Prinz’s Defense of Moral Relativism

As a zealous pluralist when it comes to morality, and to pretty much every other endeavor of the mind, I sympathize with some of the arguments professor Jesse Prinz makes in support of moral relativism. Yes, you read that right. To the extent that morality is the product of thought, it embodies the subjective and that which is relative to time and place. I part ways with relativists like Prinz because, unlike them, I conclude that the subjective—be it culture, or emotions or whatever—can give melodious voice to a silent moral reality. I also brush my teeth.

Prinz has a lot to say in defense of moral relativism, and I’d encourage a reading of his article to those interested in a decent argument for an indecent position. For purposes of this post, I want to focus on one statement Prinz makes:
With morals, unlike science, there is no well-recognized standard that can be used to test, confirm, or correct when disagreements arise.
I agree that when we investigate the morals of individuals and groups throughout history, we’ll never find a single standard to which they all agree. If Holmes and Watson would arrive at a dead end, what hope have we? Even something so fundamental as the recognized difference between good and evil eludes our net. However, within particular moral frameworks, we can ascertain accepted standards that make sense within each way of thinking. A language of virtue and vice has its uniquely valid rules; as does a language of rights and duties.

Whereas Prinz contrasts science with morals at the level of the universal, I propose making the differentiation at the level of the particular. Rather than contrast science in general with morality as a compilation of all moralities, it may make more sense, in this analysis, to juxtapose science with a particular moral framework or set of moral languages. Science is one framework (with particular rules and a particular methodology) for thinking in empirical terms about the empirical world. Strictly speaking, it’s not the only way the human race has drawn conclusions about the natural world in the course of history. Science was born and developed in time, and even since its discovery, not all explanations for natural phenomenon have been scientific. See Bill O’Reilly.

That science is one means among many for explaining the natural world hasn’t given us cause to prize it any less. We rightly put science on a pedestal and shower it with pretty flowers because it reveals truths of the natural world better and more verifiably than non-scientific modes of thought. Similarly, some moralities make better sense of human action and wellbeing than others. Describing prudence as a virtue (habitual disposition), for example, discloses more about prudent action and the prudent person than describing prudence in strictly deterministic terms.

In sum, we don’t need a universally agreed upon moral standard to stand above relativism’s explosive fray. To speak like a postmodernist, which, admittedly, I am, we don’t need a master explanation of morality to sing the praises of some moralities and spit upon and mouth disparagements at others. The disclosures of each petite account of morality suffice for distinguishing between the crops that will yield yummy, energizing food and those that will become little more than water-hoarding, bug-infested weeds.

H/T: Michael Cholbi

Ignorance and Intervention

Walking home one night, a man notices a robbery in progress while glancing down an alleyway. The robber has already collected a husband’s wallet and a wife’s purse, and he looks poised to shoot them both in the head. The man decides to intervene, having instinctively calculated the consequences and determined that that if he doesn’t risk his own life, this husband and wife will surely die. No one else seems to be around to catch a stray bullet. So he acts.

The United States and other countries have found themselves in a situation similar to that of this witness to a robbery and certain execution. News reports and government intelligence reveal that certain governments, some friends and some enemies, are engaged in violence and murder of their own people. In the case of Libya, a decision was made to intervene in order to prevent further bloodshed.

There’s an important difference, however, between the intervention by the man in the alley and the intervention of nations in Operation Odyssey Dawn. Whereas the man in the alley risked only his own life and reasonably concluded that any others in the area wouldn’t be harmed because of his intervention, the intervening countries risk the future of Libya and evils they cannot possibly foresee or imagine. Intervention today may negatively affect Libya for years, decades, and perhaps even centuries.

And so I appreciate Freddie’s admonishment of the interventionist:
A colossal, almost impossible arrogance underpins all interventionist logic. Beneath it all is a preening, self-satisfied belief in the interventionist's own brilliance and understanding. So I ask you, as an individual reader-- are you that wise? Are you that righteous? You understand so much? When was the last time you read a Libyan newspaper? Talked at length with a Libyan? A year ago, what did you know of Libya and its internal struggles? Because what you are saying, when you advocate intervention, is not only that you know so much that you can separate good from evil, but that your knowledge is so great and so benevolent that it is sufficient to completely undermine the self-determination of every man, woman, and child on Libyan soil. Make no mistake. That is your gamble. Those are the stakes you are wagering.

An understanding of the limits of ones own knowledge is the essence of wisdom, and modesty of goals compelled by limited knowledge the essence of good governance. Democracy requires-- requires-- demos, an informed, engaged populace. We have an enormously difficult time figuring out our domestic politics. This is asking too much, even without considering the imposition on the self-determination of Libya. Libya was for Libyans before you all trained your munificent gaze on it. Libya will be for Libyans long after you have turned your righteousness to the next news cycle. The question is what respect and what deference you will show to Libyans now, when absolutely every element of their future hangs in the balance.
The criteria of traditional just war theory—lasting, grave, and certain damage, clear prospects for success, proportionality, and the failure of alternatives—each demand a sufficient degree of knowledge. For a nation to justly go to war, it has to know that the aggressor will inflict lasting and grave destruction, that success is likely, that it won’t produce evils graver than the evil to be eliminated, and that all alternatives to war have been tried or are known to be ineffective. Just war, and I would include military intervention, requires a sufficient amount of knowledge. If Freddie is right, though, and I think he is, then the intervention in Libya, not to mention in other countries, cannot be justified because the degree of knowledge necessary to justify intervention simply cannot be had.

Yahweh's Wife, Asherah

Did the ancient Israelites worship both Yahweh and a figured considered to be his wife, the fertility goddess Asherah? That's the theory of theologian Francesca Stavrakopoulou. Discovery has a brief story.

H/T: Alex Knapp

Blessing WIN

As seen on the wall of an Irish Catholic doctor’s office…


Forgive the blurriness of the photo. My phone’s camera needs glasses.

We're No Angels

And yet we act as though we had something akin to their mythical and mighty role of separating the saints from the sinners and casting the world's worst evildoers into the fiery furnace to weep and gnash their teeth. Freddie:
Now we are jumping into another misadventure in the Muslim world with literally less than a couple days of anything resembling public deliberation. We are doing it because we have decided once again that we have the wisdom to peer into endlessly complex foreign political affairs and immediately sort good from bad. We are doing it because we have decided once again that when we have sorted good from bad in foreign countries we have the right to enter those countries by force and set things the way we want them. We are doing it because we have decided once again that imposing our decisions from across the sea on a foreign populace can, absurdly, be called "supporting democracy." I don't know what you might call this country. But we're committing military force to choose sides in a civil war without one word of Congressional deliberation and nothing resembling a coherent public debate. No talk of restraint, discipline, or wisdom, when referring to this nation, please. Never again. We will fly off the handle and lob ordinance wherever and whenever we get the urge, and we will do so totally convinced of our perfect ability and our beautiful, benevolent righteousness.

Another War?

Let me close by saying that there is no decision I face as your Commander in Chief that I consider as carefully as the decision to ask our men and women to use military force. Particularly at a time when our military is fighting in Afghanistan and winding down our activities in Iraq, that decision is only made more difficult. But the United States of America will not stand idly by in the face of actions that undermine global peace and security. So I have taken this decision with the confidence that action is necessary, and that we will not be acting alone. Our goal is focused, our cause is just, and our coalition is strong.

- President Barack Obama
It should go without saying that Moammar Qaddafi deserves to watch his fingers pried open and power slip from his hands. And then some. It’s also true that it’s within the power of the U.S. and the international community to put a stop to Qaddafi’s terrible rule through the use of military force. Nevertheless, that Qaddafi deserves defeat and that the U.S. has the capacity to defeat him are not sufficient grounds to justify the use of military force in Libya.

The bloodshed, chaos, ruin, and misery that will no doubt result from our trying to control the violence in a country we barely understand will be a cost for which we will hold moral responsibility, and that is a cost that we cannot even begin to measure. Contrary to the Commander in Chief's assurances, the goal is not the least bit focused. “Protecting innocent civilians within Libya and holding the Qaddafi regime accountable” sounds noble and all, but the concrete meaning of these goals remains entirely too vague, and Obama has no way to prevent his attempts at control from getting out of hand. Today he says no ground troops will be needed? Tomorrow? The very evils Obama seeks to prevent could very easily become the fruit of our military intervention: atrocities could occur, a humanitarian crisis could ensue, many thousands could die, and the region could be destabilized.

I can appreciate the desire to do something to stop Qaddafi, but military force isn’t a moral option at this stage. Obama’s decision to use such force is imprudent, irresponsible, and morally wrong.

Catholics Shouldn’t Say “I”

It’s possible I mean this hyperbolically, but as Winnie the Pooh might say while hovering under a honey tree, you never can tell with me. So what am I, who says I shouldn’t say “I,” really saying? This: the definitive pronoun for Catholics is not “I,” but rather “we,” and we’d do ourselves and others much better by thinking more in terms of “we” than “I.”

Being Catholic involves more than an affiliation with an institution, an affirmation of doctrines, teachings and creeds, or a faithful participation in the sacramental life. To be Catholic is to have a peculiar disposition, a particularly Catholic way of being disposed to the world, and that disposition emphasizes a communal and social understanding of the human person over an individualistic conception. Humanity is one and many, same and other, collective and individual, and yet a Catholic conception of humanity in many ways stresses the former over the latter. God is Trinity, and we are made in God’s image and likeness.

When we Catholics say there is no salvation outside the Church, we mean that there is no salvation apart from the community of believers, the Body of Christ. No one is saved as an autonomous, isolated individual, even if it appears that way. Salvation come to us as a we, as a community, not to me as an I, as a sinner alone before God, even if I am physically alone before God.

I cannot really even say “I” without implying the plural pronoun, for who I am is bound up with who others are. I cannot tell my story without telling the story of others. I have no self apart from those whose stories have woven threads into mine. I am not I. I am only I because we are we.

This bit of Catholic metaphysics and play with pronouns has practical consequence for how a Catholic ought to conceive the moral life, in particular responsibility and obligation. While we obviously have obligations as individuals—it’s my responsibility to love my wife as a husband, for example—most of our obligations have a social or communal aspect; they’re not merely the responsibility of individuals or entirely the responsibility of society. If a Catholic disposition bends me toward conceiving human persons chiefly as “we,” as opposed to a loose collection of individuals, then it may not make sense to conceptualize obligation and responsibility as existing primarily in the sphere of the individual. At the very least, a Catholic disposition denotes a recognition and appreciation for our social obligations and the societal means and structures we use in response to them.

So, for example, from the Catholic standpoint, we shouldn’t respond to poverty or pollution or health or education simply as individuals, or even as groups comprised of individuals, but also and especially as a whole society—politically free, of course, but also guided by rightful and lawful public authority. Government may be a necessary evil, so to speak, but it is not, for the Catholic, an enemy to be conquered or a danger to be avoided. It is a tool to be used prudently, if cautiously and with an eye toward the temptations of power.

None of this is to say that Catholics shouldn’t value individuality. We’re not the Borg collective, after all. And you don’t have to be my therapist to know I have an obsession with alterity—with otherness and difference. Whereas I said above that we cannot say “I” without implying “we,” the pronoun “we” implies a plurality of others, a union of those who are not the same. In short: an emphasis on the “we” shouldn’t entail a forgetfulness of the “I.” To say “we” is, in fact, to say “I.”

Need a Gift for a Philosophy Professor?

You can do little better than this:


This little tool will save him or her countless, hand-aching hours. Instead of having to write that a student's paper doesn't qualify as sufficiently philosophical, or as the least bit philosophical, the professor needs only to stamp the title page (with rage, frustration, or glee, depending) and move on.  And while stamping with one hand, he or she can take a shot of scotch or whiskey with the other (wink wink nudge nudge: another great gift).  

H/T: In Socrates' Wake

Opposition to Established U.S. Policies

Despite some troubling established power structures and procedures, I continue to have faith in the United States system of government, at least on matters of domestic policy. It remains generally true in this sphere that the president, members of Congress, governors, and state bodies of government cannot get away with everything, so to speak. After a grueling struggle, the U.S. Congress passed the Affordable Care Act, only to see it challenged in federal courts. Governor Scott Walker and the Wisconsin Republican senators will no doubt pay some kind of political price for their recent victory. Even when all is said and done, more can be said, more can be done, and a lot can be undone. Without casting specific judgment on the judicial challenges of healthcare reform or the prospect of recall that now faces some Wisconsin public servants, I fully endorse questioning and challenging the decisions of those in power even after those decisions have been made. Opposition and dissent make us a stronger and better society.

When it comes to matters of foreign policy, and especially matters that rightly or wrongly fall under the heading of national security, I have almost no faith and am much disturbed and dismayed at the almost utter absence of serious and effective opposition. The Republicans and Democrats may argue over particular military engagements, but both share basically the same philosophy concerning America’s military power. Yes, President Obama apparently took particular torture techniques off the table, and yet he fully endorses the prolonged solitary confinement and forced nudity being inflicted on Bradley Manning. Indefinite detention will continue, and with Obama we have our government given the authority to kill an America citizen, without trial, far from any battlefield. I’m not holding my breath, but I’d like to see, from Republican presidential challengers in 2012 and from future candidates across the spectrum, serious and persuasive opposition to established ways of thinking about wartime powers. (Kudos to PJ Crowley for speaking out against the cruel treatment of Bradley Manning, especially as his dissent unsurprisingly cost him his job).

I must admit to finding hope in the Tea Party members and those protesting in the name of unionized public employees, not because I agree with all or necessarily even some of what these people advocate, but because they all represent a dissenting voice, a voice in opposition to what those in power are doing. When such voices multiply and magnify, the potential exists for fridge ideas (like, say, not torturing) to become mainstream. There’s a danger here, obviously, as a fridge idea (like, say, banning Mosques) may be a piss poor idea, but, again, that’s why opposition is so important. Sometimes terrible ideas gain favor and get enacted. A true opposition means that nothing is entirely solid, no law is written in sacred permanent ink, no policy holds that invincibility star from Super Mario Bros. Personally, I can live with the risk that policies I favor may be repealed or overturned; I’d rather look that risk in the eyes than see programs and policies I abhor face no effective opposition whatsoever.

Knowledge, Detention, and War

The moral life requires that we act without certain knowledge, but there are situations in which an action isn’t justified unless we can prove beyond reasonable doubt that our knowledge is accurate. Detaining a person long-term or indefinitely is one such action.

President Barack Obama, whether because his hand was forced by Congress or because deep-down he supports the policy, has further cemented a system of indefinite detention with his recent executive order. The U.S. government will continue to hold indefinitely those it considers but apparently cannot prove to be significant threats to the security of the United States.

Now I don’t want to pretend that the president and members of Congress face an easy moral decision regarding the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. There’s a visible and sometimes insurmountable difference between reasonably suspecting that a prisoner is a significant threat and being able to prove, beyond reasonable doubt and in a fair trial, that the prisoner is guilty as suspected. It’s not terribly unlikely that some of these prisoners are serious threats, and it is a terrible possibility that releasing uncharged and untried prisoners will result in additional acts of violence.

And yet it’s also possible that some prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are not guilty as assumed and that every day of their detention is a day the U.S. has committed an injustice against them. In addition to furthering the injustice of indefinite detention itself, the current administration continues a policy of unjust treatment of prisoners—illustrated by the inhumane and degrading treatment of Bradley Manning.

President Obama and the others who have responsibility here may not know or have control over what the releasing of Guantanamo Bay prisoners will bring, but they should know that they may be treating these prisoners unjustly, and as difficult as this situation is, they do have control over how they treat them. They have a moral obligation to avoid committing these injustices, and, despite the moral difficulties involved, they have the power to fulfill this obligation.

I’m not a lawyer or an expert in these legal matters, but it seems to me that the U.S. government ought to be able at least to prove, in a fair trial, that every “War on Terror” prisoner is a significant enough threat to justify his continued detention. If it cannot prove at the very least a basis for suspicion, then it has no moral basis for continued detainment.

Earthquake in Japan

Thoughts and prayers for the deceased, the injured, and their loved ones.


(Photo via CNN)

If God Does Not Exist...

…Everything is permitted. So goes the saying. I don’t buy it.

First, it’s of neither practical nor theoretical necessity to posit a divine origin of morality in order to have a solid basis for doing good, avoiding evil, and recognizing the difference. The day-to-day moral decisions people consider and make rarely involve a theological archeology of the moral law or an exploration of its philosophical origins. Furthermore, while people disagree about moral norms and principles, most people have some moral presuppositions in which their deliberations are grounded. These presuppositions may be religious, but they don’t have to be. A belief in Jesus may motivate one volunteer at a soup kitchen, while the very presence of someone who is hungry may motivate another. A theist may avoid murder because it violates God’s commandment, while an atheist may avoid murder because of the loss and misery it delivers. The consequences of human action alone provide reason for not permitting everything.

Second, even if God exists and has written the moral law, the believer still acts based on the presupposition that the consequences of obeying the moral law are better than and preferable to the consequences of violating it. In doing so, the believer and the unbeliever share basically the same presupposition. Granted, the believer will speak in terms of eternity (Heaven and Hell, eternal union or separation from God, etc.), while the unbeliever will speak in terms of temporality (happiness and misery, temporal union or separation from others, etc.), but both presuppose that good moral action has one set of consequences, immoral action has quite another, and that the former consequences are more desirable than the latter—if the latter consequences are desirable at all.

Third, while the absence of a divine lawmaker would leave humanity without a divine moral law, humanity would still have ground on which to build an objective morality. Unless it is held that God composed the moral law arbitrarily, then the moral law is something that makes sense given the way of the world. There’s a difference between killing a flea and killing a person not merely because God says so, but because there are significant differences, physical and metaphysical, between an insect and a person. Therefore, even if it were left to men and women to write moral laws, they are not thereby doomed to write arbitrarily, without rhyme or reason. Moral reflection can look to insights about the physical and metaphysical as a sailor would look to a guiding star.

If I sound like the New Atheists here, it’s because I think they’re basically right about not needing God to explain morality. Of course, I differ from them in holding that religion has had much to contribute to discourse about morality and, more importantly, that the claims of religion speak to truths about human action, history, and destiny that reside beyond the reach of human reason. Jesus was a moral teacher, yes, but his teaching extended infinitely beyond the earthly moral life. All I’m contesting here is the notion that everything is permitted if God does not exist, not that the existence or non-existence of God has no consequence for what it means to be human.

A Pause to Watch and Listen: Battlestar Galactica


My wife and I stayed up late into the night to finish the final five episodes of Battlestar Galactica.  We weren't disappointed.  I don't wish to give away spoilers here, and believe you me, I'll be analyzing the series in depth and detail in the coming weeks, but for now I can safely say that it's the finest work of television storytelling I've yet seen.  Its moral and dramatic seriousness equals that of, say, Band of Brothers, while its mythology rivals if not surpasses those mythologies crafted by Joss Whedon.  Those of you familiar with the original Battlestar should know there's nothing campy about this reinterpretation. It's deadly serious about its subject matter.

Yes, the show has outstanding acting, writing, direction, music, and all the other qualities of good television production, but these alone are not why the show fraking rocks.  BSG believably and dramatically addresses the political, social, legal, cultural, religious and economic ramifications of the human race being suddenly reduced from billions people to around 50,000 souls.  How, in such a world, would the remnants of a civilian government continue to work with (and against!) the remains of the military leadership?  BSG explores that.  Would people continue to do the jobs they did before the cataclysm, even though payment is no longer a factor and most of the work is no longer necessary?  BSG delves into that as well.  

Then there's the show's treatment of religion.  Never seen a more thoughtful, nuanced, and rousing depiction of it on the screen.  I loved how the enemy robotic cylons are typically monotheists, believers in the One True God, while the humans are in general pagan polytheists.  I loved how among the cylons and the humans we find believers and unbelievers, agnostics, people of religious hope and despair, political opportunists who use religion to serve their ends, and that some of these opportunists are actually believers!  I loved the reversals and the conversions and the sudden falls into utter despondency that occur when changes of circumstance or earth-shattering revelations prompt the characters to stay steadfast in their beliefs or collapse into hopelessness.  And I loved the mystery of it, the traces and hints, and the resolutions that conceal as much as they reveal about the possibility of the divine. 

As this post is spoiler-free (sort of), I won't post any clips, but here are a few tracks from the exceptional soundtrack by Bear McCreary. Fans of Bob Dylan will recognize the melody of the second video.





A Theist and an Atheist Watch Star Wars

Is the theist who has a belief in God as the origin of the moral law better equipped than the atheist for recognizing the moral difference between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader?

Bart Taunts Grad Students

This is for David and Timothy:



H/T: In Medias Res

Consensus, Credibility and Truth

Ordinary gentleman Will asks an important question: “If an overwhelming number of trained specialists in a particular field agree on one issue, shouldn’t we just take their word for it? And if not, why not?” Will asks this in the contexts of climatology and economics, but the question can be asked of any field in which we find consensus among experts.

My answer: it’s reasonable to uphold consensus in a particular field as accurate. Indeed, we’d get very little done in society if we refused to take the word of people who should know what they’re talking about. However, consensus among experts can be transformed into a grand unquestionable orthodoxy, and it’s at this level that I urge an ear of caution and an eye of suspicion.

Consensus is something arrived at through a process of group thought and consideration of evidence, but as Jean-Fran├žois Lyotard argued, consensus is only a particular state of discussion, not its end. Its end, in my view, is a better understanding of truth.

Consensus implies the existence of other views and, indeed, dissent. As consensus does not equal truth, truth demands that others get a hearing and that our ears remain open to the voice of dissent or what Lyotard called paralogy, the innovation of new concepts that emerge in thought oppositional to the established ways of thinking.

Of course, keeping an open ear doesn’t mean we refuse to act when consensus urges a course of action. Knowledge is never absolute, and prudence dictates that we act without perfect knowledge.

Polemics and Sainthood

Pentimento points me to an essay by Heather King that challenges your not-so-humble, uber-opinionated blogger.  A sample:
So to be a follower of Christ is not a career move, and it’s not a social move either. It’s not about having a bevy of supportive, admiring, we’re-all-on-the-same-team friends. I can hardly imagine anything worse for a person’s spiritual development than to be told, “Whoa, dude, that was a killer pro-life polemic!” or “You really nailed those pederast priests!” No-one, to my knowledge, has ever become a saint on the basis of his or her political views.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t know exactly where we stand, and why. But we stand with Christ. Christ himself neither endorsed nor supported any causes. His cause was love, his cause was truth, his cause was beauty. His cause was to lay down his life for his friends. Being a follower of Christ is not about convincing, it’s about converting. And the heart you should be most concerned about converting is your own.
Yes, this speaks to me, and I should listen.