The power of a simple story

The power of a simple story

I was recently writing an academic paper on medical ethics, based on the parable of the Good Samaritan as related in Luke 10:25-37. As I researched this parable, I was amazed at its influence, and began to wonder, has any story as simple as this had the reach and power of this parable? It would have taken Jesus just a few minutes to relate, but its influence has reached the corners of the globe over the last 2000 years. Let’s look briefly at some of the ways it has become deeply embedded in our culture.

Firstly, the term ‘Good Samaritan’ is well used by law-makers. Good Samaritan laws are laws that give legal protection to those who help a stranger in need of aid in emergency situations. They prevent rescuers from being prosecuted for wrongful injury or death, and are common around the world – all because the parable teaches us to help those in need. 

The term ‘Good Samaritan’ is also widely employed in the name of many medical facilities, as a quick Google search will reveal – healthcare centres, hospitals and hospices. In fact, Gerald Arbuckle describes the parable as ‘the ultimate founding myth of healthcare’. 

There are also numerous charities that use the term – in the United Kingdom, the Samaritans is a charity dedicated to helping those struggling with emotional issues and those at risk of suicide. Samaritan’s Purse is an evangelical Christian humanitarian aid organization. 

Finally, philosopher Charles Taylor describes the parable as ‘one of the original building blocks out of which our modern universalist moral consciousness has been built’. We all know what being a Good Samaritan involves – a sacrificial act to help someone in need.  The lawyer in the parable wanted a precise definition of his neighbor so he knew who he should love, and who he wasn’t required to. After telling the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus asks him, ‘which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?’. The answer was obvious – neither the lawyer, nor any of us need to be told. In just a few simple sentences, Jesus sums up our obligations to others in a way no-one has ever been able to improve on. 

 

An evening with Tom Holland

An evening with Tom Holland

The PA recently attended Tom Holland‘s lecture at the British Museum (13 September, 2019). Holland is an award-winning historian, biographer and broadcaster, and has a new book out called Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. It explores the enduring impact Christianity has had on the west, and promises to be a fascinating read. This lecture was associated with the launch of Dominion, and there was a book signing afterwards. It’s worth noting that Holland is an agnostic: he seems sympathetic to Christianity, but is not a believer.

Holland began his lecture by explaining the origin of his fascination with history: as a boy, seeing an exhibition at the British Museum called the Wealth of the Roman World, AD 300-700. He recalled being attracted by the violence and savagery of the Romans, and being resentful that Christianity had hastened the Roman Empire’s decline, which had well advanced by AD 700. This visceral thrill as a child led to his channeling his inner nasty child into first writing about Rome and Greece!

Gradually, however, Holland became unsettled by the slavery and killing, eventually finding the Romans and Greeks frightening. He began to wonder why he found them so strange, and how we were so different. The Romans were terrifyingly alien – he wondered what transformed society’s ethics?

Christianity began with the crucifixion, and Holland pointed out its horror – it was the proper fate for scum, rebels and slaves. It was extraordinary that the Roman world would come to worship someone who suffered this fate – Paul realised it was a ludicrous proposition. The crucifixion was folly to gentiles – slavery is freedom, torture is liberation and defeat is victory – the antithesis of what the Romans believed. It was also a stumbling block to monotheistic Jews who worshipped God only, and the idea of a new covenant for all mankind did not fit their exclusivity. Moreover, Christianity claimed to dissolve all differences – there was no male or female, Jew or Greek. To the Romans, the Son of God was Caesar, but Paul writes that all are children of God. It introduced the idea of conscience – we can improve, be better people.

Moving to the recent past, Holland noted that Nietzsche was horrified at the cross, at the idea that the weak and poor could have importance. The Nazis didn’t believe that all people were equal either – some races were superior. After the Second World War though, the need for Christianity declined. The horror of Nazism made it unnecessary – the world didn’t need reminding that we were all equal and that obligations were owed to those in need.

Holland described how he visited a town called Sinjar when ISIS was still active. Here the Yazidis had been targeted by ISIS: women enslaved, and men and children killed. He described the horror of standing in a town where people had just been crucified, realising that crucifixion meant nothing to ISIS other than an instrument of torture. Here, he felt closer to appreciating the scale of the transformation that Christianity has wrought.

To conclude, Holland then answered some audience questions. One person asked if he thought Christianity was irrelevant now. Holland pointed out the explosion in Christianity in Africa, noting that because the supernatural is familiar there, it is working well. But in Western society, it has worked too well and has now seceded power to the secular.

The final question was more of a statement, and one that the questioner kept repeating: Christianity’s ethical teachings were already around, and the myth of a dying god was a familiar one – Osiris for example. Holland was very clear on his reply: yes, Christianity was the fusion of several philosophies, but the fusion resulted in something radically new. Jesus the nobody, crucified as a criminal to be worshipped as God? That was revolutionary. Every human being is equal and made in the image of God? There was nothing in Greek philosophy like this.

An informative and enjoyable evening!

Hear Tom Holland with N.T. Wright on the Unbelievable? program here. And a great article by Holland on how our society is saturated with Christian concepts here

 

 

What is metaethics?

What is metaethics?

The word ‘meta’ means ‘beyond’ or ‘about’, and as a prefix means a higher level of abstraction of the topic at hand, which is ethics. So metaethics is not concerned with making moral claims – that’s the realm of normative ethics. Metaethics involves making claims about the nature of moral claims.

Let’s take the claim that ‘we ought to keep our promises’. This could be expressed as a moral fact: ‘it is the case that breaking our promises is wrong’. Metaethics asks if moral facts such as these actually exist, or are they merely statements about how we feel about moral issues? If they do exist, what kind of thing are they? Moreover, can we ever know what these facts are? Of course, there is all manner of views about the answers to these questions, and the purpose of this post is to classify them in a way that is comprehensible.

Moral realism

The most important question is whether moral facts exist at all. Moral realists think they do, and so these moral facts make our moral judgments true or false. If I claim that it’s okay to break my promise, and it is a moral fact that ‘it is the case that breaking our promises is wrong’, then my claim is false. Conversely, moral anti-realists reject that there are such things as moral facts (sometime they are called irrealists).

Moral realism is a broad church – there are a wide variety of opinions about what kind of thing moral facts are, and disagreement about the facts themselves. It might even be that moral facts exist, but we have no way to determine what they are – a position known as moral skepticism.

The most important question for moral realists is whether moral facts are objective: whether they exist independently of human beings or not. Moral relativism says moral facts are true or false relative to some human standard. Relativists point to the diversity of moral values across cultures as evidence for their views, and believe that this diversity shows objective moral facts are unlikely. If moral facts aren’t objective, is moral relativism really a form of moral realism? Some philosophers believe it is, while others argue that moral relativism is actually an anti-realist position.

If moral facts are objective, a position sometimes called moral absolutism, what kind of thing are moral facts? Those who hold to naturalism – the belief that only features of our universe exist are natural ones, i.e. those amenable to study by empirical science – must believe moral facts are natural, a position called naturalistic moral realism. There’s a problem with this view though, which faces an objection known as Moore’s Open Question Argument. This argument led Moore to non-naturalistic moral realism, which concludes we must admit the existence of unique non-natural properties such as goodness. There are two options here: either these properties are supernatural, attributable to God or gods in some manner, or they are non-natural and non-supernatural, a position known as non-natural non-theistic moral realism and ably supported by Erik J. Wielenberg. I discuss Wielenberg’s ideas here.

It’s time to mention cognitivism, a term often encountered in metaethics. It’s a theory that says moral claims are expressions of beliefs that can be true or false. This sounds like moral realism, but it’s broader than this (especially if you think moral relativists are not realists). Moral relativists are cognitivists, yes, because they believe moral claims can be true or false. But you can be a cognitivist and believe all moral claims are false. In this case you are what’s called an error theorist – there are no moral facts, it’s all nonsense and you believe all talk of morals is hugely in error. J. L. Mackie is the most famous advocate of this view.

Moral anti-realism

Recall that anti-realists reject that there are things such as moral facts, and so error theorists are also anti-realists as well as being cognitivists! But most anti-realists are noncognitivists: like error theorists, they don’t believe there are such things as moral facts. But unlike error theorists, noncognitivists thinks people who accept moral claims don’t actually have real beliefs about these moral claims, but instead are expressing their attitudes or desires. One form of noncognitivism is called emotivism, where moral claims are said to express our emotions. For this reason it is sometimes known as hurrah/boo theory. and is also a form of expressivism.

I haven’t yet mentioned an important anti-realist position known as moral nihilism, which is that nothing is morally wrong. Nihilism is most often associated with Friedrich Nietzsche, who was not only a moral nihilist but a nihilist about any values at all. This doesn’t sound much different to error theorists, and indeed error theorists are often thought of as moral nihilists.

It should be apparent by now that metaethics is a deep rabbit hole to explore. One useful tool for navigating the topic is the chart shown below, which I believe is the work of David Faraci. You’ll see that there are numerous other metaethical views not mentioned in this overview.  Fortunately, there are many good introductory texts on metaethics, one being Alex Miller’s An Introduction to Contemporary Metaethics which I have seen recommended, as well as Metaethics: An Introduction by Andrew Fisher.

metaethics

 

 

What is ethics?

What is ethics?

Ethics is a field of study that attempts to answer questions of how we should live and act.  As rational creatures who make conscious choices in our actions, we use ethics to decide what is the right and wrong thing to do in particular situations. It’s a vast and important area of enquiry, and involves a wide range of questions. To understand ethics, it’s helpful to divide ethical questions into three main categories.

Metaethics examines the nature of our moral judgments. What do we mean by right and wrong? Are moral judgments statements of fact, or are they just our preferences?  If they are facts, what kind of facts are they? Can we even know what they are?

Normative ethics is the study of moral theories that tell us how we should act – they help us determine whether our actions are right or wrong. There are many moral theories, and they don’t always give the same results. Virtue ethics emphasizes the importance of our moral character, while consequentialism evaluates actions on the basis of their consequences. Deontology is based on rules that we should follow rather than considering the consequences of our actions.

Finally practical ethics, or applied ethics, is concerned with how we should act in real-life situations. This can range from bioethics, which examines the ethical issues associated with advances in medicine and biology, such as abortion, euthanasia and cloning, to environmental ethics, which ask how we should act to preserve our planet.

In my next post, I’ll be looking at metaethics. I’ll try to classify the better known metaethical theories that are out there, and explain how they differ from each other.

Starting a PhD!

Starting a PhD!

True to form, the PA is starting a PhD to add to the long list of superfluous university qualifications gained over many years.

For the next few years I’ll be studying at the University of Birmingham. My PhD is in the ethics of abortion, an area I’ve been keen on researching for a long time, so it’s going to be rather interesting! I’ve already contributed a little in this area (see here and here), and have just had another paper (with Daniel Rodger) accepted for publication in Bioethics, so things are going well so far.

 

Review: The Quest for a Moral Compass

Review: The Quest for a Moral Compass

Kenan Malik’s The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics is a fascinating volume, and is compulsory reading for anyone with even a passing interest in morality or philosophy. Working his way through the ages from Homer onwards, Malik explores the development of morality around the globe, displaying a deep knowledge of a wide range of ethical traditions.

Studying any area of philosophy can be overwhelming. The more you learn, the more you realise you don’t know. The more you master one particular view, the more you realise there are many others. This is particularly true in ethics.  There are two and a half thousand years of ethical thought to study, a vast landscape of theories and views, and there’s no way you can cover it all. Some people spend a lifetime becoming experts on just one particular era, or one philosopher such as Nietzsche or Kant.

This is where books such as Malik’s are incredibly useful. He covers all the salient eras in ethics, all the most important philosophers you’ve heard of, and many important ones that have been neglected. And he does them in reasonable depth. It’s great for filling in the inevitable gaps in your own knowledge, often gaps you didn’t realise existed.

Malik inevitably begins with Homer, the pre-Socratics and Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Jewish and Christian ethics follow, but he subsequently doesn’t just cover Western religions and philosophy. He provides chapters on Hinduism and Confucianism, as well as Buddhism and its spread to China. Malik explains how the influence of Daoism on Buddhism in China produced Zen Buddhism, and how this eventually led to the reworking of Confucianism by Zhu Xi as a response in the ninth to twelfth centuries. Islam is also well represented, from its origins to its split into Sunni and Shia factions. Malik details how the Arabs rediscovered the Greeks, and translated Plato, Aristotle, Euclid and Ptolemy into Arabic, and how this led to a Rationalist tradition that valued reason and human responsibility as well as revelation. The two most important Muslim philosophers, Avicenna and Averroes, come from the Islamic Rationalist tradition. Al-Ghazali, who embraced the mysticism of Sufism, was the Rationalists’ most significant critic, and eventually the Traditionalists prevailed. Ironically, Christian Europe then embraced their Greek heritage which had been preserved by Islamic scholars, translating them from Arabic into Latin. There were two important factors that helped this transition: the invention of the university and Thomas Aquinas, medieval philosophy’s most famous figure.

The story moves on to Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Malik explains how at its heart is the tension between fate and individual moral responsibility, which is essential for moral judgement. Dante believed in free will; Martin Luther did not. His famous declaration to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V ‘here I stand, I can do no other’ in his defense of his challenge to the Pope’s authority is actually a statement of his inability to do otherwise, not an endorsement of personal conscience.

According to Malik, the Reformation was a conservative reaction against Aquinas’ spirit of reason as well as a reaction against the abuses of the Catholic Church. Paradoxically, a movement that deprecated individual autonomy ‘helped create a world that came to celebrate individualism’ by tearing religious authority away from institutions. One result was the 1524 Peasants’ War in which peasants cited the Bible to support their grievances about oppressive taxes against the aristocracy. Both Luther and Calvin were unsympathetic and defended the right of princes to suppress the revolt.

There’s much, much more to absorb. Descartes’ dualism and mechanistic universe, and Hobbes’ social contract theory. Spinoza’s vision of human transformation, and Hume’s empiricism and view that desires motivate reason. Kant’s belief that moral agents themselves are the source of morality, and that the measure of the good is duty. The two sides of the Enlightenment – the public face of Kant, Locke, Voltaire and Hume, and the radical side of Spinoza, which was the actual driving force that rejected tradition and aimed to sweep away traditional structures. Bentham’s consequentialism, and John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism. Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche, and the question of how much influence Nietzsche’s ideas had on the Nazis. There’s a good chapter on the existentialists, including Kierkegaard, Sartre and Camus, and a fascinating account of how Toussaint L’Ouverture justified the Haitian slave revolution using Enlightenment values of equality for all.

The closing chapters chart the extraordinarily rich development of ethics in the twentieth century and beyond. Malik covers the rise of Dewey’s moral pragmatism, and intuitionism, based on G.E. Moore’s argument that moral truths were self-evident intuitions. Ayer’s emotivism, which saw moral claims as personal preferences, was a reaction, while Mackie’s Ethics provided an argument against the existence of moral facts. Meanwhile Anscombe and MacIntyre reinvented virtue ethics, while evolutionary ethics, rejected after the horrors of Nazism, began to see a resurgence with ideas such as reciprocal altruism. Malik also provides a thorough critique of Sam Harris’ ill-founded claim that science can determine moral values. Curiously, given he is charting the gradual abandonment of the concept of universal, objective moral values, Malik doesn’t mention the recent interest in non-natural, non-theistic moral realism espoused by Erik Wielenberg. He also omits the impact of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice.

There’s a brief but absorbing account of how China’s relationship with Confucianism has recently been transformed. When the Qing Dynasty collapsed half a century after the Opium Wars, the central role of Confucianism in the social order disintegrated as well.  Mao’s rejection of tradition and embrace of modernity had disastrous consequences, resulting in the deaths of many millions of Chinese. But once again, China has recommitted itself to traditional Confucianism, led by philosopher Jiang Qing.

The Quest for a Moral Compass is an immensely enjoyable and informative read. Malik writes clearly and elegantly, and provides deep insights on many philosophers and eras. His analysis of how our understanding of morality has developed over the ages equips readers to place different moral theories in context. It’s an ideal starting point for anyone wishing a broad overview of ethics, but has something even for those familiar with the field.

 

 

Are there objective moral values?

Are there objective moral values?

Objective moral values are moral values that are “independent of human desires, perceptions, beliefs and practices”. Those who hold that moral values are objective are known as moral realists, and they believe that statements such as “slavery is wrong” are true or false regardless of who says them, and where and when they were said.

Atheists such as Nietzsche, Hume and Mackie all agreed that there are no objective moral values in a godless universe. Although this is a common position, not all atheists hold to it, and a recent post concluded that it is possible to maintain that objective moral values could exist without God. This involves accepting that brute moral facts just happen to exist in our universe, and that they match our moral beliefs.

By contrast, theists explain moral facts by appealing to the necessary existence of God, which neatly explains moral obligation and why moral facts are correlated with our moral beliefs. The theistic view seems more persuasive, but of course the theistic worldview entails many other commitments which atheists find untenable.

Why do atheists like Wielenberg even think objective moral values exist? Given their commitment to an evolutionary account for our existence, it seems logical to attribute our moral beliefs and our intuitions about these beliefs to natural selection, at least indirectly. But doing so makes it difficult to be a realist about moral values, as it leads to Sharon Street’s “Darwinian dilemma” – either evolutionary forces have somehow conspired to produce moral beliefs that match these objective moral values, or our moral beliefs don’t coincide with whatever objective moral values exist at all. If objective moral values are jettisoned, the Darwinian dilemma dissolves, so why hold to this position?

Interestingly, it’s a very common position. In fact the majority of philosophers surveyed  are moral realists. Given that over two thirds have a preference for atheism, it seems moral realism is widespread even amongst atheists.

Why?

David Enoch contends that believing morality is objective has considerable appeal to us, and he gives three reasons why this is so.

Firstly, Enoch uses a joke to illustrate what he calls the spinach test. A child who hates spinach says “I’m glad I hate spinach, because otherwise I might have eaten it, and it’s yucky!”.  It’s funny because the only reason for not eating it is because of personal preference. If you did like it, it wouldn’t be yucky.

But it isn’t funny when it’s about a moral position. It seems quite reasonable to say, “I’m glad I wasn’t born in an era when slavery was acceptable, because I would have accepted it, and I think slavery is wrong”. This sentiment seems reasonable because we are thinking beyond our personal preferences. We think slavery is objectively wrong.

Enoch’s second test is about how moral disagreement feels – the phenomenology of disagreement. When we have an argument about a topic such as abortion, or some other issue we care deeply about, it doesn’t feel like an argument about personal preferences  such as the taste of chocolate.  It feels like an argument about something objective. Enoch compares it to a debate on global warming, which we know to be an objective matter irrespective of our position on it.

The third test is the “what if?” – or counterfactual – test for objectivity. If our beliefs or practices were very different, would it still be true that so-and-so? Enoch gives the example of smoking causing cancer. If we believed smoking was harmless, would it still be true that smoking causes cancer? Of course – it is an objective fact that smoking causes cancer, no matter what we believe. We can apply the same test to moral beliefs. If  we believed slavery is acceptable, would it still be wrong? It seems clear that the answer is yes, slavery would still be wrong. We would want a society that believes slavery is acceptable to change their views.

Enoch contends that these tests demonstrate that we very much want to regard morality as being objective. We want to be able to say that torturing babies for fun is objectively wrong no matter what some people may think.

But we are still left with the Darwinian dilemma and consequently have at least one good reason to think that morality is not objective. Of course, some sort of theistic evolution can counter this, but are there any good arguments for objective morality other than our intuitions?

Yes, and they will be explored in part two, coming soon!