Monday, December 19, 2011

Intuiting Evil

Matthew B. O’Brien is a post-doctoral fellow at Villanova University who has written a fine piece in The Public Discourse that deals with the role of God in our moral lives. He wants to argue that morality cannot be separated from the existence of a transcendent moral authority, an argument with which I'm very much in agreement, but along the way I think he perhaps makes a slightly confusing misstep.

Before I discuss that let me quote from his lede:
If you are going to make a moral argument, whether in the seminar room or in the public square, people today expect you to avoid invoking God. Atheists and theists alike share this expectation, with atheists eager to show that their moral knowledge and action are uncompromised by disbelief in God’s existence, and theists eager to establish the rational credentials of their moral convictions and protect themselves against charges of fideism.

This expectation is unwarranted, however, because God’s existence is directly relevant to moral knowledge and action: If appeals to God get ruled out, either by disbelief in His existence or reluctance to rely upon it, then it isn’t possible to demonstrate that there are moral absolutes.

A moral absolute is an exceptionless norm against choosing a certain type of action that is intrinsically bad. Recognizing a moral absolute therefore involves two stages of evaluation: first, seeing that some act, such as killing an innocent person, is intrinsically evil, and second, seeing that one ought never to do evil. My contention is that a demonstration of this second stage of evaluation will need to appeal to God’s legislation against doing evil that good may come.

This appeal of course assumes that God exists and that He legislates the moral law. Without this appeal, it remains logically possible for someone to think that there are intrinsically evil acts, and to think that virtuous people will habitually refuse to consider committing such acts, while yet refusing to infer that such acts must be avoided in every situation whatsoever.
My very minor quibble with O'Brien is that though he's technically correct that it's logically possible to believe that there are intrinsically evil acts that nevertheless might be warranted in some cases, I think the atheist has no grounds for believing that there are, in fact, intrinsically evil acts.

O'Brien continues:
It is instructive at this point to consider Aristotle. Aristotle thought that there were intrinsically bad actions that nobody ought to consider choosing, and although Aristotle was a theist, his conception of God was not as a providential creator or moral legislator. Aristotle’s example is noteworthy because it shows that it is possible to arrive at the conviction that intrinsically bad actions exist without appealing to God’s legislation. But Aristotle’s example is noteworthy also because of what he does not try to do, which is to demonstrate the truth of such absolute prohibitions by appealing to some more basic set of moral reasons.

For Aristotle...the grounds for absolute prohibitions bottom out in the perception of actions as base and shameless. Such intuitionism is as far as I think non-theological ethics can go. Receiving the correct upbringing will get you to see that certain acts are intrinsically bad, and you ought never to choose them; but in order to go further and demonstrate why this is true, you need to be able to appeal to God’s legislation of the moral law, which is what proves the reasonableness of forbearing from evil in the extreme tight-corner situation.
I think this is slightly askew, or at least the way O'Brien frames it is a bit unclear. Receiving the correct upbringing may help you to intuit that some acts are distasteful, and you may believe them to be intrinsically bad, but, for the atheist, that belief is non-rational. It's like the conviction that the color green exists in the grass rather than in one's brain. On atheism, evil is not inherent in an act any more than greenness is inherent in the grass. It's an illusion.

In order to rationally regard an act as intrinsically bad one must, as O'Brien correctly insists, be able to refer to a transcendent moral authority. Otherwise, no matter how horrific the act may be, it's not morally evil anymore than a shark attack on a child wading in the ocean is morally evil.

It's true, as O'Brien goes on to say, that most people don't realize this, but that's because most people don't think about it anymore than they think about where the color green is actually located. Even so, it needs to be pointed out to the atheist that his belief that he can make meaningful moral judgments is nonsense if God doesn't exist. Whenever he attempts such judgments he's piggy-backing on Christian (or, more generally, theistic) assumptions while at the same time denying that those assumptions are correct.

The moral opinions of non-theists are simply expressions of their subjective feelings and as such have no objective value or weight. They're irrelevant, or should be considered to be such, to our social life and discourse.

Readers interested in the topic should read O'Brien's piece. It's very good.

Vaclev Havel

Vaclev Havel passed away yesterday after a long battle with cancer and related illnesses.

Like every other human being Havel had his flaws, but he nevertheless deserves much admiration for what he endured and accomplished in the struggle for freedom against the tyranny of Marxist socialist totalitarianism. CBS gives us an overview of his life. Here's an excerpt:
His political activism began in earnest in January 1977, when he co-authored the human rights manifesto Charter 77, and the cause drew widening attention in the West.

Havel was detained countless times and spent four years in communist jails. His letters from prison to his wife became one of his best-known works. "Letters to Olga" blended deep philosophy with a stream of stern advice to the spouse he saw as his mentor and best friend, and who tolerated his reputed philandering and other foibles.

The events of August 1988 — the 20th anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion — first suggested that Havel and his friends might one day replace the faceless apparatchiks who jailed them.

Thousands of mostly young people marched through central Prague, yelling Havel's name and that of the playwright's hero, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, the philosopher who was Czechoslovakia's first president after it was founded in 1918.

Havel's arrest in January 1989 at another street protest and his subsequent trial generated anger at home and abroad. Pressure for change was so strong that the communists released him again in May.

That fall, communism began to collapse across Eastern Europe, and in November the Berlin Wall fell. Eight days later, communist police brutally broke up a demonstration by thousands of Prague students. It was the signal that Havel and his country had awaited. Within 48 hours, a broad new opposition movement was founded, and a day later, hundreds of thousands of Czechs and Slovaks took to the streets.

On Dec. 29, 1989, Havel was elected Czechoslovakia's president by the country's still-communist parliament. Three days later, he told the nation in a televised New Year's address: "Out of gifted and sovereign people, the regime made us little screws in a monstrously big, rattling and stinking machine."

In July 1992, it became clear that the Czechoslovak federation was heading for a split. Considering it a personal failure, Havel resigned as president, but he remained popular and was elected president of the new Czech Republic uncontested.

He was small, but his presence and wit could fill a room. Even late in life, he retained a certain impishness and boyish grin, shifting easily from philosophy to jokes or plain old Prague gossip.

In December 1996, just 11 months after his first wife, Olga Havlova, died of cancer, he lost a third of his right lung during surgery to remove a 15-millimeter (half-inch) malignant tumor....

Holding a post of immense prestige but little power, Havel's image suffered in the latter years as his people discovered the difficulties of transforming their society in the post-communist era.

His attempts to reconcile rival politicians were considered by many as unconstitutional intrusions, and his pleas for political leaders to build a "civic society" based on respect, tolerance and individual responsibility went largely unanswered.

Media criticism, once unthinkable, became unrelenting. Serious newspapers questioned his political visions; tabloids focused mainly on his private life and his flashy second wife.

Havel himself acknowledged that his handling of domestic issues never matched his flair for foreign affairs. But when the Czech Republic joined NATO in March 1999, and the European Union in May 2004, his dreams came true.
Hot Air notes the absurdity that Barack Obama, Al Gore, and Yassar Arafat were all awarded the Noble Peace Prize but Vaclev Havel was not. Perhaps if Havel had been responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews, or had made a film about global warming, or been skilled at reading speeches off of teleprompters the Noble committee would have seen fit to bestow upon him the honor of their prize.

By coincidence the warden and chief executioner of the totalitarian prison that is North Korea, Kim Jong Il, also died yesterday. As Europeans mourn Havel's death, North Koreans - secretly, of course - mourn Kim's life.