Monday, 10 June 2013

An Intersting Argument about Ethics.

The latest episode (no. 817) of The Atheist Experience was an interesting one. The show is usually devoted to answering calls from whomever happens to call in. On this occasion, however, about half the program was taken up with a pre-arranged call from an atheist philosopher by the name of Dan Fincke. You can find the relevant section here. I'd never hear of Prof. Fincke before but, after hearing what he had to say on the show, I went over to his blog “Camels with Hammers” and, after reading for a bit, I added his blog to my list of those I plan to read regularly.

The Prof. seems to have a double mission, on the one hand he wants to convince his fellow atheists to embrace objective morality, on the other hand, to convince we theists the objective morality can exist without God. This a subject of no small interest to me and I was interested to here his views. I, of course, will be attacking his arguments from one side, I believe in objective morality but don't think it can be meaningful without God. I suspect, however, that many of my atheist friends who reject objective morality will agree with at least some of my disagreements with him

Before commenting on what Prof. Finke had to say, I have to note, at several points during the program I felt a strong desire to throw something at the show's co-host, Martin Wagner. For example, at at 7:40 minute mark, Wagner states that “Christians” not some or many Chrustians but Christians generally, when we argue for objective morality, “always” his word, always, claim that such things can't be gotten to rationally but require divine revelation. Mr. Wagner, if that;s what you think Christians always argue, I'd ask you to do some reading on the natural law tradition in Christian moral thought.

Mr. Wagner then goes on to tell us that many Christian apologists, he explicitly mentions Willaim Lane Craig, openly encourage disdain for reason and argue that reason and evidence have no value in getting to truth. Now, I'm sorry, I'm no fan of Dr. Craig, but Mr. Wagner's characterisation of his views is either shockingly ignorant or an outright lie. Craig is known as an evidentialist apologist, as someone who seeks to show that evidence and reason lead to the Christian faith. I could go on, listing Mr. Wagner's incredible distortions, but this is supposed to be a blog post about Prof. Fincke.

The central part of Prof. Fincke's argument, if I understand him correctly, come between about the eleven and sixteen minute marks. His argument stands on two main points. One of these is formal consistency. He argues that, just as we can't believe what we see to be contradictory, so there are certain acts which are contradictory. The argument seems to be that, if we attempt to hold others to a standard but fail to live up to that standard ourselves, we would be aware of an inconsistency. There are any number of arguments I could make to this, but I'll confine myself to this reply: I agree that we would see as inconsistent to hold others to a standard and fail to live up to it ourselves, but that simply begs the question of why we should seek to hold people to such standards in the first place.

The second prong of Prof. Fincke argument has to do with the fulfilment of various powers.
According to the good Prof. We have certain powers, our intelligence, our our capacity for technology, our capacity for enjoyment. He thinks it is self evident or something we would all intuitively recognise that we should seek to maximise these powers in order to flourish. Now, in many ways, this seems very close to the Aristotelian and Thomist position. I certainly agree that developing our human powers is a desirable thing. Having said that, I don't think this is self-evident and it isn't intuitively obvious, nor is it clear to everyone. My belief in the moral desirability of developing these powers is based on certain metaphysical beliefs which I assume Prof. Fincke doesn't share. (If he does share them I'd love to here how he reconciles those with his lack of belief in God.) Absent those metaphysical beliefs, many people will in no way see the desirability of developing such powers as obvious, indeed plenty of people seem quite content to drown those powers in drugs and alcohol.
Prof. Fincke ended his call with a recommendation to check out his blog and recommended one particular blog post of his. I had originally planned to include comments on that post in this post. I decided, however, that it deserves a response of it's own. God willing, I should get to that in the next few days.

1 comment:

  1. Jason, I haven't read Fincke's blog in detail, so I don't know what his settled metaphysical views in fact are. So my comments are going off your representation of Fincke. It sounds like Fincke is using the second prong of his argument as the 'metaphysical base', as it were, for the first prong of his argument. I.e., if his second prong actually holds, then the first prong will follow. So my concern is with your take on his second prong. You say that the desirability of developing our powers is neither self-evident nor intuitively obvious nor clear to everyone. I agree with you there to an extent. However you seem to be arguing that knowledge/understanding of metaphysics is *prior* to knowledge/understanding of the moral desirability of fulfilling powers. If that is your view I think I might disagree with you there. Our access to, and knowledge of truths in the order of practical reason is independent of our access to, and knowledge of truths in the order of theoretical reason. (To this extent alone are New Natural Law theorists correct). For instance anyone on the street with no settled view on metaphysics could agree with you that (all other things being equal) stronger is better than weaker, being perfect is better than being imperfect, and so on. I.e., they have accepted that perfection and fulfilment are natural goods, and insofar as they do, they also see fulfilled and perfected powers as being better than unfulfilled and imperfect ones (and this independently of any prior substantive metaphysical positions). I'm sure you could grant that much to Fincke. Perhaps, however, you simply making the point that certain metaphysical truths are *ontologically* prior to truths about the moral life (including truths about whether or not we should fulfil our powers). I'd agree with you there. But on this reading you still make the weaker claim that as a matter of fact, many people will not come to the moral beliefs that Fincke discusses "absent [the requisite] metaphysical beliefs". Do you mean things like the existence of God (?). If so I still wouldn't agree with you. Perhaps, then, you are again making a different point—if so perhaps you could clarify and help me out. It just seems to me that Fincke isn't doing anything obviously wrong here other than his holding metaphysical views (atheism) that are inconsistent with the metaphysical views implied by his ethics (i.e., Aristotelian teleology). I.e., He's made a metaphysical stumble; but I don't see how that invalidates his ethical positions where they *are* grounded in metaphysical truths he *has* understood (e.g. that powers are real and their fulfilment is good).