Tuesday, July 29, 2008

God, Objective vs. Subjective Ethics (and Meta-Ethics), and the Limits of Moral (and Legal) Authority

Many religious people, including many religious Jews, believe that without God, there can be no "objective" ethics and, the argument continues for some, therefore no legitimate basis on which to define ethical conduct or "impose" moral authority on others.

I do not subscribe to this view.

In my experience, there is some confusion over what people mean by "objective" ethics. So, let me begin by offering two very different definitions, one focused on first-order ethics -- that is, defining what is "right" and "wrong" -- and the other focused on meta-ethics -- that is, defining the nature and foundation of ethics:

First-order "objective ethics" refers to ethical precepts of a general nature that apply similarly in all relevantly similar situations and circumstances. (Conversely, "subjective ethics" in this sense means that each individual defines his or her own ethical precepts, which may be different from other people in relevantly similar circumstances, and perhaps even different for the same person in relevantly similar circumstances.)

Meta-ethical "objective ethics" refers to ethical precepts that are external to human beings, like the law of gravity. (Conversely, "subjective ethics" in this sense means that moral views are human opinions grounded in human realities such as biology, psychology, and social interaction.)

Based on these definitions, several observations can be made:

1. Whether one subscribes to the objective or subjective meta-ethical view, one can adopt the first-order objective view. That is, whether we believe ethics are an independent constant or a human construction, we can believe that first-order ethical precepts apply similarly in similar situations.

Now, this is not to say that the subjectivist believes that ethical precepts can be "true" or "false" -- that is, demonstrated as one would a mathematical proof or the law of gravity. But to say they cannot be proven is not to say they are not objective. It is one thing to claim that some action in some set of circumstances -- say, torturing your child for getting up from the dinner table, or ignoring the presence of a destitute beggar on the street -- is always "right" or "wrong." It is a very different thing to claim that this can be demonstrated to anyone using some set of logical principles (and that any lack of agreement could only be explained by some failure of apprehension).

(Incidentally, although there is a difference of opinion about whether first-order precepts can be "true" or "false," both meta-ethical objectivists and subjectivists agree that meta-ethical statements can be true or false.)

2. The meta-ethical subjective stance is not the same as moral relativism. One can take the view that moral principles are a human construct, but nonetheless do not necessarily vary in different contexts and cultures.

3. The meta-ethical subjective stance is not the same as moral nihilism. One can take the view that moral principles are a human construct, but nonetheless have substance and meaning.

4. Theists need not be meta-ethical objectivists, and atheists need not be meta-ethical subjectivists. Although atheists often adopt the subjectivist position, it is logically possible and not uncommon for atheists to advance the argument that ethics can be objectively derived from the nature of humans and reality. Similarly, although theists usually adopt the objectivist position, it is logically possible and not uncommon for theists to believe that God did not "create" moral law. (The Euthyphro dilemma speaks to this latter issue.)

I adopt the subjectivist meta-ethical view because I believe first-order ethical precepts are inextricably linked with "values" -- propositions about what is meaningful and worthwhile that are connected to, but not logically dictated by, "facts" about humans and the world.

If we believe there is no God, or that God did not "create" a moral reality, we are not launched into a moral abyss without any points of reference for humans to create ethical constructs. Virtually all humans share the same basic survival and growth needs, certain core emotional responses, and certain core social behaviors. We all share the same physical reality and rules of logic.

Thus, we can have meaningful conversations about values being more or less desirable notwithstanding the fact that we may not be able to "prove" anything in this regard. The reasons why most people agree about murder might be more like the reasons most people agree about sauerkraut ice cream than we think.

Western philosophy has offered a variety of systems for weighing values and making moral judgments, based on virtue, justice, natural rights, utilitarianism, and the common good, among other things. None of these is completely satisfactory to me, but they all offer signposts. They also present more than a little evidence for the proposition that meaningful conversations are possible in the absence of a provable solution.

But if murder really is a lot like sauerkraut ice cream, some have argued, we lose any basis on which to "impose" our moral judgment on others -- whether through mere moral persuasion or an attempt to actually control and/or punish certain behavior.

The former proposition is simpler to address. We can try to "convince" people that fine French food is "better" than sauerkraut ice cream (or McDonald's or fine Italian food) by appealing to their own internal sense perceptions and instincts, principles of cooking, facts about the nature of the human tongue and taste sensation, and on and on. And we can try to "convince" people that murder is "worse" than the alternative by appealing to their own internal perceptions and instincts, principles of human biology and psychology, social dynamics, the value systems listed above, and on and on.

But we cannot "prove" murder is wrong any more than we can "prove" sauerkraut ice cream is yucky. This is in my view a reality of the human condition.

And even if we could "prove" ethical rules, that would not result in everyone following them. This is in my view another reality of the human condition.

The good news from my point of view is that Judaism is a superb vehicle for tackling moral issues. This is not because God exists, or because the Torah was written by God, but because the Torah and other sources of Jewish wisdom do an excellent job of elucidating a set of values that are well-grounded in the realities of human nature and experience and exploring not only how they fit together, but also how they stand in tension. (After all, "ethical dilemmas" usually arise when important values stand in opposition, not when everything points in the same direction.) For someone preoccupied with ethical behavior -- "making better people and making people better," as I am fond of saying -- Judaism is first and foremost useful.

The latter proposition -- the use of individual force or communal police power -- is not so much a matter of ethics as political philosophy. Our right to stop (or punish) the murderer is not based on the fact that we can "prove" that murder is wrong; it is based on our individual desire to protect ourselves and others from being murdered and from our communal agreement to form societies and governments that will exercise this power on our behalf.

The reason that murder and sauerkraut ice cream are different is not that one is a matter of fact and the other is a matter of taste. The difference lies in the fact that murderers create consequences that sauerkraut ice cream eaters do not. The decision to stop or punish the murderer lies in a moral and political consensus about the desirability of doing so and not on pure logic.

In this realm, Jewish wisdom is somewhat less useful. The Torah and Oral Law more or less assume a world in which Jewish religious authority and government authority are one in the same. There are not simply moral maxims and lessons; there are consequences and penalties imposed not only by God but also by men. This is not to say that Jewish wisdom does not speak to issues of politics and government. But in our modern secular world, there is generally a disconnect between religious authority on the one hand and government authority and police power on the other. (Indeed, some religious conservatives have as a top priority either eliminating this disconnect or working around it through separation from secular society.) A moral consensus, based on religious principles or otherwise, may produce the political consensus necessary to exercise authority, but that does not mean that the moral and political consensus are one in the same.

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