Whistling Past the Graveyard

Monday, 06-19-2017

 

Query:

I read your essay “Why the Natural Law Suggests a Divine Source,” in the anthology of Beckwith, George, and McWilliams, A Second Look at First ThingsYou seem to be making a kind of moral argument for the existence of god.  I don’t understand why you think a god is a plausible explanation of the existence of an objective good and evil.

Objective morality could be explained by any of the multitude of mutually exclusive alternatives to theism such as deism, naturalistic pantheism, pandeism, acosmism, panpsychism, transtheism, henotheism, polytheism, or an evil god.  For example, naturalistic pantheism can explain morality as a product of a law similar to gravity, simply a more advanced kind of law we have not yet discovered.

Besides, due to many philosophical difficulties, we have no basis to conclude that there is an objective anything (other than solipsism) much less an objective morality.

I agree that you need some kind of worldview to act as a basis for everything.  However, any of the mutually exclusive possibilities to theism can explain morality.  Let me know if you think I misunderstood something.

Reply:

You ask me to tell you frankly if I think you are missing anything.  Yes, I think your thoughtful letter falls into two mistakes.

First, it is simply not true that every worldview can produce an equally satisfactory explanation of moral law.  For example, you mention the hypothesis of an evil god, but this hypothesis cannot explain how there can be an ontological distinction between good and evil.  In fact, the very existence of evil presupposes good, because evil is a privation of good.  Disease, for example, makes sense only as a flaw in health -- but health does not make sense as a flaw in disease.  Or consider your suggestion that the possibility of good might be a product of some other law we have not discovered.  This is merely hand-waving.  It is like saying that gravity might be due to undetected fairies.

However, the second difficulty in your letter is more fundamental.  I embrace the classical approach to epistemology which sets things before knowledge.  You embrace the modern approach to epistemology which sets knowledge before things.  This has been a dead end.  Even the skeptic has to assume that something is true; otherwise he has no way to decide what to do and how to live – the springs of action lose their springiness.  He cannot even justify his skepticism.  One must first try to know something, then go ahead and criticize the power of knowing.   We find out the weaknesses of the reasoning power only in the act of using it.

The Questioner’s Response:

If you have time, please let me know what you think.  You say evil is the privation of good, but from my understanding, under the evil god theory, good is simply the privation of evil.  Whether we pain with white paint on a black backgrop, or black paint on a white backdrop, we can paint the same picture.  With health and disease, or with light and dark, we can show which is really the backdrop, but with good and evil, we can’t.

When you say, “Of course even the skeptic has to assume that something is true,” you seem to reject views which rely entirely on appearances instead of asserting a reality.  I don’t see why.

Since even the skeptic has to assume that something is true, it would seem that we should start from apparent truth rather than actual truth, because we can be more sure about shared appearances than about reality.

My Reply:

Well, in the first place, the suggestion that good might be merely the absence of evil is not plausible.  You concede that it is implausible for health to be merely the absence of disease, but this seems to confirm my point, because health is a kind of good.

Second, the suggestion that it is arbitrary to propose theism because we lack any grounds for knowing anything for sure is self-undermining.  If this proposition were true, then we would lack any grounds for knowing that the proposition itself were true.  One should reject the argument for theism only if it is invalid – not because of a lazy skepticism which spares us the hard work of examining it.

Finally, it seems arbitrary to doubt everything except doubt.  The suggestion that we accept appearances and forget about reality is a counsel of despair, because the rational soul is ordained to seek and to know truth.  Besides – which of several conflicting appearances do you accept?  If shared appearances, shared by whom?  I am glad you wrote, but I think you are whistling past the graveyard.

New Book on Virtue

 

 

The Islamic Crisis of Reason

Monday, 06-12-2017

 

Wael Farouq, a Muslim associated with American University in Cairo, presently teaching at the Catholic University of Milan, suggested recently that Islamic doctrine “must be purified of the interpretations that lead persons of the Muslim faith to embrace terrorism.”  He argued that “The Muslim intellectual class must find its way out of the crisis in which it finds itself.  And it is a crisis of the use of reason, as [Pope Benedict XVI] rightly indicated in Regensburg.”

Farouq concluded, “The West has consecrated itself to pluralism and human rights, so as not to repeat the painful experiences of Nazism and fascism, but it must be asked:  Didn’t Nazism and fascism represent the supremacy of the stereotype over the person?  Didn’t they believe in something higher than the human person, for the sake of which it was justified to die and to kill?  And today, is there not the risk that ‘multiculturalism’ too will turn into a stereotype more important than the person and his authentic fundamental rights?”

It must have taken courage for Farouq to commend the famous Regensburg Address, in one brief section of which Benedict argues that Islam is tempted to violence because it misunderstands the relation between faith and reason.  The use of violence to spread faith, Benedict says, is unreasonable.

Christians can criticize Christians who use violence on behalf of faith, because in the Christian conception, faith and reason are allies, God is infinitely reasonable and wise, and man is ordained to know the truth, endowed by his Creator with an inbuilt longing to attain it.  In the Islamic conception, however, God is viewed primarily in terms of will.  He does not have to be reasonable, and all we have to do is obey.  Benedict remarks, “Ibn Hazm went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us.  Were it God's will, we would even have to practice idolatry.”

Ironically, Muslims in a number of countries protested the Pope’s suggestions concerning the Islamic temptation to violence by committing acts of violence against Christians. 

A different response came from a group of thirty-eight Muslim scholars, who sent an open letter in which, challenging Benedict’s understanding of the Qu’ran, they simply denied the Islamic temptation to violence.  But in reading such claims we must remember that in Islam, one is not required to tell the truth to non-Muslims.  Consider the hadith, or saying of the Prophet, recorded by the renowned Muhammad ibn Ishaq.  A proposal had been made to kill a certain Jew.   “Muhammad bin Maslamah said, ‘O apostle of God, we shall have to tell lies.’  ‘Say what you like,’ Muhammad replied.  ‘You are absolved, free to say whatever you must”’.

Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri’s classic work of Shāfī’ī jurisprudence, Reliance of the Traveler , cites a far milder hadith:  “I did not hear [Muhammad] permit untruth in anything people say, except for three things:  War, settling disagreements, and a man talking with his wife or she with him.”  But the outcome is stated bluntly: “This is an explicit statement that lying is sometimes permissible.”

For “the best analysis,” Reliance of the Traveler refers the reader to the Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazālī.  In the sharpest possible contrast with the view that Christian view that human speech is a gift of God ordained to truth, al-Ghazali flatly declares, “Speaking is a means to achieve objectives.”  “When it is possible to achieve [a praiseworthy] aim by lying but not by telling the truth,” he states, “it is permissible to lie if attaining the goal is permissible, and obligatory to lie if the goal is obligatory,” although “it is religiously more precautionary in all such cases to employ words that give a misleading impression, meaning to intend by one’s words something that is literally true ... while the outward purport of the words deceives the hearer.”

Although al-Ghazali cautions that “strictness is to forgo lying in every case where it is not legally obligatory,” this statement comes on the heels of his startling remark, “One should compare the bad consequences entailed by lying to those entailed by telling the truth, and if the consequences of telling the truth are more damaging, one is entitled to lie.”

May God grant Islam the grace to escape from views, for unless it can do so, the preconditions for honest discussion are impossible to meet.  But let us return to the question of using violence to compel faith.

Umar Barakat writes, “Jihād means to war against non-Muslims, and is etymologically derived from the word mujahada, signifying warfare to establish the religion.”  To be sure, he adds, “As for the greater jihād, it is spiritual warfare against the lower self (nafs), which is why the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said as he was returning from jihād, ‘We have returned from the lesser jihād to the greater jihād.’  On the other hand, according to Umar Barakat, the scriptural basis for jihād lies in verses like “Fighting is prescribed for you” and “Slay them wherever you find them,” as well as haditha like the one that says, “I have been commanded to fight people until they testify that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, and perform the prayer, and pay zakat.  If they say it, they have saved their blood and possessions from me, except for the rights of Islam over them.  And their final reckoning is with Allah.”

Plainly, scriptures like the latter refer not to war against the lower self but to war to compel religious belief.  If they supply the basis for jihād, as Umar Barakat asserts, then it would appear that the “lesser” jihād is the central meaning of jihād even if it is the lesser one.  Perhaps the Shāfī’ī school is eccentric, but if so then it behoves the thirty-eight scholars to explain what school of jurisprudence they are following.   To say that Shari’a should be interpreted as prohibiting religious compulsion is laudable; to say that it is normally so interpreted is implausible.

Farouq is right about four things:  First, that violent interpretations of Islam are a genuine problem, not a delusion of persons bigoted against Islam.  Second, that these interpretations are a problem for Islam itself, not just for non-Muslims who are threatened by them.  Third, that the solution to the problem can come only from Muslims.  Fourth, that the multiculturalist refusal to recognize the problems of these doctrines puts everyone at risk.

 

Sources:

A translation of most of Wael Farouq’s editorial “He Who Kills Believes in a Specific Doctrine,” may be found in the English version of an article by Sandro Magister, “It Took a Muslim To Say What For Pope and Bishops Is Taboo.”

Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Address, “Faith, Reason, and the University: Memories and Reflections,” may be found at the Vatican website.

Benedict’s source for his remark about the views of Abū Muḥammad ʿAlī ibn Aḥmad ibn Saʿīd ibn Ḥazm is Grammaire et théologie chez Ibn Hazm de Cordoue: Essai sur la structure et les conditions de la pensée musulmane, a work of the French scholar of Islam, Roger Arnaldez.

Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri, Reliance of the Traveler is published by Amana Publications.  This is a collaborative work; only a small part comes from the original manual by al-Misri.

See also J. Budziszewski, “Natural Law, Democracy, and Shari’a,” reproduced at this site from Rex Ahdar and Nicholas Aroney, eds., Shari'a in the West (Oxford University Press).

 

For Their Own Sakes?

Monday, 06-05-2017

 

Should persons be loved for their own sakes?  Yes in one sense, no in another.  I should not love Sandra for the sake of what which is less than Sandra, for example, her cooking.  But I should love her for the sake of what is greater than she is, that is, God.  To love her the former way is to love her less -- in fact, not at all.  But to love her the latter way is to love her more -- for she is His image, and all she has and all she is comes from Him.

Commentary on Thomas Aquinas's Virtue Ethics

 

Do the Moral Virtues "Know" Anything?

Monday, 05-29-2017

 

Query:

Maybe you cover this in your new book on virtue, but I’m puzzled about how the virtues can “moderate” our desires.  For example, does the virtue of temperance somehow “know” what is moderate?  If not, then doesn’t everything really depend on the judgment of prudence?  So in that case, what’s left for temperance to do?  To put it another way, in the temperate person is reason embedded in the desires, or do the desires merely obey reason?

Any thoughts would be most appreciated!

Reply:

I think I see what is puzzling you.  Actually, the exercise of each moral virtue results from a partnership of two virtues.  One of them is the moral virtue itself (in your example, temperance), and the other is the intellectual virtue of prudence, or practical wisdom.

Suppose, then, I am offered the chance of devouring a “You Can’t Eat it All!” ice cream Sundae at the local ice cream parlor, containing sixteen scoops of assorted flavors, along with bananas, cherries, pineapple, peanuts, walnuts, three different syrups, and whipped cream.  What happens?

By itself, my temperance can’t locate the mean between deficiency and excess.  It doesn’t “know” how much ice cream it would be appropriate to eat.  On the other hand, it isn’t passive either.  It really does have something to do.

First, through temperance I am habituated to not letting my appetites go hog-wild.  So, even without knowing how just much it would be appropriate to eat, my appetite is probably not going to find the “You Can’t Eat it All” sundae an appealing way to conclude a meal of four cheeseburgers.

Moreover, through temperance my appetite listens to prudence, and prudence, unlike temperance, can locate the mean.  Of course, depending on my health and circumstances, prudence may give me different instructions.  Am I healthy or sick?  Am I an overweight older man, or a young man with a lively metabolism who needs to take in lots of calories?  Is it a feast day, an ordinary day, or a fast?  That sort of thing.

So, yes, temperance really does moderate my appetite, but it doesn’t actually incorporate practical wisdom; it cooperates with it.  It achieves the mean, not because it knows the mean, but because practical wisdom is its advisor.  You might say that practical wisdom takes care of the fine tuning.  Better, you might say that temperance is the virtue that enables me to respond to the counsel of prudence.  Because of temperance, I desire the right ends; because of prudence, I pursue the right means.

As you can see, then, moral virtue and prudence are connected.  On one hand, if I am intemperate I will find it much more difficult to achieve prudence about food and other pleasures – I will always be telling myself what I want to believe about the right thing to do.  On the other hand, if I am imprudent I will find it much more difficult to achieve temperance itself -- I will have habituated my appetites improperly.

In fact, indirectly, not only will intemperance make it more difficult for me to acquire prudence, it will even make it more difficult to practice the other moral virtues such as justice and fortitude.  Consider a young man who is intemperate about sex.  Do you think he will be just to his girl friends?  Or consider someone who has habituated himself to giving in to every bodily desire.  Do you think he is likely to be courageous in the face of bodily danger and discomfort?

Hope this helps!

New Book: Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Virtue Ethics

 

Hihyer Eddicashun

Monday, 05-22-2017

 

True story:  At a private liberal arts college, four out of 16 students are failing the freshman writing course.  The reasons:  Failure to turn in the assignments on time (sometimes not at all); failure to address instructor’s comments on essay drafts; failure to use a sufficient number of sources in the research papers (sometimes not using any sources at all); inability or unwillingness to correct grammatical errors pointed out by the instructor.

The instructor meets with director of writing program to discuss plans for upcoming year.  The same director had revealed, at a faculty meeting, that in her own writing classes she had given an A to every student.

Instructor asks whether it is likely that there will be courses for him to teach next year.

Director (sighs):  "What do you think?"

Instructor:  "I don't know, what do you think?"

Director:  "Students pay a lot of money to come here, and they expect certain things."

New Book

 

Just Published

Monday, 05-15-2017

 

Readers of this blog know that I have been waiting for the publication of my new book, Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Virtue Ethics.  I am pleased to say that the book is available now both in print and electronic editions.   (My author copies have just arrived.)

If you would like to check it out online, you can read the analytical table of contents, the frontmatter including the introduction, a sample chapter, the index, and the endorsements.

There on the cover is a statue of the Archangel Michael at war, calmly driving a sword down the flaming mouth of the Serpent:  A fitting image of virtue conquering vice.  It adorns the Basílica de Guadalupe in Mexico City.

This is the latest in my series of commentaries on aspects of the Summa Theologiae.  The first was my Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Law, which came with a free online partner volume, Companion to the CommentaryAmong some writers on ethics, there is a certain tendency to separate rules too sharply from virtues, but as the Angelic Doctor knew, neither can be understood properly apart from the other.

 

The Sacrifice that Didn’t Happen

Monday, 05-08-2017

 

Old Testament stories like the divine command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac present real difficulties, but the main difficulties are false ones. 

The greatest false difficulty is expressed in the question, “How could God have approved child sacrifice?”  He didn’t.  Since God intervened to prevent the slaughter, the point of the story of the command to sacrifice Isaac is not that He wanted child sacrifice, but that Abraham needed to be trained to believe what God has promised him.  For Abraham, the issue of trust arises because God has promised to make of his descendants a mighty nation, but now, in Abraham’s extreme old age, He instructs him to slay his only descendant.  Indeed, as we learn when the divine law is given, much later in salvation history, God loathes child sacrifice -- but Abraham comes too early in history to know that.  He is surrounded by nations that sacrifice their children to their gods.  Perhaps it didn’t shock him.

By the way, Abraham did tell Isaac that the Lord Himself would provide a sacrifice -- and He did.  It may also be that not only Abraham’s trust, but also Isaac’s trust is at stake.  In a letter to the Christians at Corinth, St. Clement, one of the Patristic writers, maintains that “Isaac, with perfect confidence, as if knowing what was to happen, cheerfully yielded himself.”  And as we know now, a substitute sacrifice has been provided for all of us.