Theodicy and Free Will

Good discussion today, we covered a lot of ground.

The conversation began around the problem of evil, something we have touched on before This is an ancient problem. It was formulated by the Greek philosopher Epicurus.

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.

Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.

Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?

Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

— The Epicurean paradox, ~300 BCE

To help us out on this, we watched the Crash Course Philosophy video on this topic,

We explored a couple of different responses to this argument. The first is that the argument, in a way, undermines itself. If you say that the allowance of suffering by God is “evil,” but then conclude that God does not exist, you are at pains to explain the basis for your definition of “evil.” It’s a case of begging the question. A way out of this would be to argue that the system is only internally incoherent. It is not necessary for the arguer to agree with Christianity’s definition of good/evil in order to point out that its God’s actions appear to be evil by the rules of its own system. It is not necessary to agree with the premises of an argument in order to demonstrate that it is faulty. The problem is then to show how, by Christianity’s own rules, God is acting in an “evil” manner. Then the question comes down to Biblical evidence. And the Bible consistently reiterates that God is good, and that everything he does is good, even if it is to allow evil, natural or otherwise.

There are other responses. One common defense is the free will defense, which says that God, in his omnipotence, has allowed humans to have free will, and that humans misuse this free will. That explains human evil, but it doesn’t explain natural evil. And isn’t this another way of saying that God isn’t all-powerful, even if it’s his decision to become less powerful? If you have human free will (as it is commonly conceived, i.e., God does not control what people do), then you don’t have an all-powerful God.

But there are even more problems. In the free-will formulation, God’s saving grace is an outstretched hand, which we freely grasp. But there are problems with this on the basis of the doctrines of sin and atonement. In the doctrine of sin, man’s heart is inherently corrupt, and it is impossible for him to save himself; it is impossible for him to turn his heart toward God. God has to act first, and that’s part of what the crucifixion was all about–God’s act of salvation. Instead of an outstretched hand that we freely choose to grasp as we are drowning in sin, it is a hand that reaches down into the water and pulls us out when we don’t even know that we are drowning, don’t even have the good sense to look for a hand to save us. If we are able to freely grasp the hand–to choose salvation–then what was the point of the cross? Merely an invitation? (And wouldn’t this mean that, theoretically, it were possible that all men choose against salvation, and then that Christ had died completely in vain?) If we follow this train of reasoning, it seems we must continue to limit God’s power and efficacy; he is not omnipotent.

If God is omnipotent, does his sovereignty mean that we don’t make decisions, that we are not responsible, etc.? Not necessarily. Only a certain formulation of free will says that it is incompatible with God’s sovereign control (hence the parenthetical  “as it is commonly conceived”). But another formulation says that the two can coexist, in the same way that light, studied under one circumstance exhibits the qualities of a wave, while under another exhibits the qualities of a particle. We don’t have the categories in which these two can coexist, but does that mean it is not possible? No.

God’s absolute sovereignty and initiative in salvation raises the specter of predestination, and its distasteful offspring, double predestination (God destines certain people for heaven, and others for hell, apparently arbitrarily). As offensive as these doctrines are, their offense does not prove them false. We will wrestle with this issue another time.

If the free-will defense fails and God is in sovereign control, then it appears that he is ultimately responsible for evil, even if we try to dodge the issue semantically by saying he merely “allows” it. How can else can we overcome this issue?

Another potential response attempts to dismantle the argument itself. The problem of evil asserts that the allowance of suffering is an unforgivable crime that God commits. But why is it a crime? Is the allowance of suffering bad? Is suffering the worst thing? We can all see how good often comes from suffering. The suffering in itself is unpleasant, and therefore probably “bad,” but if God is ultimately responsible for it, he has at least included in its design the reality that it can produce some sort of greater good, and in Christianity, he has taken responsibility for it by himself becoming a human and undergoing suffering, and using that suffering ultimately as the means of our own salvation.

You ask: Why does it have to be suffering? Why couldn’t he have chosen a less painful way to shape the world and work out his good purpose? Well, to ask these questions is to assert that you have a pretty good idea about the way the universe works–in fact, such a good idea that you can then assert that it would have been better if it had been designed differently from how it was. The proper retort, and the one that comes at the end of the Book of Job, is: are you in the businesses of creating universes? If you are, feel free to go ahead and create a better one than this. If not, then you are not in a position to judge the creator of the universe in his business of creating it. By many accounts, the assumptions behind the problem-of-evil argument are ones of unsupportable arrogance, grossly overestimating mankind’s understanding of and position in the universe.

This is a frustrating answer, because it doesn’t offer a counterclaim; it doesn’t give a reason why God allows suffering. But it rebuts to the problem of evil in two ways that seem sufficient to me: it says that no one has any business raising the objection in the first place, and additionally observes that even if we don’t know the reasons for God’s allowance of suffering, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any.

Although this type of discussion tends to exclude those who are not of the Christian faith, some found it helpful to be reminded that the religious system they object to as an atheist or agnostic is not a holistic system with all points of doctrine agreed upon by all adherents. There are many internal issues in all of these systems–Christianity, atheism, etc.–some of which are of crucial importance not only for those who subscribe to them but also to those who reject them.

MacIntyre on Protest

Protest is now almost entirely that negative phenomenon which characteristically occurs as a reaction to the alleged invasion of someone’s rights in the name of someone else’s utility. The self-assertive shrillness of protest arises because the facts of incommensurability ensure that protestors can never win an argument; the indignant self-righteousness of protest arises because the facts of incommensurability ensure equally that the protestors can never lose an argument either. Hence the utterance of protest is characteristically addressed to those who already share the protestors’ premises. The effects of incommensurability ensure that protestors rarely have anyone else to talk to but themselves. This is not to say that protest cannot be effective; it is to say that it cannot be rationally effective and that its dominant modes of expression give evidence of a certain perhaps unconscious awareness of this.

From After Virtue, by Alasdair MacIntyre

Action and Intent

Why should one be generous?

That was the question we started with today. One of us had run across an argument that ran something like this: one should be generous because it gives you a self-satisfaction that nothing else can give you. But then, the question is, isn’t that then not really generosity but selfishness? And what happens after an act of generosity that is ineffective or poorly received? (“They totally didn’t appreciate what I did for them–my generous effort was wasted!”)

So, if the reason behind being generous can’t be only because it makes you feel good (although, happily, that is often a side-effect), why be generous? Why is generosity good?

As is the case with all of the ethical questions we discuss, we reached an impasse, but having discussed ethics so much, we reached it rather quickly. Either generosity is, of itself, inherently good (and there is no way to prove that), or it is good because it is dependent upon something else–a chain of reasoning, or a dictum from God.

We discussed the problems with morality from “God says so.” While this is actually a way to solve the ethics problem, people bristle at it. It’s a conversation-stopper, and it seems overly simple. Shouldn’t there be a chain of apparent reasoning in addition, if in fact morality comes from God?

There’s much to say on this issue, but our conversation instead turned to the analysis of moral actions themselves: specifically centering around the question of action vs. intent. Can someone commit an evil action with a good intent?

For the sake of argument, we all agreed that Hitler’s actions of genocide were evil. But his intent was to promote human flourishing. At first, it appears that it is possible to have a good intention but to go about it in an evil way that actually prevents it from being achieved.

But, I argued, Hitler’s vision of human flourishing is quite different from ours–one that involves racial purity. So, it’s not enough to say that Hitler’s goal was “human flourishing” and dismiss it at that. We have a different conception of human flourishing that does not involve racial purity, therefore we would never have need of genocide in going about achieving it. The goal, at least in part, dictates the action.

Thus, it may be that since the action is dependent in no small way on the intent, the separation of the two is artificial. The intent is embedded in the action. Again: is it possible to commit an evil act with a good intention, or does the evil present in the act indicate evil intent?

We explored this a little bit with the example of Robin Hood. Robin Hood’s crime of robbery might be evil, committed for the greater good of redistributing wealth and caring for the poor. But, would it not be possible to say that Robin Hood’s act of robbery, while a crime under law, was actually the breaking of an unjust law (which stipulated that the wealthy should maintain their wealth while the poor should suffer), and therefore actually a just/good action?

What if Robin Hood killed someone during his act of robbery? Would that still be achieving a good end through evil means? Well, partly this depends on the circumstances of the killing, but we concluded that the act of killing is separate from the act of robbery, and therefore its intent could (should?) be considered separately. If Robin Hood kills someone out of fear of being killed himself–a preemptive, defensive killing–then he is doing so with the intent of preserving his mission, supported by an unjustifiable prediction of the future: how does he know that no one will continue his mission if he is killed? However, if his intention is different–to commit a virtuous robbery without harming anyone unless necessary (whatever that might mean)–the killing will not happen. The intent dictates the action.

Even in the case of the US capture of Osama Bin Laden, the civilian casualties indicate something about the goal. The vision included the potential for civilian casualties. If the intent were for a more righteous capture of Osama Bin Laden, the actions would not have been the same–we might have waited for a more opportune time, or gone about it in a less destructive (although perhaps potentially less effective) manner.

We concluded that actions, being highly dependent upon intent, actually include intent as an embedded aspect. The two are inseparable.

Our conversation drifted to various topics: transgenderism, feminism, gender, the idea of rights in general. An interesting question was, if gender is only a societal construct, can there be any justification for gender reassignment surgery on the basis of someone “knowing” they are a certain way?

The arguments for certain of these positions seemed pretty poor, and it appears that many people choose their positions based on their feelings rather than any sort of rational or critical thought process. I recalled a passage from Alasdair MacIntyre about how the shrill “protest” that we see in marches and rallies comes from the subconscious knowledge of the protesters that they can’t actually win their case in rational argument, so they must put on a display of emotion as a means of persuasion instead.
After having discussed many hot-button issues calmly and in the space of about ten minutes, we lamented how easily people are swept up emotionally and hang on to certain positions even though they are clearly not tenable. An acquaintance of mine told me recently that he decides his beliefs based on interpreting the facts of his life objectively–but what manner of interpretation is objective? (Doesn’t objectivity rule out any sort of interpretation by definition?) And what constitutes “facts,” especially when it comes to one’s own life or experience? After a certain point, knowing about philosophy is, in a way, like knowing that the emperor has no clothes. We get in arguments with people forgetting that they still think the emperor has clothes on. It’s no wonder these arguments are frustrating and go nowhere–many people are not aware of the philosophical assumptions they hold, or if they are, they take them as “givens.”

Preservation of the unfit, survivalism, and conforming to nonconformity

It’s been a while since Philosophy Club convened, and even longer since I’ve kept track of the minutes.

We began throwing out some different topics: Aristotle’s idea of the highest good (is it called eudaimonia?) was the first, by way of moral relativism and my devastating critique of it. (There is still some discontent regarding that post, but the relativists are in retreat for now.)

Serious discussion began around this hypothetical question: If human beings were created/grown for the purpose of transplanting the consciousness of the elderly (in order to allow people to live longer), would that be ethical? The human beings grown would be fully-formed human beings, with consciousnesses of their own.

It seemed to us at first that it would be unethical, since the transplantation of consciousness would erase the “original” consciousness of the body. Even if the bodies are grown for this purpose, they are still human beings. We noted that a human being is more than the sum of his parts–growing an ear on a lab rat and then removing it is of little consequence, but growing an entire human being and then erasing his consciousness (in effect, killing him, although not bodily) is a different matter.

Then we discussed the euthanasia and assisted suicide question. At what point is someone’s suffering “enough” to merit his decision to kill himself, or the doctors’ decision to kill him if he is not conscious? Is it subjective? Some people find reason to complain even though they live in luxury. “My internet connection is slow!” Suffering? Whereas, some people whose situations and circumstances would seem to indicate great suffering can find contentment even so. A person can feel suicidal, like life is not worth living, at the breakup of a relationship–but someone who has lost loved ones, or worse, can still think that life is a blessing.

In the case of euthanasia, we observed that the predictive powers of doctors is limited. No matter how low the chances of recovery, there is always the chance. Does this chance for recovery not justify keeping the person alive? Euthanasia is, paradoxically, an act of both arrogance and hopelessness.

The next question was asked in the context of Darwinism and survival of the fittest. In providing cesarean sections for pregnant women who are having difficulty in labor, and providing life support to infants who need it, are we preserving people unfit for survival? The answer seems to be yes. If “nature” were left to its own course, many people now living would have died during childbirth (mothers and babies), and others would not have been born (the mothers having died previously in childbirth). What are the potential consequences of this? Are we breeding a race of people radically unfit for survival in this universe? Will we eventually turn into a race of weaklings who will need more and more forms of life support as we preserve those who are unable to survive on their own, and always have been since birth?

Someone postulated that ethics comes from man’s instinct to survive. Survival is the ultimate goal of all ethics–right and wrong is decided by what will preserve the species best. I objected to this with a few different ethical scenarios.

The first is, of course, eugenics and genocide. If we want the race to survive, shouldn’t we exterminate people who are less fit, who would weaken the human race and make it less likely or able to survive–or at least work to breed people who are stronger and more fit? Many people would say that both of these projects are ethically wrong. That it is even a question seems to indicate that ethics is not merely about survival.

Second, I posed the example of a woman who is infertile. Somehow, we know that she is infertile (perhaps she has had her ovaries removed). At this point, she is simply consuming resources. Should she not be exterminated, to preserve the resources for people who are actually aiding the survival of the race (by reproduction)? There were a couple of objections to this. First of all, people who are infertile can still make contributions to society. But then we run into the problem of deciding what constitutes a contribution. What, beyond existence, constitutes a contribution?

Third, I asked, what about acts of sacrifice? A man standing by a river, and seeing a drowning child, should not jump in to save the child if survival is the ultimate priority. It would not even be a question. Refraining from attempting to save the child would guarantee his own survival of the situation 100%, whereas jumping in would significantly lower his chance of survival, even if it might raise the child’s chance of survival a little bit. Further, a child stupid enough to fall in the river should be allowed to perish and not reproduce, since clearly this child is less fit than children who do not fall in rivers. This clearly runs against the vast majority of morality throughout human history, which values acts of sacrifice and courage. Survivalism values cowardice.

None of this says that survivalism isn’t correct as an ethical system, but it seems to dismantle the idea that as human beings we got ethics from our instinct to survive.

We discussed conformity and nonconformity. What exactly is non-conformity; is it even possible? If you are a nonconformist, aren’t you really conforming to a certain idea about what nonconformity is? At the very least, nonconformity indicates that there is, at the outset, something to conform to, and there may be a wide range of possibilities, but there is still a limit to them. There is a framework to conform to: at the very least it excludes whatever falls under “conformity.” I mentioned Thoreau’s apparent difficulty with holding nonconformity as an ultimate ideal–after two years at Walden pond, he felt frustrated at having conformed to the path he had laid out for himself. But what did he think was going to happen?! With every choice we make, we only choose what it is that we are going to conform to, or how. There is really no such thing as pure nonconformity. This might also be why Nietzsche had a hard time developing a “new ethics”–he was vehemently anti-Christian, and wrote that the Ubermensch would be the man free from all morality. But at the very least, wouldn’t this mean acting contrary to Christian values, and wouldn’t this be limiting?

I posited that all “nonconformity” is actually to conformity to something outside of what’s been called “conformity” in the situation. For example, an activist might refuse to conform to an unjust law–but only because he is conforming to a higher ethical framework, one that declares that the law is unjust.

Lastly, we discussed argument itself, and how too often people engage in argument to win, not to learn (ourselves included). I mentioned Rogerian argument as an ideal alternative, in which one argues by convincing the opponent that it is in her benefit to adopt his position, necessitating that he begins by finding common ground, a place of solidarity.

An Examination of Moral Relativism (and Nihilism)

I recently did some reading and listening on the subject of moral relativism (and relativism in general) and would like to record some of what I came across for future reference, possibly for discussion with the group. I’ve formulated these criticisms informed by my own beliefs, and also in light of what I’ve heard and read that confirms my view on the theory, that relativism is not practically workable, running against the very nature of human thought, and that the arguments in favor of it are deeply flawed.

First, let’s define the terms. General relativism (or so I’ll call it) makes the claim “all truths are relative” although it omits its qualifier, in which case it needs to read “all truths are relative (except this one)” making an exclusive claim to truth while denying all others in contradiction. This commits the fallacy of conflicting conditions. It is internally contradictory, like saying “this statement is false.” Relativism as a general concept is by and large considered untenable.

It is possible to maintain moral relativism, but not general relativism; it is possible to say “right and wrong are relative” as an absolute statement. In other words, when someone makes an ethical or moral statement such as “killing the innocent is wrong,” either that statement is only correct within the theoretical framework in which it is uttered (the society’s particular moral code, etc.), or it is actually an expression of the person’s belief/preference/feeling: “I don’t like killing” or “I don’t want you to kill” (closer to moral nihilism–the belief that “right and wrong” do not exist in any sense). The strength of this position is that it does not fall into the trap of total relativism. But what are its problems?

To begin with, let’s look at the reason people believe this theory in the first place. The most common argument for moral relativism is the argument from moral diversity. This argument observes, rightly, that at different times and in different cultures, people have different moral values, and then concludes that morality must therefore be relative. Some critics observe that morality is actually not different enough to justify the extreme claims of moral relativism (C.S. Lewis refers to the common morality shared among all cultures at all times the tao, in his book The Abolition of Man.) But regardless of the objections, this argument fails because it makes a category error by exchanging the descriptive for the normative. Observed moral relativism is an “is” claim (descriptive), while morality deals with “ought” claims (normative)–the way things ought to be, not the way they are. It does not necessarily follow from what is what ought to be. Similar to this argument would be to say: many people solve a mathematical equation in many different ways, getting different answers–therefore, there must be no correct answer, and math itself must be relative! Clearly, this is not necessarily so. And unless somehow proven otherwise, it remains a possibility that some people have their morality wrong or less correct, while some people have their morality right or more correct–a theory which accords with the phenomenon of moral diversity just as well as relativism. Furthermore, if we are to follow the reasoning of moving from descriptive to normative, then we must draw the same conclusion that science is relative, as is morality, since scientific knowledge and practice has differed so widely across time and among cultures–more so than morality, if you think about it. Yet we don’t hold this view; we believe that the science we have is the right science, or at least the most fully developed, the most correct that we’ve been able to come thus far. We are Hegelians when it comes to science, but postmoderns when it comes to ethics.

It is also curious that moral language began with and developed using absolute terms. Wouldn’t we only have developed the language of personal preference if that’s all that ethics was? Of course, this doesn’t prove that moral relativism is false, only that it seems strange, or unlikely.

But to go further, I would argue that moral relativism breaks its own rules in the same way that general relativism does. Moral relativism (and nihilism), in going beyond the descriptive, denote a truth about ethical statements. Remember, these positions argue that moral statements such as “killing is wrong” are either only true within their theoretical framework (relativism), or actually expressions of personal preference with no “truth” value, societal or otherwise (nihilism). To make this work, they maintain that meta-ethical statements, which they are, are true, but that ethical statements themselves are relative or not meaningful at all. In other words, we can talk in concrete terms about morality, but moral statements themselves are relative. But this raises a couple of questions: first, how do we know that statements of ethics are preferential, but that those of meta-ethics are truthful? How is it that statements about morality actually correspond to reality, whereas statements of morality only correspond to a theoretical framework or personal preference? I’m not sure that there is a coherent reason for drawing the Line of Relativism at ethical statements, but not at meta-ethical statements, or scientific statements, or any other sorts of statements–other than by appealing to some other philosophical position (humanism, or atheism, perhaps?). If you draw the line too far forward (more than just morality is relative), then you tend toward general relativism, and you are in danger of a self-refuting system. If you draw the line too far back (there are absolute truths), then you are no longer really a relativist, and the burden falls on you to show why it is that morality is relative and other things are not. Second question: how and why do we distinguish between the ethical and the meta-ethical in the first place? How are statements about morality and of morality any different to begin with? I would argue that this distinction is not justified, and that in fact there is cause to believe the opposite–that statements about morality and of morality are actually of the same kind. To say that morality is relative is to make the statement that there are no absolutely necessary moral obligations, which is to say, that that is the morality (or lack thereof). Therefore, saying that morality is relative or does not exist is to make a moral claim that asserts that it exists and is not relative–saying, essentially, and in self-defeating contradiction, “all absolute moral claims are false (except this one).” Or maybe even better, “everything about morality is relative (except that it is relative).”

The support seems to me weak at best, deeply flawed at worst, and the theories themselves may contain irresolvable contradictions. Now, let’s examine the application of the theories. What are potential problems with moral relativism’s and nihilism’s outworkings, supposing them to be true?

First, a lot of people contradictorily extract a concrete ethics out of the view that ethics are relative. People say, “right and wrong are relative, therefore we should be tolerant” not realizing that they’ve just made “tolerance” an absolute virtue–making right and wrong not totally relative (and also making the same category error of moving from descriptive to normative). This is one of the key problems I see with humanism in its contemporary form.

(There are similar problems in arguments against religion. Some people argue that no religion can claim to have the whole truth, that it is presumptuous or arrogant to claim a perspective of superiority over others. But isn’t this argument itself a superior claim about religious truth of the same sort–indicating that its speaker does, in fact, have the perspective that supposedly can’t be had or shouldn’t be claimed?)

But if one manages to avoid this trap, there are others that reveal a deep incoherence in the theory. Some moral relativists say, “I have my ideas of what is right and wrong; others do too, and they are welcome to it.” But the problem is that ideas about right and wrong necessarily extend beyond the self. “I think that people ought not to murder, but it’s all relative”–yet to say that “people ought not” implies a standard that applies to more than yourself, indicating externality, and thus a nature concrete, not relative. (Or else, how is it that your personal standard can meaningfully apply to other people?)

One may avoid any sense of corporate, external morality by saying only “I ought not to murder” or “it would be wrong for me to murder” but then this still suggests at least two working pieces: a code, framework, or set of guidelines, and the self upon which these guidelines are imposed. This code can only come from either inside or outside of the self. If guidelines are imposed by the self, then the question is: how do we come up with these “oughts” and how do they meaningfully guide behavior? Are there two selves, or else how are one’s “oughts” different from moment-to-moment impulses, or different from what one actually ends up doing? You’re making up your own “oughts.” You can only say “I ought to do this thing” because you mean that you want to, or you’ve decided you will do it, and then you do it. But then you are making a distinction where none exists only to satisfy the “ought” language–and justifying your decisions and actions using circular reasoning, when there is not even a need to justify those actions in the first place!

But this is contradictory and incoherent, and no one thinks this way. We all think and act in opposition to relativism–in terms of two working pieces, ourselves and something else concrete. For example, a relativist might say that our choices are relative to what consequences we find desirable or undesirable, but how do we decide what is desirable or undesirable? Even if what you find desirable or undesirable is relative for you, you treat it as though it were concrete. You make the decision for what would be desirable on the assumption that it would be desirable no matter what you choose. What decision you make depends on what is desirable, not the other way around. If you should unexpectedly obtain an undesirable result instead of a desirable one, or discover that what you thought would be desirable is really undesirable, you then think that you had made the wrong decision–not that your appraisal of the result needs to change. This all implies permanence and externality of that desirability or undesirability, because it does not change depending on you. In resolving not to make the same mistake again, or in some other way to integrate the experience into your decision-making process, you admit that your judgment is subject to error, and the only way for this to be possible is if what you judged is external to your faculties of judgment. This is contrary to the principles of relativism. What you don’t do–and no one ever does–but what relativism demands, is to change the interpretation of the result based on the decision: you don’t say “I’m sure glad I made that decision that got this undesirable result; I’ve learned that this result is actually desirable because it’s what my decision led to!” (“I’m glad I decided buy that car on a whim from the salesman; now I know that getting cheated and losing money is good!”) Again, no one does this, but this is actually what relativism dictates should happen, because if desirability or undesirability is relative, then we have no justification for interpreting the results of our choices apart from the choices themselves–and for our choices, we have nothing other than the fact that we made them. If we thought it was right at the time, then it was right!

So moral relativism entirely undermines the idea of self-improvement, since there is no way to know or say that we did something wrong, and that we “ought” to be “better” if whatever we did is what we ought to have done. The selection can be nothing other than arbitrary or capricious. This is even more problematic on a societal scale: how are we to improve society without pointing to certain ethical codes as better or worse than others? For instance, on what basis did our society depart from its endorsement of slavery other than to say that we had had it wrong the whole time, not that we had simply, arbitrarily changed our feelings about it now? Maybe society exchanges one moral framework for another–but on what basis? Doesn’t it have to appeal to a higher, more permanent framework to justify the exchange? On the other hand, if relativism is true, the only true appeal to a certain ethics is through force. A leader can’t say “murder is wrong” meaningfully to his citizens except as a lie, justifying his convictions with ethos beyond his own; he can only truly say “you better not murder or I’ll make sure something bad happens to you” (assuming that “something bad” is something actually bad, and not just relative…)

If true ideas about right and wrong don’t exist, then what is the meaning of having ideas about right and wrong in the first place? It’s like having very strong opinions about who Santa Claus is, what he is like, but without believing that he actually exists. You might believe that Santa Claus has pointy ears–you may believe this very strongly–but then, what is the point of this, if Santa Claus isn’t real? Why do you bother with this belief in the first place?

If you are a true relativist, I would argue, you are actually a closet nihilist, and you must give up your personal beliefs of right and wrong altogether in order to be consistent. But does this work? This leads me to my next point, which is that the difference between belief in Santa Claus and belief in morality is of course that one is an integral part of the human experience and the other is not. So I’m going to apply this analogy even where it breaks down. If we discover that arguing about whether Santa has pointy ears or not is meaningless because he doesn’t actually exist, that’s fine–we can stop worrying about whether or not he has pointy ears altogether–it doesn’t affect our lives. But if we decide that morality doesn’t exist, it still affects our lives; there is no escape from it. Unlike choosing to disbelieve in Santa, deciding whether morality exists is more like deciding to breathe air or not–it has consequences either way. Keep breathing air: you live. Stop breathing air: you die. Everyone makes choices. What one believes about the nature of morality influences the decisions one makes. Therefore, beliefs about nature and morality influence everyone. Whichever one you choose, it matters. There is no way for it not to matter.

The practical result of moral nihilism–to dismiss the idea of the “ought” altogether–is to live without a framework for making decisions at all, conforming to any old whim that strikes us, living reflexively. But this is not possible. If we decide to live reflexively, to be in accordance with our nihilistic beliefs, then we have constructed a moral framework (we “ought” to live reflexively), and we are not a nihilist.

Even if, theoretically, we could avoid this, moral nihilism also has the problem of relativism’s self-justification, but with a twist: if there is no right or wrong, there is no justification for analyzing the result of a choice, although under nihilism one cannot even evaluate the result of a choice by virtue of the choice itself.

And most importantly, moral nihilism begins to undermine reason itself. Reasoning is a series of “oughts”–rules of logic and inference. This “ought” to follow from that. With no “oughts,” there is no reason. If we object to this, saying that moral “oughts” don’t exist but “oughts” of reason and logic do, then we fall into the same error as the relativist: drawing a Line of Nihilism arbitrarily between the questionable distinction between ethics and meta-ethics. What is the difference between “oughts” of morality and “oughts” of logic? And we contradict ourselves in saying “there are no moral truths (except this one).” So I don’t think it’s a slippery slope to say that not only are moral relativism and nihilism self-contradictory and contrary to the human experience, but they threaten to (and by necessity must) undermine much more than just morality.

Thus, the theories (moral relativism and moral nihilism) seem highly unlikely, especially considering that there are other competing moral frameworks more congruous to human experience, thought, and life (i.e., Aristotle’s telos, divine purpose/Christian virtue, human rights theory, etc.). Nonetheless, relativism and nihilism remain attractive positions. The theories seem to arise from the sort of naturalistic atheism which, although subject to much criticism itself, is by and large the norm in our cultural place and time. They appeal to people who disbelieve in God, the supernatural, and the metaphysical, and who hold scientistic beliefs that dismiss the idea of anything “innate” in humanity other than biological processes (and to people who want to do whatever they want to do without having to think deeply and seriously, and who want to avoid the pain of moral correction). But moral relativism and nihilism have serious problems. Their philosophical justification is questionable at best and they are incongruous with how we as humans think and live.


Four of us total today. This week we took a more informal approach to conversation, first beginning by sharing stories about arguments that had gone sour on Facebook–often ending with one of the parties admitting that he or she had not read the article or viewed the video in the original post. We lamented, as e have done before, that people tend to take honest argument as aggressive or condescending (or both). Granted, sometimes in the presentation of an argument, an arguer is aggressive or condescending (or both), but still sometimes honest argument is wanted, but not received in its intended spirit. These arguments can ruin friendships, or sour family relationships.

It is difficult to remain open to arguments when we hold strong opinions and when whoever is presenting a counterargument lacks authority. Sometimes, even if we lose an argument, we are tempted to hold our ground even so. There is much more at work in argument than argument.

I’m not sure how we transitioned to the next subject, but we began talking about drugs, and how prevalent they are among teenagers, and how easy it would be to do them. We have all had experiences or seen movies or been raised to avoid drugs (usually a combination of these). One’s ability to resist drugs might come down to society and expectations. If we are around someone whom we respect, in a broad sense, who is doing drugs and offers them to us, we might be more tempted than we would if our friends and family were drug-free and the person offering it to us were a stranger. I mentioned Requiem For a Dream and Trainspotting–two films about the ill effects of drug use and addiction, presenting as good arguments as anything else against the use of drugs.

Someone brought up a particular method for understanding political preferences by way of critique–a spectrum from liberalism to conservatism with communism on one end and nazism on the other. The Nazis were National Socialists, so wouldn’t they be closer to the communism/socialism end of the spectrum? We agreed that the X-Y axis method of mapping political preferences was superior to the two-dimensional spectrum.

Similarly to the simplification of politics, history texts and presentations are often watered down. Specifically, we mentioned Martin Luther King, Jr. assemblies, which change the core message (“I have a dream” becomes “follow your dreams,” or “I love myself!”).

Somehow or other, we got to talking about religions, mentioning that there are several that compete for the title of “Christian”–i.e., Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.–but that, arguably, are not properly called Christian. The Mormons, for example, have an entire additional sacred text (the Book of Mormon), the most obvious point of difference, in addition to doctrines about the afterlife (do they really believe that you become a God of your own planet, and create “spirit babies”?).

We touched on many topics today but didn’t really get deep into anything. Potential future topics: the underlying biases in public school education, and comparative religion!

Is Education Social Engineering?

The three usual suspects. Today our question was: is education social engineering? We actually answered this question fairly quickly. First, we defined social engineering as any attempt by a person or group in power to manipulate other people and shape society, and then concluded that public education fits the bill. We spoke less argumentatively this session and more sociologically and speculatively.

We observed that there are many implicit (and sometimes explicit) values taught at school, and “caught” from the overall student culture. Cliques and groups are a reality, and so are their power structures–there are leaders and followers within these groups.

Our conversation turned towards discussing the major problems with school in general, other than that it is social engineering. One of the biggest problems we identified is the lack of freedom. Compulsion automatically decreases the student’s interest, investment, and sense of value. This is contrary to one of the goals of school: to impart a cultural ideal or norm to students, namely the academic tradition. Now that I’m thinking of it, this probably comes from one of school’s original purposes which was to develop and encourage a foundation for active and responsible citizenship. We mentioned Thoreau’s “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” in which he states that compulsion is contrary to the foundational principles of the United States, and that it discourages personal investment. His examples are of the use of money to purchase goods–it discourages a personal appreciation of that good–but I think by extension we could include education as well.

This led to a broader discussion about government welfare. Is it the government’s place to take the citizen’s money and determine where it goes, even if it is for the general welfare? Ideally, this should be up to the individual citizen. However, that takes a high amount of trust in the individual to spend money responsibly–an ideal that is not often met in reality. People are selfish with money. However, this does not justify the government to take the money and decide where it goes. Additionally, people on welfare seem unappreciative of what they are given, because they don’t have to work for it. It seemed more apropos to us that the government or other charitable agency provide services to people that enabled them to get back on their own feet–drug rehabilitation programs, job training, etc.–rather than handouts such as food stamps that people have come to rely on almost as “givens.”

Returning to our discussion of school, we observed that many teaching strategies are also manipulation tactics. We talked about how students move from one teacher to the next at least once every year (in most school settings), which prevents them from forming lasting attachments to adult teachers/mentors, and seems to teach them that those relationships are not as important as those with their peers. Perhaps this is why students seem apathetic or even resentful (and sometimes downright aggressive) toward teachers once they reach high school. And because the teacher-student relationship is often reduced to classwork and the resulting grades, a heavy emphasis falls on work and achievement. Students take grades and feedback personally. This sort of heavy personal and emotional emphasis on grades stigmatizes failure. But the educational system progresses people to higher levels of new and more difficult skills–and how often does anyone do something right the first time they do it? I argued that failure is normal and inevitable, given the introduction of new and more difficult skills, and that it should therefore be expected and embraced. No amount of pep-talking or proselytizing in class about how improvement is really what matters or how grades are only part of the story will change the emphasis that a grade has when that is what all work comes down to: a printed report card, a GPA, a transcript, a college application. Of those who do not develop a highly emotional attachment to their grades, many go the other direction and become apathetic. We wondered why apathetic students should be compelled to come to school, when they make it difficult for the students who want to be at school and for teachers who want to contribute to the learning of their students. We had all experienced classes with one or a handful of disillusioned students disrupting the educational process, hindering the learning of all students and creating otherwise needless difficulty for the instructor. Is there a better way?

We questioned the arbitrary selection of skills emphasized by schools. Standards seem only to compound this problem. We noted that elementary standards demand skills that children are not ready to perform cognitively. At the high school level, many required classes seem out of step with the career paths that students end up taking, especially technical careers. High school mathematics seem geared towards engineering and scientific professions, and do not emphasize practical skills such as might apply to taxes or insurance. English is focused primarily on literary study rather than career writing, and seems inappropriate for those not going into highly academic professions. Furthermore, the way these studies are taught seems to disconnect them from real life. History, for example, always bored me in school, because I never understood the connections to my own life or what was happening around me. Its presentation was so dry. But now, I love learning about history, especially the philosophical underpinnings of different historical movements and time periods, and understanding how our current thought is influenced by what people long ago thought, wrote, and did. Perhaps in its attempt to be “objective,” school also ends up cutting out aspects of subjects that generate personal interest.

Again, we seemed to see that systematic or institutional education kills a true desire to learn. The emphasis on arbitrary skills, measured by grades, creates a disconnect for the student between what he is learning and how it guides his destiny. He is not assessed on whether he learns the material; he is assessed on how he assesses on the material, and he is not trusted to judge for himself whether he has learned something or not. We seem to take this for granted that this is how education should work, but it seems more obvious that testing only demonstrates how a student performs on a test and often little else. It is only through a leap of faith that we can say that test results quantify actual student knowledge/skills/learning. This is a discussion that seems to be missing from the charter schools debate. People say that charter schools perform poorly. But there are two important points: who are the students who are usually sent to charter schools? The ones that are performing poorly in regular schools? (If so, perhaps that is why charter schools perform more poorly. What is the cause/effect relationship between charter schools and their performance?) Also, how is the performance of charter schools measured? By tests? (Are the students going to charter schools students who don’t test well? Again, what is the cause/effect?)

We discussed radical alternative methods of education, including the School Without Walls. How might it look if students were not, in fact, required to attend school, but rather attended out of their own free will, and directing their own course of study? Teachers would act as facilitators–rather than planning lessons and implementing crowd-management and manipulation tactics, would provide knowledge, insight, and feedback as requested. These sorts of radical changes are slow to materialize because of the massive size of education as an institution. While all of this structure and legislation is well-intentioned, it also hinders changes from taking place–changes that might be radical, but that might also drastically change and improve the state and nature of education.

Our last comments were toward the changing world of post-high school expectations. Many parents still emphasize the importance of college, but the career world may be moving away from that. More and more people are getting a college education, making a college degree a more common commodity, and therefore less of a distinguishing factor on an application or resume. Also, many fields, especially the technical ones, value experience and references just as much if not more than study work. I noted that of all the vastly numerous times I have submitted something for publication, I am asked about my education never, but about any previous publications always. So even in non-technical fields, a track record of experience and previous success may be worth more than any amount of education.

For further reading:

Fortress of Tedium (in part about the School Without Walls)

Normal Accident Theory