Posts Tagged ‘morality’
Erik Wielenberg wants to claim that, contrary to intuition, some necessary non-trivial ethical facts require no explanation (e.g., it is morally wrong to torture innocents for fun). To legitimate this claim, he reminds his opposition of their own claim that God’s existence is necessary, non-trivial and requires no explanation. I’m tempted to think they are both wrong. Let me explain why.
“For what it is worth,” Wielenberg says “the ethical claim that pain is intrinsically bad”, which he apparently sees as both necessary and non-trivial, “seems to me not to cry out for further explanation; indeed, I find it less in need of explanation than the existence of a perfect person who created the universe.” (In Defense of Non-Natural, Non-Theistic Moral Realism, 26) Perhaps, but this seems carefully worded. First of all, pace Wielenberg, it is not at all obvious that pain’s intrinsic badness is an ethical or moral* fact, and ethical facts are the sort we are trying to discuss here. It is an unambiguously evaluative fact, certainly, but why think it has a moral dimension in and of itself? No necessary or sufficient conditions have been offered for what amounts to a moral fact, so allow me to offer one necessary condition: Necessarily, a characteristically moral fact is one where the interests of more than one person are involved. Pain being intrinsically bad, then, does not rise to this level. Wielenberg gives us another example, however, that does fit this criterion, so let us proceed using that example. Namely, “…the state of affairs in which it is morally wrong to torture the innocent just for fun….” (Ibid.) Good enough.
Now let’s look at the second half of this comparison, i.e., Wielenberg’s incredulity with the claim that a perfect person who created the universe requires no explanation. I actually quite agree with him on this point, so I don’t mean to fault him, and he did make it explicit that this was the form of theism he intended to examine. However, there are other theistic options which are more durable to the sort of criticism implicit in his dismissal, namely the tradition that goes back at least to Thomas Aquinas in which God is not a being alongside other beings. In modern times Paul Tillich was the most famous modern proponent of this form of theism. The important feature of this theology for our purposes is that for Tillich, God is not a creator being derived from the analysis of contingent being. He sees the cosmological argument as an argument to be invalid. Instead,
“[t]he first cause is a hypostatized question, not a statement about a being which initiates the causal chain. Such a being would itself be a part of the causal chain and would again raise the question of cause.… When used as material for ‘arguments,’…categories lose their categorical character. First cause and necessary substance are symbols which express the question implied in finite being, the question of that which transcends finitude and categories, the question of being-itself…, the question of God” (Systematic Theology V. 1, p. 209).
Thus, we can strengthen Wielenberg’s initial musing, agree with it, yet offer a reformulation exploring the same basic point, but which concludes differently. Here it is: “For what it is worth, the ethical claim that it is wrong to torture innocents just for fun seems to not to cry out for further explanation; indeed, we may find it less in need of explanation than an eternal reality that answers the question of contingency and finitude.” This comparison, it seems to me, no longer works. If we are being moral realists here (and we are), then the former seems to cry out explanation much more so than the latter, for the latter reality, by definition, is beyond our categories of causality, temporarily, etc. (the things that allow our questions to work at all). Continuing to ask the question in this case actually demonstrates that one has not understood the nature of the answer given, but we can still ask, with no confusion, what makes it true that torturing innocents is morally wrong. Wielenberg himself answers elsewhere shrewdly, “…my answer is that it is the same sort of thing that makes other necessary truths true – namely, the essential nature of the entities that those claims are about” (Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe, 51). Leaving to one side what this essential nature consists in, it might be noticed that, at least here, Wielenberg is engaged in the very thing he was above trying to avoid; namely, offering further explanation for the truth of non-trivial necessary ethical facts. Perhaps there’s more explanation needed than what Wielenberg initially suggested?
*Wielenberg intends to use these two terms interchangeably.