Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Logic of Moral Relativism

The doctrine of subjectivism is a curious thing.  It claims that for each person, truth is different.  There is no absolute truth.  If this is indeed the claim, it is easily refuted as this claim itself is an absolute statement.

I suspect that subjectivists take a more soft line in this respect (in order to avoid this embarrassing conundrum) and might say "there may be an absolute truth, but we may or may not know what it is."

Applied to morality, subjectivism becomes moral relativism.  As far as moral judgments are concerned, an act's moral goodness or badness depends upon the perspective of the people involved.  

One argument in favor of moral relativism is that one culture may consider an act to be good and another culture may consider it to be bad.  Here is the argument:

  1. If an act is good for one culture
  2. And the same act is bad for another culture
  3. Therefore the act's moral value is relative to the culture

The premises of this argument can be shown empirically by looking at two cultures that have different values about a particular act.  For example, cannibalism or killing the elderly are variously considered good and bad among different cultures.

  • Let's look more closely at those premises.  Premise 1 is "If an act is good for one culture."  What makes an act good?  In this case, the culture must consider it to be good.  That is, the culture's opinion of this act is what makes it good or bad.  Isn't this hidden premise begging the question?  That is, if the culture's opinion of what makes an act good or bad actually makes it good or bad, that is a restatement of moral relativism.  The argument assumes what it is trying to prove.

    Here is a restatement of the argument for clarity

    1. If an act is considered good for one culture
    2. And the same act is considered bad for another culture
    3. And an act's moral value is determined by the culture (hidden premise)
    4. Therefore the act's moral value is relative to the culture

    You can now see that the new, third premise is equivalent to the conclusion.

    This new premise is very interesting in that it means that one should never disobey one's cultural morality.  Whatever the culture considers right is, in actuality, right.  In essence, relativists can never object to the law.  They can only be status quo conservatives and therefore moral absolutists are the only ones that can be progressive and radical!   Only a moral absolutist has a trans-cultural standard by which to judge actions and can say to Hitler or Saddam Hussein, "what you are doing is wrong and must be stopped."  Relativists can only say, "different strokes for different folks, I happen to disagree but that's all."

    It’s amazing how the public perception of these roles are the exact opposite of what I have just outlined.  Moral relativists are typically depicted as the liberal agents of change, while moral absolutists are supposed to be conservative dogmatists.  We can now see that moral relativists are secretly dogmatic and moral absolutists are radical and agents of change for good in the culture!

    Those of us who understand that there is an absolute standard of right and wrong are agents of change. To settle into a comfortable conservatism is a surrender of the moral leadership that is required and expected of us. The reversal of the relativist and absolutist roles in the culture today will be addressed in Part Two.

    Thanks to Peter Kreeft for much of the material for this post 

    Thursday, December 20, 2012

    Love as a Choice

    As Christmas approaches, we prepare for the coming of Jesus, God incarnate. God becoming man somehow elevates the physical world to a new level; for not only had God created it, He also dwelled in it. He dwelled in it as profound choice of divine love. Mary too was not forced in any way to bring motherhood to a new level. She too made a choice when saying, “Let it be done to me according to your word…” (Luke 1:38). She made a profound choice of human love. These two choices together bring usEmmanuel”, which means God is with us.

    This is also the time of year I prepare for my next confirmation class that takes place after the holidays. Part of the class is a discussion about love; love as a choice.  This brings blank stares of confusion from a group of young teens because everyone knows love is all about emotion; it’s about how you “feel”, but I ask them to think deeper. Previous classes discussed the soul as having two parts or two aspects; a will and an intellect. The action of our intellect is “to know” and the action of our will is “to love”. So if love is an act of the will, then it is a choice, but how can someone internalize this; especially a teen?

    Analogies are always helpful. Imagine you have met someone that you don’t particularly like or are indifferent about. Now imagine you have made a conscience decision to spend time with that person, to talk with and get to know him or her, and to do things for that person. Now do all this consistently and you will discover feelings of love growing, but note that it all starts with a choice.

    Isn’t this the general theme behind many, if not most of the movies we see? It could start with a young couple at the beginning of a film, who don’t particularly care for each other, or even hate each other. They wind-up in an adventure together, get to know each other, and help each other to the point of maybe even saving one another’s life. What happens by the end of the movie? They end up getting married or something like that.

    I explain to my class that “love at first sight” can be a real feeling, but it should be given a more precise name. Call it "romantic infatuation at first sight" and remember that it is NOT true love.
    Examples need not be only romantic. Our family watched the film “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” over the Thanksgiving holiday. Steve Martin plays Neal Page, an advertising executive desperately trying to get home in time for Thanksgiving. Neal meets Del Griffith, played by John Candy, a good hearted, but clumsy and over talkative salesman. They share a three-day odyssey of misadventures trying to get to Chicago from New York City. One could say that during most of the movie, Neal is annoyed by Del at best; hates him at worst. But as they spend time together, get to know each other and do things for each other, feelings of brotherly love develop between them by the end of the film.

    And so it goes in the spiritual life. Choose to spend time with God in prayer and other acts of piety. Choose to get to know God by studying scripture, theology, apologetics, etc. And choose to do things for God to help build-up His kingdom like evangelizing, helping others, ministry. Do all these things consistently and your love of God will grow.

    Good Grief
    Do you know some people that seem “uncomfortable” going to Mass (or church)? Well, if you spend more time offending God than being with, getting to know, and serving God, OF COURSE you will feel uncomfortable at Mass!! If you were invited to dinner at a home where you did not know the host, or worse yet, offended the host, wouldn’t you feel “uncomfortable”?

    So Christmas is all about God choosing to be with us. Emmanuel came not only to die for us, but to dwell with us on earth and to teach us how to live. In the Eucharist He is with us in the most intimate way possible. He already knows us, but becoming man allows us to get to know Him better and gives us a better opportunity to serve Him and grasp that invitation that continuously says “come and follow me”.

    Since visuals are so helpful, click HERE for a PDF graphic of “Love as a Choice”. Consider it a Christmas gift from "all of us" at Two Catholic Men and a Blog!

    Saturday, December 15, 2012

    Getting to Know Evil...Again

    Thought I’d republish this from last July given what happened in CT yesterday in case it might help someone. I have a daughter in kindergarten myself. Seems like she was born yesterday and I could not imaging making funeral arrangements now. Another thing I find troubling is the fact that many who mourn the loss of these children today would have gladly supported their killing six years ago…when they were in their mother’s womb.

    341 - 270 BCE
    Many are familiar with what the Greek philosopher Epicurus said centuries ago:
    “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?”

    We wonder how a God that is all knowing, all powerful and all loving can permit evil. We conclude that there must be at least some error, weakness or indifference about God. A flawed assumption with this kind of thinking is that finite humans can fully understand perfect knowledge, perfect power and perfect love. Think of a child receiving a flu shot. Should the child conclude that the parents either do not know shots are painful, they do not have the power to stop it or they just don’t care? This is NOT meant to compare a shooting to a flu shot. It is meant to compare the perspective of a child to our prospective to God.
    St. Augustine of Hippo
    354 - 430
    Like us, St. Augustine had similar questions about evil before his conversion to Catholicism. He practiced Manichaeism in his younger days, which taught that there were two forces in the universe of equal power, one good and one evil. This would mean that God cannot be all powerful since there was a matching power of evil to counteract Him. Being the intellectual that he was, Augustine knew about Catholicism. He knew that Catholics taught God was all good and all things came from God. He had a question for Catholics, which we can read about in his Confessions, Book 7. The question was “From whence came evil?” If God is all good and all things come from God, where did evil come from? How could evil come into being at all?

    It’s simple logic, but once again we have a bad assumption. The assumption is that evil has “being”.Catholics taught and still teach (because Truth does not change) that evil has no substance or “being”. Think of physical darkness; it has no “being”.Darkness is merely the absence of light. It doesn’t come from anywhere or find its source in anything; it is merely the lack of something. By the way, the Devil is NOT the source of evil, just like night time is NOT the source of darkness.
    I'm finding this post disturbing.

    After his conversion, Augustine equated evil to “disharmony”. I play some guitar and I’ve owned my current guitar for over twenty years. I can hear when it is even slightly out-of-tune, even if one string has the slightest disharmony with the other five. It may sound perfectly fine to you, but I know it can sound better. In a sense, I know my guitar’s perfection within the context of its nature. When all six strings are way out-of-tune, the guitar is gravely out of harmony with how it should be, and playing any chord would make an “evil” sound to anyone’s ears. It’s been said that without evil there would be no such thing as good. That is akin to saying without an out-of-tune guitar there would be no such thing as an in-tune guitar.

    Thomas Aquinas tells us that good signifies “perfect being” and evil signifies “the privation of perfect being”, so when a thing lacks a perfection it ought to have, we perceive the deficiency as an evil. Blindness is evil for a human because a human ought to have sight. Blindness is not evil for a stone because a stone should not have sight. Also, think of a tree seedling trying to grow into as perfect of a tree as it can within its nature. Things preventing this like insects, disease, bad weather, animals or a man with an axe are evil to the tree, in the sense that they bring deficiency to it.

    How does any of this help anyone? Does it take away the pain and confusion when a loved one is suddenly and senselessly taken from us? So what if evil has no “being”? So what if we understand evil better? We can still ask, “Why does God allow the privation of goodness to happen?”
    One thing I’ve learned from years of dealing with complex problems in my professional and personal life is this….The more you understand a problem, the better you can deal with it, EVEN IF you can’t necessarily solve it. And so it is with the problem of evil.

    Wednesday, December 5, 2012

    Transcendent Morality - Part II

    As you last recall….
    Two Catholic Men dissected a video that explained how morality should not be based upon any sacred text or other divine or religious authority; it should be based upon things like: Improved Education, Valid Reasons, Relevant Differences, Sufficient Justification and of course the all-important, “Doing what is right and not what we are told to do”. But there are no details provided on exactly who will determine these things and how.

    There is mention of science, but science does not give us morality. Show us the scientific data or formula that proves murder is wrong, or stealing, or rape, or racism. What scientist discovered it? Are all people really created equal? Isn’t there data to show that some are stronger and smarter than others? Doesn’t this data prove scientifically that some people are superior to others? How about a more frequently debated topic? Doesn’t the study of evolution teach us that homosexuality is “wrong” in terms of propagating a species? Shouldn’t it be seen as a kind of “defect” in scientific terms?

    G.K. Chesterton says that science can only be used either as a tool or as a toy. As a tool, it helps us live better lives, like understanding electricity or development of medicine. As a toy, it helps develop things that are interesting or entertaining, like a video game.

    Science comments only on physical reality, not spiritual reality. The Catholic world view includes both the physical & the spiritual. Catholics will speak of physical laws that are universal & unchangeable and spiritual laws that are just as universal & just as unchangeable (Catholic means universal by the way; Greek word katholikos). Morality stems from the spiritual laws. One can act morally without knowing God, but there is no morality without the existence of God, since God is ultimately the first cause of every part of reality, whether it is something spiritual or physical.
    Any atheist should have no problem with the existence of physical laws (like the law of gravity), but would they not regard spiritual reality or spiritual laws as only delusory opinions? If so, the following logic should flow nicely:

    1. Spiritual laws (moral law/natural law/divine law) are only man-made “concepts”.
    1. Concepts are like opinions; thoughts in the mind. 

    1. Thoughts in the mind are electrochemical impulses that have evolved over millions of years to help us survive.
    1. The electrochemical impulses in one person’s brain can be different than another’s. For instance, the mind of Adolf Hitler was different than the mind of Mother Teresa; not good or evil, just different. This gives me a great idea for a new book! Check it out!!!
    1. There is nothing above the human mind to judge what is moral or not; no “outside system”.

    1. Therefore…..there can be no objective morality that applies to everyone. (I honestly did not plan this to be six points…weird how that happens. The number six is always interesting from a biblical perspective.)
    So what can we conclude if we believe the six points above? How can we be “moral”? Well, a civilized society can vote and make human laws about what the majority thinks is right or wrong, but right & wrong do not exist in and of themselves….ONLY opinions.

    It seems that too many people (including some Catholics) want their cake and eat it too. They want objective morality, but no source for it outside the human mind. This backs you into an intellectual corner. What they agree with is spoken of in objective terms, like saying every woman has a right an abortion; abortion rights are not something “relative”. What they disagree with is spoken of in relative terms, like saying every unborn child has the right to life; this would be only an opinion relative to those who believe it.

    There is actually no need to appeal to scripture or any religious authority for these types of basic discussions that go back to the Greek Stoics. One needs only reason and the fact that science cannot answer questions about morality or meaning, only "how" questions. Galileo hinted at this when he said, "Religion tells us how to go to heaven; science tells us how the heavens go." Indeed to get “the heavens” at all, you need something outside the universe to do it, something outside the system, outside of space & time, something that needs nothing for its own existence, something out of this world. Need a word for that?  "Transcendent."  Nice.