Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the putative “Sage of Königsberg,” in a rare moment of lyricism states “Two things fill the mind with ever new and ever increasing admiration and awe, the starry heavens above and the moral law within.” Like the laws of physics governing the heavens, Kant’s “moral law” is to apply universally and without exception, and both are discovered via reason.
Kant has a “duty” theory of morality called “deontology.” His moral philosophy is explicitly antagonistic to utilitarianism and Aristotle, the other main moral theories taught in most contemporary English-speaking university departments.
With regard to Aristotle, what analytic philosophers have come to call “virtue ethics,” Kant objects that Aristotle’s traditional view of ethics as a theory about how to live a flourishing life – eudaimonia – literally having a good indwelling spirit – is incompatible with morality. Kant radically reduces the scope of “ethics,” life and how to live it, down to “morality,” the right treatment of oneself and others narrowly conceived. Continue reading →
Man is a tragic being because he belongs to two realms – the heavenly and the earthly. The difference corresponds to the Biblical injunction “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and the things that are God’s to God.”
Much of the moral vision in the Gospels is a counsel of perfection and applies to the heavenly. Heavenly ethics have an aspirational and inspiring aspect and can only be followed partially and in some instances. For instance, “if someone slaps you on one cheek, don’t stop that person from slapping you on the other cheek. If someone wants to take your coat, don’t try to keep back your shirt.” The impulse to slap someone back when they have slapped you is almost overwhelming. When not in the heat of the moment, it can seem like a simple thing. In reality not acting on this impulse is rare and extremely difficult. If it were not, earthly existence would be relatively paradisaical. The urge is ego driven. Recently, I had to let someone have the last word in a dispute about the merits of a particular writer who I regard as morally obnoxious. Rajani Kanth writes:
“How would world religions be different if women were their inspirations, and not men? Indeed, would ‘religion’, as we know it, even exist? Would a woman Buddha have forsaken family and loved ones to seek an arid, abstract ‘enlightenment’ abroad? Would a Jane Christ let herself suffer crucifixion, or might she have intelligently compromised with the ‘enemy’? Would ‘enemies’ even exist in their discourse? Would women have built the Bomb, and used it? Would they have fought two global wars, not to mention a quadrillion smaller ones? Would they have practiced genocide? In sum, could it be that a woman’s world, if she were permitted to wish it into existence, would be somewhat different than ours?” Continue reading →
Naturalism, physicalism, and materialism are synonyms. They are names for a truncated metaphysics that omits any notion of transcendence and divinity. Someone might try to take dualism seriously without God; a dualism that posits material reality, and consciousness as a separate substance with its own substantial reality. But this would mean recognizing that there is something nonphysical and invisible that cannot be explained by science and operates in independence from purely physical forces. In other words, a spiritual reality. Most materialists recognize this and have been leery of even using the word “consciousness.” At the present moment, for some reason, some percentage of analytic philosophers are willing to use David Chalmers’ phrase “the hard problem” to refer to the puzzle of how subjective awareness could arise from the lump of meat in a sentient creature’s head. Positing a giant mystery at the center of human existence is a dangerous game for a materialist. They will find the hard problem to be an indigestible lump that spells the death knell for their physicalist complacency. By accepting that it is a problem at all, they are effectively admitting defeat. If the hard problem were a gift, they would be wise to return to sender. Daniel Dennett puts it thus: “I adopt the apparently dogmatic rule that dualism is to be avoided at all costs. It is not that I think I can give a knock-down proof that dualism, in all its forms, is false or incoherent, but that, given the way that dualism wallows in mystery, accepting dualism is giving up.”Continue reading →
Either God, the divine, the supernatural, and the transcendent exist or they do not. If they do not, then what is left is alternatively called “naturalism, physicalism, or materialism.” These are all synonyms and they imply that all that really ultimately exists are atoms and molecules. A naturalistic universe is one that can be fully described by science, at least in principle. If something cannot be measured and quantified, it is not objectively true and should be eliminated from one’s ontology, in this view.
Naturalism is irretrievably nihilistic. If naturalism is true, then value does not exist. Value cannot be measured. And neither can beauty, love, or goodness. None of those things can be measured or even clearly defined. Quotation from Anna Karenina, Part 4, Chapter 10:
‘But,’ said Sergey Ivanovitch, smiling subtly, and addressing Karenin, ‘one must allow that to weigh all the advantages and disadvantages of classical and scientific studies is a difficult task, and the question which form of education was to be preferred would not have been so quickly and conclusively decided if there had not been in favour of classical education, as you expressed it just now, its moral—disons le mot—anti-nihilist influence.’
‘If it had not been for the distinctive property of antinihilistic influence on the side of classical studies, we should have considered the subject more, have weighed the arguments on both sides,’ said Sergey Ivanovitch with a subtle smile, ‘we should have given elbow-room to both tendencies. But now we know that these little pills of classical learning possess the medicinal property of anti-nihilism, and we boldly prescribe them to our patients.… But what if they had no such medicinal property?’ he wound up humorously. Continue reading →
No matter which class I am teaching, for quite some time the first reading assigned has been an article on Goedel’s Theorem. The reason is to emphasize that any attempt to make an axiomatic system of any moderate complexity consistent and complete (able to determine whether any statement within the system is either true or false) will fail. This is because, at least when it comes to mathematics, Goedelian propositions will be generated by the system that are true, can be seen to be true, but are not provable. Goedel’s stand-in for all such propositions is the statement “this statement is not provable within this axiomatic system.” If this statement is true, then it is not provable. If it were to be false, and was provable, then it would again be proved that it is not provable, since you would have just proved a statement that says it is unprovable! I add to this that the axioms upon which axiomatic systems are based are by definition, not provable, their truth being self-evident. So, axiomatic systems contain unprovable truths coming and going.
When teaching ethics, after covering Gödel, the first thing I do is to point out our intuitive understanding of the truth and validity of reciprocity/justice/fairness. If someone were to give you a cup of your favorite coffee at the appropriate time and you were to punch them in the face, barring some convoluted back story, this would be grossly unjust. The truth of reciprocity is captured by phrases like “one good turn deserves another” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In practice, no normal person doubts the truth of that notion.
Fairness and reciprocity are axiomatically true. Their truth is self-evident. If anyone claims to doubt their truth, this person is almost certainly a liar and a hypocrite, at least on this topic. When this hypothetical person approaches another in a spirit of friendliness and politeness, only to be greeted with unbridled rudeness and hostility, he is likely to feel offended or at least to question the mental stability of the other person.
Ludwig Wittgenstein had some sensible things to say on topics like these. He spends a few pages of his aphoristic writings wondering what it would mean to be mistaken that one was speaking or writing in English. There is not really a standard of certainty that goes beyond knowing such a thing. Part of his point is to throw a monkey wrench into the useless, theoretical musings of his analytic philosophy contemporaries. Continue reading →
First it occurred to me to post this as a comment on JM Smith’s latest, but then it struck me that it was too tangential. I’m posting it therefore as a separate entry. For everyone’s amusement (and certainly — everyone has a list). —
“I’ve got a Little List” (W. S. Gilbert, from The Mikado, Act I)
KO-KO: As some day it may happen that a victim must be found
I’ve got a little list — I’ve got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground
And who never would be missed — who never would be missed!
There’s the pestilential nuisances who write for autographs —
All people who have flabby hands and irritating laughs —
All children who are up in dates, and floor you with ’em flat —
All persons who in shaking hands, shake hands with you like that —
And all third persons who on spoiling tête-á-têtes insist —
They’d none of ‘em be missed — they’d none of ‘em be missed!
It would seem that freedom and causation are incompatible. If acts are wholly caused – as they must be, if they are to be intelligible, and so more or less intelligent, and so integrated fully in a coherent world – then how can they be free? If acts are even a little bit free, are they not to that extent chaotic, ergo unintelligible, and so an insuperable impediment to the integration of a coherent world?
The corollary is that if you cannot avoid acting as if a proposition is true, then it must be true. You must at every moment act, willy nilly; so it is true that you can act. Your agency is real. There is literally no way around this operational presupposition. There is no way for us to be, except by an implicit presupposition of its truth. And the only way for us not to be – namely, suicide – is a way that, again, implicitly presupposes its truth. You can’t kill yourself if you can’t act. You can kill yourself. So you can act. QED.
James Chastek’s Just Thomism is one of the sites I read without fail. I like it because he teaches me lots of things. He closed comments a while ago because responding to them took up too much time. So here is what I would have commented at his blog if he still allowed comments, in response to this post:
Many of the books in the “decline of the West” genre – which was already old by the time Weaver published Ideas have Consequences in 1948 but which still sells (Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed) – tell a curious narrative of decline over very large time scales. If Nominalism or Hobbesianism were as harmful as claimed, why is the diseased host still alive a half-millennium later?
Now that’s a good question. I myself have contributed a fair bit to the literature wailing and bemoaning nominalism. How do I answer the question?