Posts Tagged ‘Absolute Truth’

Reading most everything readily available by C. S. Lewis has made drastic changes to my outlook and thinking. While I find Lewis challenging, I also find his ideas compelling and persuasive. As an aside, I think it is worth mentioning that while Lewis was certainly a Christian, the Christianity that he articulated and believed was extremely unorthodox. If Evangelicals and Mormons took the time to actually read Lewis and consider his viewpoint, their love affair with his work would come to a tragic and untimely end. Instead, they generally read Lewis through dogmatic blinders, recruiting him as an apologist for their cause even though what he really said was completely heretical by Mormon and Evangelical standards.

But that’s just my soapbox and it does not bear directly on the issue at hand.

Before I proceed, I want to at least try to define the terms I will be using so as to alleviate confusion. I’m going to talk about a dichotomy between two term clusters that represent ideas about truth and value. On the one hand, I am talking about “soft” subjective values, values that are relative to the individual and are thus immanent—necessarily tied to person and context and most importantly to an individual human mind—as opposed to transcendent. This “soft” approach to truth and value will be contrasted with the “hard” approach of the objective, absolute, and transcendent. By “objective” I mean that these truths or values or moral principles exist independent of individual perspective. Context is significant without question: by “absolute” I do not mean that these principles ought to be applied the same way to every circumstance, but that as principles they exist as absolutes and are not subject to revision based on preference or perspective. These truths, etc., are thus transcendent in that if they exist at all they must exist apart from and beyond human minds and human experience, and they remain the same although human understanding of them may change. Thus, if they exist, they exist by virtue of something other than human thought and experience.

C. S. Lewis eloquently articulates the difference between these thought concepts and their ramifications in his book The Abolition of Man. One of Lewis’s most cogent points in the book (which is short, and well worth reading) is a model of moral reasoning which I call the “Is-Ought-Should” model. In this model, moral imperatives can be expressed as a statement of fact (“is”), a statement of principle (“ought”), and a conclusion in the form of a direction to act (“should”). For example, let’s say I see someone experiencing extreme suffering—that’s the “is”—and I take as a moral principle that suffering ought to be alleviated—that’s the “ought”—then I should help the suffering person. The Should follows from the Is and Ought, and thus when you weaken Ought, you likewise weaken should. Furthermore, Ought principles do not simply exist as observable phenomena the way Is statements do. They have to have some source. Therefore, the less authoritative the source of the Ought principle, the less compelling the principle itself, ad thus the less force stands behind the moral directive. This is the most important point: if the source of the Ought statement has no practical claim on me, then ultimately I have no compelling reason to follow a moral directive. Furthermore, this is a mater of degree: the weaker the source of the Ought, the weaker my reason to act morally. The stronger the source of the Ought, the stronger my reason to act morally. An Ought with no source is not an Ought at all: it’s a bare assertion backed by nothing.

Ought statements can have a number of sources, ranging from completely subjective—personal preference is the very weakest, most subjective possible source, excepting perhaps the even more subjective momentary whim—to the category of completely objective sources, i.e. sources that exist independent of human experience, whether we are talking about principles that flow from God as the source of the universe, or principles that are simply coded into reality the way laws of physics—or spiritual laws like karma if such a thing exists—are. Lewis himself does not assert a source for objective moral law in The Abolition of Man, but rather he attempts to show by inference that such laws do exist objectively because of their universal acceptance, and thus Lewis implies that objective moral law exists, and therefore necessarily has an objective transcendent source.

In any case, the conclusion remains that the weaker and more subjective the source of the Ought, the less compelling the Should, and the less claim that morality has on the individual. Alternately, without addressing the issue of source, the more subjective the Ought, the weaker the Should.

The problem with people who reject objective, transcendent moral values, says Lewis, is that all too often they want to hold on to moral statements and moral assertions. The result is that they go from Is to Should without passing through Ought. They want to say that you should help the suffering person without articulating a reason why suffering ought to be alleviated, or at least without articulating a compelling source for the Ought. In other words, they want to tell you to act according to a moral standard without giving you any kind of compelling reason, and then they invariably act all surprised and concerned when you don’t.

Why does any of this matter? Essentially, it is an issue of moral reasoning and moral judgment. If Should is undermined by a weak or nonexistent Ought, then we lose the ability to make moral judgments at all—we can’t criticize ourselves or others for acting immorally when we can’t articulate in a compelling sense why our/their actions are immoral. Likewise we lose the ability to speak of morality in prescriptive terms: we can hardly propose a virtuous course of action for ourselves or others if we can’t give a compelling reason why.

This is a problem with all ethical systems that do not involve an absolute, transcendent source for morality: they fail to give a compelling reason to the most basic human question: “Why?” Most non-absolute ethical systems, like Kant’s categorical imperative taken on its face, are really only descriptive of ethics. Kant can say that we should act only on that maxim which we can, at the same time, will to be a universal law, but without appealing to a transcendent source for that principle, he can’t tell us why we should bother. If that is indeed a description of morality, it is a description only. It may explain how a moral or ethical person acts, but it does not give a good reason why any given person should act that way.

Utilitarianism—the idea that at any given juncture we should take the action that provides the most good to the most people—encounters the same problem. Setting aside the massive problems with determining what course of action actually achieves that good, especially when it leaves the realm of the individual and is applied to public policy situations, and even setting aside fundamental problems with “what is good,” Utilitarianism still reaches a dead end when it comes to the question of why. It tells us how we should act, or it tells us how a moral or ethical person does act, but it does not give us a reason to act that way.

Pragmatism is no different. In fact, I might argue that pragmatism really just means utilitarianism or naked self-interest, which means pragmatism is a troublesome guide in that it can be difficult to identify what course of action is indeed the most pragmatic, especially in complex situations. Even if pragmatism is functional, it still fails to adequately answer the question of why. ‘Because it works” is a kind of answer, but it is not a satisfactory answer. It doesn’t really give a basis for making confident moral judgments, and since it is essentially sourceless, it fails to give truly compelling reasons for any given course of action.

If sourceless morality is all we have, then we may as well admit it, and stop pretending that our moral judgments are weightier than they are. If morality really does have an objective source, then we should be earnestly trying to figure out what it is.

Next: The Problem With Pluralism

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I’m taking a class on Jurisprudence this semester in law school, and it is unquestionably the most interesting class I have.  Jurisprudence is the philosophy of law, and the class is taught by a professor from the philosophy department at the main campus, as opposed to a law professor.  All things considered, this is a good thing.  I have generally found the academic study of law to be tedious, although I am interested in actually practicing law.  But this is really a philosophy class, so it’s fun.

An issue that keeps coming up–a core issue in jurisprudence, really, almost a given–is the existence of morality.  This isn’t an ethics class, so we don;t really spend a lot of time talking about what morality is, where it comes from, etcetera, but whenever we talk about morality, those kinds of questions become preeminent in my mind.

Actually, this isn’t just about my Jurisprudence class.  I think about the existence of morality all the time, and for me, it has become my core theological problem.  I spend a lot of time grappling with what I think is the very real possibility that nothing means anything, that morality is a purely human invention, that there’s nothing behind it but arbitrary preference.  That morality does not exist as anything other than a social construct, and thus has no implications for anything other than society (and, well, psychology to the extent that psychology is informed by sociology).  Simply put, if values and morals are culturally relative, then they do not really exist at all.  Thus, the gaping abyss.  I do not buy Utilitarianism.  I do not buy Kant’s categorical imperative (because why should I act only on that maxim which I can at the same time will to be a universal law? ).  They are toothless.  They are inventions.  They have no real weight.  We have to assume them in argument, because they don’t hold in virtue of themselves.

What I am getting at is this: if there is not actually a universal ultimate morality that exists outside of human beings and the human mind, then there is no real morality at all.  If morality or values are not absolute, then morality and values cannot exist.  Any argument to the contrary is, in my frank opinion, complete bullshit.  Morals and values invented by human beings are utterly arbitrary.  Even if they are practical, there is still no pressing reason for any individual to follow them.

So there I am, staring into the gaping abyss, wondering what is going to save me from complete nihilism.  And I’ve got nothing.

C. S. Lewis’s inference of ultimate morality from general human consensus and a universal existence of “ought” is not unreasonable, but it does not convince me.  I think you can rationally infer that since most people think that, say, torture is wrong, then it’s likely that there may actually be an absolute moral principle behind it.  But it’s not a slam-dunk.  Consensus may be compelling, but the consensus can still be wrong.

So there are either absolute values, or there is nothing but the abyss.  I would prefer absolute values, but where are they?  Where do they come from?  And if they aren’t really there… then it’s the abyss, and the abyss is terrifying.  It is total nihilism.  It is nothing at all, but it swallows up everything else.  There is no meaning, there is no truth, there is nothing.  There is nothing, and it is absolutely terrifying.

The easy answer would be “God,” and if I had an easier time believing in God, I would just say that.  but I don’t; I have a hard time believing in God.  My confidence that God exists is actually less than my confidence that Lewis’s argument from consensus is correct.  If I was sure of God, then I could easily see God as the creator of the universe and thus the source of everything–including truth, value, and morality.

Maybe this is really why I can’t leave religion alone, why I can’t just not worry about it.  I have to worry about it, because this abyss is looming open in front of me.

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In thinking about faith systems like Druidry, Asatru, and (Neo)paganism in general, the issue of Reconstructionism comes up.  It seems to me that there is a kind of dogmatic rift among Neopagans between the Reconstructionists and the whatever-you-call-the-others.  In Druidry the term is usually Revivalists, but that has a specific meaning to Druidry that doesn’t necessarily correspond to other branches of Neopaganism.  For the sake of discussion, I am going to call them Contemporists.

Reconstructionism as I understand it means a good faith attempt to actually reconstruct an ancient religious belief system.  In practice it probably isn’t completely possible (since most ancient peoples didn’t leave detailed written records of their theological bliefs and a how-to-manual for their rites and practices).  Therefore, Reconstructionists are generally willing to “fill in the blanks” with contemporary or invented practices or ideas, with the understanding that such a practice or belief is a provisional place-holder and is subject to change as more historical information is uncovered.  Reconstructionist religion tends to go hand-in-hand with a keen interest in history.  Good examples of reconstructionist Neopagan faith systems are Asatru and Ár nDraíocht Féin Druidry.

On the other hand, Contemporist faith systems (like Wicca or Revival Druidry) are those that are inspired by ancient belief, myth, and practice, but that have (relatively) contemporary origins.  Their practices and beliefs seem more likely to be syncretic, and Contemporists seem generally open to innovation in both theology and practice.

Reconstructionists often accuse Contemporists of having a “made-up religion.”  As a teenager, my Neopagan interests were strictly reconstructionist, and I looked with serious disdain on belief systems like Wicca.  The irony of course was that I was raised Mormon, which by any measure other than that of the hardcore true believer is a contemporary “made up” religion as well.  Nevertheless, I was raised to believe that Mormonism was an ancient faith that had een restored, and my preconceived notions about absolute truth precluded me from accepting religious innovation as valid in any way.

Now, I see things differently.  In fact, these days I have no interest in reconstructionism whatsoever.  I understand that it floats some peoples’ boats, but not mine.  Here’s why:

1) I don’t believe that full reconstruction is really possible, and that some things are simply lost to the mists of time.  Thus, a reconstructionist, no matter how zealous, will always be complementing his “authentic” practices with contemporary innovations or borrowed material.  So for practical purposes, only his attitude makes him different from the Contemporist.

2) That attitude means the reconstructionist must be willing to abandon what may be useful and meaningful spiritual practices and belifs when they are later discovered to not be in conformity with ancient religion.  To me this seems a pointless waste: if something works, don’t stop doing it.  A spiritual practice’s validity has nothing to do with age, but with whether or not it works.  Every religion was “made up” at one point or another, and the fact that it was made up a long time ago or its author is anonymous doesn’t make it osmehow more real or more valid.  Granted, if a spiritual practice has been in continuous use for a long period of time, you can infer a high degree of validity because it has stood the test of time.  However, an old practice/belief that is not longer held or is long abandoned may no longer be useful–that may be why it was abandoned in the first place.  Either it was no longer useful, or it was supplanted by something else more useful.

3) I’m not an ancient person.  I don’t live in the Bronze Age.  My life isn’t the same, my concerns may not be the same, and the world I live in may be very different from that of ancient people.  What they practiced and believed may have been relevant to them, but that doesn’t mean it is relevant to all people in all situations, and that means it may very well not be relevant to me.  Although I have no problem with drawing on ancient sources for beliefs and practices, I see no reason at all to assume that the ancient practices will always be better for me than a more contemporary alternative, especially when the study of history means that that ancient practice would itself be provisional, subject to change, revision, and even dismissal as our historical picture is fine-tuned.

4) I personally see no real need to believe in a Reconstructionist religion if I don’t believe that said religion was absolutely, objectively true.  And I don’t believe that any existing religion is absolutely, objectively true, or that it’s even possible for human beings to ever be compeltely sure of what absolute, objective truth is.  I will grant that it probably exists, but it seems to me that the nature of epistemology means that asically everything must be subject to doubt.

5) I feel no personal pull to practice or believe in a Reconstructionist religion.  I haven’t had a mystical experience with ancient deities where they commanded me to take back up the old ways (and as I don’t really believe in literal personal gods anyway, I don’t really think that such a demand on the part of the gods is likely).  I am not a historian who specializes in one particular ancient people to such a degree that it fills my life.  Honestly, if I practiced a reconstructionist religion, I think I’d always feel like I was LARPing.

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