On Moral Realism, or: The Common Descent of Ethics

Oh my it has been almost two months since I wrote here. No more apologies because you’ve read all of those before. Instead, I welcome you to the third and final installment of a series that responds to an obnoxious April Fool’s tweet. To wit!

Hey guys, there’s an afterlife in which the vast complexity of existence is simplified into good & bad behavior. JK JK JK APRIL FOOLS LOLOLZ

The first two parts can be found here, wherein I address the idea of an afterlife, and here, wherein we talk about the complexity of existence and simplification. In this last part, we talk about good and bad behavior. You’ll notice here that I haven’t taken the time to even see if the Twitter user’s assumptions about the afterlife are even accurate to the Christian worldview in which I operate*, but rather if one can merely dismiss such a position offhand to laugh out loud(z). What you are about to read is almost perfectly copy and pasted from a comment I made over at the Patheos blog Unequally Yoked, formerly the home of a “geeky atheist pick[ing] fights with her Catholic boyfriend,” and henceforth the home of “a geeky convert pick[ing] fights in good faith.”

I recommend adding this to your blog roll, and reading all the old posts and some comments. It is a fascinating journey from an unsure atheist to an unsure crypto-theist to an unsure Catholic. Some days, I feel like I am writing her blog in reverse – as a geeky Lutheran answering the questions of his atheist girlfriend. I think it would be easier to recognize what most people do not: fideism is heresy, and of necessity we are called to wrestle with God, as inheritors of his covenant with Israel (Israel means “struggles with God”), which means working through the hard stuff “with all your mind” (Luke 10:27, emphasis mine). So hey, let’s put the brain to use and talk about good and bad behavior!

*For the record, they are not. But people tend to laugh at what they do not understand; it’s a lot easier to ridicule than to do the research.

First, consider that it is the dead of winter in the Arctic; all is darkness and all is cold. I am significantly removed from any electrical grid, and have no fuel for my exterior generator. I would very much like to read a book and I would very much like to keep warm as well. In this state of cold and darkness, desiring to keep warm and read, by some happenstance my house begins to burn with fire. Sitting in the living room, I am quite warm, and I am able to read my book by the firelight. An Inuit tribesman passes by.

Should the Native come to my aid, pull me from a burning building, such that I do not perish in the flames? Or should he instead, upon speaking briefly to me (I speak fluent Inuit), go on his way, and let me burn because I have entirely what I wish – the warmth and light by which to read provided by the fire?

It is my position that the tribesman should pull me from the flames even against my protestations. He should tell me that it is for my own good, even if I do not readily understand it. He is causing me great personal distress, and as I try to hold onto the doorframe, my hand is burned. I am harmed of my own actions, and it is only by the Inuit telling me clearly “You are in a burning building, get out now!” that I might be saved.

Just so, the Westboro Baptists (despicable creatures) are making in their estimation declarative statements of truth regarding the moral character of America and attendant divine judgment. If Pastor Phelps and his inbred flock are right, and someone answers their call and chooses to live a life of chastity, then it is through Pastor Phelps’ behavior that they are saved when they acquiesce to the choice, even as the hate-mongering caused them great personal distress.

A second thought experiment:

Say a man is found dead in his bedroom. There is no evidence of a struggle, he has no discernible external injuries such as ligature marks around the neck suggesting strangulation, blunt force trauma to the head or a gun shot or stab wound. However, he is only twenty-eight years old, and he has no history of health issues, nor any family history that show him to be at risk for sudden death such as respiratory or circulatory issues. He may have died of a stroke or heart attack or a severe asthma attack, but we really do not know at first glance. So he is subjected to autopsy, being such a curious death.

In her report, the county examiner determines that our poor fellow died of a bust aneurysm in the brain, which had gone undetected as the man never had cause for an MRI in his life, being the picture of good health throughout his life. She notes that even if the aneurysm had been detected, there is no medical treatment for it in the first place, and its rupture could not have been predicted. His death goes down as a natural cause, and that is that.

What the examiner did not know was that there was another person who knew of the man’s aneurysm from an off-the-record MRI, and that person had laid their formidable intellectual skills to set about killing him. Knowing the whereabouts of his aneurysm, and understanding that neural function could be influenced by strong magnetic fields, our renegade radiologist set hands on a rare earth magnet and devised a contraption that would so heavily work on the iron present in the blood to put pressure on vessel walls, causing the aneurysm to rupture. Having tested his device on various animals, the mild-mannered sociopath came to the man’s home, held the device to his head, causing the aneurysm to burst, and that was that.

Now, did the county examiner reach the correct conclusion of natural causes, or was the man murdered? Certainly given all the evidence available to the medical examiner, we would logically conclude that it was natural causes. Having the whole story as we do of the sociopathic radiologist, we know, of course, that the medical examiner was wrong. What this simple thought experiment tells us that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.

Put the two together and you are left with the unfortunate fact that though you do not see evidence of empathy and compassion in others’ actions, they very well could be compassionate, and “harm” as such is not a fit standard for judging the morality of a given behavior. If you wish to be left in the burning building, and I wish to be dragged out of it, am I to treat you as I want to be treated, or are you to treat me as you want to be treated?

Now I am willing to acknowledge for the sake of discussion that either may be the right choice, but when you lay charges of assault upon me for dragging you from the house, and I say I was merely following your ethical code – treat others as you want to be treated – then we have a problem of standards. I was following your moral code to the letter. Unfortunately that meant respecting my own desire (to be saved) rather than yours (to be burned). Do you not see where this line of moral reasoning utterly breaks down.

The virtue ethicist says that there is a real thing called virtue, abstracted thought it may be by social constructs, theory and legal interpretation, but our ultimate goal should be to in all situations conform as perfectly as possible to its framework, and these constructs, theories and legal interpretations – our understanding of virtue – we call ethics. If I am suicidal, and I wish to treat others as I want to be treated, I would become a murderer. I wish to be dead, so I make other people dead. (This is why G.K. Chesterton compared suicide to genocide, for by the act of your own death, it is not the destruction of yourself you are inflicting upon society, but the elimination of society from yourself. All is dead when you are dead.) But is murder wrong? And why is murder wrong?

I am to a certain extent okay with the idea of “relative” morality – that is, the thing we call virtue might be applied differently in different situations, meaning the individual moral is relative to its circumstance. (Leah of the aforementioned Unequally Yoked had a great post on this back in April.) But the idea that virtue might be changed from person to person is completely untenable. It’s not even pragmatic in the sense that it works for you. That it works for you is a failure to acknowledge that you exist as more than yourself, for you function in a broader society, with longer goals and other persons, so for ethics to work, they must apply to all. Virtue must be universal, or behavior can never be judged – which is in itself a judgment of judging behavior.

Put another way, if I awake in the morning and can have either eggs or cereal for breakfast, the moment I eat a bowl of cereal, I have chosen to not eat the eggs. When I speak against judgment, I am judging judgment itself – that is, I am taking part in judgment. The mere act of making an affirmative choice is also the act of making a negative choice. The elevation of one thing is the rejection of another.

Unless you are a brain in a vat, in which case we do not exist, only you exist, and you don’t even exist in the way you perceive yourself to exist. It’s not dependent on God, or external philosophy, but it is very much a standard. The problem is like all standards, be it a simple flagpole or the Washington monument, it rests on a foundation, rooted into the firmament in some way. The foundation of ethical relativism is rotten to the core, and the standard cannot, well, stand.

I want others to treat me to the fullest extent of divine good of which they are capable. That means, honestly, sometimes I’m not going to like it. Sometimes it is going to cause me harm. But by golly, it is going to be good. Is there good and bad behavior? If you tell me that there is not good and bad behavior, you are ipso facto describing my belief in good and bad behavior as bad behavior; it is behavior predicated on a falsehood. It is wrong. Congratulations, you have just confirmed that right, wrong, good and bad exist for you. How ‘bout you own up to it and start acting like it?


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