Towards A Good Samaritan World

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Nato comments:

If all normative content is automatically religious in nature then we are a bit stuck, aren't we? However, I don't feel we're doomed to automatic conflict in that way, since I think that we humans generally share plenty of common values that allow us to get along, whatever their provenance... with so many sources of normative agreement it seems highly tendentious to describe all normative content as religious content.

Whether it's tendentious, from a semantic point of view, to equate the word "normative" with the word "religious" is beside the point here, in fact it's a sort of evasion. Like many Christians and other religious people, I regard "normative" and "religious" as essentially inter-dependent, perhaps at some deep level even synonymous, though of course the range of practical applications of the words are very different. I question whether ethics has a foundation if certain basically religious tenets are discarded. I think ethical nihilist John Mackie (see Chapter 1 of the book linked to) is right when it comes to the justifiable content of ethics in a materialist philosophical framework. In effect, there are many normative frameworks, some of which have been labeled "religions" by historical accident, while others have not. "Religious neutrality in schools" is merely discrimination against those normative frameworks that have the misfortune of being on the enumerated list of belief systems recognized as religions. In such a situation, it's appropriate to redefine the word "religion" to include some entities which are relevantly similar.

In a way, Nato and I seem to be coming to a sort of agreement: the best schools can do is to find whatever common ground there seems to be in a particular community. Of course this should be done by some combination of democratic and market processes and not by judicial fiat, and this is the basic reason that our current, secularist-monopoly public school system is the wrong approach.

However, from a philosophical point of view, to say that "we humans generally share plenty of common values" is not convincing. There's room for doubt empirically, but in any case the fact that a lot of people believe something is no proof that it's true. And this is relevant to curriculum policy. If you teach kids, "Don't tell lies because... well, because a lot of people think you shouldn't," the kids have no good reason to believe you. There are two serious problems with this approach. First of all, you are encouraging them to be swayed by prevailing opinion rather than engaging in critical thinking. Second, by telling them a true principle and then offering inadequate reasons, you will encourage them to think that all who hold the principle do so with similarly bad reasons. I would actually rather have a system of education that attempted to rigorously exclude comment on normative issues than one which teaches "generally shared common values" merely as such; the latter, I think, is likely to be subversive both of the specific values that it is teaching and of philosophical honesty generally.


  • I have a question - how do theistic moral systems make ethics objective (or at least non-arbitrary) in a way materialists can't? I imagine something along the lines of "God is perfect, ergo her moral dictates are perfect." But if those moral dictates can be articulated in the material universe, then it would seem that there were already perfect moral dictates available even if we hadn't discovered them. So how is it to work?

    By Blogger Nato, at 2:23 PM  

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