Adler’s Moral Axiom

As far as I can tell, there are three major problems in ethical thinking today:

  1. Disconnecting ethics from happiness and therefore thinking that personal well-being and pleasure have nothing to do with ethics.
  2. Hedonism: The idea that right and wrong is only a matter of what leads to the highest personal pleasure. In social ethics, this means allowing people to do whatever they think/feel will make them feel the best. We might call this unscientific utilitarianism (because it isn’t based upon actual knowledge of what is good for the individual or collective human organism.
  3. The is/ought problem: That since knowledge is all descriptive, no understanding of what is can lead to a conclusion about what one ought to do.

In my opinion, all three of these problems are solved in one way or another by Mortimer Adler’s one self-evident moral premise: We ought to desire whatever is really good for us and nothing else.

Below are the paragraphs where he introduces the axiom in his book, 10 Philosophical Mistakes:

The two distinctions that we now have before us, distinctions generally neglected in modern thought—the distinction between natural and acquired desires, or needs and wants, and the distinction between real and merely apparent goods—enable us to state a self-evident truth that serves as the first principle of moral philosophy. We ought to desire whatever is really good for us and nothing else.

The criterion of self-evidence, it will be recalled, is the impossibility of thinking the opposite. It is impossible for us to think that we ought to desire what is really bad for us, or ought not to desire what is really good for us. The very understanding of the “really good” carries with it the prescriptive note that we “ought to desire” it. We cannot understand “ought” and “really good” as related in any other way.[1]

While Adler’s claim is presented as an axiom, a truth about which one cannot accept the opposite proposition, it can probably only be accepted once it is properly understood. Here are some questions to help us think it through:

  1. Is it possible for there to be desires that are bad for us?
  2. Are there desires that are good for us but desired wrongly?
  3. Are there desires that are more important than others?
  4. We desire food, but is there a reason to desire food?
  5. We desire to live, but is there a reason we desire to live?
  6. We desire pleasure, but is there a reason we desire pleasure?
  7. We desire sex but is there a reason for sex?

If Adler’s axiom is axiomatic, we have a proposition upon which to build our ethics, dispute them as our understanding of human nature advances, and upon which to build theological ethics for those who accept divine revelation about the purpose and nature of humanity.

References

[1] Mortimer Jerome Adler, Ten Philosophical Mistakes (New York: Macmillan, 1985), 90-91

 

Foucault the Resentful

In an long interview, two of my favorite authors/speakers discuss the problems of academia, particularly the adoption of Lacan, Foucalt, and Derrida as heroes:

 

Peterson’s interpretation of why intellectual elites (Paglia calls them midgets), influenced as they are by Foucault act as they do is beautiful (6:42). He essentially says that the motive force in academia is resentment virtually anything that implies merit or competence!  

Coincidentally, I just read a chapter in Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life where he rather politely abuses Foucault’s misreading of the stoics. Foucault claims that the stoic notion of cultivating the self is a form of pleasure in one’s own self. But the very letter of Seneca from which he derives this view eschews self-admiration for precisely a form of contemplating ‘the best version of the self,’ or rather meditating on a transcendently transformed vision of the self in order to more fully pursue that vision. It appears to be precisely what Peterson claimed, resentment of any notion of merit or competence. 

Here’s what Seneca actually said about contemplation of the self in order to find joy:

“Real joy, believe me, is a stern matter…But it is hard to keep within bounds in that which you believe to be good. The real good may be coveted with safety. Do you ask me what this real good is, and whence it derives? I will tell you: it comes from a good conscience, from honourable purposes, from right actions, from contempt of the gifts of chance, from an even and calm way of living which treads but one path. For men who leap from one purpose to another, or do not even leap but are carried over by a sort of hazard, – how can such wavering and unstable persons possess any good that is fixed and lasting? There are only a few who control themselves and their affairs by a guiding purpose; the rest do not proceed; they are merely swept along, like objects afloat in a river. And of these objects, some are held back by sluggish waters and are transported gently; others are torn along by a more violent current; some, which are nearest the bank, are left there as the current slackens; and others are carried out to sea by the onrush of the stream. Therefore, we should decide what we wish, and abide by the decision.”

I sympathize greatly with the stoic vision of joy, though I think that it too thoroughly eschews the pleasures of sense and their role in flourishing, but for Foucault to intentionally misrepresent that as finding pleasure in the self instead of having an aesthetic view of the world. 

Paul Graham on what can’t be said

I love ideas, data, speculation, experiments, and plans.

I also love arguments, refutations, and attempts at persuasion.

And I think what I love the most about the United States is the general legal consensus that outside of inciting people to acts of terrorism, one is allowed to say what they wish without government censure. In this sense, I am and have always been a free-speech absolutist. If somebody wants to make the case that a grave sin is actually sane and good, I’ll hear it. If somebody wants to claim that mega civilizations can control galaxies for energy and call it science, I’ll listen to Michio Kaku:

But, how free speechy (I think I made that up) are we?

Paul Graham suggests a test for your own free speech absolutism by positing a test for moral fashions:

What scares me is that there are moral fashions too. They’re just as arbitrary, and just as invisible to most people. But they’re much more dangerous. Fashion is mistaken for good design; moral fashion is mistaken for good. Dressing oddly gets you laughed at. Violating moral fashions can get you fired, ostracized, imprisoned, or even killed.

If you could travel back in a time machine, one thing would be true no matter where you went: you’d have to watch what you said. Opinions we consider harmless could have gotten you in big trouble. I’ve already said at least one thing that would have gotten me in big trouble in most of Europe in the seventeenth century, and did get Galileo in big trouble when he said it—that the earth moves. [1]

It seems to be a constant throughout history: In every period, people believed things that were just ridiculous, and believed them so strongly that you would have gotten in terrible trouble for saying otherwise.

Is our time any different? To anyone who has read any amount of history, the answer is almost certainly no. It would be a remarkable coincidence if ours were the first era to get everything just right.

It’s tantalizing to think we believe things that people in the future will find ridiculous. What would someone coming back to visit us in a time machine have to be careful not to say? That’s what I want to study here. But I want to do more than just shock everyone with the heresy du jour. I want to find general recipes for discovering what you can’t say, in any era.

This particular test is useful. Are my ethical standards determined by the cultural fads or careful reasoning? Christians have a tendency to feel that the Holy Spirit and deep study have prompted them toward some new ethical insight that really is just a way for them to stop being at odds with the dominant culture (sad). But my version is this:

Could you listen to the views of somebody from any time period or culture, insofar as they are not inciting terroristic or mob violence, and not want them silence, jailed, or executed?  

Obviously, this is context specific. Church services aren’t the place for giving heretics a voice, children’s classrooms aren’t the place for letting philosophical cases for sexual deviance be made, and so-on. But I think this test for free-speech absolutism is key. Am I, then, a free-speech absolutist?

Gloria Steinem and Moral Insanity

For Thomas Aquinas, sanity was one’s intellectual capacity to grasp first principles and reason from them. 

For the ancient Hebrews, killing children for fertility is Molech worship.

For Gloria Steinem, neither of those are a negative:

“Are you kidding me? Listen, what causes climate deprivation is population. If we had not been systematically forcing women to have children they don’t want or can’t care for over the 500 years of patriarchy, we wouldn’t have the climate problems that we have. That’s the fundamental cause of climate change. Even if the Vatican doesn’t tell us that. In addition to that, because women are the major agricultural workers in the world, and also the carriers of water and the feeders of families and so on, it’s a disproportionate burden.”

Steinem does, to her credit, depart from other elements of the hard-left zeitgeist. But the paragraph above is nuts on several levels ranging from the commonly accepted definition of the patriarchy as a European phenomenon, the location of major population explosions, the nature of climate models, the question of whether or not children have rights, and the disjoint in her rhetoric between children and their cause. 

Journalism: A lost art?

I was looking up some of Will Gervais’ recent work on atheism (has in the past published on why even atheists dislike athiests, heh).

One of the articles that popped up was a salon article about his recent work about the apparent prevalence of atheism in the United States. In the final paragraph the author remarked that, about Trump:

As with his other attempts to turn back the clock in America, President Trump’s remark in his inaugural address about joining all Americans together with “the same almighty Creator,” threatens the intricate and varying histories, beliefs and ways of being that are present in this country.

But Trump is a guy who, if ever, only took an interest in God very recently and has made no moves toward a theocracy in any policy.

The article had an awesome title portending the rise of hidden atheists within evangelicalism, “Trump Evangelicals face a growing number of ‘hidden atheists.'” I had hoped for an article about atheists going to church or something (of course this was Solong magazine).

I am aware of several atheists who are willing to participate in Christian culture if it means not submitting to a Muslim culture. I heard one atheist put it this way, “What if the choice isn’t between atheism and Christianity, but between Jesus and Muhammad?” But the headline had nothing to do with the article. The current religious demographic is the same as it was during the election, which means that with the current atheist population, Trump won. So if “Trump evangelicals” are facing “hidden atheists” I don’t know in what sense, if any, that is significant. I’ve known several atheists at most stages in my conscious memory. When I was a kid, I temporarily thought God made no sense because a giant man-in-space couldn’t see both sides of the earth simultaneously. Atheism, particularly of the uncritical sort, is as common as hammers.

Anyway, I applaud the author for trying to apply the findings of #SCIENCE to a topic not addressed in the original piece, but the remark I quoted above is essentially a non-sequitur in relationship to the Trump quote, the numbers cited, and the headline. Why? One, a president (Trump or otherwise) using the vague language of American civil religion is hardly an attempt to threaten the beliefs of atheist Americans. Even the phrase “almighty creator” can be vague enough to be endorsed by Christians, Muslims, or atheists who think the universe generates life through random processes (incidentally, it’s atheists I know who dwell within the darkest corners of the neo-reactionary movement, not the Christians…so I’m interested to know what atheist support for Trump actually looks like despite the left leaning tendencies of atheists).

Two, Obama had several similar references to God in his two inaugural addresses. Here’s one:

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.  This is the source of our confidence — the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.  This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed, why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall; and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served in a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

Oh no, the president threatened the stories of atheists by claiming that their confidence in American ideals is theologically rooted!

Anyway, I’ll get around to making a post about atheists being disliked, but for now, at least I found one more barely readable article written to the glee of the internet about how one last thing might spell the end of Donald Trump’s campaign.

When you use the Bible politically

I saw the article below:

One of the most amusing elements of the last few years has been watching the political left and theological left, both of which find themselves appalled by the actual content of the Bible, try to use the Bible politically. Now, the right does it in its own unproductive way. But this article is particularly egregious because it’s evident that the person didn’t read the New Testament. For instance, Jude attributes the plagues of Egypt to Jesus (Jude 1:5). Also, the gospels are only about  third of the New Testament, and one of them contains almost no healing.

The question of refugees isn’t my point. That’s a really good question with a multilayered answer and hundreds of sub-questions. My point is that ham-fisted uses of the Bible which are meant to guilt trip Christians into political action aren’t effective and they’re disingenuous.

The Imaginary Amendment

Last election season as morally and emotionally exhausting for many.

I thought it was pretty funny.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the whole thing was that in the space of about one year, the notion of purely open borders or even more to the point, the notion that the whole planet had a right to live within the boundaries of the United States of America became a frequent implication of talking points on the right and left.

I was even more intrigued by Bernie Sanders’ claim that such an idea was ludicrous. Steve Sailer recounts it here:

Bernie Sanders: Open borders? No, that’s a Koch brothers proposal.

Ezra Klein: Really?

Bernie Sanders: Of course. That’s a right-wing proposal, which says essentially there is no United States….

Ezra Klein: But it would make…

Bernie Sanders: Excuse me…

Ezra Klein: It would make a lot of global poor richer, wouldn’t it?

Bernie Sanders: It would make everybody in America poorer—you’re doing away with the concept of a nation-state, and I don’t think there’s any country in the world that believes in that.

The article cited above is pretty good. In it, the idea “that American citizens should get no say in who gets to move to America because huddled masses of non-Americans possess civil rights to immigrate” is called the “zeroth amendment.” It’s a clever name.

I mean, it may turn out that groups who wish to freely associate are wrong to exclude anybody ever, but few college safe space groups wish to be as open to outsiders as members of such groups wish for American borders to be.

Conservatism Conserves What?

This is an edit of a post from October 21st, 2016
When I was in junior high I learned about conservatives and liberals.
I was really confused about the fact that liberals wanted more rules for business owners and that conservatives wanted to spend more money on war.
A couple of years later, I converted to Christianity and found several conservative political positions to line up with my emerging moral consciousness. But, I also found several of them to abhorrent.
  1. Pro-life made sense. Abortion is the most insane inversion of the order nature I could and can imagine.
  2. I thought prison sentences for most crimes made no sense.
  3. Keeping the government mostly out of the market made sense (though I was skeptical of conservative opposition to minimum wage increases and I thought tariffs made sense)
  4. I also thought that going to war all of the time seemed to be a “liberal” use of money.

My Skepticism Rose

During Bush the Younger’s presidency, I remembered thinking that the privacy intrusions of the intelligence agencies, the quickness with which we went to war with Iraq over 9/11? WMDs? oil? (how and why was that wise?) and the reticence to do anything about abortion showed that conservatives meant [based on observing their actions] neither to conserve human life in general, American lives, nor the constitution.
Now that I’ve realized how little conservatives care to conserve. I tend to think that Republicans don’t actually want to win the pro-life argument at the legal level because then they couldn’t use the platform to get elected.

The Five Stages of Conservative

Ed Feser expertly mocked the conservative way of being in the world here:
  1. Stage 1: “Mark my words: if the extreme left had its way, they’d foist X upon us! These nutjobs must be opposed at all costs.”
  2. Stage 2: “Omigosh, now even thoughtful, mainstream liberals favor X! Fortunately, it’s political suicide.”
  3. Stage 3: “X now exists in 45 out of 50 states. Fellow conservatives, we need to learn how to adjust to this grim new reality.”
  4. Stage 4: “X isn’t so bad, really, when you think about it. And you know, sometimes change is good. Consider slavery…”
  5. Stage 5: “Hey, I was always in favor of X! You must have me confused with a [paleocon, theocon, Bible thumper, etc.]. But everyone knows that mainstream conservatism has nothing to do with those nutjobs…

Stage five describes contemporary conservatives thoroughly.

Christians do this, too.

“Those other Christians are bad, please like me now.”

I think I used to do it, too. Seminary trains you to want approval from non-Christians. Several professors I know are like this.

One of them is so condescending, even to people to whom he used to be a pastor, it’s difficult to imagine that he ever called himself a Christian. Usually hating Christians is the wine of atheists. But his main point is to signal to his academic friends that he’s not like all those low IQ rednecks he used to pastor.

No “Conservative Principles”

Even when conservatives claim to be using logic rather than rhetoric to make arguments against this or that idea or candidate, the same logic is applicable against them. Heck, I’ve heard conservatives rail against the tendency of populist movements to appeal to the poor and if anybody appeals to the poor they should be ignored. But that’s precisely part of Jesus’ appeal in the ancient world. Conservatives, in their effort to get people to see them as “not like those other conservatives” will make up principles they’ve never adopted before. This reminds me of when Publius Decius Mus opined that many of conservatives deep “principled concerns” aren’t even principles:

What, specifically, is good in a political context varies with the times and with circumstance, as does how best to achieve the good in a given context. The good is not tax rates or free trade. Those aren’t even principles. In the American political context, the good is the well-being of the physical America and its people, well-being defined (in terms that reflect both Aristotle and the American Founding) as their “safety and happiness.” That’s what conservatism should be working to conserve.

Examples

Mark Rubio said that he didn’t think conservatives should look at wikileaks materials because it might happen to conservatives one day. In other words, “It’s bad for politicians to be forced into transparency.” No moral principle such as privacy was evoked, but merely interest in power. Heck, it wasn’t even a, “Do unto others…” thing.

Elsewhere, on the Tweeter, Rick Wilson (a goober in love with family values rhetoric) asked Ann Coulter (who never claims to be polite) personal sex questions of a deeply disturbing nature.

In the National Review, Kevin Williamson exuberantly rhapsodized about how people who live in flyover communities deserve to die for no other reason except a “conservative” form of social darwinism which implies that politicians have no obligations toward the well being of their voters. No mention, of course, that it was bad trade deals supported by conservatives which sent their jobs overseas.

I’m Not Conservative

I’m not conservative by any respectably accepted definition. Conservatives, at least public pundits, are not interested in conserving principles, traditions, people, the economy, or the rule of law. They’re more interested in being the irenic but losing opposition to any of the forces bent on dissolving Western Civilization. The idea that sacrificing your view of the truth in response to social pressure is noble is unacceptable to me.

What is a good person?

Dallas Willard defines a morally good person:

The morally good person is a person who is devoted to advancing the various goods of human life with which they are effectively in contact, in a manner that respects their relative degrees of importance and the extent to which the actions of the person in question can actually promote the existence and maintenance of those goods. Thus, moral goodness is a matter of the organization of the human will called “character.”

This is a serviceable definition. It is a few words away from a definition of a mature Christian. I would alter it this way to make it Christ-centered:

The mature Christian is a person who is devoted to advancing the various goods of human life with which they are effectively in contact, in a manner that respects their relative degrees of importance and the extent to which the actions of the person in question can actually promote the existence and maintenance of those goods. The mature Christian recognizes that Jesus Christ’s teachings are the surest guide to the relative degrees of importance of those goods, especially Jesus’ focus on the kingdom of God and the righteousness thereof. They understand that God is the highest good and source of all good in the world, including any good in themselves. They also see that at any moment may reject the good and are therefore themselves in need of constant repentance and are necessarily in need of forgiveness and atonement. By treating Jesus’ words as the foundation of their lives, they thereby rely on God’s Spirit and receive transforming help from God himself. 

Willard also describes the morally bad person:

The person who is morally bad or evil is one who is intent upon the destruction of the various goods of human life with which they are effectively in contact, or who is indifferent to the existence and maintenance of those goods.

Of course, this is the person who is like Cain. Cain sees his brother Abel, wishes to have God’s approval just like him, and instead of sacrificing his own behavior and desires to achieve his ideal (to be like Abel) he slaughters his ideal. The morally bad person is similar. It’s not that they literally pursue evil. It’s that they take imprudent shortcuts to the good that destroy the good in the process or they pursue penultimate goods as the ultimate good (idolatry). Of course, the mature Christian sees the potential to become this person residing in their heart at all times. In fact, even an innocent person who has never sinned has the potential to become evil (see the Adam and Eve story).

Anything I’ve left out?

Rebuilding the Foundations

Bruce Charlton has a good post about the nature of the spiritual battle in the west:

Modern Man is sabotaged by an evil metaphysics – in other words, it is our fundamental assumptions that undermine and subvert good living for us.

We therefore need to discover, first that we actually do have a metaphysics; secondly what it is; and thirdly we need to reconstruct it so as to become true – insofar as we can discover true assumptions (which is a matter of intuition, revelation, direct knowing).

What are some of our evil metaphysical assumptions?

  1. That matter is primary reality.
  2. That meaning is imposed on the world by our minds rather than intrinsic to it.
  3. That life is therefore meaningless.
  4. That the scientific method is the only source for the only kind of knowledge.
  5. That cause and effect is only material.
  6. Truth is real.
  7. Truth is desirable enough to lose something to find it or say it.

It will generally be found (at least at first) that even when we have revised and improved our metaphysical assumptions; we nonetheless tend (partly by sheer habit, partly because of past social training and the prevalent surrounding culture); we nonetheless continue to use the old/ wrong metaphysics.

What he says here is one of the fundamental problems of most protestant forms of Christian discipleship. The protestant view is typically that belief leads to gratitude which leads to sincerely good works. But in reality, we get beliefs right on the level of intellectual assent or at least, pseudo assent for social acceptance. But we skip the fact that beliefs of that sort must be experienced to be true in practice. In other words, belief in doctrines not only leads to, but comes from practicing Christian practices. As an aside, the word translated “doctrine” in the King James Bible means, as far as I can tell, something closer to “apprenticeship.” It’s training in a whole way of life, not just transfer of beliefs.

One might observe that the metaphysical assumptions I mentioned above are not explicitly Christian, and that’s okay. In one sense, every true thing is Christian. But one need not be a Christian to hold to true metaphysical ideas. The gospel entails and assumes all of these ideas and one will have a hard time practicing the gospel without something like them in their minds. But many who do believe and live like those assumptions hold are not Christians.

What have I left out?