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

 

Reflections on Abraham

Abraham and Melchizedek in the Loggia di Raffaello in Vatican City.

What is a father?

Genesis presents Abraham as being the father of many nations.

The whole Bible presents the Israelites as the ‘sons of Abraham’ on multiple occasions.

The New Testament, in particular, presents anybody with appropriate faith in God (whatever that means…but usually faith in Christ) as a child of Abraham.

This is significant for many reasons, not the least of which is that the father in the Bible is a figure for the accumulated wisdom of the past in a way that is indicative of a divine voice:[1]

See: Proverbs 1:8,10,15; 2:1; 3:1,11,21; 4:10,20; 5:1,20; 6:1,3,20; 7:1; 19:27; 23:15,19,26; 24:13,21; 27:11; 31:2.

Why does this matter? Abraham’s story in the Bible could be read as a representation of the ideal life of goodness in a post-catastrophic world. Or in question and answer format:

Q: In a world where evil, disaster, and death are a given, what does it mean to seek the good God has for us in the world?

A: Look at Abraham.

The New Testament does not shy away from this answer, despite having Jesus as an example. Jesus, in John 8 points to the works of Abraham. Paul in Romans 4 and Galatians 3-4 points to the faith of Abraham. Hebrews is largely about Abraham’s patient faith in God. And James 2 points directly at the good works of Abraham as exemplary even for those after the resurrection of Christ.

Below are my reflections on some of the passages that indicate that Genesis means for us to see Abraham as an example of the good life:

Genesis 12:1-3

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. (2) And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. (3) I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

In the passage above, we see that there is an implied condition. Abraham must go to be made into a great nation. That Genesis presents the promise as fulfilled shows that we’re meant to see Abraham as a man who kept a covenant with God. Incidentally, he also took the offer out of self-interest. I’ve written about this before.

Genesis 17:1-8

When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, (2) that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” (3) Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, (4) “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. (5) No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. (6) I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. (7) And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. (8) And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”

Here, God’s covenant is made more explicit. It’s called a covenant and in it Abraham is promised to be a father of nations. But what is the condition, “walk before me and be blameless.” The reader is to understand that Abraham actually did do this. God promises to make Abraham very fruitful here, which hearkens back to Noah and Adam as the first man and the second first man. While I don’t quote it, the covenant above includes circumcision, which appears to be a civilizational curtailing of sexual obsession. “You’ll be fruitful but there is a limit to that.” I suspect that circumcision goes back to Genesis 2:22-24 to indicate that sexuality is a blessing and a limitation. Abraham is to be the father of many but that understanding is that his sexuality and those of his children be limited by the wound and healing power of marriage.

Genesis 24:1

Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years. And the LORD had blessed Abraham in all things.

And this passage shows that by the end of it all, Abraham had been blessed by God in all things. He kept the covenant as best a man can in the circumstances (fallen nature, a barbaric world, and a pagan worldview). And so the indication is that if a reader/listener to Genesis wants to experience the blessing offered to humanity in Genesis 1:26-31, being like Abraham is a stable method of doing so.

This is the affirmation of the Old and New Testaments, of prophets, apostles, and Jesus.

Footnote

[1] Obviously, fathers can also be wrong which is why the Bible commends listening more than tradition, like Scripture and reason to know the truth.

Effort Habit: Keep the Faculty of Effort Alive in You

William James on the Effort Habit

One of my favorite selections from James’ psychology text book is about developing an effort habit:

Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day. That is, be systematically ascetic or heroic in little unnecessary points, do every day or two something for no other reason than that you would rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test. Asceticism of this sort is like the insurance which a man pays on his house and goods. The tax does him no good at the time, and possibly may never bring him a return. But if the fire does come, his having paid it will be his salvation from ruin. So it is with the man who has daily inured himself with habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things. He will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him, and when his softer fellow-mortals are winnowed like chaff in the blast. – William James, The Principals of Psychology, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 130.

That little paragraph has been very helpful to me. James makes the excellent point that exercising yourself in self-denial until it becomes a habit for you to handle discomfort is an an incredible down payment on handling trials. I agree. Self-mastery of this sort is practically a super power.

Your Bad Habits are a Hell on Earth

He also notes later that “the physiological study of mental conditions is thus the most powerful ally in hortatory ethics. The hell to be endured hereafter, of which theology tells, is no worse than the hell we make for ourselves in this world by habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way. Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to themselves while in the plastic state (James, 130).”

In the Christian conception hell is an experience in life and post-mortem. Even if you reject the existence of God and of eternal judgment, you cannot reject the existence of hell if you’ve seen the state people get into because of their own awful habits.

You must develop good, challenging, creative habits in for your mind, body, spirit, career, and relationships and you’ve got to do it little by little every day. And if you don’t want to, imagine for a moment the hell you’ll be in if you let yourself continue down the path of your worst possible self.

Develop Christian Habits

In the present age we American Christians have become soft. Too much comfort, entertainment, easy to prepare food, and soft chairs should have given up more time to read Scripture, contemplate God, improve our skills, perfect our bodies, and care for our neighbors. William James has a lot to say to the religious today: keep the effort habit alive. Being a Christian does not excuse us from self-denial, it demands it of us!

A Parting Quote

As we become permanent drunkards by so many separate drinks, so we become saints in the moral, and authorities and experts in the scientific and practical spheres, by so many separate acts and hours of work. Let no youth have any anxiety about the upshot of his education…If he keep faithfully busy each hour of the working day, he may safely leave the result to itself. He can with perfect certainty count of waking up some fine morning, to find himself one of the competent ones of his generation in whatever pursuit he may have singled out ( James, 131).”

The slippery slope argument is a fallacy they said.

A few days ago, I read that an article had been published in a peer-reviewed journal two years back which argued that post-birth abortion wasn’t really infanticide. I thought that things were surely exaggerated. I really hoped that the article was written as a piece of speculative ethics meant to say, “If we accept ‘a’, then ‘b’ must surely follow.” It is not speculative, I fear. I found the article on Ebsco (thankful to be back in college, an ebsco article a day keeps the boredom away). Here is the abstract:

Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not
have anything to do with the fetus’ health. By showing
that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the
same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that
both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3)
adoption is not always in the best interest of actual
people, the authors argue that what we call ‘after-birth
abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all
the cases where abortion is, including cases where the
newborn is not disabled. (Giubilini and Minerva)

This is not a doctored quote from a conservative scare piece. It really is the abstract of an article in the Journal of Medical Ethics. I do not mean to sound morally superior here. I am and will always be a sinner who has been justified by God’s grace. This is how things work in the economy of God’s grace. I have sinned and do sin. I even relish sin. But some evils are so obviously stupid and deleterious to civilization that I wonder how it is even possible that they can drip from the pens of people with advanced degrees. I can only guess that something like the Dunning-Kruger effect leads to these sorts of issues. One thinks that since they are good at going to school, that they are also good at moral reasoning. I wish that the article was written by a couple of trolls or a sci-gen style publication generator for philosophy papers, but it wasn’t.  Here are some excerpts:
In spite of the oxymoron in the expression, we propose to call this practice ‘after-birth abortion’, rather than ‘infanticide’, to emphasise that the moral status of the individual killed is comparable with that of a fetus (on which ‘abortions’ in the traditional sense are performed) rather than to that of a child. Therefore, we claim that killing a newborn could be ethically permissible in all the circumstances where abortion would be. Such circumstances include cases where the newborn has the potential to have an (at least) acceptable life, but the well-being of the family is at risk. Accordingly, a second terminological specification is that we call such
a practice ‘after-birth abortion’ rather than ‘euthanasia’ because the best interest of the one who dies is not necessarily the primary criterion for the choice, contrary to what happens in the case of euthanasia. (2) There are two reasons which, taken together, justify this claim:
  1. The moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus, that is, neither can be considered a ‘person’ in a morally relevant sense.
  2. It is not possible to damage a newborn by preventing her from developing the potentiality to become a person in the morally relevant sense.

I remember in high-school debate, making the argument that there is a slippery slope in the reasoning of those in support of late-term abortion. I specifically argued that since the justifications used in favor of abortion could just as easily be applied to newborn infants with unfavorable traits, that the justifications in favor of abortion should be discarded (I didn’t even know what reductio ad absurdum meant).

I came to realize, so I thought, that my argument was likely mistaken. Even though warrior cultures in the past discarded babies with unfavorable traits, that as a global civilization we were past that and my argument was unrealistic. Twelve years later and it turns out I was right, a peer-reviewed ethics journal used the exact argument I proposed was coming. I mean, down to the premises and conclusion, it is basically the same. I wish I were more organized in high-school and had written these things down rather than just having ad-hoc discussions with people at competitions (btw, this was never a thesis we debated in competition).

I’m not saying I was prescient. I wasn’t. I’m saying that most sensible people saw the analog between the two ideas. They often knew that it had to be in the minds of those who supported abortion rights. Such people, in a misguided sense of rhetorical good-faith or dialectical charity simply, thought it was unacceptable to actually impute such ideas to others.

I’m starting to wonder (though I can’t be right about this) if every time you tell somebody that their idea sounds like it supports (X) and they protest with dozens of qualifications, the person really does support (X). If the person simply says, “No, I don’t support (X),” then they probably don’t. Remember folks, we may have technology, good movies, and lots of awesome micro-brewed beer, but we live in a world wherein infanticide is being renamed and viewed favorably amongst academics.

Works Cited
Giubilini, Alberto, and Francesca Minerva. “After-Birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?” Journal of Medical Ethics (2012): medethics–2011–100411. jme.bmj.com. Web. 2 Apr. 2015.

Ancient Sexual Ethics

“For traditional societies, social justice, and not sexual conduct, is the basis for morality. Consequently, teaching dealing with virginity, marriage, divorce, infidelity, adultery, promiscuity, and rape are concerned not only with the sexual relationships of individuals or couples, but also with the social and economic relationships between the households in the village as a whole.”
Victor Mattews. 
The Social World of Ancient Israel 1250-587 BCE (Henrickson), 31.

Ancient forms of ethics/law were concerned with the integrity of the whole group rather than the rights of individuals. It is not that individuals did not have rights, it is just that individual desires (the desire to sleep with whomever you wish) were to be regulated on the basis of the impact those desires would have if fulfilled. 

The modern ethic of authenticity (the idea that what I want is uniquely best for me if I seek it in the way that I know best because I am me) leads to a vision of virtue that I predict cannot be sustained in the long term. If everybody gets what they want then only some people can get what they need. And if everybody’s sexual impulses are equally good, then nobody’s are particularly bad or dastardly. This is playing out in a big confusing way in the entertainment and political realms right now.