Materialist morals

We have recently been discussing deep philosophical matters, such as the ‘uncaused cause’. Not surprisingly we do not arrive at satisfactory answers. Such questions have been explored over two thousand years, and I do not doubt they will still be unanswered in 2000 years time.

But today I want to explore moral decisions. The answer is important because our understanding may have eternal consequences. There are two potential approaches. One approach starts from the assumption that the universe only contains matter. This belief necessarily excludes the spiritual, not just in its religious sense but in all of its meanings. We may not know how characteristics such as consciousness develop from matter but some would say that that may simply be because we do not know enough about matter itself. But this of course leads to the exclusion of freewill. That conclusion has a major difficulty because it is at odds with morality: if our decisions and our sense of right and wrong are caused by matter alone we cannot condemn or praise any moral decision. At a pinch the best we can do is to apply greater punishment to the offender since the threat of this changes the balance between desirability and undesirability of our decision.

In fact we know from experience that moral decisions involve two elements. We are, or should be aware, that many such decisions may be affected by our internal tendencies. For instance the way we were individually brought up will affect our values. We will be influenced by recent happenings and longer term experiences. We will also be influenced by the social groups to which we belong (people like us). And a myriad more. We need to be fully aware of such tendencies because they may interfere and confuse our moral decisions which should always be guided by reason.

I notice that distinguished atheists such as Russell or Dawkins appear to have strong opinions on the morality of others often religious people or religious organisations. Somehow they forget that their targets are not responsible for their views since they are not free to make decisions. I am waiting to listen to the trial of some foul gangster. His defence might be to quote several philosophers over the last two millennia who would claim that the prisoner was not guilty because he was not free to do otherwise.

In fact everyone who has reached the age of reason accepts free will in practice, while agreeing that moral choices may be contaminated by other factors which need to be taken into account. Contingent to this is the ability to distinguish between the good action which ought to be followed and the evil action which ought to be avoided. The word ‘ought’ has no moral meaning for the material atheist. Believers of course may well argue that the obligation to behave morally can only be explained by a superior, spiritual, being who created us.

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How odd of God

Now here’s an interesting statistic. Currently the proportion of Christians in the world today is about a third, that is 2.4 billions. So what is going to happen to the other 5 billions, given that the New Testament assures us that baptism into Christ is a sine qua non of salvation? I hesitate to criticise the Almighty which is a dangerous step. But what we see here is a God who created a vast number of human beings with the intention that they should live in blessed eternity with him. But in fact two thirds of them won’t make it: they will live out infinity either in some limbo or in the punishment of hell. Most of them will not have encountered Christianity, let alone had a realistic opportunity to consider it. And of course we need to count in the whole lineage of homo sapiens who have preceded us – over perhaps 200,000 years.

If all that is true we are talking about a very odd God. He seems to have got his sums wrong. I cannot avoid the thought that he must be an unjust God – or that his creation idea was basically a failure.

Fortunately that is not like God at all. The truth is that every human being has been redeemed by Christ – backwards to the first human, forward to the last. And with that gift comes another one: he has left us free to choose. The choice is straightforward: either we choose to love or we choose to reject love. Christ himself explains this (Matthew 25) when he speaks of how the blessed loved the hungry and the sick and those in need. And when they said they had never met him he replied that what they had given to the least person had been given to him. And that test of love applies equally from the most important person in the world to the beggar on the street corner. You and me.

Is Christ’s grace like a kind of whitewash covering up our sinfulness? No, the love we choose is our love and it is Christ’s love. We become truly holy through his love. Paul tells us: “I live, now not I, Christ lives in me.” A mystery indeed, but a wonderful one.

And that love includes loving ourselves. Search for the truth, search for the good. And Christ is there. As he was with Socrates and Aristotle as they began to unravel the nature of the good life. Benedict XVI, before he became pope, described Socrates as a kind of prophet of Christ.

Many of you will be parents, so you know what extremes you went through to help the children to find their way to maturity. And how, if they wobbled on the rails, you would find any excuse to get them back on track. God is the father after whom all fatherhood is named. Do you think he does any less for each of his children?

Posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries, Spirituality | 36 Comments

The virtue of virtue

I, and perhaps many of you, came from a generation which was taught morals mainly as a series of rules – most of which were deduced from Scripture, and developed to cover almost every activity available to human beings. These were divided into two classes: mortal sins – whose potential punishment was Hell for all eternity, and venial sins which were not. This was summed up by a leading Jesuit moral theologian: “(The Church) indoctrinates its children during many years, until resistance to evil becomes an almost second nature… It says to the child: you must be good in the way
I teach you to be good, so that afterwards you may know how to be good.”

We might discuss the values and the dangers of such an approach but, over time, the emphases have moved in the direction of pursuing the virtues rather than focussing on lists of sins. The argument here is that it is better to work at becoming a good person rather than being fixated on avoiding this sin or that.

Ironically the ‘cardinal virtues’, as we call them, come originally from Aristotle. They lead us towards the good, and thus towards God. Not surprisingly they seem to have a slightly musty air about them attributable to their long history. This does not make them irrelevant since human nature has not changed since Aristotle; but the terminology lacks appeal.

So we get as a listing of the cardinal virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance. They are called ‘cardinal’ because they are the “hinges” on which the multiplicity of other possible virtues turn.

But Prudence has a specific meaning – that of practical wisdom in our choices or, as St Augustine put it “..the knowledge of what to seek and what to avoid.”. It does not carry the common overtone of prudence in the sense of being cautious. Justice carries the feel of the courtroom; it is too large a word for our petty experiences. Fortitude is not a word in ordinary usage and does not readily suggest the determination to stick with the right thing despite opposition from within and without – in both large and small matters. And temperance sounds like avoiding hangovers; it has largely lost its original sense of finding the judicious mean between two possible extremes: courage, for instance, is the mean between foolhardiness and timidity.

These old fashioned terms, while understandable in their true context, do not readily convey their intended meaning. Perhaps we need some new names. I propose, merely as a first shot, Practical Wisdom, Fairness, Determination, and Balance. Others will perhaps have better ideas. Of course, even under new names, each virtue needs explanation and extension, but it is important that they set us off at least in the right direction, and are qualities which are recognizable to all as desirable.

Posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries, virtue ethics | 23 Comments

Hawking and the Afterlife

Stephen Hawking’s last book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions has recently been published (John Murray). We are not surprised to hear his “profound realisation” that there was no afterlife or supreme being. It caught my eye because Fr Rolheiser (issue 12 October) was in the same neck of the wood. It would appear that Hawking arrives at his negative conclusion primarily because of the lack of empirical evidence rather than negative argument. In this he reflects” Hume’s Fork” (David Hume 1730s): “If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics for instance; let us ask: Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

This approach, which holds that truth can only be based on empirical evidence or solid logic, has had a long history in the philosophical world; its most recent heyday was much of the 20th century, and known as Logical Positivism. Unfortunately it waned once it was realised that, by its own principles, it could not itself be verified. The biter was bit. It is ironic that Hawking, one of our great minds, was somewhat behind the times. But it remains a challenge for us.

If I say that I believe that God exists what precisely do I mean by “believe”? I am not simply suggesting that on the whole I think that God exists; I am claiming certainty. What is the source of this certainty? If I hold the source to be God, your philosopher friend will fall about laughing since you cannot assume your conclusion as part of your argument. If I change my statement to “I perceive” he continues to laugh. “I know that God exists” suffers the same fate. “I hold that God exists” sounds better, but your friend will show you that in fact you have said nothing at all. It is some consolation that Hawking’s conclusion that God does not exist trips on exactly the same stumbling block. So what precisely do you mean, reader, when you say “I believe in God”?

We might then investigate the traditional proofs of the existence of God. The best known ones (coming from the ancient Greeks) boil down to: everything is caused so there must be a first cause which is not itself caused. That is called God. From this we can infer the divine characteristics. Atheists, I note, poo-poo this approach, but they never explain why. The “ontological proof” (from St Anselm of Canterbury) is based on our capacity to conceive of the perfect being. Since to exist is more perfect that not to exist, God must exist. I find this unconvincing. But, interestingly, Bertrand Russell wrote that it was harder to demolish than it seems at first sight. I have never met anyone who was converted to the existence of God by any of these proofs. I find it more effective to present Pascal’s Wager (17th century). You can, he said, believe or disbelieve in an afterlife. But, if you choose to disbelieve and are right you will never know because you won’t exist. And, if you are wrong, disaster awaits you. So belief is always the better bet.

We return to Fr Rolheiser. He reminds us of the great philosopher René Descartes (17th century). He was determined to find a foundational concept which could not be falsified. It turned out to be “I think, therefore I am.” Fr Rolheiser goes on to describe a modern author who imitated Descartes in the same quest. In this case it turned out to be the universality of suffering and the wrongness involved in its gratuitous promotion. I recognised immediately that, not many months ago, I had gone through the same journey. As a widower I have had plenty of time to think about the nature of love and what it means over a long marriage. So the one thing I knew to be true was the goodness of love. So what? It’s there all over Scripture. But there is a difference between the theory and the realisation of a foundational truth whose existence can have, by its nature, no empirical cause. When we speak of God as having infinite love we have to remember that love is what God is.

And it leads us back to realise that every act of love, whether chosen by the butcher, the baker or the candlestick maker, the atheist or the saint, comes from Christ’s redemption; it is the only source. And now I must give the cats their tea. I’m late. Here I am, writing about love, and neglecting to love my daily companions.

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Global WarNing

“And God saw all the things he had made, and they were very good…And the Lord God took man and put him into the paradise of pleasure, to dress it and to keep it.” These extracts from Genesis (Douai) remind us that attention to global warming is not merely a practical matter but a moral obligation required by God.

We have discussed the issue on this Blog at a time when global warming was almost an open question. We are left with Trump continuing to remain sceptical, taking the USA out of the Paris Agreement and reversing moves to cut greenhouse gas emissions from coal fire power stations. I was convinced of the threat of global warming when a highly qualified physicist friend, some years ago, took me through the detailed projections and the evidence behind these.

You will all have read at least summaries of the latest UN panel report. It is essential to limit the temperature rise to 1.5̊C to avoid massive and damaging changes across the world. To do this would require changes in our diet, and a large drop in the level of CO2. And that means substantial changes in our lifestyle. There will be huge movements of emigrants from hotter countries, and many would die from drought and coastal flooding. And so on and so forth. While we have already addressed potential changes in our lifestyles, most of them are at no more than an infant stage.

So perhaps we could consider what we must be prepared to do in order to fulfil God’s requirement “to dress it and to keep it.” And are our personal choices enough? Should we be in active crusade to persuade others?

Posted in Bio-ethics, Climate Change, Quentin queries | Tagged | 21 Comments

A word for the wise

Some years ago I was leading a marketing project using large newspaper advertisements soliciting eager responses from the readers. I consulted the experts, and I found that there was an established comprehensive set of rules known to achieve the best results. It covered everything from choice of words to pictures to layout. It was emphasised that the product needed a sponsor of credibility whose photograph appeared prominently. While it was preferable, if expensive, to bribe the goodwill of a well-known person it was sufficient that he or she simply appeared trustable.  So how much weight do we put on appearances?

I start with a study which was published last month on the credibility of accents. It seems that we are less likely to believe an individual who has a foreign accent. Presumably we retain our credulity for those who seem to be like us. Johnnie foreigner is at least slightly suspicious. But then a second factor comes into play: if the foreigner speaks firmly and confidently our trust is restored. Interestingly, the two reactions come from different parts of the brain. But both are rooted in evolution: the first is the danger of the unknown, the second is our inbuilt respect for authority.

While our national habit of placing a speaker in his correct social group has relaxed somewhat in later generations, Professor Honey’s Does Accent Matter still has much to teach us. Older readers will recall the U and non-U fuss, popularised by Nancy Mitford in the 1950s. There was a list of vocabularies distinguishing the bourgeois from the upper classes – as in serviette opposed to napkin. A lady whom I knew well, a descendant of a pre-Conquest family, specialised in working class vocabulary, and exchanged vulgar postcards with her charlady. She warned me as a young man not to marry into the Royal Family, on the grounds that they were German upstarts. However, although I rather fancied Princess Elizabeth, the opportunity never occurred.

In another neck of the woods, appearance plays a large part in politics. There have been several studies – perhaps because they are relatively easy to do and are popular with the newspapers. The political element is important.  Think of Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and Jacob Rees Mogg. While we know many facts about each of these to what extent is our judgment made through the lens of their appearances? I cannot remember a single word of Harold Wilson yet I retain a vivid picture of his face and his physical actions. His appearance drove deeper into my psyche than his values.

My trust in the objectivity of legal judgments was shaken by the account of the Israeli judges whose verdicts were influenced by how long it was since they had had a meal break. And the evidence shows that attractive people are more likely to be found not guilty, more successful in legal claims, and likely to be awarded higher damages and to pay lower damages. If you feel immune to such biases, are you ever inclined to judge individual witnesses on the television news or documentary as soon as they appear, and allow that immediate reaction to affect their credibility?

Height plays its part. I grieve because I am not tall. Another six inches and I might have been a managing director rather than a mere executive. Napoleon and others defied this disadvantage. But it has been noted that the senior officers of large companies have a greater average height than the mass. I put down Montgomery’s somewhat trying behaviour to his sense of physical inferiority.

All this, sadly, starts young. Attractive children are judged as more intelligent and if we encounter children in a scrap we tend to blame the least attractive of the two. And, to round off what could be a very long list, I grew a beard in middle life. I was interested to see how the ladies I knew divided between those who moved away and those who came in closer. However my wife commented that it was like committing adultery without all the hassle. I refrained from asking how she knew – and kept the beard.

It is not hard to identify the lessons here. The Latin behind ‘attraction’ translates as ‘to be drawn towards’. So by definition we respond appropriately. And there is some basis for this: as you would expect attractive people have a higher level of success. Good symmetry is a sign of good health and good physical capacity. Much of this is related to evolution: a good guide but not infallible. It can lead to injustices. And it works both ways: some years ago I agreed to fund the training of a nurse in India. Of course I did the proper checks but what really settled my mind was her beautiful handwriting. I have no regrets.

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Down With God

Occasionally on the Internet I find myself reading a discussion on the characteristics of religious people. Since few of the contributors are themselves religious we would not expect them to be flattering. Of course such criticisms do not apply to my own readers so our knickers can remain untwisted. However It does no harm to review such ideas, if only to warn us to give good examples to the secular world.

It is well established that human beings, from an early age, find solace in religious or cultic beliefs. We seem to be programmed with the question ‘what’s it all about?’, and we are likely to find an answer in some kind of supernatural explanation from, say, the simple idea of fate right up to the concept of an infinite God.

This is likely to involve relating to a group who believe the same answer and have built a lifestyle around it. And there is good evidence that such a life tends to be happier and healthier than those without a belief. We might want to claim that this need for the ultimate answer is not an outcome of evolution but in itself constitutes evidence for God’s existence. Bernard Shaw, however, said “The fact that a believer is happier than a sceptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.”

Unsurprisingly the unbeliever thinks that this is just intellectually lazy. We would rather conjure up an answer to life which can neither be proved nor disproved since hard evidence is lacking. Moreover, unlike many ordinary beliefs, we are obliged to bring others into the fold. History tells us that believers not only disapprove of non believers, they are inclined to condemn and punish them. We only have to look at Christianity in its several forms, to say nothing of Islam, to see this in action.

Here are a few quotes to review:
“It is always better to have no ideas than false ones; to believe nothing, than to believe what is wrong.”
Thomas Jefferson (1788)

“The most detestable wickedness, the most horrid cruelties, and the greatest miseries, that have afflicted the human race have had their origin in this thing called revelation, or revealed religion.”
Thomas Paine (1795)

“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”
Friedrich Nietzsche (1882)

“Scepticism is the highest of duties; blind faith the one unpardonable sin.”
Thomas Huxley (1907)

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
Richard Dawkins (2006)

Posted in Advocatus Diaboli, Church and Society, Philosophy | 12 Comments