why do I say tank man made
a moral commitment?
On my message boards, Doxa Forums Fleetmouse and I were discussing Richard Rorty. Back in graduate school I studied Rorty pertty carefully, at least in terms of his work Contingency,Irony, Solidarity. I was jabbering about my memories, that was time when I was on top of my game and I knew that work, I knew every word in the book and the margins of my copy were a huge palemcest. My views about Rorty and that book were pretty negative, shaped by the professor of the class I'm sure. I stated that CIS seems to leave one with the idea that the immedicate comminity is the only basis for morality standards and that being moral or ethical is a matter of "go along get along." As an example I used the idea that if one lived in Soutern U.S. in 1900 lynching black people on trumped up reasons would be considered moral by the community. Fleetmouse likes Rorty so he was prompted to stick up for him. He issues this challenge:
could you please explain to me why lynching is absolutely wrong without making any reference whatsoever to your own beliefs, belief system, personal preference or culture?
It struck me that since he's not willing to just agree that lynching is a universal disapprobation and thus that would be a litmus test for Rorty, instead he wanted me to prove it's wrong. He wants a neutral account of why it's wrong that is divorced from any arguable sense that is. That's not possible. We all share a constitutive sense that it is wrong, that should guide us in the litmus test of Rorty. Nevertheless, we can't demonstrate the truth of that value without appeal to belief or systems becuase it is the product of such, or least if not casual than indicatively related to it.
The question implies that there's no basis for saying that's wrong. The implication is that if you have to defend the view that it's wrong by means of appeal to a belief or something that must be argued then there's no basis for saying it's wrong. That is a total contradiction to the way atheists have been answering the question since I've been on message boards (questions like it, the meta-ethical question of "what is the basis of right and wrong). Atheists in general always reflect one of three basic foundations for moral judgment:
(1) personal feeling
(2) social contract
I argue against these in various ways, I don't consider them as valid basis by themselves for an ethical system. Yet I fully expected a defence of one of these, and instead got an implication that there is no basis. I don't imagine that Fleetmouse doesn't accept the intrinsic wrongness of lynching, so I gave him credit for that realization. He would be repulsed by it and he wouldn't do it. He wants to play this little game where I go though the spelling out of why it's wrong ect ect the fact that he wants to do implies that there really is no answer.
If he's seeking to let Rorty off the Hook he's doing it at the expense of some of he most cherished truths of human morality. The fact is we should all be able to agree that it is wrong to lynch even if we can't spell out why or provide indubitable scientific data to prove it. Where does the absurd notion come from that this must be disconnected from belief or it's wrong? First of all the question itself is impossible. To ask one to explain why something is wrong apart from beliefs, systems, and culture is like saying "explain why it's wrong without any reference to why it's wrong! Beliefs and systems are not negations of some empirical ethics we can glean from scinece. There's no such thing as empirical ethics or ethics gleaned form scinece. moral motions and ethical judgments are about beliefs. There's no shame in that. The assumption that belief is intrinsically wrong, the implication being that there's some empirical truth to be found scientifically apart form bleief, is just crazy. I think the desire to ground all knowledge in scinece is the culprit lurking behind the problem here.
In his wonderful ground breaking work Sources of the Self, Charles Taylor discusses the relation of ethics to our concepts of person-hood and self. All ethical views, like views of the self are based up construct built form constituent parts. Regardless of the ultimate source of moral truth, or lack thereof, this s how it's done when you are human. The more basic the constituent parts held in common are the more confidently we can assume some kind of truth lurking behind that approbation or disapprobation. People build those constructs in different ways, that's what makes ethics and morality so diverse. One part we are all playing with no matter how we arrange it is a basic sense of the need to live. It's our empathy as humans that turns the need to live, the drive, the frantic demand that we must live, into the desire to see others live and flourish.
That doesn't prove why lynching is wrong, but it does mean we know it is. Regardless of our systems or our constructs or how we put it together, regardless of the meta-ethics (how we know what is right or wrong), this is deeper even then meta-ethics, which is one of the things closest to bedrock, we all have this basic constituent part if we have basic human empathy.That doesn't prove why it's wrong, but it tell us at a gut level that it is.
To then want an explanation of why divorced from that basic understanding of the reverence for live (which is the drive to live turned outward) is doing violence to the whole concept of having a moral code. Anyone, theist, atheist, or pantheist or whatever has to have this basic fact in place in order to act ethically. Without that there is no morel decision because there's no moral commitment.
Whatever one's ethical view point one of the basic things we should be able to agree on just as a human feeling regardless of the ability to prove it's wrong is the evil of injustice and unjustly destroying a life for some trivial prejudice. To try and divorce that from the feelings that go with ethical commitment is to dismantle the process of being moral. That should be the regulator of virtue and action. To say that Rorty is willing to do away with that becuase he has no committement should tell us right there he is not to be trusted in his ethical evaluations. His basis in pragmatism is so pragmatic he gives away the store.
The question also calls for explication without reference to culture. That is a contradiction in terms. That's like saying explain without words. Culture is language, language is culture. What Rorty is doing is accepting culture in place of person insight, feeling, commitment, belief or any sort connection to a universal or transcendent truth. He makes an idol out of the community. Then the questions asks to explain without reference to even the community (culture) which is daft because even Rorty is NOT willing to do that. OF course Fleet put that in because he thought I was saying the culture has nothing to do with it. I am not saying that and I agree you can't talk about right and wrong without reference to culture or community, yet that doesn't mean those things are the origin of right and wrong.
Again, culture is the medium of our thought. It's not the only from of turth, but it is the language of our thinking. Culture is language in it's fuller and more developed sense. Trying to separate them is like trying to separate the wave from the curl. Whatever transcendent truth there is that makes murder wrong above and beyond culture, is going to be communicated in culture and understood culturally. So again the question is nonsense.
Making the immediate community the orbiter of right and wrong makes an idol of the provincial. There are larger cultures, where each community overlaps with others and connections to other people far wider in their bonds until we are talking about districts, nations and finally an international community. To make the provincial the orbiter just becuase there's no imagination and an abhorrence of bleief in God, is just creating an idol out of ignorance. The provincial is the limit on liminal space. It's the liminal that marks the trek as "transcendent." So to limit knowledge to the subliminal is to cut off the transcendent and to make ignorance the limit on learning. We can't traverse anything we don't know. That's means we are enshrining bigotry. That has to be something we oppose at any level or as advocates of any ethical system. That's another constituent part.
I understand why Fleetmouse set up the question in this way. I seemed to be saying the community has noting to do with it, since I castigated Rorty for basing ethics on the community. That's not quite what I'm saying. I am saying there are times when moral judgment transcends the immediate community and there are time when we must stand up against the community and opposes it. Even in that case one must be understanding the moral and ethical decision through the understanding afford by the background culture upon which the community is based or it has no meaning in relation to the community, even to opposes it. Imagine if one says "lynching black people for any reason is murder, it should never be done," the other person says "what's lynching?" For the judgment "do not lynch" to make sense one must know what the words means, that's going to be understood through the culture and nothing else.
Obviously then there's a relationship bewteen the community and the moral. The relationship is not such that the moral depends entirely upon the decision of the community. Culture is primarily a medium, a point of reference, the means by which ideas are understood, a repository of icons and a universe of symbols. That does not preclude a transcendent realm or a transcendent truth. (for an arrangement establishing the basis of a transcendent truth see Olson's article on Tillich's implied ontological argument. See also this blog on my article on same).
As to answering the question, everyone is going to assume that I will say "It's wrong becasue God says so." Not exactly. I have reject that account of Christian morality. Rather than sheer volunteerism I propose that God makes ethical decisions based upon wisdom and his wisdom is indexed by the basis of his charter, which is love. So that love forms the basis of everything, and the back of the moral universe is part of "everything." Morality is the upshot of love, God's love, this is why it's a constituent part universal to humanity. We see ethical thinking showing up in the form of empathy where we are able to focus the drive to live outward upon the desire of others to live. Empathizing is an act of love becuase it's other directed. Love is the will to the good of the other. Thus other directed consciousness is an act of love. This serves as both universal transcendent truth and cultural construct. This means that belief and commitment are not out of bounds for ethical discussion. Morality is decision making. A moral act is one that is decided upon based upon a value system, it is also an act to which one is willing to commit oneself becasue the a value being defended is more important than a taste or a whim but is a value requiring a true commitment. Commitment of this kind must be motivated by love. Even if Tank man didn't know he was acting love, his committment to be crushed while confronting the tanks was still an act of love at some level.
The traditional moral argument (for the existence of God) plays off this sense of the constituent approbation. At least true of my version of it. We know this act is right, or wrong, but we can't say way except in so far as we tie the reason to God. Kant saw that as a reason to believe in God. The atheist see it as a disproof of God and morality because it's not empirical science. That's self defeating it's like the question Fleetmouse asks above. It divorces the concept of the moral from it's reason for being. You can't expect a coherent answer at that rate.