. If somebody acts so as to satisfy my ill-reasoned preferences, I can hardly blame them for the pain I thus endure. My ability to act morally under this moral theory is also reduced by false beliefs both because I may not correctly know another's preferences and especially because I may not be able to predict accurately the effects of my actions on others.

So when I agreed that belief in truth is inherently good, I may not have characterized my views accurately. Or, more accurately, my thinking since then has clarified somewhat. Belief in truth is a sometimes critically important means to an ethical end, but to call it inherently good might be going too far. (Looking at morality as a characteristic of action and looking at belief as a state of being, we could not properly call beliefs themselves moral or immoral, but beliefs can lead quite directly to actions, so in practice the distinction may be more fine than is useful.)

Given all that, I can now try to answer Ernie's latest questions, which were:

a) Do you consider (I) a statement about objective reality, or of personal preference?

b) Why do you believe (I) is true?

c) How universally do you think this statement holds?

d) How strongly do you believe in (I)?

e) How does (I) relate to alternate statements, such as:

II. The Pursuit of Happiness is inherently Good

III. Helping Others is inherently Good

I interpret statement (I) to be a statement about objective reality; while I understand that somebody could use that same statement to express a personal preference, I understand it in this conversation to be a "real" not "imaginary" statement. Strictly speaking (as I clarified above), I do not believe that the statement is true, even while I believe that belief in truth is very important. I think this latter belief is, practically-speaking, pretty tightly wrapped up with the various ethical theories; I do not know if you would call that either non-contingent or empirically-motivated. (If true knowledge is characterized by making correct predictions, any kind of consequentialist ethics will depend on knowledge for making ethical decisions.)

Regarding universality, that is something of an open question for me for this reason: we are not perfectly rational, and it seems possible that unrecognized partial knowledge could lead to worse predictions, and therefore less ethical actions, than ignorance. At least, this is true under consequentialist ethics, but not necessarily of other ethical theories. So there are two ways that the statement might not be universal: it does not hold under some ethical theories (though it does in the ones I support most strongly) and it may not hold in some cases of partial knowledge. Unfortunately, the worst cases of partial knowledge are probably cases of "unknown unknowns" that, practically speaking, are very difficult to recognize. In these cases it is helpful to be able to look back on actions in the light of motivation and recognize that an action was well-intended based on the state of knowledge at the time (if that was in fact the case).

Would I bet my life on (I) holding? Well, since I have rejected the full meaning of the statement, I would say "no". Since I have refused to commit to a single theory of ethics, and since I have said that even a modified (I) would not hold in some theories, I would have to say "no" again. Still, I believe that belief in truth is a very important part of ethical living, and that the hypothetical ethical theory of everything will have place for it.

When compared to the other statements in your trilemma, as I mentioned in my last post, I think (I) is in a different category from (II) and (III), primarily because (II) and (III) reflect the true ends of ethics while (I) is a critical part of the path to get there. So, they are consistent, but not all peer alternatives in the trilemma.

I hope this was a helpful clarification. As always, Ernie, if you have more questions, fire away. But don't forget to work on your end of the field too...

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