God, rationalism, and morality: a controversy

“We hold these truths to be self-evident:  that all men are created equal.” Justify by the strict application of rational arguments.

“Blessed are the meek:  for they shall inherit the earth.” Again, justify using rational argumentation.

“And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.” Justify by rational argument.

The principles set forth above have become part of the moral foundation of American life.  I believe in them without qualification.  All adult citizens must be treated equally.  The vulnerable among us must be protected.  Everyone else must stand on their own feet, sovereign and self-reliant.

No compelling logical reasons impose these propositions on us.  We have chosen them as moral ideals:  as such, they are neither objects in the world nor logical deductions, but rather conditions we desire and toward which we aspire.  Other societies aspired differently, glorying in aristocratic inequality, ruthless treatment of the weak, self-abasement before rulers.  They were no less rational than we are.

The shapers of morality are human nature and the history of a particular community.  Human nature sets the parameters.  The customs and traditions of the community – its inching toward an ideal – tweak these parameters to meet the requirements of a given environment.

Individually, the driver is emotion.  We don’t reason our way to condemnation of child abuse:  we grow angry at the sight of it.  Later, we may devise rational arguments to persuade others – sometimes ourselves – of the rightness of our opinions and actions.  But I feel the wrongness of child abuse with a delicacy that, say, an ancient Spartan would have lacked.

The primacy of genetics and emotions in morality is somewhat controversial – but at this late hour, not all that much.  On the one side stands 2,500 years of moral philosophy exalting the “rational life”; on the other, a growing body of research.  For those interested in learning for themselves, I recommend starting with Jonathan Haidt’s The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail, and Antonio Damaso’s Descartes Error.

An interesting blogospheric dispute has erupted between Adam of Sophistpundit and Martin Cothran of Vital Remnants, regarding the place of God in solving the problem of a rational morality.

Adam rejects any necessary connection between God and morality, or between reason and morality.  Even if God commands a specific behavior, he argues, there’s no compelling logical reason to obey.  Real life often presents situations in which moral imperatives clash, so in the end we’ll always be guided by interpretations – that is, by the customs and traditions of the community.

For Adam, human nature, in the form of emotions, is the foundation of morality.  This not unlike the position I hold, set forth above.

Cothran appears to be an Aristotelian (in ethics at least, one can do worse).  His concept of morality requires an inherent purpose in nature, driving man-as-he-is toward man-as-he-could-be.  Adam’s appeal to human nature, he holds, is stuck in man-as-he-is, and thus makes impossible “any justification of morality at all.”

Stripping moral order from the nature of things reduces morality to an all-too-human “crap shoot,” Cothran maintains.

Parsing the debate, a pair of central questions emerge.  In morality, does human nature negate teleology (“man-as-he-could-be”)?  And does the negation of teleology lead to a moral “crap shoot,” in which anything goes?

My answer to the first question would be “yes, but.”  Grounding morality in human nature strips away any purpose inherent to the world:  but not, let it be noted, human purpose while acting in the world.  Every morality is erected on ideals.  Every ideal is an unattainable model of behavior.  Every good person is inching toward an ideal vision of himself:  that person-as-he-could-be.

But this isn’t inherent to nature.  It’s chosen by the community and the person:  by us.

My answer to the second question would be to return to the moral propositions at the top of this post.  Take equality, as bequeathed to us by Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence.  If treating others with equal respect is chosen by a community rather than a fact of nature, will it lose or gain moral force?  If our history and traditions, and our emotional attachment to a way of life, require the equal treatment of blatantly unequal individuals, will this lead to a crapshoot and lack any authority over our behavior?

Every morality is teleology.  The question is whether it is factual or visionary.  That is the bone of contention between Adam and Cothran:  whether moral ideals must be found or envisioned.

If moral principles are to be found in nature, morality must become an empirical science.  That was the “failure of Enlightenment morality,” which Cothran so roundly condemns – the faith in a “science of man” which would parallel, in its billiard-ball causation, the science of nature revealed by Newton.  This was entirely a rationalist enterprise, and it led invariably to a wretched place:  to gulags and killing fields where the unenlightened could be disposed of.

Suppose, however, that a moral ideal like equality has been formed by the collision, across history, of the American people with the American environment.  Neither God nor reason have played a part.  What is lost?

Such an ideal can be universally taught and understood even by children, as Protagoras explained to a too-clever Socrates.  Moral education will include tagging the ideal with powerful emotions, so we react viscerally when it is transgressed:  this process is part of our evolutionary endowment.  The ideal will feel absolute – one will never hear discussion of “degrees of equality” or “tolerable child abuse.”  But as a factual matter, it will be contingent.

I suspect this contingency is what troubles Cothran, but contingency is another way of saying common ground.  Believers can sing “God bless America” from within each of their separate temples.  Unbelievers can share in the feeling, if not the proposition.

In a liberal democracy, there will always be a plurality of contradictory religious beliefs, and standing on one to the exclusion of the others – that is, absolutely and uncontingently – will eliminate all common ground.

The same applies to “rationalist” ideals.  Because they must begin in some nonrational belief, they end in contradictory places.  Socrates was a rationalist, as were Thomas Aquinas and Pol Pot.  Little common ground exists between them.

By embracing contingency, nothing is lost.  No moral proposition can ever be  “authoritative over human behavior” – Cothran’s phrase – in the absolute way that gravity has authority over bodies in space.  An ideal must always be chosen, and always there will be those who refuse to do so:  bad persons, weak persons, good persons in a weak moment.

Contingency is the human moral reality:  in the best individual case, even with faith in God or reason, there will result a great slaughter of needs and desires, and endless trade-offs, and loss and regret, in what is inescapably a tragic enterprise.

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