Towards A Good Samaritan World

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


Nato asks:

I have a question - how do theistic moral systems make ethics objective (or at least non-arbitrary) in a way materialists can't?

To me, it's not that theistic moral systems have a magic formula for making ethics objective; rather materialism in particular creates problems for ethical realism. Right and wrong is part of the content of our experience. I witness rape, or cruelty, or ingratitude, and I am indignant; I see kindness, or mercy, or love, and my soul rejoices. This does not mean-- not in the least!-- that judgments about right and wrong, in the abstract or in particular cases, are unproblematic or obvious. But it is a starting-place of sorts: a reason to believe that right and wrong are real, and a source of evidence, the interpretation and systematization of which of course is a great challenge, about their content.

The materialist approaches the question with a special handicap: he has a pre-commitment to reduce everything to particles and forces, or else to reject its reality. His trust in introspection, too, is affected; a non-materialist can regard introspection as the most fundamental of all forms of evidence, but a materialist trusts science more than introspection, so to begin the study of ethics with introspection is not satisfying for him. Instead, he has to come up with an account of ethics in materialist terms, a very difficult and, I think, impossible task which is imposed upon him by his materialist pre-commitments.

Some theists will establish objective morality by saying that right/wrong simply IS whatever God commands/forbids. I find this view repugnant. Belief in God is relevant to ethics (if at all) in a different way: first, ethics points the way to a possibility of Ultimate Goodness, however dimly conceived by sinful mortals; second, since ethics often demands self-sacrifice, God-- perhaps his promise of personal salvation, perhaps his mere existence, I'm not sure which-- is the Source of Hope without which ethics would seem futile.


  • I'm very glad (though not surprised) to find that you and I agree in the way that theistic values can be good. Argument from (highest) authority is horrifying in moral realms. Sadly, it is fairly common amongst evangelicals.

    By Blogger Nato, at 4:19 PM  

  • Of course, I don't think a physicalist has to reduce everything to particles and forces. As I've said before, materialists are not committed to an irrealist view of, say, the number two, the houndstooth pattern and optimal ethics. I'm sure materialists holding such a hard view exist somewhere, but I'm not aware of any off the top of my head.

    Of course, some - Tom is an example - feel that logical and instantiated (physical) realities are contiguous and thus one thing. I can't say I subscribe to this view, though neither do I feel that their arguments fail - I just don't feel comfortable enough with the issues to commit myself even tentatively. Even in the absence of this view's success, however, I think one can be a monist in terms of instantiated entities without being an irrealist about logical truth.

    By Blogger Nato, at 7:02 AM  

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