Without a net

I’ve written long comments recently on two blogs, Secular Right and Kenan Malik’s Pandaemonium.  Both of these blogs are written by and for secular-minded people who value freedom of speech.  As its name would indicate, Secular Right usually favors a conservative political agenda; Mr Malik is a man of the center-left in politics.

A week ago, Mr Malik posted this “Jesus and Mo” strip at Pandaemonium.  Mr Malik said that the strip said in fewer than 50 words what he took more than 4000 words to say in this talk earlier last year:

I for one preferred Mr Malik’s talk, and explained why in this long comment:

I think you and Plato, in the talk to which you link, do a better job of handling this particular question than Jesus and Mo do. The greatest advantage religious codes of conduct have over the philosophical study of ethics is that they are slower to collapse into debates about contrived hypothetical scenarios.

I should explain that in his talk, delivered to theology students at the University of Bristol, Mr Malik had discussed Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, in which Socrates asks a man named Euthyphro* if it is the will of the gods that makes an act good, or if it is the goodness of an act that makes the gods will it.  Euthyphro tries to answer, and like most of the amateur philosophers Socrates encounters in Plato’s dialogues quickly gets lost in a tangle of abstractions and finds himself making absurd, self-contradictory remarks.  Mr Malik suggests that a rephrasing of the central dilemma in which Euthyphro finds himself would be “Is God good because to be good is to be whatever God is; or is God good because He has all the properties of goodness? If it is the former, then we find once more that goodness is arbitrary, since it would be whatever God happened to be. If, on the other hand, God is good because he has all the properties of goodness, then it means that such  properties can be specified independently of God.”  In the first case, belief in God or in any other kind of supernatural order would not be sufficient to provide a rational basis for morality; in the latter case, such belief would not be necessary to provide that basis.  So the point I was making in this opening paragraph was that Euthyphro has a bigger problem even than that, and that it is one which a believer might be able to escape.

Unlike the cartoon Jesus and Mo, actually existing Christians and Muslims can refer to bodies of law and traditions of practice that have steadily been growing in tandem with conditions of daily life among vast populations for centuries. So they can answer questions like these with “It depends,” and avail themselves of a tremendous amount of material on which the answer might depend.

Someone setting out to create a philosophical system, by contrast, occupies the position in which Socrates found Euthyphro. With only abstractions as building material, such a person cannot distinguish between extreme situations in which moral reasoning is unlikely to produce useful conclusions and normative situations in which we can be expected to achieve moral clarity, Still less can such a person establish a hierarchy of cases and rules that will define some cases as analogous to others, therefore usable as precedents to decide right action in those other cases. That is so even in the case of someone like Euthyphro, whose kit of abstractions includes theological abstractions.

In other words, Euthyphro’s problem is not that he is approaching morality in terms of the wrong abstractions, but that he is approaching it in abstract terms at all.  The occasion of the dialogue is that Euthyphro is prosecuting his own father on a charge of murder.  Socrates wants to know how anyone could have so little filial piety.  In his questioning of Euthyphro, he finds that the man’s devotion to his abstract, and as it happens ill-thought-out, notions of justice has deadened him to family feeling and made him into a sort of monster.  At the close of his talk, Mr Malik seems to have such monsters in mind when he writes “The human condition is that of possessing no moral safety net. No God, no belief in God, no amount of ethical concrete, can protect us from the dangers of falling off that moral tightrope that is to be human. That can be a highly disconcerting prospect. Or it can be a highly exhilarating one. Being human, the choice is ours.”  This follows a discussion of Albert Camus, whose thought Mr Malik seems to recommend we use to help keep our balance as we walk this tightrope.

I value Albert Camus’ works highly, but I think the path to sanity runs not through books, but through human relationships.  As we try to hold onto each other, as we imitate each other, as we take up work that earlier generations began before we were born and that later generations will continue after we die, as we draw on past experience to find analogies that will help us resolve present difficulties, we connect with each other and with the world around us.  It is in those activities and the striving for the immediate that underpins them that we avoid the fate of Euthyphro.  What we need is not the “ethical concrete” Mr Malik disparages, but a concrete ethics of actual experience and loving relationships with people who are close enough to us that it would hurt if they didn’t love us back.

If theological abstractions drift about unmoored to codes of conduct and myth and ceremonial, they are little different from other abstractions. So if instead of Jesus and Muhammad, the cartoon showed Sam Harris declaring that moral questions should somehow be reduced to neurological questions, it would be just as easy to show the cartoon version of Mr Harris presented with some lifeboat scenario, and to conclude with him scratching his head as he tried to resolve that scenario by looking at an fMRI scan as it is to show Jesus and Muhammad stymied in an attempt to find a similar solution in their holy books. That would be no more cutting against Mr Harris than the present cartoon is against Jesus and Muhammad, since his appeal, like theirs, is not to any particular document, but to a deep and rich tradition of shared practice and mutual understanding. In his case, that appeal is to science, in theirs, to religion. At the end of the day, none of these appeals is more convincing to me than it is to you, but they are far more powerful than the sorts of arguments Euthyphro and his heirs make.

In his talk, Mr Malik had mentioned his disagreement with Sam Harris about the role of science in ethical debates.  He claims that there is a dividing line between himself on one side, and Mr Harris and Euthyphro on the other: “Sam Harris, one of the so-called New Atheists, and perhaps the most strident of contemporary critics of faith, in his book The Moral Landscape, attacks both religion and moral relativism, arguing that moral values are in reality moral facts and as facts they can be scientifically understood by studying brain and behaviour. ‘The wellbeing of humans and animals must depend on states of the world and on states of their brains’, he writes, ‘and science represents our most systematic means of understanding these states’.   Science, and neuroscience, do not simply explain why we might respond in particular ways to equality or to torture but also whether equality is a good, and torture morally acceptable. A Christian might look to the Bible to help distinguish right and wrong, good and evil. Harris would look in an fMRI scanner.”  Mr Malik links to a detailed critique of Mr Harris’ views that he offered last year.

I made very similar points in an even longer comment I posted on Secular Right in September.  In a post called “What is it like to be a theist?,” John Derbyshire mentioned this review of a book in which philosopher Alvin Plantinga defends belief in God as defined by the Reformed tradition in Christianity.  I haven’t read that book, but I am familiar with Professor Plantinga’s other works, and so I made some remarks about them.  That brought a friendly response from “Steve Cardon,” which was all I needed to prompt me to post this:

@Steve Cardon: Thanks for the kind words, and for several very interesting ideas.

I’m going off to think more about what you’ve written. All I know I want to say now is this:

“I can make up a story far more sophisticated and satisfying than those that have gone before. The idea that relatively backwards cultures can provide us with the ultimate answers to the universe is patently ridiculous.”

That may well be so, but the stories are only one part, usually a rather small part, of what religions offer their followers. Myths, doctrines, ritual, ceremonial, etc, all work together to help bind generation to generation and create a community with a sense of shared purpose.

Likewise with “the ultimate answers to the universe.” Religions, including ancient religions, can give you some questions about the universe, an expectation that the universe is set up to answer those questions, and a sense that it is urgent to find those answers, but the particular answers people offer are never as important as they seem at the time. So in debates about science or sexuality or economic systems or environmental policy or what have you, believers proclaim opinions in the firm conviction that they are speaking with the voice of the ancients. There we see believers feeling that their generation is bound to generations before and that they represent a project that will continue into generations yet unborn, and in some cases repeating language that they inherited from old texts.

Yet their ideas, however antique the language in which they are expressed, are about topics no one had ever heard of until recent decades. What would Moses have thought of the theory of evolution, or relativity, or the heliocentric model of the Solar System? Probably nothing- these ideas all answer questions he never asked and rely on concepts no one in the time of the Pharaohs had ever imagined. What would Paul have thought of the people in the contemporary West who want to marry members of the same sex? Again, probably nothing, certainly nothing useful. Family structure and sex roles in our time are so radically different from anything known in the Roman Empire that neither side of the debate would have been intelligible to him. Yet there are believers who find it necessary, and evidently find it gratifying, to try to square the findings of science with the earliest Hebrew scriptures and to analyze twenty-first century family formation in accord with formulas drawn from Paul’s writings. Their ideas are not ancient ideas, but their words may be ancient words. That alone seems to suffice to give them assurance of continuity.

*When I was in college, one of my Greek professors pointed out that the name “Euthyphro” is formed from Greek words meaning “broad-browed” or “wide-headed.”  So, when students translated the dialogue in class, he insisted that they call Euthyphro “Meathead.”   That was long enough ago that all of remembered this guy, and we laughed at the image of him as Socrates’ respondent.

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