Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

God on a Sunday

with 3 comments

Well, first, let me say that if I said Augustine, and not  Aquinas, I’m sorry–Aquinas is the great saint of rational proofs of both the existence of God and the discovery of the natural law.

That said, I wasn’t quoting him as an authority–or saying that one should assume that these things are possible on his say so–but to illustrate the fact that the project of investigating the world, and knowing it, “by reason alone,” did not require anybody to be nonreligious, nor did it leave out Christian thinkers.  It was, in fact, a Christian position for over a millennium, and it’s Roman Catholic doctrine to this day.

No, I don’t think we need to take it on the authority of Thomas Aquinas or the Catholic  Magisterium that we can and should investigate our world–including the existence God, the existence of the Big Bang and the particulars of the natural law–by reason alone, meaning without resort to supernatural explanations.  I don’t think we need to assume that this is possible on authority, either.

I think it is possible for us to discover the basics of morality, at least, by reason alone, because that’s the only conclusion that fits with what looks to me to be a fact-that human nature is fixed, and not infiinitely immutable.  

If that’s true, then it’s almost by definition the case that I can investigate that nature, determine its parameters, and devise formula for if-then situations (IF this is the case, THEN people will react more or less particularly).

Note that I’m not trying to be reductionist here.  Human nature may be fixed, but it’s obvious from experience that it’s fixed in a range of responses, not in singular reductionist ones.  But even making allowance for that, I can discover its particulars and the way it operates.

As for “you can’t get from an is to an ought,” yes, you can.  We do it all the time.  We know that if we do  X the bridge will carry the weight of a ten ton truck, and if we do Y it won’t, so we look at the road, figure out of ten ton trucks are coming, and when we know they are we say “we ought to do X.”

In the same way, we can understand how human beings will react to a whole raft of things–rules, disciplines, the behavior of fellow human beings or governments–and we can figure out from that what most human beings will prefer (virtually automatically) given the choice.

Because that’s part of human nature, too–an innate tendency to make certain innate choices.

And it’s true enough that individual human beings are capable of–and will–make other choices, and that that presents an interesting set of problems on its own, but it’s like that Kenny Chensey song.  I believe I speak for the crowd–

As for the differences in morality between philosophers, like I said,  I think there’s a lot less than you’d think.  With very few exceptions, what differs between moral codes is not a matter of the general rules for how we treat human beings, but the definition of a “human being.” 

As far as  I know, Christianity provided the only set of cultural definitions that insisted that anything both living and biologically human was a human being, with the full moral status of a human being.  Treat not the man before you but the image of Christ in that man, the old  Franciscan dictum went–and if they could actually have gotten people to do it, it would be a very different world.

The Greeks were good, but they were not that good.  At least some of the Greek city states considered the newborn to be less than human, and therefore killable by its parents for any reason whatsoever (although the actual practice was often much kinder.  Oedipus was not alone in his adoption).

But I do think I can make the case that Greece was the most successful culture of its time.  For all its faults and frailities, it was, even during its existence, the benchmark of civilization for much of the known world.  It discovered phlosophy, democracy, even the beginnings of science.  Even when the  Greeks were conquered physically, they took over large swathes of the Roman civilization that conquered them.

And it’s with us still.

But let me give you a link here for a minute. 


That goes to Plato’s Euthyphro, at the  MIT  classics archive.  I’ve been thinking about it for weeks now, and then somebody sent me an e-mail saying that the son of a friend of mine was reading it. 

If you’ve never read a Socratic dialogue before, the form may be a little difficult to get used to.  And a lot of modern readers find Socrates’s personality and methods rather annoying.

But here it is, the first known investigation of the pertinent question here–is something morally good because God says it is, or does God say it is because it is already, intrinsically morally good?

Socrates took one side and the Taliban took the other, and the results are interesting.

But we’ll get to that tomorrow.

Written by janeh

June 28th, 2009 at 7:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'God on a Sunday'

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  1. Varying definitions of what it means to be human is a BIG difference between philosophers! The consequences of a philosopher’s moral code on how to treat humans depend on just who the philosopher is including in that definition. It’s not very beneficial to all humans or society as a whole to have a really high moral code if there are great swathes of people it doesn’t apply to. I suppose you could get as good a society as possible under the circumstances of allowing infanticide, or being economically dependant on slavery or eliminating women from public life. I don’t find that particularly encouraging. It’s hard enough to practice a morality that *does* include all humans as, well, human, without encouraging our innate tendency to think that some of them aren’t.

    That reminds me of the winning entry for the Canadian equivalent to ‘as American as appple pie’ – as Canadian as possible under the circumstances.
    I don’t think that a philosopher who is being as moral as possible under the circumstance isn’t much different from one who thinks that whatever the circumstances, you shouldn’t kill infants or burn healthy widows alive.


    28 Jun 09 at 8:05 am

  2. There is to this day in Japan a large statue–or bell? It’s been a while–constructed of the confiscated weapons of the peasantry during the shogunate of Tokugawa himself. There is an accompanying decree by the Shogun noting that an armed peasantry seriously impeded the collection of taxes.

    I don’t think any of the American founding fathers would have dissented from Tokugawa’s observation. They felt it called for the Second Amendment.

    Does a 10-ton bridge capacity and a 15-ton truck call for a reinforced bridge, a lighter truck, foot traffic or an absence of commerce? “Is” just won’t become “should,” however convenient that might be.

    I hadn’t considered switching from the political unit to the cultural one to hedge the “relative success” criteria–but it’s worth noting that many Greeks of the time would not have regarded the spread of democracy or philosophy as a measure of success. Of course, if I define success by that standard, the society with free speech and a good paper trail will always “win.”

    As for philosophy, I’m not even convinced of a general agreement on how to treat human beings. To judge by public and academic politics the university-employed ones seem to have very little regard, as a body, for what Jefferson, Locke or I would regard as human rights, but much for the sort of euro-“right” you refered to a few posts back. Nor do I for one consider my status as a human being or otherwise as a relatively small matter on the fringes of philosophy.


    28 Jun 09 at 12:08 pm

  3. Jane, I would say that human nature is a mixture of traits, each of which has its own distribution curve. Human nature is not infinitely mallable but a wide range of social arrangements are compatible with it. I really doubt that you can get a moral code out of it.

    For example, humans are social animals. We have to limit violence so we have a rule such as “Thou shalt not kill”. But we still have arguments about abortion and capital punishment. And a rule resticting killing in one’s own community still allows killing of strangers.


    28 Jun 09 at 11:07 pm

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