Sunday, March 17, 2013

Divine Commands and Human Dignity

William of Ockham seems to have embraced a rather striking variety of divine command morality.  He wrote, 

The hatred of God, theft, adultery, and actions similar to these actions according to the common  law, may have an evil quality annexed, insofar as they are done by someone who is obligated by a divine command to perform the opposite act. But as far as the sheer being in these actions is concerned, they can be performed by God without any evil condition annexed; and they can even be performed meritoriously by an earthly pilgrim if they should come under a divine precept, just as now the opposite of these in fact fall under a divine command. 

The language is instructive.  Adultery, for example, has an evil quality “annexed”—added on—only insofar as there is an actual divine prohibition against it. But so far as the “sheer being” of the acts are concerned, adultery and fidelity, theft and honesty, hatred and love are all moral—or, more accurately, amoral—equivalents, with equal potential for being the Father’s business. The view, then, is that moral properties are not inherent and essential to acts. Rather, they are relational and contingent. Determining the moral properties of an act is, for God, a little like painting a barn. Even though the Ten Commandments were, as a matter of fact, written in stone, they are in principle subject to revision: “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ But I say unto you, Copulo ergo sum!” 

Many of us find the moral implications of Ockham’s view unacceptable as it appears to imply that anything whatsoever—even, say, Recreational Baby-Stomping—would be morally permissible or obligatory were God to command them.  And a part of what motivates Ockham’s view is a desire to avoid imposing any sorts of moral restrictions upon the divine will.  God has prohibited such things, but he could have required them and might one day do so, for all we know.  The implications seem morally repugnant. 

Kyle Swan has called this the “anything goes” objection—abbreviated as “AG.”  He states AG as follows:  

        (AG)  If God were to command that we torture an innocent child to death, then torturing an innocent child to death would be morally right. 

He goes on to suggest that this apparently counterintuitive claim is indeed an implication of at least some versions of Divine Command Theory.  And it is an implication that just seems obviously and intuitively false.  Any theory that implies that anything goes is “wildly counterintuitive” and worthy of the dustbin.  As Mary Midgley once put it, “An ethical theory which, when consistently followed through, has iniquitous consequences is a bad theory and must be changed.”

But, Swan thinks, there is a way in which the divine command theorist may acknowledge the implication while resisting the force of the anything goes objection.  He takes his cue from David Copp, who defends his “society-centered” theory of morality against similar objections regarding apparent “nasty” implications.

On Copp’s view, whether a moral standard is justified is determined by what it is rational for members of a given society to accept.  But this, in turn, depends upon contingent circumstances that might have been different.  And those different circumstances could be such that acts that are currently prohibited and contrary to currently and deeply held pre-theoretical moral beliefs—acts such as the fatal torture of innocent children, to stay with Swan’s example—would be sanctioned by the justified standards of that society.  So Copp concedes that his theory has implications that, taken at face value, might seem counterintuitive.  For instance (and still staying with Swan’s example), his theory seems to have the following seemingly nasty implication (NI): 

            (NI) If societal circumstances were different, then torturing children to death would be morally right. 

But Copp thinks this statement is ambiguous between two interpretations of (NI).  And the distinction turns on the scope of what he calls the “moral operator”—the phrase, morality would be such that—which appears in the following two claims.  Consider, on the one hand, the assertion 

            (NI1) If societal circumstances were different, then morality would be such that torturing children to death would be morally right. 

And, on the other 

            (NI2) Morality is such that if societal circumstances were different, then torturing children to death would be morally right. 

In the case of (NI1) the scope of the operator is “narrow,” ranging over only the consequent, whereas in (NI2) it is “wide,” ranging over the entire conditional.  According to Copp, (NI1) follows from his theory but (NI2) does not.  That is, he may allow—as his theory entails—counterfactually that morality would have consequences that, by our current lights, are “nasty” if those counterfactual circumstances obtained.  But this has no bearing upon the implications of actual moral standards in the actual circumstances. 

Indeed, Copp thinks his Society-Centered theory predicts that people will tend to accept simple formulations of moral standards, such as Torturing children to death is morally wrong rather than more complex, nuanced forms that specify possible circumstances with different moral implications.  People predictably tend to harbor the pre-theoretical moral conviction that torturing children to death is wrong—period—that is, in any and all circumstances.  And so, his society-centered theory predicts that “its central doctrine”—that right and wrong are relative to societal and other circumstances—“will be counterintuitive.”  But that “central doctrine” involves a second-order, metaethical rather than a first-order moral claim, and he thinks there can be no conflict between the two sorts of claims.  The question, he thinks, is whether the theory has implications that run contrary to common moral intuitions—not complex metaethical theories about the grounds and justification of morality.  And if his critic goes on to say that his contrary intuition is, in fact, a metaethical intuition, Copp’s reply is that this is a contrary theoretical belief where the discussion was whether the theory conflicts with pre-theoretical moral beliefs.  Such a critic, Copp thinks, is simply in the grip of some contrary ethical theory so that the criticism is hardly surprising.

Now, it is easy to see how Kyle Swan proposes to utilize Copp’s discussion in order to defend Divine Command Morality against the “anything goes” objection.  Certainly, some varieties of divine command morality imply that, had God commanded otherwise, then morality would be such that torturing children to death would be permissible or mandatory.  But this does not entail the claim that Morality is such that had God commanded otherwise, then torturing children would be permissible or mandatory.  Rather, Morality is such that torturing children is wrong.  Read your Bible. 

I am flatly unconvinced by Copp’s—and, so, Swan’s—argument.  There is much to criticize in both accounts, but I’ll focus on just one issue:  Why in the world should we suppose that what Copp here calls metaethical[1] views are in any way antithetical to pre-theoretical convictions?  In fact, this brings me to one of my central claims: Metaethical considerations are embedded in our pre-theoretical moral beliefs.  Further, I think that a specific “metaethical” content is invoked by those beliefs.  Permit me to explain. 

There is more than one way for an ethical theory to have Midgley’s “iniquitous consequences.”  Perhaps we think first of the above sorts of examples in which some critic charges that the theory implies the rightness of the obviously wrong, or even the wrongness of the obviously right.  But it is also possible for a theory to have all of the intuitively right implications for all of the intuitively wrong reasons.  We may be happy that, after careful deliberation, Smith has decided to refrain from torturing Jones.  But this happy decision hardly finds justification in the consideration that his doing so would have splashed blood on Brown’s new Italian shoes.  Even if we found ourselves in an odd sort of world in which every time someone was tortured someone else’s shoes were ruined (and every time someone’s shoes were ruined someone else was being tortured), this would hardly be a convincing explanation of the wrongness of torture. 

A central question of normative ethics, then, is “What makes right acts right and wrong acts wrong?”  Competing ethical theories offer different answers to this question.  Some answers seem better than others, and determining which are the better is an important part of ethical theory assessment. 

Consider, then, a generic version of ethical egoism, which maintains that an act is right if it benefits the agent and wrong if it either harms the agent or results in less benefit than some available alternative.  Some of us think that the principle of egoism has “iniquitous consequences” in that it seems to prescribe, "Do whatever you can happily get away with."  And so it seems that the theory implies that one ought to pillage and plunder and rifle and loot like the best of pirates, so long as we really are the best of pirates in our ability to avoid both retaliation and remorse.[2] Not so, our egoist friend may tell us.  As Jerome K. Jerome (who was probably not an egoist) once suggested, “We are so bound together that no man can labor for himself alone.  Each blow he strikes in his own behalf helps to mold the universe.”  With this bit of wisdom in mind, the ideal egoist will realize that his own interests are best served by considering and respecting the interests of others.

Now, my own view is that we can labor for ourselves without molding the universe, at least, if we are sufficiently clever.  But even if we were to make a gift of this point and suppose that a world populated by ideal egoists would be like one big Hallmark commercial, the deeper flaws of the theory remain.  On egoism, one has direct duties only to oneself.  If the ideal egoist is civil and kind and charitable, it must be because he believes his selfish direct duties have in tow various indirect duties regarding others.  If ideal egoism implies the wrongness of torture, then it can only be because it somehow harms or wrongs the torturer—perhaps either because he is sure to suffer the fate of so many of the world’s cruel dictators or because he is sure to ruin his loafers.   But surely if torture is really wrong at all, the explanation must begin with a direct concern for the victim.  Even an untutored Meno—or your decidedly unphilosophical Aunt Edna—would likely concur, and so to think this is not necessarily to be in the grip of some contrary ethical theory.[3]  But any such explanation that essentially involves direct duties to the victim also involves a direct route away from egoism. 

Consider classical Utilitarianism.  Here, we are told that a right act is one that maximizes human happiness.  A textbook criticism of the theory charges that a consistent utilitarian might be found justifying just about anything—slavery, child torture, cat juggling—under certain circumstances.  Most utilitarians, I think, resist the implication.  Mill, for instance, retorted that his is a doctrine worthy of swine only on certain silly and obviously false assumptions about human nature, and observed that of course the Principle of Utility—like any principle whatsoever—may be thought to work ill if we assume “universal idiocy.”  R.B. Brandt, in his discussion of Morality, Utilitarianism and Rights, brushes aside such objections as just “unsympathetic,” and suggests that they are readily met by a more sympathetic and sophisticated interpretation of Utilitarianism.  Sometimes the distinction between Act and Rule Utilitarianism is urged as a way of blocking the untoward implications on the ground that Rule Utilitarians will not tread where Act Utilitarians rush in. 

Mill, as you know, devoted a chapter to the question of what connections, if any, there are between justice and utility.  And he speaks there of rights, such as, perhaps, a right to liberty.  Bentham, of course, had said that the notion of natural and imprescriptible rights is “nonsense on stilts.”  A careful reading of Mill shows that he does not disagree with his mentor.  He had earlier instructed that sometimes we are morally obligated to abstain from the very act that has beneficial consequences—perhaps a surprising thing for a Utilitarian to say.  This is in those cases in which the action “is of a class which, if practiced generally would be generally injurious.”  Hence, moral rules—“secondary principles,” he sometimes calls them--are spawned from the Principle of Utility, and we are morally obligated to follow such rules even in some cases in which their violation would—in the particular circumstances—produce the greatest utility.  But it is also possible for two or more rules—Speak when you are spoken to, say, and Don’t talk with your mouth full—to clash as when you have just taken a bite and your waiter asks how you like the food.  In such cases, Mill thinks, we must consult the Principle of Utility itself to determine which of the rules trumps the other.[4]  The resulting decision is based upon considerations of the competing rules and their respective effects upon general utility if generally followed. 

It is from precisely these sorts of considerations that Mill develops his theory of justice and of rights.  Some human goods are more vital than others due to their relative contribution to human well-being and happiness.  The more important the good is the less likely the corresponding protective rule will be trumped by a competing rule.  And so he tells us, “Justice is a name for certain classes of moral rules, which concern the essentials of human well-being more nearly, and are therefore of more absolute obligation, than any other rules for the guidance of life” (Mill 2001, p. 59).   And again:  "Justice is a name for certain moral requirements, which, regarded collectively, stand higher in the scale of social utility, and are therefore of more paramount obligation, than any others." (Mill 2001, p. 63) 

Evidently, Mill imagines a hierarchy of rules erected upon the foundation of utility itself.  Those moral rules, which are designed to safeguard our fundamental security or well being, derive their supreme importance and impose paramount obligations due to the weight of the goods that they protect as weighed on the scale of social utility. Individual “rights” are thus claims that people have to those goods, and the claims themselves are sustained by that same concern for utility. 

We typically think of rights as having what we might call a trumping function in that if I can demonstrate a right to something then, all else equal, the conversation is over.  Mill finds this trumping function in the pride of place afforded certain rules in the scheme of things, and he also finds correspondence between those goods and interests protected by paramount rules and those widely believed to be guaranteed by natural rights.  But his is decidedly not a theory of natural rights.  Such are stilted nonsense from Mill’s perspective just as surely as from Bentham’s, as he makes clear.  A right, he tells us, is a claim that society ought to defend in the individual. To say, for instance, that I have a right to property is to imply that through, say, legislation or education or enforcement, society ought to defend me in my possession of that property. And it is here where Mill makes the connection between rights and utility clear: 

            "To have a right, then, is, I conceive, to have something which society ought to  
             defend me in the possession of. If the objector goes on to ask, why it ought? I can
             give him no other reason than general utility." (Mill 2001, p. 54)

The rights to life and liberty are not endowed by any Creator, nor are they intrinsic to our nature, but rather are derived from the duty to promote maximal happiness.  Nothing here would be likely to cause Mill’s forbear, Bentham, to turn over in his booth. Mill, like Bentham, maintains that the sole basis for according “rights” to individuals is the effect that doing so has upon the advantage to society. He, no more than Bentham, has “anterior” or “inherent” rights in mind.  If Mill goes beyond Bentham in thinking of such rights as absolute or inviolable, it can only be due to his confidence in the stability of, to use Kant’s phrase, “the nature of man and the circumstances of the world in which he is placed.”  If we share his confidence, then we might agree that utilitarian rules fortify just those things that we think are protected as rights.  But whether we agree that Mill has offered a plausible account of rights will depend upon whether we also agree that individual rights do not entail direct duties to the bearers of those rights.

It will perhaps come as no surprise to hear that Mill is not, after all, a natural rights theorist.  But my concern here is with the structure of the utilitarian explanation of the rightness or wrongness of acts—what Robert N. Johnson calls the form of the theory.[5]  If society ought to defend me in my possession of life and liberty, then it ought to do so for the sake of society and not for my own sake.  Smith’s torturing Jones may be wrong, and Mill might even insist that it violates Jones’s "rights," but if asked why Jones should be thought to have such rights, Mill can “give no other reason than “general utility.”[6] 

When John Adams defended the British soldiers implicated in the Boston Massacre, he no doubt had a direct concern for the natural rights of the men themselves.  But he also noted that the lynching for which the public was clamoring would have left a “foul stain” upon the country.  The Utilitarian, who has no place for natural rights, is left only with this latter sort of concern and its overall effect upon general human happiness.  It is wrong for Smith to torture Jones because it splashes blood on the collective societal shoes. 

In short, when we consider the form of the Utilitarian theory—its structure of explanation for the wrongness of everything from torture to rape to genocide—what makes such acts wrong has not directly to do with the victims for their own sake.  Rather, it looks beyond them to something else.  In this respect, it has the same explanatory structure as we’ve seen for the ideal egoist’s explanation for the wrongness of torture.  It is, in fact, an indirect duty view when it comes to moral concern for individuals.  In this way, it shares the same structure of explanation as the Kantian explanation for the wrongness of animal cruelty or environmental degradation or a common sense account of the wrongness of vandalism—not from a concern for the things themselves but for the consequences elsewhere. 

My argument is that in seeking a plausible answer to such questions as, “What makes it wrong for Dr. Mengele to perform lethal or maiming experiments on unwilling children?” we are looking for an answer that says, in effect, “Because it wrongs the victimized children.”  And my claim is that this expectation is embedded in our pre-theoretical belief that such acts are wrong.  But the utilitarian can give no other reason than general utility.  Where we might have thought that to violate a person’s right is essentially a matter of wronging that person, these concepts appear to have been divorced on Mill’s theory.  Here, it is something like “society-at-large” or, perhaps, “humanity” itself that is “wronged” when an individual’s rights are violated.  Worse, as my professor Marcus Singer used to say, the Prime Directive for the utilitarian is to maintain a number in the universe, representing the net quantity of happiness is achieved. Nor is the number to be maintained for anyone's sake but for the sake of itself.  And this, I say, is as implausible as the egoist’s answer—even if the utilitarian and the egoist can assure us that no right-thinking utilitarian or egoist would ever justify the rightness of the obviously wrong.

Similar things may be said of standard Aristotelian accounts of virtue ethics, which tell us that the rightness or wrongness of an act is determined by whether it is the sort of thing that an ideal person would do.  Robert N Johnson has an interesting essay discussing whether Kant qualifies as a virtue ethicist.  His verdict is that he does, but that he departs from the standard account.  And the departure consists in the fact that Kant looks to an independent standard—the Categorical Imperative in its formulations—in order to determine whether an act is right or an agent virtuous.  As Rosalind Hursthouse explains, virtue ethicists traditionally “eschew” any such independent standard.[7]  And so Robert Johnson’s formula seems to capture the essence of standard virtue ethics accounts of moral rightness and wrongness:

            For all actions j and all persons S, it is right (to be done, ethical, correct, etc.) for S to j in C at t if and only if j-ing in C at t is or would be characteristic of  a flourishing human life (Johnson 2008, p. 60).

Now, it is a gross understatement to say that rapists and torturers of innocent children are not behaving as ideal persons or as those who are flourishing as humans.  Show me a rapist and I’ll show you someone who is behaving in less than an ideal manner.  But surely there is more to the account than this?  The trouble with the formulation as it is applied to such examples of obviously wrong acts is that it does not essentially include any reference to the way in which the acts—rape or torture—wrong the victim.  There is no essential reference, that is, to any direct duties that are owed to persons.  On Johnson’s characterization of Kantian virtue ethics one might say that kindness, for instance, is a virtue because of our duty to promote the flourishing of persons.  And so we have the grounds for a satisfactory account of the wrongness of such acts as rape and torture.  But not so on standard, Aristotelian accounts.  Because of this, I think they fail to capture an essential feature of our pre-theoretical moral beliefs.[8]

Now to return to divine command morality.  Recall William of Ockham’s claim that evil qualities may be “annexed” to acts, but that the acts themselves, so far as the “sheer being” of the acts themselves is concerned, are neither good nor evil.  It all depends upon how the act—even an act as wicked as rape or child torture—is related to some actual divine command or prohibition.  On this view, our direct duties are to God alone.  If rape is wrong its wrongness is explained by God’s attitude toward the act and not by the fact that it violates any direct duty owed the victim.  It implies that all duties whatsoever are cut from the same cloth as environmental duties on a theistic stewardship ethic.  There, nature itself has no moral standing, that is, nature itself is not the object of any direct duties.  Environmental degradation is like vandalism as it is the owner who is wronged or treated unjustly.  Perhaps trees and rivers and Buicks can be harmed or damaged, but they cannot be wronged.  And now, on Ockham’s sort of view, neither can babies.  My claim here is that this suggestion itself—beyond the apparent “anything goes” implication—is repugnant, and the repugnance is not merely the yield of some opposing ethical theory.[9]  In fact, my argument is that the reverse is true: reflection upon our pre-theoretical beliefs ultimately invokes some sort of theory that countenances direct duties to individual persons and with that, I think, a deontological theory holding that moral properties are inherent and not merely relational. 

Of course, Swan’s “anything goes” worries are avoided on the commonly held view—often neglected by critics who urge Euthyphro-like objections—that God always commands in accordance with his necessarily good nature.  If God is essentially morally perfect, then the scenarios imagined by Ockham are strictly impossible.  In that case, to ask
If God commanded us to torture innocent children to death would it be morally right? Is a little like asking If the wheels on pickup trucks were square circles would they handle well in snow? or How many doughnuts would come in a dozen if seven plus five made thirteen? 

One such view that appeals to God’s nature in this way, and which has been defended by William Alston, Robert Adams and William Lane Craig, among others, is that God’s nature is the source of moral value and God’s commands—which are always consistent with his nature—are the source of moral obligation.  William Alston argued that while we can understand moral goodness in reference to the divine nature, something more—namely, an appeal to actual divine commands—is necessary to make sense of moral obligations.  After all, he noted, we are not obligated to do everything that it might be good for us to do.  It is certainly a good thing for me to spend time fishing with my grandson, but all else being equal—for instance, if I have not promised to do so—then it does not seem that there is a standing obligation to do so.  On this Alston-Adams-Craig view, it takes a divine command to transform the morally good into the morally obligatory.  Lacking any divine commandment, I am not obligated to take my grandson fishing though it may be a very good thing to do.  But should God command it, then it would be morally required of me.

Another advantage of the Alston-Adams-Craig view over Ockham’s divine command morality is that, presumably, there is room for thinking that acts have their value inherently as they, in their nature, either resemble or are contrary to the divine nature.  But whether an act also has the property of being obligatory would seem to depend upon whether it “should come under a divine precept” to use Ockham’s language.  Shall we say, then, that the property of obligatoriness is thus “annexed”—added on—to acts?  But this seems very implausible once we generalize beyond select examples. 

It is good to take my grandson fishing.  It is also good to refrain from drowning him in the lake.  The value of both of these acts is derived from God’s necessary nature.  It takes a divine command to transform the former into a moral obligation.  Do we also require a divine command in order to ground the obligation not to drown him?  Do these two acts have equal potential for becoming obligatory?  The view under consideration would seem to imply it.  But surely not!  Is there not an obvious difference between the two types of act that is determined by features that are intrinsic rather than extrinsic to the acts themselves? 

Philosophers distinguish between
duties of justice and duties of beneficence.  The latter involve such things as extending help to those in need, while the former include the avoidance of harm, among other things. Immanuel Kant referred to duties of beneficence as “wide” and duties of justice as “narrow.” The idea is that we have a standing general duty to help those in need, but we also have some degree of latitude in determining whom, when and how much we shall help. I am not obligated to donate to every charity that has gotten hold of my phone number. Despite attempts of phone solicitors to make me feel guilty, the charities probably do not have a just claim on my help, nor am I somehow wronging them or doing them an injustice if I refuse to help. But I am failing in my moral duties if I have resolved never to help anyone. I am under no obligation to carry cookies to my neighbors, but I am morally stunted if I never show kindness to anyone. Duties of justice, on the other hand, are “narrow” in that I am not afforded such latitude. All else equal, I ought to tell the truth and refrain from lying. It is not left to me to determine when or to whom or to what degree I shall be truthful.

Observe a couple of things about this distinction and how it relates to the Alston-Adams-Craig view.  First, the view seems to have the implausible implication that the distinction between justice and beneficence is a distinction without a difference until the acts are related to some divine command.  But surely this distinction runs deeper than that?  Second, that distinction itself would seem to provide us the means of marking off the (merely) good from the obligatory.  And the sorts of considerations that do seem relevant for making sense of the distinction involve such issues as whether people are wronged or done an injustice.  Even if we agree that a divine command is sufficient to render a specific act of beneficence obligatory, I cannot see why such a command is necessary in order to impose a duty of justice. Presumably, I am obligated to
refrain from a great many things, from adultery to zoophilia. Does my obligation to keep myself to only one (human) woman obtain only because of the relation that the deeds bear to a divine command? 

Of course, Alston and others hold that acts may be either consistent or inconsistent with the divine nature, and those that are inconsistent are not good. Adultery is not good, and this is what motivates the seventh commandment. But then it is hard to see why our obligation in such cases is not simply to refrain from acts that are not good, that is, contrary to God’s nature). Assuming that we can make sense of the appeal to God’s nature in the first place, why not suppose that duties of justice have their ground in the justice of God so that, command or no command, all unjust acts are immoral in virtue of this very incompatibility? What work, beyond, perhaps, a possibly important epistemic role, is left for the commands themselves?

Indeed, the incarnate God issued a new commandment: “That ye love one another.” He added a bit by way of explanation: “As I have loved you, That ye also love one another” (Jn 13:14 KJV).  That same tradition has it that God is love.  Again, why not suppose that God’s nature is the ultimate ground of the requirement rather than the command itself, as seems implied in an additional command, “Be ye holy, for I am holy”? And we may ask, is love commanded because it is obligatory for us to love one another, or is it obligatory because it is commanded? The Alston-Adams view implies the latter. But the former seems more plausible, as there seem to be deeper reasons for love, and I believe it is implied by the Christian tradition itself.  Unconditional love is commanded because it is the morally appropriate attitude to have toward individuals whose value is unconditional as bearers of the imago dei.

Where does this leave us?  I think that as we think about the relation between God and morality, one necessary condition of any acceptable theory allows room for thinking that at least some of our obligations are grounded in direct duties owed persons.  Such duties, I would urge, should be seen as in turn grounded upon the inherent value of those persons themselves.  Some will insist that this ultimately hangs morality from a peg that hangs outside heaven.  After all, they may say, if persons have inherent worth then this is due to certain good-making features of personhood itself, and whether persons possess such features is a question independent of origins.  If the features are there, then they are there regardless of whether persons have been created from the dust or have emerged from the mud.  I have elsewhere attempted to argue that we may think of the value of created persons as a matter of resemblance to a personal Creator.[10]  Whether that line may be defended successfully is a question of great interest to me.

[1] On my own taxonomy Copp’s “metaethical” considerations are issues of normative ethics, but no need to quibble.
[2] And for such reasons, some deny that egoism is any sort of ethical theory at all.
[3] Here is an experiment that you may try at home.  Ask your Aunt Edna, who has never reflected carefully about normative ethics or metaethics, whether she thinks rape is wrong.  When she testifies that she believes it is indeed wrong, ask which explanation of its wrongness seems correct:  Rape is wrong because it wrongs the victim or Rape is wrong because it wrongs the rapist. 
[4] A familiar objection here—one that convinces me—is that Rule Utilitarianism just collapses into Act Utilitarianism so that we have a distinction without a difference.  But let us grant the distinction for present purposes.
[5] Robert Johnson……
[6] It should be unnecessary to clarify that I am not arguing that practicing Utilitarians must consciously hold “general utility” before their minds with no direct regard for individuals.  Indeed, the Utilitarian might come to think that a belief in natural rights is a useful fiction as the world would be a happier place if we all believe and behave as though the interests of individuals count for their own sake.  Even so, the structure of the Utilitarian explanation looks beyond such individual interests to general utility.
[7] Hursthouse
[8] My criticism does not reduce to what Hursthouse calls the “egotism objection,” namely, that consistent virtue ethicists, in behaving generously or benevolently are, in fact, acting out of a concern for their own characters.  Compassion is a virtue that takes the welfare of others into direct consideration, and nothing I say here denies this.  Still, the explanation of what makes compassion a morally desirable trait appeals to the notion of the ideal person and not to any duties owed to or value possessed by those objects of our compassion.  The Kantian (or Confucian) virtue theorist, however, has the resources to correct this deficiency.  See my discussion in “The Moral Argument” in J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, eds., The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology.
[9]One might observe that Psalm 51 has David declaring to God, “Against Thee and Thee only have I sinned.”  But he seems to have been given to hyperbole (“I was brought forth in iniquity and in sin my mother conceived me”) in this poetic expression of repentance and remorse.  Surely Uriah factors into the formula somewhere?
[10] See my main essay, “Moral Particularism,” in R. Keith Loftin, ed., God and Morality: Four Views.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

On the Virtue of Intolerance

G. K. Chesterton opened his 1905 book Heretics by defining his subject.  A “heretic,” one learns, is “a man whose views have the hardihood to differ from mine.” His tongue was, quite evidently, in his cheek. His tongue was seldom anyplace else. But, as usual, there was gravity in his gaiety. He had a serious point to make, and he made it again in his sequel, Orthodoxy . There, in a chapter titled “The Suicide of Thought” he observed that the modern world is full of “the old Christian virtues gone mad.” 1 They have gone mad in that they are often misplaced and misapplied. In particular, the virtue of humility, whose function is to check human pride and arrogance, has been removed from its natural object, the “organ of ambition,” and has settled upon the “organ of conviction.” “A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.” 2
Chesterton observed that this misplaced modesty had made it highly unfashionable ever to assert the truth of any significant proposition without adding the requisite qualifier—“but of course, I might be wrong.”
At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view. 3
This is not, of course, to suggest that all views—even those that are mutually contradictory—are right. Nor is he urging his reader to adopt a stubborn unwillingness to revise any current beliefs in light of new evidence or argument, or a refusal to recognize that our beliefs may come with varying degrees of certitude.
Rather, the point has to do with the logic of belief itself. To believe a Thing  just is to believe that it is true . If I believe that the earth is more than four billion years old, then I take the proposition, The earth is more than four billion years old to be true.  For this reason, belief, by its very nature, is exclusive.  If The earth is more than four billion years old is true, then the claim,  The earth is fewer than ten thousand years old is false.  And so my believing the truth of the former entails my also believing the falseness of the latter. And thus, a “heretic” is anyone whose views have the hardihood to differ from mine.
This result is jarring to the modern ear. We are encouraged to believe that there is something arrogant and benighted about taking our own views to be true to the exclusion of the beliefs of others. We must be tolerant of the viewpoints of others, we are told, and, evidently, tolerance is often taken to be a matter of never thinking the beliefs of others to be false . But if this is the meaning of tolerance, then it would appear that the only tolerant people are those who believe nothing at all—including the proposition, We must be tolerant .
Nowhere is “exclusivist” thinking regarded as anathema any more than within the domain of religious belief. The motive is understandable: history is replete with “holy wars,” in which people have demonstrated a willingness to do the unthinkable in the name of religion. It is commonly thought that the belief that one’s own religion is exclusively true naturally fosters hatred and contempt for other viewpoints. The suggested remedy is to adopt a viewpoint that precludes the possibility of thinking that any one religious perspective might be true to the exclusion of others. The aim of interreligious dialog, according to such a view, is to promote mutual understanding, acceptance, and respect among people of differing religious perspectives. Paul J. Griffi ths describes what he takes to be the current orthodoxy among Religious Studies scholars.
This orthodoxy suggests that understanding is the only legitimate goal [of interreligious dialog]; that judgment and criticism of religious beliefs and practices other than one’s own community is always inappropriate; and that an active defense of the truth of those beliefs and practices to which one’s community appears committed is always to be shunned. 4
Consider, for instance, the comments of Amanda Millay Hughes, editor of Five Voices, Five Faiths, a sort of primer on the basics of five major religious traditions—each represented by a different author—and on interfaith dialog. The book is motivated by the noble desire to “live amicably” with those of differing religious perspectives and to “live with and value fundamental differences” while finding common ground for interfaith dialog. The reader is thus urged to avoid “unproductive dogmatic debate.” One is told that “exclusivist thinking” engenders “dark judgments about other religions.” 5 But the solution is not to be found in mere tolerance, because “tolerant forbearance” implies that one is in a “position of privilege” that is not enjoyed by the other. Thus, we are encouraged to “do more than tolerate difference.”  In addition, “we can honor it as a part of the richness of human experience.”  Hughes quotes approvingly from an essay on religious pluralism by a Christian pastor who says that “the Christian calling allows him to sing his song to Jesus ‘with abandon . . . without speaking negatively about others.’” Though Hughes, the representative Christian among the collection of five authors, once subscribed to the mandate to make disciples of all, now she “reflects more deeply” on Jesus’ “new commandment” to love one another. Her advice to the adherents of the different traditions these days is “hold onto the truths you have received.” 6
As well-intentioned as all of this may be, the basic outlook is flawed. Consider the dilemma that Hughes encounters in her dialog with the other contributors to the book. Writing as an Episcopalian Christian, Hughes lays out a basic outline of essential Christian beliefs.  Among other things, she affirms, “Christians believe that all human life needs the redemptive action of God in Christ Jesus.” 7  This apparently does not sit well with the pluralist motivation behind the book project, as her Advaita Vedantan collaborator, Anantanand Rambachan, asks her in a Q&A section, “How do you relate [this claim] with the reality of different religions?” 8  After all, how can she tell her Hindu friend to hold onto Hindu “truths,” while, at the same time, claiming that Christ’s atonement is essential for the salvation of all humans? The Hindu account of both the fundamental human predicament and the ultimate solution to that problem is strikingly different from the Christian account. Nor have they the same concept of what constitutes ultimate salvation, as the one imagines the retention of personal identity in fellowship with a transcendent God and the other envisions the final absorption of that identity in unity with the Absolute.  Hughes confesses that “it is hard to give a definitive answer to your question.”9   Her decidedly  non-definitive  answer urges the need for love and the universal “desire to live in harmony,” and then appeals finally to “mystery.” It is a mystery, indeed, how both accounts may be regarded as “truths” in any robust sense of that word.  In fact, she might have returned the favor by asking Rambachan how the Advaitan account of the ultimate religious object, Brahman, may be related to the “reality” of any and all religions that conceive of ultimate reality differently.  He might reply, as he asserts in his own essay, that the Hindu doctrine of ishtadeva and its corresponding doctrine of margas or “approved ways” has “enabled Hindus to think of the world’s religions in complementary and not exclusive ways.” 10  But in the event that Rambachan’s own account of Brahman is to be taken with any seriousness, Hughes’ own theistic belief enjoys such “approval” only insofar as it is viewed as an instrumental stepping stone to the absolute truth of Brahman—little more than a useful fiction.
Hughes’s dilemma in attempting to answer Professor Rambachan’s question is symptomatic of the sort of pluralistic perspective behind the book. She wishes to affirm her own Christian faith while commending other, seemingly competing, traditions, as “sacred truths.” She wants to “sing her song to Jesus without speaking negatively of others.” Her trouble arises from the simple point of logic that we considered earlier: To believe something is to believe that it is true.  And to believe that it is true entails believing that its denial is false. The truth of the Advaita doctrine of Nirguna Brahman entails the strict falseness (though, perhaps, instrumental usefulness) of any and all varieties of monotheism because it is impossible that the ultimate religious object is both literally property-less and possessed of determinate attributes. If the Buddhist doctrine of anatman, which denies the existence of any sort of substantial self, is true, then the Jain doctrine of the jiva , or soul, is false.  If the Islamic doctrine of Allah is true, then the Christian doctrines of the trinity and incarnation are not only false but blasphemous.
One may assert the truth of all of these seemingly conflicting beliefs and belief systems only at the expense of either revising the notion of “truth” or overhauling the doctrines themselves.  The latter strategy involves a reinterpretation of one or more doctrines so as to render them all compatible. But it is difficult to see what, for instance, might be done with There are enduring, substantial selves  and  It is not the case that there are enduring, substantial selves that would reconcile the two while also leaving both intact.  
The former strategy entails a reinterpretation of the very notion of truth such that “doctrinal truth” is not a matter of a doctrine’s successfully reporting what there is.   One apparently popular suggestion, then, is that religious truth is relative, so that There are no souls is true for Buddhists , while There are souls is true for Jains. Presumably, though, Buddhists and Jains have one and the same world in mind, and what is at issue is just what is or is not included in that world (just as surely as There are jelly beans and There are no jelly beans are conflicting reports about the contents of the candy dish).  Unless the “true for” suggestion is the entertaining claim that a Buddhist just is a person who hasn’t any soul and a Jain is a person who has, the only meaningful sense that I can discover is just the observation that Jains believe there are souls and Buddhists do not. But we already knew that. And the apparent conflict between the two beliefs remains.
One might instead suggest that the two statements are not really about the existence or non-existence of souls. Perhaps when the Jain says, “There are souls,” she should be understood to be saying, “I intend to lead a life of absolute non-violence.” And when the Buddhist says, “There are no souls,” he is, in fact, indicating his dedication to a life of non-grasping. This certainly reconciles the two original statements, but it does so at the expense of reinterpreting those statements to be saying something that precious few Jains or Buddhists (who are not members of Religious Studies departments) have ever intended. The Jain doctrine is a claim about what there is; the Buddhist doctrine about what there is not.
Another suggestion is that doctrinal truth is to be assessed pragmatically, so that a doctrine is “true” just in case adherence to that doctrine results in some desired goal. Perhaps both the Jain belief in the soul and the Buddhist disbelief in such result, respectively, in virtuous Jains and compassionate Buddhists.  Perhaps so.   But this is to impose a theory—one perhaps concocted and cherished by Western Religious Studies scholars—that may be foreign to the many religions whose adherents seem to think that the best reason for believing their doctrines is that they tell us something about the way the world actually is or offer the correct diagnosis of and cure for the human predicament.  Here we have succeeded in offering a sense in which both the Jain and Buddhist doctrines may be true only at the expense of suggesting, that one, or both, of the two doctrines is simply a useful fiction in a way similar to that discussed above. Actual adherents of actual religions may rejoice to learn that their beliefs are useful, but most will be apt to struggle with the “fiction” part. The goal of pluralist projects such as that discussed above is to avoid exclusivist thinking in such a way that everyone is invited to the table. But believers are likely to be sorely disappointed upon learning that the invitation is conditioned upon their willingness to exchange their original beliefs for saccharine substitutes. It is hard to see how I am displaying the requisite respect for my Hindu friend when I tell him that, strictly speaking, Hindu doctrines cannot be taken seriously as truth claims, but I am pleased to see the fruits of those false beliefs in his life. This seems not to rise to the level even of the “tolerant forbearance” that Hughes deemed arrogant. It is a condescending pat on the head.  Chesterton once more:
We talk much about “respecting” this or that person’s religion; but the way to respect a religion is to treat it as a religion: to ask what are its tenets and what are the consequences. But modern tolerance is deafer than intolerance. The old religious authorities, at least, defined a heresy before they condemned it, and read a book before they burned it. But we are always saying to a Mormon or a Moslem — “Never mind about your religion, come to my arms.” To which he naturally replies — “But I do mind about my religion, and I advise you to mind your eye.”
In his critique of such pluralist projects, Paul Griffiths observes,
Religious claims to truth are typically absolute claims: claims to explain everything; claims about the universal applicability of a certain set of values together with the ways of life that embody and perpetuate them; and claims whose referent possesses maximal greatness.
Griffiths continues,
It is just this tendency to absoluteness that makes religious truth-claims of such
interest and gives them such power; to ignore it is to eviscerate them, to do them the disservice of making them other than what they take themselves to be. 11
Contrary to the increasingly fashionable opinion on such matters, I assert that it is more respectful of a religious tradition to take its truth claims seriously as truth claims and to offer honest assessment of them as such than it is to dismiss their original import for the sake of a desired inclusiveness. Taking each religious truth-claim seriously for what it is must inevitably result in the judgment that at least some of the many conflicting claims are false.  As we have seen, since believing anything at all requires believing that other things are false there can be no valid objection to “exclusivist thinking” per se. And taking religious truth claims seriously also calls for an honest appraisal of their merits.  Nor is there any necessary connection between thinking a given belief false and either treating or regarding the believer with anything less than the respect that is due all persons.
1 . G. K. Chesterton, The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton: Heretics, Orthodoxy,
The Blatchford Controversy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 233.
2 . Ibid., 235.
3 . Ibid.
4 . Paul J. Griffiths, An Apology for Apologetics (New York: Orbis Books, 1991), xi.
5 . Amanda Millay Hughs (ed.), Five Voices, Five Faiths (Boston: Cowley
Publications, 2005), 88.
6 . Ibid., xviii.
7 . Ibid., 79.
8 . Ibid., 88.
9 . Ibid., 88.
10 . Ibid., 7.
11 . Griffths, Apology , 3.