What the Song Is to the Bird

Wednesday, 10-22-2014

“The vow is to the man what the song is to the bird, or the bark to the dog; his voice, whereby he is known.  Just as a man who cannot keep an appointment is not fit even to fight a duel, so the man who cannot keep an appointment with himself is not sane enough even for suicide.  It is not easy to mention anything on which the enormous apparatus of human life can be said to depend.  But if it depends on anything, it is on this frail cord, flung from the forgotten hills of yesterday to the invisible mountains of tomorrow.”  G.K. Chesterton, The Appetite of Tyranny


The Relativism of Judge Posner (Part 2 of 2)

Tuesday, 10-21-2014

To continue yesterday’s discussion:  Are there in fact implicit norms to which the codes of particular cultures are better or worse approximations?  Judge Posner says “No.”  Let's consider his first example, murder.  Posner claims that the prohibition of murder is a mere tautology – that killing is wrong when killing is wrong – so that essentially it says nothing.  But is this correct?

Not at all.  According to the natural law tradition, the implicit norm concerning murder is that we must never deliberately take innocent human life.  The norm is not a tautology, because it specifies when killing actually is wrong.  Consider a difficult case:  Cannibalism.  It may seem that the cannibal thinks it is all right to deliberately take innocent human life, but it is much more likely that he concedes the point and denies that the people in the other tribe are human (or perhaps that they are innocent).

If I were Judge Posner, I might reply as follows:  "Granted what you call the implicit norm, you have merely substituted an elaborate tautology for a simple one.  A human is merely a being such that deliberately taking his life, when he is innocent, is wrong.  Therefore, your so-called implicit norm translates 'It is wrong to deliberately take the lives of innocent beings whose lives, when they are innocent, it is wrong to take.'  Just as before, you are saying precisely nothing."

But this hypothetical reply wouldn’t work either.  The natural law tradition does not substitute an elaborate tautology for a simple tautology; on the contrary, the hypothetical reply substitutes an elaborate unproved assertion for a simple unproven assertion.  For this time it takes as a given that there is no implicit norm concerning what counts as human, to which the codes of particular cultures are better or worse approximations.  But again, this is not a given but the thing we are trying to ascertain.

If there really were no implicit norm concerning what is human, then it would be impossible to argue with cannibals about the matter.  Experience shows that this is not true, for various cannibal tribes have yielded to the persuasion of missionaries and others.  Consider too, that unless the cannibal knows deep down that the people in the other tribe are human, it is difficult to explain why he performs rituals for the expiation of sin before taking their lives.

The fact is that relativism is always more or less a fraud.  No relativist ever applies his relativism consistently; either he is a selective relativist (that is, a selective moralist), or else a smokescreen artist -- using relativism as cover for a pet moral theory that pretends to be something else.  Judge Posner is exception in one respect only:  He is both a smokescreen artist and a selectivist.

As to his being a smokescreen artist:  Posner’s own pet moral theory is "adaptationism," the view that the promotion of a society's subjective goals is an objective good.  In his own words, "Relativism suggests an adaptationist conception of morality, in which morality is judged nonmorally -- in the way a hammer might be judged well or poorly adapted to its function of hammering nails -- by its contribution to the survival, or other goals, of a society."  By saying that this judgment is nonmoral, Posner pretends that he is not offering a moral theory – that promoting a society’s subjective goals is not an objective good.  But let us be serious.  Either it is rationally appropriate to promote these goals, or it is not.  If it is, then it is an objective good.  And if it is not, then it is he, not the natural law thinker, who is offering a tautology:  We promote those goals which we do, in fact, promote.

As to his being a selectivist:  Upon examining his record, we find that Posner doesn't really believe in adaptationism either – and on the occasions when he abandons his adaptationism, he abandons the facade of relativism too.  Consider for example the line of moral reasoning advanced in his dissenting opinion in Hope Clinic v. Ryan (1999), a case concerning partial-birth abortion.  In view of the fact that large majorities oppose this gruesome practice, adaptationism would bid him submit to the "social goal" of ending it.  Instead he advanced a variety of arguments as to why this social goal was wrong, and the majority wrong to have held it.  This may be a loathsome moral view -- but it is a moral view.


The Relativism of Judge Posner (Part 1 of 2)

Monday, 10-20-2014

Moral relativism maintains that the natural law cannot exist because morality is different everywhere.  In philosophy, the most influential recent advocate of relativism is Richard Rorty, who writes "I do not think there are any plain moral facts out there in the world, nor any truths independent of language, nor any neutral ground on which to stand and argue that either torture or kindness are preferable to the other."   In jurisprudence, its most influential advocate is probably Richard A. Posner, judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.  No babe in the woods, Posner knows better than to flatly deny the reality of moral universals; all cultures recognize the wrong of such things as murder.  Rather than denying the point, Posner trivializes it.  He doesn’t deny that there are moral universals, but that there are "interesting" moral universals.  In his own words:

“[M]orality is local.  There are no interesting moral universals.  There are tautological ones, such as "Murder is wrong" where "murder" means "wrongful killing," and there are a few rudimentary principles of social cooperation -- such as "Don't lie all the time" or "Don't break promises without any reason" or "Don't kill your relatives or neighbors indiscriminately" -- that may be common to all human societies.  If one wants to call these rudimentary principles the universal moral law, fine; but as a practical matter, no moral code can be criticized by appealing to norms that are valid across cultures, norms to which the code of a particular culture is a better or worse approximation.  These norms, the rudimentary principles of social cooperation that I have mentioned, are too abstract to serve as standards for moral judgment.”  ("The Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory," Harvard Law Review, Vol. 111 (1998), p. 1637.)

The argument may be put like this:  Principles like "Don't murder," "Don't lie," and "Don't break promises" may seem to say something, but this is an illusion.  "Murder" means merely "wrongful killing," so "Murder is wrong" translates "Killing is wrong when it is wrong to kill."  "Lie" means merely "wrongful falsehood," so "Lying is wrong" translates "It is wrong to tell those falsehoods that it is wrong to tell."  "Promise" means only "vow it is wrong to break," so "Breaking promises is wrong" translates "It is wrong to break vows that it is wrong to break."  In each case, all that we are really being told is "It is wrong to do what it is wrong to do."  True, there is a rudimentary agreement across cultures that at least it is sometimes wrong to kill, to tell falsehoods, and to break vows.  But concerning the substance of the matter -- when it is wrong to do these things -- there is no agreement whatsoever.  The supposed universals turn out to be mere tautologies; they say literally nothing.

Now this is an empirical claim, and as such, it invites investigation.  Posner sees the invitation coming and heads it off by sheer assertion.  As he obviously knows, natural lawyers would say that discordancy among cultures about killing, telling falsehoods, and breaking vows conceals an underlying unity.  There exist certain universal norms -- discovered, not invented -- from which the codes of particular cultures may deviate in various ways, but to which they are better or worse approximations.  Though Posner asserts as a given that this is not true, it is not a given; it is precisely what we are trying to ascertain.  Are there in fact implicit norms to which the codes of particular cultures are better or worse approximations?

Stay tuned:  Continued tomorrow.


Swinburne on the Rationality of Religious Belief

Sunday, 10-19-2014

The arguments of Richard Swinburne seem to be well known (and well debated) among professional philosophers of religion, but little known outside their ranks.

Swinburne’s Principle of Testimony:  “[T]hose who do not have an experience of a certain type ought to believe any others when they say they do -- again, in the absence of deceit or deception.  If we could not in general trust what other people say about their experiences without checking them out in some way, our knowledge of history or geography or science would be almost non-existent.”

His Principle of Credulity:  “Now it is a basic principle of rationality, which I call the principle of credulity, that we ought to believe that things are as they seem to be (in the epistemic sense) unless and until we have evidence that we are mistaken .... If you say the contrary -- never trust appearances until it is proved that they are reliable -- you will never have any beliefs at all.  For what would show that appearances are reliable except more appearances?  And, if you cannot trust appearances as such, you cannot trust these new ones either.  Just as you must trust your ordinary senses, so it is equally rational to trust your religious sense.”

Richard Swinburne, Is There a God? (Oxford, 2d ed., 2010), pp. 115-116.


Another Sort of Heresy

Saturday, 10-18-2014

Harvard anthropologist David Pilbeam, reviewing a book about human origins:  “My reservations concern not so much this book but the whole subject and methodology of paleoanthropology.  But introductory books – or book reviews – are hardly the place to argue that perhaps generations of students of human evolution, including myself, have been flailing about in the dark; that our data base is too sparse, too slippery, for it to be able to mold our theories.  Rather, the theories are more statements about us and ideology than about the past.  Paleoanthropology reveals more about how humans view themselves than it does about how humans came about.  But that is heresy.”   --  American Scientist 66 (May-June, 1978), pp. 378-379.


Tradition vs. Traditionalism

Friday, 10-17-2014

“Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.  And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”  --  Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition


Left, Right, Prudence, Principle, and Catholic Social Doctrine (Part 3 of 3)

Thursday, 10-16-2014

So far I’ve agreed with Bishop McElroy that the distinction between principles and prudential judgments should be consistently applied to both social evils and intrinsically evil acts, but I’ve suggested that he is not consistently following his own advice.

But there is another way he might have made his argument, and I think it would have been stronger. Suppose we agree that the decision to press for an increase in the minimum wage, rather than, say, a change in vocational training, is a judgment of prudence. And suppose we further agree that the decision to press for a series of graduated restrictions on abortion, rather than an immediate comprehensive prohibition, is a judgment of prudence too. But notice: The Church does press for graduated restrictions on abortion. Why then may she not press for an increase in the minimum wage? If one judgment of prudence is within her purview, why not all judgments of prudence? Aren’t all judgments of prudence the same?

What this alternative argument gets right is that the Church does sometimes press judgments of prudence, and not just about abortion. Consider the run-up to the Second World War. She might have contented herself with restating the principles which Nazi ideology denied, but she went further. “With burning concern,” she judged that the Nazi regime had committed atrocities in violation of these principles, and condemned it for them.

What the alternative argument does not get right is whether all judgments of prudence are the same. Some are so urgent and obvious that no person of good will could deny them; they are inseparable from the defense of principle itself. But most are either not so urgent, not so obvious, or neither. Principle can be defended without insisting on them, and reasonable debate among persons of good will may even improve them.

The Church must ardently press the former kind of prudential judgment.  With equal ardor, she must resist the temptation to press the latter kind.

Sadly, human beings are capable of dispute even over the question of which things are reasonably indisputable. It is sufficient to point out that this does not imply that they all really are.