Moral Objectivity– Goodness as Descriptive

Do philosophers really look like this?

Some people think philosophy is about thinking really deep thoughts, and expressing those thoughts in language that leaves plain common discourse behind. Philosophy in the English tradition, to the contrary, shuns abstraction and arcane language. Really good philosophy in the English tradition is as crisp and clean as a bleached sheet drying in the summer sun.

So I was happy to find this review of Derek Parfit’s latest book On What Matters. Parfit is a professor at All Souls College in Oxford; his field is moral philosophy. The question Parfit considers, is whether moral statements are subjective or objective. For example, if I say, “Helping old ladies cross busy streets is ‘good’,” am I merely expressing my personal taste (a subjective preference)? Or am I describing a feature of the world– a feature that is either true or false (an objective statement)? Parfit holds to the latter regarding moral statements. For him, morality is objective. To call something “good” is more than simply expressing approval– it is to assert something about the way things really are.

Traditionally, defenders of moral objectivity have appealed to God’s moral law to make their case. According to his reviewer, Parfit does not resort to this appeal. That’s fortunate: since European/Western culture is not, in this historical moment, grounded in any broadly-shared sense of the Transcendent, perhaps we can begin by simply reclaiming the authority of the good.


Established Power and Truth-Telling

Brian Haw: English Prophet?

Our popular usage of the word “prophet” casts it in the direction of  “fortune-teller” or “one who possesses secret wisdom.” Prophesy in the Hebrew Bible is not about fortune-telling, but is more accurately understood as “truth-telling”– and especially the kind of truth-telling that established power doesn’t want to hear.

Whatever one’s view of war– from the most aggressive neo-conservatism to the most non-violent pacifism– no one can reasonably deny that innocent people get harmed. (Some will maintain that there is no such thing as a “non-combatant” (i.e., “innocent person”) anymore, in this age of total war. We can dismiss this, for now, as an unreasonable view.) One’s view of war surely shapes one’s judgment regarding the moral significance of innocent people being harmed, but one’s view of war cannot change the fact that in war, innocent people get harmed.

Englishman Brian Haw arrived at the conclusion that children being killed in the war in Iraq was morally unacceptable. Acting on that conviction, he encamped in front of the Houses of Parliament in London, protesting English government policy that supported the war. Whether English government policy should have or shouldn’t have supported the war in Iraq is debatable. What is prophetic– that is, “truth-telling”– about Brian Haw’s protest, is that he confronted members of Parliament with a significant truth about war: innocent people get harmed.

And the response of established power? Entirely predictable, whether in Western democracies or in Arab plutocracies rife with nepotism (Tunisia, Egypt): marginalize the truth-teller (or tellers) whose truth-telling challenges the dominant narrative or threatens the regime. To the credit of the English legal system– and to the tradition of Western political liberalism– attempts by established power to have Brian removed failed.

While the freedom of speech protects the right of people to speak stupidity or plain falsehood, it also protects the right of modern-day prophets to speak truth to power.

Brian died last Sunday, June 19th. The link is below.

‘Unsung Hero’ Brian Haw, 1949-2011

British anti-war activist will be remembered for his unyielding protest on behalf of children killed in conflict.

via ‘Unsung Hero’ Brian Haw, 1949-2011 – Features – Al Jazeera English.

I’ll Take “Messiahs” for $200, Alex….

This from Howard Friedman’s “Religion Clause”:

Pakistan TV Hosts First Religious Quiz Show

A leading Pakistani television channel, GEO TV, is broadcasting what it says is the first-ever large-scale religious quiz show. According to Pakistan’s “The News,” the game show “Alif, Laam, Meem,” which begins tonight, will be an entertaining attempt “to impart knowledge of religion in its entirety, be it Quran, Sunnah, religious history, literature, architecture or jurisprudence.”

via Religion Clause.

Natural Disasters and the Power of God

Tsunami Devastation: Did God Cause It?

Whether God causes natural disasters– or allows them to happen– calls into question the nature of God. We wonder whether God is compassionate or vengeful; we wonder if God’s power is all-encompassing, or limited.

One recent conversation turned toward the latter question: does God have control over all of these recent natural disasters? And if God doesn’t have direct control, isn’t the Creator at least responsible for making a universe in which great suffering happens? Couldn’t the world have been made in a different way?

The God who is revealed in the person of a suffering common Jewish man, is a God who is not in control– if by control we mean “having power over” another (or others). Our understanding of power ought not be limited to “the ability to control,” however. There are other ways of having power which are not about control; other ways of exercising authority that do not entail imposing one’s will on another. One truth that Christians affirm, is that in Christ is a new kind of power: the power of solidarity; the power of compassion (literally “suffering with”); the power of love (that is, agape– unconditional love) ultimately to prevail. In Christ, God’s power is revealed not in control, but in vulnerability. God’s power is the vulnerability of Jesus, because it is in vulnerability that we become connected– connected to each other, and to God. God’s power is “God with us” (Emmanuel), not “God over us.”

Such an understanding of God’s power leaves suffering unexplained. I think that’s truthful to life as we live it and know it: bad things happen to good people, and innocents suffer. We can express righteous outrage at God for that, and that expression would be faithful: the Bible records many moments of cried out anguish, including Jesus’ own cry. There is a time to cry out to God for the suffering in the world. Then there’s a time to remember God’s solidarity with suffering, as revealed in Christ– and in remembering, to reach out in imitation of Jesus, with our own acts of solidarity and compassion with those who, like us, suffer.

Here is a blurb from the Christian Century on God and disasters:

Most don’t blame God for disasters

We may never know why bad things happen to good people, but most Americans—except evangelicals—reject the idea that natural disasters are divine punishment, a test of faith or some other sign from God, according to a new poll.

The poll, by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service, was conducted a week after a March 11 earthquake triggered a devastating tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan.

Nearly six in ten evangelicals (59 percent) believe that God can use natural di­sasters to send messages—nearly twice the number of Catholics (31 percent) or mainline Protestants (34 percent) who so believe. Evangelicals (53 percent) are also more than twice as likely as the one in five Catholics or mainline Protestants to believe that God punishes nations for the sins of some citizens.

The poll, released March 24, found that a majority (56 percent) of Americans believe that God is in control of the world, but the idea of God employing Mother Nature to dispense judgment (38 percent of all Americans) or God punishing entire nations for the sins of a few (29 percent) has less support….

Most don’t blame God for disasters | The Christian Century.

What is the Nature of this Universe?– World Atheist Convention Meets in Dublin

Issues and content aside, the most compelling upshot of this past weekend’s meeting of atheists in Ireland is what it tells us about the universe we Westerners (and increasingly, all of us on this hot and crowded planet) inhabit– believers and atheists alike. Succinctly, we don’t live in a universe anymore. We live in a multi-verse– or, less charitably, we live in a chaos (the opposite of a cosmos).

The way that I am asking this question– what kind of universe do we inhabit?– is a metaphysical/philosophical question, not a physical/scientific question.  The evidence that we live in a multi-verse, is that there is no common understanding– in fact, there is very serious disagreement– about the nature of what is real; about what we can know and how we know it; about where we came from and where we’re going; about what is beautiful and good, and on what ground we can make that judgment— in sum, about all questions of meaning and purpose. Any universe begins from assumptions about the nature of what exists; the defining characteristic of those assumptions is that they themselves cannot be proven. Even the universe of Western material science is not exempt from the logical necessity for this epistemological first move, which for materialistic atheists is the functional equivalent to, ironically, a religious leap of faith.

Western culture has been in turmoil– more or less– since at least the Enlightenment, and as the West has bumped elbows with non-Western cultures, those cultures have at various times elbowed back. Fundamentalisms of all stripes– Christianism, Islamism, scientism– have wide appeal, because they aim to supply us once again with a universe to inhabit– a cosmos instead of a chaos. Such a tidy resolution to questions of ultimate purpose– such a tidy restoration of the universe– is not possible, because the commitments that people have to their cosmos– to their way of making meaning of experience– are, at root, non-rational.

A multi-verse– a world with different and competing ways of ordering morality and meaning, origin and destiny–  is always at risk of becoming a chaos. The opportunity of our time is achieving a widely-shared, deepening appreciation for all that is life-affirming in the multi-verses we inhabit together– and for the mystery at which our knowing cannot reach.

[Last] weekend [June 5th and 6th], about 350 conventioneers descend[ed] on Dublin to discuss matters of faith and its place in public life. It’s not a meeting of the Catholic Church hierarchy, but the first World Atheist Convention.

Organizers claim they aren’t trying to make a statement by selecting Ireland, often seen as one of Europe’s most religious nations, but the get-together of nonbelievers does come in a country where religiosity has been in steady decline. In fact, faith seems to be on many European minds of late and questions of religion in public life have reentered political discourse here – from the French “burqa ban” to Ireland’s antiblasphemy law to frequent complaints from Pope Benedict XVI about perceived moral relativism.

Long considered a private matter, some say public questions of faith are even threatening Europe’s traditionally secular politics. “Broadly speaking, religion is back on the agenda in a way people didn’t think it would be 10 or 15 years ago,” says Titus Hjelm, a sociologist of religion at University College London.

via Atheist confab in Ireland comes as Europe confronts religion in public life –