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Robert points out that the FF of the US were not establishing the observation of individual rights in the Constitution because they wanted to enable the study of atoms or chemistry, but because they valued things like freedom of speech, conscience and the press in themselves.

He’s perfectly right, but beside the point.  There are a lot of things in this world worth being valued in themselves–I’ve been arguing that some of those things are what we call the Humanities, and the study of all the Liberal Arts (including chemistry and physics) is predicated on the assumption that these are things worth knowing for the sake of knowing, valuable in themselves, without reference to their practical effects.

But to value something in itself is not the same thing as saying that it has no effects.  When governments observe individual rights, that has effects  on the societies those governments govern.  When they don’t so observe them, that has effects, too. 

And the effects appear to be generally predictable.  Modern natural rights theory–this is the 20th century version I’m talking about here–says that that society which most widely observe the individual rights of the largest percentage of its population will be the most successful relative to the other societies existing at that time.

As far as I’m able to tell, this works historically without a hitch.  You will note, by the way, that the society does not have to observe the individual rights of women and well as men, or not to own slaves at all–although no scientific civilization seems ever to have existed in a society where slavery was widely practiced and common–only that it should be relatively better than the other societies on offer.

What’s more, a scientific civilization requires much more than that one or two people “do science” or invent a few things.  The first scientific civilization ever to have arisen on this earth occurred in Western Europe between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  

And it hasn’t been that easy to transport.  It came to North America without a problem, but the two countries which absorbed it well–Canada and the US–were the cultural offshoots of those same Western European countries where scientific civilization had arisen to begin with.

The Middle East,  Africa and the Indian subcontinent show very spotty results.  The  Middle East and  Africa haven’t managed to do it at all.  India (including what is now  Pakistan) managed, after four hundred years of British rule and a conscious attempt by many of its British-educated Independence leaders, to sort of get started on its way in that direction, but it’s not entirely there yet, either.

Asia presents what is possibly the best case scneario for societies that either do not observe individual rights or greatly restrict that observance:  they pick up the research and innovation done in freer societies and translate it into practical technology of their own, but what “scientific civilization” they manage to maintain is mostly an act of mimicry.

What’s more, when these societies throw up an individual with natural talent in the sciences, those individuals tend to…emigrate to places like here, or England.  America receives the lion’s share of Nobel prizes in the sciences, but many of them go to men and women who didn’t start out as Americans. 

So no, developing a scientific civilization does not require a society to be perfect.  Its relative success will be determined by its relative closeness to the ideal, and there is obviously some point in the continuum between no observation at all and ideal and optimum observation where the scales tip in favor of the development of such a civilization.

But here’s the thing–if those effects are largely predictable, then we’re dealing here with something that is not just human wish and invention. 

And if human nature is fixed, then its operations can be described objectively, even if we don’t yet know how to go about doing that. Scientists described the behavior and effects of electrons before anything existed capable of observing those electrons.

As to God and morality–it’s certainly not the case that the Church had to right about both the ability to prove the existence of God and the ability to discover the moral law, any more than chemistry becomes just opinion and invention because the alchmists couldn’t make gold from lead.   Some lines of inquiry are unproductive or even mistaken without the entire enterprise being condemned to impossiblity.

The proofs of God offered by the Medieval theologians–Aquinas especially, but also Anselm and others–are very sophisticated, and my problem with them is not that they are in themselves inconclusive, but that they do not address any of the things that make me unconvinced by that particlar hypothesis.

My guess is that nobody has ever addressed those things, because when  I ask those questions, I get the inevitable, “who are you to think you can understand the motivations of a being who is immortal and almighty?”

Which is just another way of saying, “shut up and don’t ask questions.”

But the issue with morality comes down to this.

Either human nature is fixed, and it is possible to discover that nature and how it operates–which would be an objective basis for morality.

Or human nature is not fixed, but infinitely malleable, and Plato and  Rousseau were not only absolutely right, but more right than  Edmund Buke or John Locke or Thomas Jefferson.  and we can indeed change men and women so that we have no more war, violence, jealousy or hunger–and, on top of that, we should do it, because the benefits would be far greater in the long run than the pain we would cause in the getting there.

But, as I’ve said before, it seems to me that we have ample evidence by now that human nature is largely fixed and not infinitely malleable, and if that’s the case, it must be possible to describe it and to trace the ways in which it responds to different kinds of stimuli–and that’s all you need for an objective basis for morality. 

As for how much philosophers disagree on what is and isn’t moral–well, two things.

First, philosophers largely disagreed about the make up of the material world–we had four elements, and atoms, and a lot of other things–but that didn’t mean that there was no objective reality to be discovered.  It only meant that we were going about the attempt at discovery in wrong an inadequate ways.

And second, I think philosophers actually disagree on less than you think when they talk about morality.  

But maybe that’s a discusion for another day.

Written by janeh

June 27th, 2009 at 7:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Objectives'

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  1. I rather like the ‘Can you understand a being who is immortal and almighty’, but I never took it to mean “shut up and don’t ask questions.” I think it means more like “there are things you can’t understand” or (to veer back into religious language again) to make a claim for mystery.

    Of course, this applies to science too. I doubt it’s even possible for humans (that is, humans as a group or species) to understand even the physical world. There’s just too much of it. Individual humans, like me, are incapable of understanding the nature of the atom in any really meaningful way (in my case, partly because I don’t understand the ‘language’ – the mathematics – of much science) and even the top physicist or chemist in the world would probably admit that his (or her) understanding of the atom is incomplete, and that his (or her) knowledge of, say, brain biochemistry in humans or the development of our planet and how it came into existence is somewhat lacking.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean to imply that either the lay person or the saint or the top scientist is or should stop trying to understand the mysteries of life and the universe. All I’m doing is expressing a certain skepticism of the possibility of success in pursuits of both types of knowledge, religious and scientific.

    I admit I only dabble in philosophy, but it seems to me that philosophers do disagree on morality – most obviously, those utilitarians who define away the humanity of the old or sick or immature so that those people can be eliminated for the greater good of the greater number.


    27 Jun 09 at 10:26 am

  2. Hmmm. Color me unconvinced. I’d have to see a really rigorous definition of “successful” for a start, and rights could be trickier still. The normal response is for one or the other–or both–to get a little slippery over the length of the book, or to use “in the long run” which is defined as “exactly the period in which my favored society comes out ahead, and let’s not look fifty years before or 25 years later.”

    Off hand, a lot of Spartans, Thebans and Macedonians–and a few Athenians–would not have rated classical Athens as notably successful, and it’s not clear that republican or early imperial Rome had a better “human rights record” than the Hellenistic, Punic and Celtic societies they flattened–or a worse one than 1st Century Germany which stopped Rome’s advance. Time and chance happen to all things–not to mention climate and logistics.

    But once you tie human rights to a society’s relative success you underrate yourself, I hope. Even if a squad of experts of the sort we’re expected to defer to on matters of literature told you that such actions would bring about a more successful society, you still wouldn’t strap a three year old child to a board so she might be properly guillotined, nor load a bunch of troublemakers onto a ship and scuttle it. So even though observance of human rights or some other form of morality MAY bring about a more successful society, that’s not why you–or I–observe those rights or practice that morality. That makes relative societal success irrelevant.

    And yes, Augustine and the other church fathers could well be right about one thing and wrong about another. Most of us are. But in the absence of conclusive evidence I weigh opinions based on the track record. You effectively cite Augustine on two things, and say he’s wrong about the other, so his authority is insufficient, though his reasoning may still be sound. So far, we’ve discussed his authority rather than his reasoning–and without buying a copy of CIVITAS DEI, I doubt very much whether he bases his morality on the worldly success of the society

    Lastly, a roughly fixed human nature only tells us that certain policies are tricky to implement or counterproductive. that’s not the same as “an objective basis for morality,” any more than knowing stopping distances tells you whether to run a light or cut off another driver.

    Most societies not run by notorious philosophers or their disciples assume a fixed human nature, but this did not lead Tokugawa Japan and early Colonial New England to adopt the same morality or the same “human rights” policies–because knowing that people are inclined to do certain things and not to do others does not tell you what they OUGHT to do.


    27 Jun 09 at 8:30 pm

  3. My guess is that nobody has ever addressed those things, because when I ask those questions, I get the inevitable, “who are you to think you can understand the motivations of a being who is immortal and almighty?”

    It is, however, a valid question. I do not expect ants to understand why I committ fenocide by poisoning their nest to keep them out of my kitchen. There is no reason why I should expect to understand the thoughts and motives of a being at least 14 billion years old with the power to create universes.

    The scientific explanation of the “big bang” is kust as mysterious. It requires that we imagine a hugh amouunt of energy came into existence and that the subsequent evolution was governed by the laws of Quantum Mechanics and General relativity. It provides no explanation of where those laws came from.


    27 Jun 09 at 11:05 pm

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