Monday, May 26, 2014

Ethical Naturalism and Value Systems: part 3, The Euthyphro Dilemma (final)

 photo Joseph_Fletcher_zps362f9578.jpg
Joseph Fletcher: Situation Ethics,
episcopal priest, pioneer in bio ethics.

The Euthyphro Dilemma

            Christian values have been assailed by modernity since the enlightenment. One of the major forms that attack takes is through the “Euthyphro dilemma.” This dilemma is aimed at the assumption that the only form of Christian ethics is divine command theory,[1] that God makes something good just because he says it, and his saying is an arbitrary whim. According to Baggett and Walls account of Louise Antony version is “are morally good actions morally Good simply in virtue of the gods favoring them or does God favor them because they are—independently of his favoring them—morally good?[2] Antony replaces “the gods” with “God” indicating that the God of monotheism is her intended target of rhetorical analysis, as Baggett and Walls point out. Yet the dilemma was orinally cast with Greek gods in mind. Bagget and Walls’s take on the dilemma is very detailed and complex, it’s one of the best in recent years. I won’t be going into it with that kind of complexity. The basic upshot of the dilemma is that either God is subject to an independent standard outside himself, and thus he is not God and secular thought might find that standard so we don’t need religion, or morality is just an arbitrary whim on God’s part. Yet the dilemma is based upon the Greek gods not the Christian, and as noted, Antony shifts form the Greek to the God of the Christian tradition with no justification. The Greek gods were continent beings, they had parents they were not eternal they were not the creators. The dilemma really doesn’t apply to the God of the Christian tradition who is eternal and the basis of all that is. That means there’s a closer relationship between the good God than just God’s commands. That connection  closer than divine command theory would have it; it’s not just a matter of “good is what God says it is,” although it is dependent upon God, but not just on his commands.[3]
            The relationship between God and the good is not merely based upon voluntarism, that God demans X therefore is good. Rather, it is that God is the basis of the good. Goodness is God’s character and without God there would be no concept of the good. God depends upon God but not just upon his commands. It’s not merely that there would be no big bully on the block to tell us what is good, but that there would be no good itself because God is the good itself. The good is derived form God’s character and God’s character is love, love is the background of the moral universe (Augustine) and thus goodness is derived form love. That brings up several problems. For example, J.L. Mackie argues that once one affirms the existence of unchangeable moral good then God becomes unnecessary and secular thinkers might find those principles without God.[4] The concept of unchangeable moral good that is detachable form God is an impossibly. It might be that thinkers could come to conclusions that coincide with truths implicit upon God’s character and not know it. That’s hardly the same as saying God is “unnecessary.” If there’s any relation between what’s good and what’s true and if good is based upon God’s character there’s no true ontological separation between those two. In discussions with atheists when I say that morality is based upon love and love is God’s character they usually balk at both aspects of that statement: they figure love is a reaction of chemicals in the brain that just produces little sentimental or romantic feelings, and moral good is derived from behavior not from love. Usually they don’t observe the implicit value that would make a behavior good or bad. There’s more to it than just saying good is based upon God’s character. It’s also a matter of God’s judgment. God’s power, knowledge and goodness underwrite his moral authority.[5] God not only creates all that is, including planning its purpose, but also knows the truth and is the only mind that can figure the complexities of all existing relationships between moral concepts and human behavior, and the only truly objective judge who knows the subjects of moral behavior better than they know themselves, and in addition to all that has the forthrightness and loving concern to explicate moral judgments fairly. When I say “love” is behind the good I don’t mean romantic love or sentimentality but the Greek term agape.  The idea that love is the basis of he good may be a problem for some Christians because there is a concept in the Christian tradition that love and moral goodness are two counterpoising forces that have to keep each other in balance. I suggest that is nonsense if we are talking about Gods’ love, the love that is the basis of God’s character. “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 John 4:8).

What is the good?

            Agape is used of God’s love through the New Testament. It is translated as “charity” at times.[6] The word is linked with good will and benevolence. The King James translation renders it “charity” (1 Corinthians 13:1). There’s more to it than that. It’s also linked to “preference” to prefer the other. The word is used for the love of God for man and man for God, the love humans for each other, and the love of God for Christ.[7] Agape is the basis of the good. What is good evaluated as what is agapic (loving). Other moral precepts and axioms such as justice, fairness and reciprocity would all be meaningful only in relation to agape. In fact one major theological ethicist came to that conclusion back in the 1960s, that was Joseph Fletcher. A lot of Christians were outraged by his view of “situation ethics,” and his book by the same title.[8] It was controversial and it drew lots of fire including the charge of “new morality.” Nevertheless he was a top notch ethicist. Fletcher argues that love and justice are the same. Justice is the distributive aspect of love.[9] He calls upon Augustine and argues that love must be prudent. He argues that this view forces us to pull back from the notion that love is sentimental and “mushy” and non intellectual. This is the intellectual side of love; today we call it “tough love.” Literally the argument is how do we manae to supply the beneficiaries of love when there are so many? The answer is by turning the problem into a question of justice. We make sure that justice is done at the same time making sure that love is distributed and doing it in such a way that we exclude one for he sake of the other.[10] Thus we can see how the other aspects of moral axioms indeed stem form love. Love is the background of the moral universe.
            Christian ethics certainly revolve around love. The value system that we use to inform that choice is the one through which Augustine re-valued the values of the Roman Empire. That value system plays out upon the eternal scale of values. We love the eternal we use the temporal. Human beings are eternal, created in the image of God, thus each human being is an end in himself/herself. Temporal things are means to ends. Thus temporal things are to be used and put aside but human beings matter. If science was the basis of ethics, nature never tells us that humans are valuable, there would be no basis for valuing humans except the cultural, and that is relative and can be discarded. Ethical naturalists might kid themselves about the alleged “objective basis” for ethics, they sound like persupositionalist Christian apologists trying to explain what that means. Without the arbitrary assumption already built in regarding the value of human worth, without appeal to a transcendent value system such as Christian agape there is no basis that science could ever give us for not using humans and valuing things. One finds scientistic thinkers such as atheists, especially on the popular level, expressing the sentiments that “humans are not so special.” We don’t have souls, there’s no God, we are just bags of chemicals or jumped up apes so why should we think we are special? Steve Paulson is an example from the popular level. Although he has an advanced science degree and works in science, obliquely. He’s a producer for public radio and an author. He expresses the idea that humans are just “cosmopolitan apes.” Again the idea is not to find fault with evolution. We can accept evolution as scientific fact and accept ethics as philosophical fact and accept The Bible as spiritual fact all at the same time and value humanity. Paulson says:

Most assume that humans are fundamentally different form the rest of the animal world…many people believe that but to biologists we are animals. It’s hard to believe that we are fundamentally different because there is no part of the human brain that is not present in the monkey’s brain. Our brains are bigger and we certainly have more powerful computer than any other animal, but the computer is not fundamentally different. So there’s no fundamental divide between humans and Chimpanzees? no…if you were to ask what the big difference is I would probably say it’s language but like all capacities once you break them down you are going to find some of these part sin other species.[11]

He argues that chimps have morality, “they have a sense of fairness.” Is it really a concept of fairness or just behavior would be fair if they really understood it, but perhaps they don’t? He finds that chimps respond to the needs of others, they seem to share food with those who don’t have enough. Is this really ethical thinking or just a instinctive sense of love that might pervade all creatures? He’s talking about cooperation in hunting. That’s not proof that they value each other. It could just be a practical matter that helps them all. It is evidence of outcome oriented thinking that doesn’t necessarily recognize a moral dimension but a practical survival dimension. Isn’t that what Harris and Churchland and Wilson are reducing ethics to?
            More examination of how this thinking plays out at the popular level, even though this is not scientific, we find bloggers expressed some odd sentiments. The blog “Think Atheist” urges that we should be “ridding ourselves of humanities self centrality: The Importance of Inclusively.”[12]

Humanity thought the universe spun around the Earth as if it were the purpose of the universe. Likewise, the sun.

Another way we think we are special is amongst the rest of the life forms on the planet. We like to believe that there are animals... and there are humans. We seem to have a hard time admitting to ourselves that we are animals. But we are. I'd like to take this idea one step further though. We are all LIFE. We are all BIOLOGY. And the separations between us that seem so important, identifiable and distinctive. Are actually not all that different in the end. All life on this planet evolved IS RELATED. FAMILY. By quantifiable amounts. 99% of our DNA is that of a chimpanzees and 50% of our DNA is that of a banana. ALL LIFE is CLOSELY related. We all come from the same place and we're all going in the same direction. We are procreating and spreading the seed of life, adapting to new environments by all means necessary, even if we must evolve.[13]

If we are animals and we are life and we are no better than any other animals or life would it really matter if we don’t get the quinine to the children dying of malaria? After all there’s lots more life where that life comes from and no one is special. Or that we have to allow dying or even killing off some group so the rest will have more to go around? After all a good outcome is all that matters, we are not special so we can be a means to an end. How are they going to decide this in the clash of such values? Neither the nature from which they take their ethical axioms, nor the science they prize so highly tells us to value humanity or to make humans ends in themselves. How will they resolve such conflicts?            
            These ideas can be put into a positive version. Yet if we assume that we are now coasting on Christian memories and the culture has lots of ideas left over from a time when we valued humanity, what’s going to happen in a couple of generations when those ideas are all gone and we are just seen as “some examples of life among other life,” no better than any other animal and not more than a means to an end; the end being an outcome considered “moral” by those who don’t see a difference in marmoset values and human values. Out come is not totally divorced from deontology. Just because a deontologist doesn’t use outcome as the basis for ethical “ought” doesn’t mean we don’t care about having good outcomes. It seems that if there is no ethical deliberation along the lines of basic value system there is no ethical thought. If there is no ethical thought there is no ethical action. Reducing meta ethical theory (the theory of what makes a thing good or not) to behavior is not the answer. Valuing human individuals as ends in themselves and worthy of preserving rights and ends seems like a good place to start thinking about the sorts of outcomes we desire.

[1] David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls, Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011, 32.
[2] Ibid., 32.
[3] Ibid., 84.
[4] Ibid., 85.
[5] Ibid., 123.
[6] Bible Hub website, Thayers Greek Lexicon, Electronic Database. Bible soft, 2002, 2011.  accessed 5/30/13.
[7] Ibid.
[8] James F. Childress, “Introduction,” Joseph Fletcher, Situation Ethics: the New Morality. Louisville Kentucky: Westminster, John Knox Press, originally published 1966. 1.
[9] Ibid., 87. Not only did Fletcher receive a lot of criticism, “situation ethics” was the title of the book and the name of the ethical theory, the subtitle was “the new morality.” Both became dirty words, so the actual title of the book was like a charge leveled against him. I am not supporting situation ethics but I do support Fletcher’s reading of love and justice.
[10] Ibid.,  88.
[11] Steve Paulson, The Cosmopolitan Ape: primatology, empathy, morality, community, culture.” Website:  accessed 6/3/13.
[12] Dragontorn, Think Atheist, “Ridding ourselves of Humanities Self Centrality: the Importance of Inclusively.” Blog:  accessed 6/3/13.
[13] Ibid.

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