Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Who Would Pay a Materialist Ethicist?

A week or so ago Barry Arrington at Uncommon Descent asked why anyone would hire a materialist (someone who believes that matter and energy are all there is) for a job as a professional ethicist, a post which has a median annual salary of about $68,000. Arrington wrote:
I can understand how a theist who believes in the objective reality of ethical norms could apply for such a position in good faith. By definition he believes certain actions are really wrong and other actions are really right, and therefore he often has something meaningful to say.

My question is how could a materialist apply for such a position in good faith? After all, when pushed to the wall to ground his ethical opinions in anything other than his personal opinion, the materialist ethicist has nothing to say. Why should I pay someone $68,584 to say there is no real ultimate ethical difference between one moral response and another because they must both lead ultimately to the same place – nothingness.

I am not being facetious here. I really do want to know why someone would pay someone to give them the “right answer” when that person asserts that the word “right” is ultimately meaningless.
Actually, it's not hard at all to understand why a materialist would apply for such a position inasmuch as, on materialism, there's nothing "wrong" with committing fraud since there's nothing "wrong" or "right" with doing anything. The real mystery is why anyone would actually pay a materialist to be an ethicist.

In any case, Arrington goes on in a follow-up post to quote philosopher Peter Singer in order to illustrate the incoherence of any attempt to ground a materialist ethics. Singer claimed that:
Whatever the future holds, it is likely to prove impossible to restore in full the sanctity-of-life view. The philosophical foundations of this view have been knocked asunder. We can no longer base our ethics on the idea that human beings are a special form of creation made in the image of God, singled out from all other animals, and alone possessing an immortal soul. Our better understanding of our own nature has bridged the gulf that was once thought to lie between ourselves and other species, so should we believe that the mere fact that a being is a member of the species Homo Sapiens endows its life with some unique, almost infinite value?
Why is this incoherent? For the same reason, Arrington explains, as the work of post modern deconstructionists like Jacques Derrida is incoherent. Derrida writes long books in which he insists that "long books have no intrinsic meaning."

Singer is asserting that once we stopped believing that individuals were created in the image of God and possessing an immortal soul we no longer had any grounds for thinking they were inherently valuable. Very well, but then it follows that Singer himself is just an animal and as such has no particular value, thus neither do his ethical pronouncements. Arrington writes that according to Singer:
People have no more intrinsic worth than pigs. Indeed, there is no such thing as “intrinsic worth,” because “worth” implies the “good” and the “good” does not exist. Everything is ultimately meaningless. But if that is true – and here’s where the branch sawing comes in – why should anyone care what a particularly clever hairless ape who goes by the name of “Peter Singer” says about anything? Are not his pronouncements as ultimately meaningless as everything else? Isn’t his solution to ethics as arbitrary as any other solution?

Here Singer is part of a larger post-modern tradition that I call the “except me” tradition. The post modern literature is full of long books by deconstructionists like Jacques Derrida who insist that long books have no intrinsic meaning (except books written by Derrida apparently). Similarly Singer insists that concepts like “good” and “evil” have no intrinsic meaning, except, apparently, when he says something is good.
It certainly seems foolish to assert that moral claims are meaningless while exempting one's own moral claims from that assessment, but it's even more foolish for the man who makes moral judgments while denying that there's any real ground for those judgments to then declare that a man who grounds his judgments in a divine law promulgated by a perfectly just and powerful God is behaving irrationally. Which is irrational, to ground moral judgments in the will of the transcendent source of moral value or to deny that there's any ground for moral judgments while making such judgments anyway?