November 8, 2009

Even a schlep like me can see the flaw in this reasoning...

Marvin Olasky:

...Confirmation of biblical wisdom came earlier this fall from an unlikely source: an Ivy League savant who says it's wrong to depend on the Bible.

The prestigious Oxford University Press sent me the new book Morality Without God? by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, a Dartmouth professor. (I'm going to quote him a lot, so I'll use his initials.) WSA begins by complaining that his students quote to him Dostoevsky's favorite line, "If God is dead, everything is permitted." WSA then argues that we don't need God: We all should simply agree not to harm others—cause death, pain, or disability—unless there is "adequate reason."...

The obvious flaw is that who defines "harm?" Who defines "others?" Who defines "adequate reason"? If I can define my own terms, then I can harm anybody..... I'll just define them as not being a person, or define my harm as not really harmful.

The whole concept of people deciding what their own morality will be is just stupid. It's like the lab mice deciding on how the science experiment should be analyzed. Nothing can be judged from the inside. There always has to be some standard, or some judge or critic, that comes from outside the system, something which has authority because it is at a higher level than what is being critiqued.

Now you may be thinking, "What right has a nobody like Mr Weidner to call a Dartmouth professor stupid?" Fortunately Marvin Olasky gave me the necessary data by posing a moral question to Mr WSA. In fact, the obvious moral question, one that WSA must surely have heard and had time to think out an answer to. But he can't give a cogent answer!

Here, judge for yourself...

Wondering if WSA is one of those exceedingly rare secular professors with the courage to be pro-life, I emailed him to ask. He responded that there is no "simple solution to this complex problem . . . the moral problem of abortion cannot be solved by citing religious texts or religious leaders."

Hmm . . . How can it be solved? WSA wrote, "What matters is the present and future harm to the fetus and others. This does not solve the problem, but it tells us where to focus our discussions. I hope this helps."

Hmm . . . It helps only if WSA can tell us how to compare "harm to the fetus" (death) to other harms, so I emailed him again. He responded, "The bottom line is that I think some moral problems are insoluble. . . . They are just too difficult for us to figure out. . . . The answer, 'I do not know,' should become common."

Hmm . . . I asked WSA whether people could really make "I don't know" the default statement. He responded, "Why not? People get used to having a belief about everything, but they do not have to. Life can be lived like an experiment where you guess but do not believe until you see how it turns out."

Why can't this guy give a good answer? I bet I could fudge-up some plausible-sounding cackle. The question I think we should ask is: "Why has this man made himself stupid?" He presumably has a higher IQ than me, but he seems to have given himself a lobotomy! Why?

My theory (feel free to skip this if you've read it on this blog before) is that people have been coasting on Christian and Jewish morality and values, even though fewer and fewer people practice the religions faithfully. That morality has lingered as habits. (Imagine parents who have lived through the Great Depression and later become prosperous, trying to transmit their habits of thrift to their children. Some of it will rub off, some will be lost. And more will be lost when the kids try to pass this wisdom on to the grandkids. Good habits drain away if one is separated from their source.)

Mr WSA thinks he's devising morality de novo, but really he assumes a lot of Judeo-Christian morality. Probably most of the people who have ever lived have believed that it's FINE to harm people if they are not in your tribe. But WSA assumes that this is not where his ice-your-own-cupcake morality is heading. Why? Because the habit of not thinking that way is part of Western Judeo-Christian culture. He just assumes that faith-based moral habits will be there. Sort of like children assuming that the grownups will always take care of them!

But the problem is that the habits are wearing off, a little each generation. And now reality is starting to bite people. He won't admit it consciously, but I think that deep down Mr WSA is becoming very afraid. And that is why he, and millions of other people, have made themselves stupid. They don't want to think about their situation. They don't want to realize that next year it may be just "decided" that they are not "anybody," and can be "aborted retroactively" without violating morality. A good current example of this fear-based stupidity is the many important pundits who have been gravely saying that we may never know what motivated Major Hasan, and whether religion had anything to do with it! That is literally insane.

Romano Guardini wrote, back in the 1950's:

...As unbelievers deny Revelation more decisively, as they put their denial into more consistent practice, it will become the more evident what it really means to be a Christian. At the same time, the unbeliever will emerge from the fogs of secularism. He will cease to reap benefit from the values and forces developed by the very Revelation he denies. He must learn to exist honestly without Christ and without the God revealed through Him; he will have to learn to experience what this honestly means. Nietzsche had already warned us that the non-Christian of the modern world had no realization of what it truly meant to be without Christ. The last decades [the two world wars] have suggested what life without Christ really is. The last decades were only the beginning...
    -- Romano Guardini, from The End of the Modern World

* Update: Just want to amplify a little my comment that WSA "assumes a lot of Judeo-Christian morality." His phrase "We all should simply agree not to harm others" is a debased version of a Christian moral concept. The Pharisee who agreed that we should love our neighbor asked Jesus, "Who IS my neighbor?" His culture would have assumed that "his neighbor" meant "fellow Jews." Jesus answered with the story of the good Samaritan. The story implies something really radical and shocking: that everyone should be treated as our neighbor. (Jews and Samaritans hated each other like poison.) The idea that we should not hurt anybody is a corollary of this new idea.

WSA claims that we can just invent morality. He's fooling himself. If people with no preconceptions invented a morality, they would not come up with anything like what he expects.

I also strongly suspect that he thinks his formula is a TRUTH, though he would never dare admit it in the academy, or to himself. If somebody invented a morality that said: "We all should simply agree to harm anybody who annoys us," I'd guess he would exclaim "That's Wrong!" Wrong with a capital "W." I'd bet money that deep down he believes that there are moral laws that objectively exist, that are not invented by people. Therefore his atheism is a fake. Deep down he knows there is a Higher Power, but he's a coward and shrinks away from the implications.

Posted by John Weidner at November 8, 2009 9:34 AM
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