Towards A Good Samaritan World

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

I commented over at EconLog:

A deliberate, conscious lie to another person is one thing. Other cases of lying are subtler and more ambiguous.

(1) Is it lying to go through the motions of one's born religion, going to church, reciting the creeds, when in fact you have lost your faith in God?

(2) Is it lying to say "I know the Bible is the Word of God," if the evidence you have in support of that proposition falls radically short of the evidential standards you ordinarily require in order to refer to one of your beliefs as "knowledge"?

(3) If so, is it also lying for a materialist, whose ontology apparently acknowledges the existence only of particles, energies and forces, to speak of "moral" principles at all, or to call behaviors "right" and "wrong?"

(4) Is it lying for a salesman to present only the upside of a product, and to tell every potential customer that this product is worth their money when, actually, he thinks that most of them would do better to spend their money on something else?

(5) If so, then what if the salesman believes that every customer would do well to buy his overpriced trash, but he believes this only because he has deliberately suppressed the mental faculties by which his mind ordinarily distinguishes true from false propositions, for the sake of economic gain? Is that lying?

Telling the truth is not an on-off switch. It's more like a staircase...


Bryan toots his own horn that he's "pathologically honest." I'm inclined to say the same about myself, but be careful: self-deception takes many forms.

There's an important quality which is closely akin to honesty but not quite the same thing as honesty as currently used, which I try to cultivate myself and observe in other people, and which I believe is an important virtue. Let's call it, in a special sense, trustworthiness. A trustworthy person is careful and rigorous in forming his beliefs, and everything (or most of what) he says reflects this rigor. A trustworthy person is not merely a non-liar; he is resistant to the various temptations we have towards self-serving belief, for example: to justify our conduct or our privileges, to confirm our own theories and avoid the inconvenience and embarrassment of changing our minds, and to adopt beliefs which may be advantageous to us. Trustworthiness can only be gained over time, because if you raise your evidentiary standards at some point in time, you find that many or most of the beliefs adopted previously are (by your new standards) unreliable, so you must perform a Descartes-type move and doubt them all before you can make any more progress. A trustworthy person may seem ignorant at times, because he is loath to express opinions in the absence of high-quality information.

2 Comments:

  • You said:
    '3) If so, is it also lying for a materialist, whose ontology apparently acknowledges the existence only of particles, energies and forces, to speak of "moral" principles at all, or to call behaviors "right" and "wrong?"'

    That is the failure of Reductionism, a Materialist straw-man which hardly any philosopher advocates. Materialists in general have very good explanations for morality, depending on your criteria for what makes an explanation "good", and they certainly make better arguments for moral truth than most evangelicals I've read. Other than that, I tend to agree with your post. Being "honest" should not merely be perceived as never telling a lie, it should be perceived as never being deceptive. For how useful would it be to consider someone both honest and deceptive?

    By Blogger Thomas Reasoner, at 12:56 PM  

  • Tom wrote:

    "That is the failure of Reductionism, a Materialist straw-man which hardly any philosopher advocates."

    Morality, right and wrong, are part of our lives every day. As C. S. Lewis points out, quarreling is evidence of our belief in morality, because it consists, not of fighting like animals, but of claiming that you are right and someone is wrong. Someone steals your seat on the bus. Someone breaks a promise. Someone accuses you, unfairly, of gross deception. Your reaction to each of these events shows a belief in morality.

    So it would be surprising if a lot of materialist philosophers were out there denying the existence of morality. Of course they come up with some sort of effort to define and justify our moral beliefs. Whether those efforts are successful is a different story.

    "Materialists in general have very good explanations for morality, depending on your criteria for what makes an explanation "good","

    I'd be interested to hear them. Or maybe not. I seem to vaguely remember encountering a number of materialist accounts of morality, though I'm not sure where exactly, whether from learned philosophers or from kids at school. My impression is that none of them were much worth remembering. I've just been reading Thomas Nagel's account. Nagel is not quite a materialist; he dwells in a sort of borderlands of materialism, not denying exactly, nor proposing an alternative scheme, but outlining a framework in which materialism is only one form/stage of "objectivity," which must coexist with more subjective views...

    Anyway, Nagel is much weaker on morality. His account is much like Kant's, with ethics consisting of stepping outside oneself and applying objectivity in the practical sphere, though he is less self-confident; at one point, he notes intriguingly:

    "Perhaps a richer metaphysics or morals could be devised, but I don't know what it would be."

    Kant, Rawls, and Nagel all perform more or less the same move: they argue that if one is to demand certain standards of behavior of others, as we must, then one must be willing to apply those standards to oneself. Along with utilitarianism, this, I think, is the best that materialist moral philosophy has to offer. It is inadequate in two ways: first, it begs the question, what standards of behavior; second, it fails to justify the need to treat others equally. For the sake of argument let's concede that no man is an island, and that we have to interact with other people qua people, to recognize them as other people equal with ourselves, and entitled to expect the same treatment from us that we expect from them. It doesn't follow that we must extend the same recognition of equality to all other people. You can say, with perfect consistency to which Kant has no valid objections, "Yes, I expect all white, or Aryans, or Communist Party members, to treat me such-and-such, and I must do the same for them, but I will kill or enslave blacks, or Jews, or bourgeoisie as I see fit." I'm not saying, let it be clear, that all or most or many atheists adopt this point of view; merely that they have no adequate defense against it. But the other problem is, if anything, even more serious. Kant's, Rawls' and Nagel's framework gives us no basis for choosing one system of rules rather than another, provided that we're willing to submit to the same system of rules. But the system of rules is not a matter of indifference: a liberal or a Christian system of rules makes possible a rich and fulfilled life (perhaps, to put it colorfully, salvation) whereas a system of rules in which everyone loves and labors mightily for our glorious leader Stalin leads to misery, death, and ruin-- even though a categorical imperative to submit to the dictator in all things is as amenable to universalization as is the categorial imperative to love your neighbor, or to respect his property. If the justifications of morality provided by Kant and Rawls sometimes works out satisfactorily for philosophers or individuals, that's only because they tend to inhabit societies where faith-based traditions instill a uniform and beneficent moral system, rather than a malevolent perversion of morality, or chaotic anomie. But the philosophies of Kant, Rawls, and (I have little doubt) materialist philosophers in general (not that Kant was a materialist, but his contemporary disciples mostly are) cannot supply a sound morality; at best they can justify acquiescence in one. And so while they are inadequate in theory, in practice they are parasitic. When the grass-roots religiosity that keeps faith-based traditions healthy fails, materialist societies are cast adrift on the seas of relativism. Mass atheism made its debut in Europe in the late 19th century, first among the elite, who proceeded to vast crimes against the natives of Africa, exploitative industrialization in Europe, child labor and wage slavery etc., and then the carnage of World War I; then it spread to the proletariat, who embraced fascism and communism, killed the Jews and the kulaks and rampaged across Europe in another even bloodier war; after that there was a happier chapter under American hegemony, a revival of older national traditions under American tutelage, and under conservative leadership; however, even then the Europeans were abdicating their authority in the colonies and opening the path to many atrocities there, and spawning mad leftist ideologies that condoned Maoist mass-murder and spawned genocidal projects in places like Cambodia; now, as American hegemony, and the democratic capitalism the Americans inculcated in Europe, begin to fade, Europe's moral compass has gone completely haywire so that they defend Saddam and think Bush is Hitler; meanwhile their changed sexual mores have led to such a low birthrate that they're headed for bottomless demographic decline. Don't get me wrong; I've met a lot of Europeans, and personally, I find them wonderful, charming, witty, friendly, open-minded, smart. But ever since mass atheism gained a foothold in Europe, generation after generation has been flunking the test on how to build and sustain a good and moral society (except once when America gave them the answers).

    "[Materialist] certainly make better arguments for moral truth than most evangelicals I've read."

    Now, I'm inclined to agree with this--but. It's fair for a materialist, charged by a Christian with not being able to justify morality, to return the question: How does the Christian claim to justify morality? Nor does the Christian have a very good answer to it; and if he tries, he may say "moral rules are what God wills," and I find this explanation appalling. Why should we submit to God? Because he's powerful and will punish us? In that case, not morality but pseudo-morality is in question here; following the rules merely for fear of divine punishment strikes me as cowardice, and a God who makes us jump through a lot of moral hoops for no good reason is not one we should respect.

    But the Christian does not need to answer this question-- how do we justify morality?-- in the same way that the materialist does. After all, right and wrong, like green and cold and fear and four, are things that we experience, frequently, vividly, intimately. Why? is the wrong question. Moral reasoning has its place, but it shouldn't dig too deep, and it should always leave an opening for moral intuition and conscience to make themselves felt. Those are the materials on which it builds, and to analyze them is like a carpenter chopping his boards into splinters. Christianity does not provide an ultimate reason for morality any more than we can provide an ultimate reason for experiencing the color green, but it trains the Christian to be attentive to the "still small voice" of conscience.

    Now at this point you will object "But scientists do explain why we experience the color green!" Well, not quite. They can tell us much about particles and waves, wavelength and frequency and sympathetic vibrations at the molecular level and the chemical composition of chlorophyll. But at the end of it all, the "why" question is still there, for two reasons. First, you can ask "why are there protons and neutrons?" or "why are there quarks?" or "why is there such a thing as electrical charge, and why is the electromagnetic force precisely as strong as it is, and not stronger or weaker by a factor of 7 or 7000?" Ultimately scientists reach a question they can't answer. Second, you can still ask, "why do those particular light waves cause me to experience the color green? why does green look the way it does?" This question is likely to frustrate a scientist, because it possesses a simplicity and frankness that they have unlearned in the course of their studies. That is the kind of question a child would ask they might think. Well, yes, it is, but it is no less valid for that. Maybe the best measure of meaningfulness of a question is whether a child would understand it. The scientist has not explained the color green, he has merely offer a more-than-usually-detailed-and-generalized description of the circumstances that typically occasion the experience there of.

    Green, and right and wrong, are known, in the first place, by experience. But whereas a Christian is free to be content with that, a materialist is not, because a materialist suffers from a uniquely impoverished ontology. He disbelieves in God and angels and spirits and the soul, he turns to physics for the ultimate and complete reality, he believes that everything is, yes, reducible to that. Materialism is to experience/phenomenology as Marxism is to sociology/history: it offers a totalizing explanation, and exhilarates its adherents, at least initially, with a feeling of knowing everything. But in the end the framework is too impoverished, and it fails in its bid to explain everything, and the cleverer its defenders become in their effort to subordinate the yet-unexplained to the doctrinal framework, the weirder and more arcane are the systems that result. "Explaining morality" is not incumbent upon the Christian in the same way as the materialist, because he can still accept it, childlike, directly from experience. It is the materialist, who asserts an ontology that apparently implies denying morality, who has a duty to justify, to explain, to defend morality, if he wants to make a fool of himself when he persists in the habit of presuming morality on an everyday basis. He fails at the task.

    By Blogger Lancelot, at 8:00 AM  

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