Showing posts with label moral. Show all posts
Showing posts with label moral. Show all posts

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Why I am a Utilitarian and a Catholic

For a blogpost titled for what I am, it might be odd to start with what I am not. I am not an ethicist. The only reason I know anything about ethics is that ethics deals with how one ought to act, and I, like everyone else, have to act in some way or another. I would like to think that I have as much ethical expertise as business professionals have mathematical expertise: not that much, but enough to do their jobs. Some sort of ethical knowledge is necessary for humans, which are generally moral agents, and therefore I must be acquainted with ethical precepts to do “my job.” But I am not an ethicist.

I have often said that utilitarianism is the only potential candidate for a secular theory of ethics, a position I have held for many years, even when I was an atheist, even when I was willing to act in
Henry Sidgwick, often held
to be the greatest utilitarian.
accordance with my utilitarian values. Utilitarianism is, I think, the first and only truly empiricist theory of ethics, and I would defend it thus: I perceive self-evidently that pleasure is better than pain, indeed, that pleasure is good (hence pleasurable) and pain is bad. I infer that pleasure is better than pain for all sentient beings. I draw the conclusion, then, that what is right is that there be more pleasure and less pain, and finally, that an action is right when it maximises pleasure and minimises pain.

This reasoning solves what I will refer to as the “value problem” (how to jump from a set of empirical data to a value) by empiricist means: I know pleasure is valuable because I experience pleasure as good. It has a positive phenomenal quality. I should note that pleasure is being used in a pseudo-technical sense, because I do not necessarily mean simple pleasures (like eating a good piece of chocolate) but holistic pleasure (which might include reading a good book, or beating a personal best in the pool, or discovering some new fact about the universe). The reverse is true for justifying that pain is bad. This seems to be a solution to the value problem, and if one supposes that other beings are also capable of experiencing pleasure and pain, then I think an objective moral duty follows: ceteris paribus, one must increase pleasure and decrease pain.1

When I became a Christian, and more importantly, when I became (of all stripes of Christian) a Catholic, I had to re-evaluate my position. Nonetheless, the argument that I have proposed for utilitarianism does not become unsound (supposing it was sound in the first place) simply because of the large set of other justified beliefs I now had.2 None of these other beliefs negate the truth of the empirical premise (that pleasure has positive phenomenal qualities, and pain has bad) or the assumption that other sentient creatures are capable of experiencing pain and pleasure. Still, the Church believes in moral rights and wrongs that do not make sense on a utilitarian framework – in most of those cases, the Church is closer to our natural moral intuitions than utilitarian theory is. How was I to make sense of this?

Since I am not an ethicist, and because utilitarian theory and Christian ethics accord on plenty of points, it took me a while to even bother to try and solve this problem. I told everyone that I was a virtue ethicist, although I half meant that I held to the virtue of maximising the good, which is a very utilitarian way of thinking about virtue ethics.

The solution I propose to harmonise both positions seems to me to be remarkably simple, and maybe somebody came up with it before me, even though I did not take it consciously from anywhere else. Because I study mathematics, and because utilitarianism lends itself naturally to discussions of moral calculus, this solution might sound overly mathematical and complicated, but the principle is very simple: experience shows that pleasure is an intrinsic good. What being a Catholic adds is consideration of other intrinsic goods. Being Catholic does not so much negate the previous solution to the value problem that utilitarianism offers, it expands it, and in many cases, it may well overshadow the value given to pleasure.

Take the almost canonical example to illustrate the non-intuitive aspects of utilitarianism, the fat man on the bridge who could be pushed over to stop a train and save the lives of a group of five people working on the train rail tracks: utilitarian theory says that pushing over this “innocent” bystander is the morally obligatory act – not only justifiable, but morally obligatory. It is a simple calculation, ignoring for a moment variables such as capacity of happiness of each person: killing one saves five. Easy as that. I would have nodded my head at this morally non-intuitive result, all the more happy to be accepting the logical conclusion of an argument without reference to how I feel about it.

The difference being a Catholic changes is not to devalue pleasure (or utility, or happiness, etc.) but to value human life. Perhaps it might be objected “but that was the problem, one life for the sake of five”, except that sort of calculation only works for finite values on human life. Suppose human life were to be valued infinitely. Then the moral calculus makes no sense, the set of allowable transfinite calculations does not include operations like subtraction to yield a useful quantity for moral calculus.3

Were this a proper article, I would be obliged to discuss and work out how theoretical calculations could be computed in light of these difficulties. However, my purpose is more conservative: to explain both my utilitarianism, duly modified to incorporate newly found truths, with an ethical system that seems opposed to it. Unless unassailable difficulties arise which I cannot foresee, I will remain comfortable in this position as an orthodox Catholic who accepts the basic utilitarian argument.

1 I am aware that pleasure and pain are related, but not mere opposites, and so the moral calculus may need some more thought and refinement, that is, decreasing pain and increasing pleasure may, in some rare cases, pull in different directions, and in such cases the principle is inconclusive. I am also aware that situations where some pain leads to greater pleasure are not entirely clear on this basic principle. Ask me, if you want to know about my solutions to these problems.

2 One thing that did change is that, as beings who will have an eternal future, the moral calculation would have to include the afterlife. But that is readily understood in terms of utilitarian theory, and it still leaves (indeed, probably exasperates) the question of why some things were wrong in an of themselves.

3 If I were talking about a ratio, then I might be able to do the calculation, using l'Hôpital's rule, which some high school students and all first year mathematicians learn about. But that would complicate the otherwise simple point.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Time in the Evangelical Church

This is part II of a four part series. The others are (in order): Road from Unbelief, The Road to Rome, The Road Ahead.

It seems the case to me that even the most rationally inclined people have some reasons for their religious or irreligious position which goes beyond the purely logical or rational. Individuals simply do not exist independent of emotional, cultural, existential or other extra-rational factors. As an atheist, my position was intellectual but also useful, simple and easy, in addition to a certain feeling of rational snobbery that underlies believing that I had freed myself from humankind's religious yoke. This post will hopefully give an overview of my experience after sixteen months in the Evangelical tradition and what meta-rational reasons I encountered for being a Christian.

I had finished the previous part with new-found belief in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and how that led me to think I could aptly be called a Christian. However being a Christian, as anyone well knows, is rarely defined by "belief in the resurrection" - it is a position that has far more labels than that, and indeed by some people, even belief in the resurrection is not crucial to Christianity. Yet I would find it very difficult to believe in the resurrection without calling myself a Christian of sorts. I set about finding an explanation of why God would perform this miracle that made me Christian.

I made two mistakes which I recognize in hindsight: the shock of this belief made me throw all my rationality into the air for a moment, and I became a young Earth creationist.I also became a believer in biblical inerrancy without any other reason than that Jesus (who I now believed to have been resurrected) seemed to be revealed in the Bible.

The first rash belief I left within a week - the week of Easter 2012 when I visited Beulah for a rock climbing festival. I dropped it not so much because I came to the conclusion that the relevant texts did not prescribe young Earth creationism - after reading some more of the Bible I will quickly come to hold the view that science is perfectly legitimate, in line with most Christian denominations (see here) - but because I went about my day and found too many facts that contradicted that belief. Though I had rashly come to this belief, the burst of "maybe everything I know is wrong!" was quickly put down by reality. I hope readers will be understanding with my blunder: revolutions in world-view tend to have the effect of producing bizarre beliefs, and I am grateful that my error was short lived in light of the mind-boggling senselessness of young Earth creationism when it comes to reality. For my Christian brethren who disagree with me on this point, it is important to note that when somebody like myself comes to believe a proposition - in this case, "Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead" - by empirical means, one would be denying the very foundation of one's belief in that proposition if one then went on to deny empirical means. So any believer who believes because of historical evidence must in turn believe the truths discovered through scientific evidence, lest an incoherence be brought about.

The second belief is one I still hold, in some form, but the problematic bit is the phrase "without any other reason." I believed in what I would find out to be called sola scriptura without any epistemological warrant other than the view that since the scriptura talked about Christ, it must be right; a clear fallacy. About eight months later I would write about what I had come to think the real foundation for knowledge in Christianity is in the blog posts here and here (a position which I kind of retain, but with much more sophistication and without certain elements).

Nonetheless, those two issues aside, I thought that the central idea of Christianity was the forgiveness of sins because of the penal substitution of Jesus on our behalf. I got this idea in primitive form from a Pentecostal-Charismatic church (called "Hope Church") that I attended for a few weeks, and in a more elaborate form from Unichurch, which I almost accidentally walked into, in a sermon on Romans 3. I raised a question to the pastor there which would become a prominent issue on my mind a few months later, but I let it rest with "wait for Romans 6" at the time.

A philosophical note before I continue: as an atheist, I had been convinced that the only basis for morality in a secular framework (I wouldn't have dreamed of trying to think of what a non-secular framework might bring) was utilitarianism, and I still think this is the case. So I was a utilitarian, and as a relatively reflective utilitarian, I had noticed a problem: if the morally right action, and hence the obligatory action, was that one which maximized the greatest happiness for the greatest number, then the biggest problem I had was not that some of the outcomes were against my moral sensibilities, but that I did not do those actions which I believed.

It is a classical "problem" in utilitarianism that the obligations placed upon the utilitarian to act morally are enormous and go beyond what most think to be reasonable demands. Consider this: if I like ice-cream, and the ice-cream costs two dollars, may I buy it? No, because two dollars could save a life, and if not a life, then contribute towards much more happiness elsewhere. It is immoral to do anything that would not maximize happiness, and it usually turned out that what I wanted to do did no such thing. Yet I bought the ice-cream anyway. As an atheist, this is an incongruence, but as someone who now believed in the existence of God who cares about each person, who cares what I do...well suddenly I am in a bit of a pickle. For I have done wrong, and that has consequences.

It is sometimes said that modernity and post-modernity had done away with the idea of universal sinfulness in humankind, but I was convinced, since I seemed to able to indulge in my own pleasure and not able enough to live out the weighty demands of doing everything for the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people (some include animals and other sentient beings), that I at least was sinful. Which means that one of the core tenets of the Christian faith, which is that Jesus Christ came to address that very issue of sin in me, was not only sensible but also my only hope. If I was to have any hope of being in good standing with this God I had discovered, then he was going to need to forgive me.

Within this utilitarian framework, I therefore understood grace: I cannot be good enough to deserve favour with God,  I cannot claim that I have rights before God - I cannot even say I satisfied the minimum requirements of the moral law! Now, God's moral precepts are not explicitly utilitarian, but the notion that the demands of the moral law are the very maximum one can give meant that I was necessarily incapable, had I sinned even once, of being in good favour with God. Had I done everything correctly, were it even possible to never err in my deeds, I could merely claim that God should not punish me.

Throughout the almost one and a half years in the Evangelical church that I have spent, there is one thing that I hold to be both self-evident, undeniable and irreplaceable: sola Gratia. The Evangelical church has taught me much theology, many Reformed doctrines, pointed me often to the Scriptures, and yet that phrase, "by Grace alone," necessarily remains at the core of my Christianity, the condition without which none may plead for the mercy of God. What may we say before the throne of God when he asks "why should I let you into my Kingdom"? Kyrie Eleison! Any other answer is futile.

To finish, having read enough of the Bible to figure out conclusively that baptism was highly important, I pushed to be baptized, which happened on October 28th, 2012, at the UQ swimming pool. By that time, I could approve of the bolded parts of the Nicene-Constantinople creed (which is an expanded version of the Apostle's creed - both have a distinctly high Christology in light of the battle against heretical Christology):

I believe in one God, the Father almighty,

    maker of heaven and earth,

    of all things visible and invisible.

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,

        the Only Begotten Son of God,

        born of the Father before all ages.

    God from God, Light from Light,

        true God from true God,

    begotten, not made, consubstantial
       with the Father;

        Through him all things were made.

    For us men and for our salvation

        he came down from heaven,

        and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate

        of the Virgin Mary,
        and became man.

    For our sake he was crucified
      under Pontius Pilate,

        he suffered death and was buried,

        and rose again on the third day

        in accordance with the Scriptures.

    He ascended into heaven

        and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

    He will come again in glory

        to judge the living and the dead

        and his kingdom will have no end.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,

        the Lord, the giver of life,

    who proceeds from the Father and the Son,

    who with the Father and the Son

        is adored and glorified,

        who has spoken through the prophets.
I believe in one, holy, catholic,
     and apostolic Church.
    I confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins
        and I look forward to the resurrection

        of the dead and the life of the world to come.

Monday, 18 February 2013

The Immoral Argument against the Old Testament

The core question of ethics, "what ought one do?" is one of the foundational questions of philosophy. Christianity seems to get ethics from the Bible, but is it really a good source? If one looks at the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, then it may seem very plausible. Yet the earliest gentile Christians realized that it was not quite so simple - they were going to have to contend with the seemingly abhorrent actions committed by Israel, codified into Mosaic Law and commanded by God. Can an argument from the immorality of the Hebrew Bible suffice to reject the Bible as authoritative on matters of morality?

Allow me first to bring up some of this "evidence". From things Israel committed, see Numbers 31
where Moses commands the Israelites (it can be reasonably argued from verse 7 that God was the one who really commanded, but it is possible that the brutality was not God's - in this instance) to destroy the Midianites, and then Moses complains further when the Israelites have not killed every woman. These Midianite women and the men (referred to as boys in the passage) are to be put to death. The virgins, however, are kept as plunder "for themselves".

If the ownership of women seems unlawful to you, then this only complicates matters, as the law of Moses clearly speaks of women as property[1], for instance, in Exodus 22:16-17. Christians can speak of Jesus abolishing this law all they like, but the gospel according to St Matthew is insistent on the fact that Jesus' role was fulfilment, not abolishment - and if the sinless man fulfils it, then the Mosaic law must be the standard of morality to judge sin by. Furthermore, if Christians are adamant that Jesus actions mean we can ignore the law of Moses, why does St Paul refer to it as good and holy? (see: Romans 7:12)

One final piece of evidence: God's own explicit commands. Where better than the genocide of Joshua, commanded in Deuteronomy 7? I take this last instance to be common enough knowledge, and if not, then Deuteronomy is clear enough.

Now comes the logic part. It seems to be the case that these have nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus, about compassion on loving on another - but they do, for Jesus claims to be the son of the God of Israel and no other. The modus ponens argument I suggest is as follows:

1. To commit or command the actions listed above is immoral. (P implies Q - commanding these actions implies that the commander is immoral)
2. God commands the actions listed above. (P: God does indeed command these actions)
3. Therefore, God is immoral. (Q: therefore, by modus ponens, God is immoral)

The logic of this statement is valid, but one may also attack the truth of the premises. Some Christians reject the first premise, saying that it is not in all times, cultures and places immoral to kill others or enslave them. Some say that it may be for most, but not for God, because God can do whatever he likes. Phrased in a more sophisticated manner, God has no moral obligations, as nothing is above God to impose them.

Very well, but that neither seems biblical nor does it seem to bode well in philosophy, either. If God does not, by his very own righteous nature, impose standards on his own actions, then how does he impose standards on ours? Where does this standard come from in the Christian view, if not from God's own essence? Either we propose an authority above God from which morality emanates, thereby constraining God, or we reject this and propose that the standard is, in fact, from within God and then he must have moral obligations; to himself.

But the second premise can also be challenged. Is biblical infallibility a terribly out-dated doctrine that ought to be left aside? It would certainly be helpful to reject it at times like these! Or at least, do we really need to take things so literally, word-for-word true, leaving aside the human element inherent in it?

In fact, I would opt for something along the lines of the latter. There are however, problems with this view, and there exist tensions which I am not wise enough to solve. Succinctly, the most crucial is that the New Testament writers all valued the Old Testament very highly, if not as inerrant. For some more discussion on this topic, see Why the Old Testament Cannot be Waved Away.

[1] It has come to my attention that the Roman Catholic Church actually (quite prudently in my opinion) has the decalogue (10 Commandments) arranged in a different way. These commandments are numbered 10, but there are in fact 13 "you shall not"s, and so it falls upon the translators to combine them to make 10. Catholics combine the "first two" and separate wives from property, avoiding this problem.

Thursday, 31 January 2013

Does the Old Testament provide an argument against Christian belief?

Let me take a moment to explain the title - most people do not speak Latin, and even fewer (although I admit, I have not checked the statistics) have taken a class in formal logic. The modus ponens is a form of logical argument which is so good (or old) that it was given a Latin name. It has a brother, the modus tollens, which is basically the reverse.

Modus ponens means "way that affirms by affirming" and it has a formal statement in terms of P and Q (which you can find on the wikipedia page), but it basically says that if some proposition definitely entails another proposition, but that second proposition is false, then the original one is false also. For example:

If I always have a cold during winter, and I do not have a cold, it follows that it is not winter, by modus tollens.

How does this apply to Christianity? A few days ago I wrote a post entitled "Why the Old Testament Cannot be Waved Away", and although I tried to simultaneously point out why it cannot be ignored and why it cannot be taken at face value...some things just seem obvious. I can imagine that with some form of Old Testament authority in mind, one can construct at least three types of modus ponens or modus tollens arguments: 

1) Moral
2) Scientific
3) Historical

Now, all three will need to be examined individually by each Christian (when actually formulated, of course). Anyone who is going to consider the Bible as a source of information about God will have to wonder about the arguments against it at some point if they are to be rational beings. I shan't formulate them now because I want you to think for yourself whether there is anything in the Bible that could disprove its validity. I can think of at least a few contenders.