Walking on communion wafers

28 07 2008

When you attack the belief, do you harm the believer?

I would have thought the answer to this question was a sound and straightforward “no” . . . that there is, in fact, a difference between, on the one hand, abusive ad hominem rhetoric; and on the other, the critique, or even ridicule of beliefs, propositions, ideas and practices. We all misspeak, we all commit errors and brainfarts, we are all guilty of idiocy from time to time; but that does not necessarily mean that we are all idiots, anymore than the rhetorical tapdancing (“Not that there’s anything wrong with that”) engaged in by George Costanza and Jerry Seinfeld in the Seinfeld episode “The Outing” means that it is fair to describe these characters as Phelpsian homophobes. I would have thought it a given of the ethics of civil debate and dialogue that (i) while no belief should be immune from scrutiny, (ii) an attack on the belief does not constitute an attack on the individual who holds the belief. Disagreement over the issues (even for the sake of devil’s advocacy) is the stuff of reasoned debate. Abusive rhetoric, while entertaining in certain contexts, is just noise: both because it is irrelevant to the issues under discussion and because it tends to generate emotional heat. Abuse, then, is intended to be taken personally—that’s the point of abuse—whereas disagreement about ideas, even if it takes the form of mockery or satire, is not. Read the rest of this entry »

“Self-evidence”: truth or truthiness?

24 04 2008

Are certain moral propositions self-evident: is it reasonable to simply assert them without further justification?

Christian apologist William Lane Craig claims that “actions like rape, torture, child abuse, and brutality are not just socially unacceptable behavior–they are moral abominations [. . . .] People who fail to see this are just morally handicapped, and there is no reason to allow their impaired vision to call into question what we see clearly.” But surely if you’re not prepared to offer good reasons for why we shouldn’t do these things–if you just want to assert that they’re wrong because they’re wrong because they’re wrong–then haven’t you just conceded the argument? After all, those who do fail to see clearly what you–what most of us–see clearly with regard to these issues: aren’t those the very people you should be trying to convince?

Frankly, I don’t like arguments from self-evidence, and I think we should be very careful with them. In logic they might be OK: “it is self-evident that all bachelors are unmarried,” and so forth. In ethics, appeals to self-evidence seem to me to constitute little more than arrogant presumptiousness on the part of those making them. They’re conversation-stoppers, inquiry-stoppers, either because there are those like Craig who simply refuse to have their moral claims scrutinised (and thus refuse to countenance engagement or debate with those who would do the scrutinising), or because there are those who, failing to recognise the self-evidence of these moral claims, and seeing no other reason to observe them (since none are being offered), simply reject them out of hand. (Ergo, with divine command theory, everything is permitted.)

My own hypothesis is that the “truths we hold to be self-evident”–rape is wrong, torture is wrong, child abuse is wrong, genocide is wrong–are particularly powerful gut feelings or intuitions. They possibly equate to, or are expressions of, the “moral grammar” described by Harvard psychologist Marc Hauser: a kind of hardwired “unconscious moral instinct.” The notion of an evolutionary basis for why it is the case that we have (certain) moral intuitions is still speculative, but I suspect that if there is an explanation for why we have these intuitions, it is likely to be neurology and cognitive science that yields it to us.

Notice, though, that this would only tell us why it is the case that we have these moral ideas about x and y. It does not explain (nor does it set out to explain) why we ought to do x and refrain from doing y; why x is good and y is bad. And the argument from self-evidence explains nothing.


How do we know what is right?

27 02 2008

There’s a great discussion between Bruce and SB on the “Counter-apologetic pwnage” comments thread regarding religion and morality. Here are my 2 cents worth:

[SB:]The psychological theory you proposed (i.e. most people know what is right and act accordingly, and those that don’t know, or who know but don’t act on that knowledge are consigned to categories of the mentally ill) tells us why people behave as they do, but not what they ought to do. At best it may describe what they ought to do if they want to be like most others. It certainly creates problems when people have differing moral sentiments – how do we know which is right?

[Me:]That is a problem that existed already. Read the rest of this entry »