“Theistic ethics” or Christian ethics?

I said in my previous post that some Christians might be worried by the fact that Ward’s Morality, Autonomy, and God doesn’t appeal to the Bible or specifically Christian revelation. Shouldn’t Christian ethics be informed by convictions specific to Christianity?

In his book Behaving in Public, Christian ethicist Nigel Biggar takes a position that is similar to Ward’s, but is in some ways more satisfactory (in my view) because he is more willing to draw on specific Christian doctrines. Like Ward, Biggar affirms a version of natural law:

To affirm natural law, then, should be to affirm the following: that there is a form of flourishing that is given in and with the nature of human being; that reflection on human nature can achieve an understanding of that flourishing and its component basic goods; that reflection on human experience can produce a grasp of kinds of disposition and action that respect and promote those goods; that all human beings are, despite their sinfulness, somewhat capable of an accurate grasp of basic goods and their practical requirements; and that, therefore, there are sometimes areas of ethical agreement between Christians and others.

However, Biggar also says that “revelation and faith” add both motivational and cognitive content to ethics:

None of this, however, makes the Christian theological salvation-narrative ethically irrelevant. It does not say that sinful humans have the motivation to do sufficiently what they know to be right, apart from the penitence, faith, gratitude, and hope that the story of God’s salvific initiative inspires. Nor does it say that they have the power, unaided by biblical tradition, to know completely what is good, what is virtuous, or what is right.

Like Ward, Biggar thinks that the hope for “postmortem fulfillment” can make moral aspirations more reasonable: “the presence or absence of theological faith and hope can determine what seems morally ‘reasonable.’” Yet, Biggar doesn’t appeal to a generic theism, but to specifically Christian revelation. An implication of this revelation is that there are certain goods beyond those identifiable by “natural” reason which are an intrinsic part of human fulfillment–goods like religious practices “designed to reverse our alienation from God.” In addition, God’s “revealed salvific ethic also involves a certain way of responding to injuries that other sinners cause: namely, through ‘forgiveness’ in the forms of forbearance and compassion and a will to reconciliation.” Although there can be agreement about temporal goods necessary to a relatively just society, the overlap between Christian ethics and other traditions within a pluralistic society will be “partial and provisional.”

I doubt Ward would disagree with much of that (he is, after all, a Christian); but an appeal to an unqualified or abstract “theism” obscures distinctive Christian doctrines and practices and elides the differences between Christianity and other theistic religions. For Biggar, the distinctive goods and  norms of action prescribed by Christianity derive their force from its specific salvation story. This isn’t an optional extra, but an integral part of what it means to do Christian ethics.

(How) does morality need God?

“Does ethics need God?” is an old question, and the answers we get are often simplistic. On the one hand, Christians (and other religious believers) sometimes identify ethics with “God’s will” conceived as a sheer command, and they imply (or sometimes outright assert) that only believers in God can be moral. On the other hand, secularists sometimes insist that belief in God is not only unnecessary to ethics but positively harmful, because it makes being moral a matter of cowering before an arbitrary deity who threatens us with eternal damnation if we slip up.

Keith Ward’s recent book Morality, Autonomy, and God offers a refreshing alternative to this rather stale stand-off. Ward (former Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford) agrees that people don’t have to believe in God to be able to discern what is good and bad, but he goes on to argue that a theistic metaphysics can provide support for moral understanding and moral endeavor—support that may not be available to non-theistic views.

Ward argues that reason can identify certain goods that are conducive to the well-being of rational, autonomous agents. These include things like freedom, knowledge, creativity, and friendship. These goods are “worthwhile states” that are “reasonably choosable by an affective intelligent agent” (xii). Such states are states that “all rational agents have a good reason to want” (ibid.).

According to Ward, a naturalistic metaphysics (at least an “enriched,” non-reductive naturalism) can make room for such goods as part of the “fabric of reality.” In other words, ethics is about human flourishing—about realizing that goods that are worth choosing.

However, naturalism has some weaknesses that may undermine a more ambitious understanding of ethics. In particular, it’s unclear whether naturalism can account for the “categorical” nature and universal scope of moral obligation. That is to say, are we obliged to pursue worthwhile states, or is this just a matter of the desires we happen to have? Moreover, is ethics just a matter of establishing rules to facilitate each person’s pursuit of their own well-being, or is there a stronger obligation to work for a society of universal benevolence—one in which everyone can realize their potential?

There is a morality that may be founded on human sympathy together with cool self-love, and a recognition of the necessity of a cohesive society for the secure pursuit of most of our interests. Yet we may be left feeling that this rather comfortable morality lacks the resources for passionate resistance to injustice or for real self-sacrifice for the sake of others. (p. 45)

Naturalism can support the first point, but it’s difficult, Ward says, to see how it underwrites the second, more ambitious, understanding of morality. On most naturalistic views, the universe does not support our pursuit of the good; everything depends on our “fleeting, ambiguous, and short-lived” efforts. Why try to create a society of universal flourishing when this is almost certainly doomed to failure? And given the radical gap between our moral ideals and our actual performance, does it even make sense to expect such lofty things from human beings?

Theism, Ward suggests, can provide support for this higher moral aspiration. Goods—i.e., possible worthwhile states that can be realized in the world—can be understood as eternal possibilities residing in the divine mind. In creating the world, God chooses to actualize certain objectively worthwhile states. Further, God presents us, as creatures endowed with reason, with possibilities for realizing further goods. Along these lines, Ward sketches a revised “natural law” account of ethics—human flourishing consists in realizing the goods proper to personal agents. (This non-biologistic account of natural law would likely yield less conservative conclusions than some traditional versions in areas like sexual morality.)

God can also been seen as providing aid to human moral effort—helping us to bridge the “moral gap” between what we are and what we should be. In traditional Christian terms, this includes both “justification” (forgiveness) and “sanctification” (making us actually better). A theistic view of the world also holds out the promise of a fully realized society of universal flourishing (even if only after death). Understood this way, theism can provide support and motivation for the more ambitious morality of universal human well-being.

It’s important to note that Ward isn’t arguing that ethics can prove the existence of God. Rather, he’s saying that our intimations of a categorical morality of universal human flourishing receive the most support within a broadly theistic metaphysical (or possibly non-theistic  but religious) framework. Naturalism, he maintains, strains to find the resources to justify anything beyond a limited, prudential morality.

Some Christians may object to Ward’s argument because he doesn’t rely on the Bible or special revelation. But he represents a long-running tradition of theistic Platonism that sees ethics as rooted in universal, eternal truths that subsist in the divine mind. Revelation may clarify certain moral truths, but as such they are accessible to reason. More important, however, is the point that moral obligations aren’t based on arbitrary divine commands, but flow from the eternal divine nature itself and God’s desire for human flourishing. This strikes me as an important counterbalance to some popular conservative accounts of Christian ethics.

Utilitarianism as “moral Esperanto”?

The Atlantic‘s Robert Wright has a thought-provoking review of Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them. Greene used scans of people’s brains to examine their responses to the famous (famous by the standards of professional philosophy, anyway) “trolley problem” thought-experiment. In the thought-experiment, people are asked whether they would divert a runaway trolley about to hit five people onto a track where it would hit just one person. Most people think this would be the right thing to do. But when the conditions of the experiment are changed, people tend to respond differently. For instance, many people say they wouldn’t be willing to push someone onto the track to prevent the trolley from hitting the other five, even though the utilitarian moral calculus (one life for five) is the same.

Greene found that MRIs showed that people who said would be OK to push the one man onto the track were using the portions of their brains associated with logical thought, while those who said it wouldn’t were responding more emotionally. He concludes that emotional bias–inherited from our evolutionary past–clouds our judgment. Because our ancestors lived in small hunter-gatherer groups, we’re good at group solidarity, but bad at inter-group harmony. Pushing someone to their death is the kind of thing you could be blamed and swiftly punished for in a small group, so the idea of doing that lights up some deep-seated moral aversions. Green concludes that humanity needs a global moral philosophy that filters out these atavistic types of responses can “resolve disagreements among competing moral tribes.” And the best candidate for this is a form of utilitarianism.

Here’s Wright summarizing Greene:

One question you confront if you’re arguing for a single planetary moral philosophy: Which moral philosophy should we use? Greene humbly nominates his own. Actually, that’s a cheap shot. It’s true that Greene is a utilitarian—believing (to oversimplify a bit) that what’s moral is what maximizes overall human happiness. And it’s true that utilitarianism is his candidate for the global metamorality. But he didn’t make the choice impulsively, and there’s a pretty good case for it.

For starters, there are those trolley-problem brain scans. Recall that the people who opted for the utilitarian solution were less under the sway of the emotional parts of their brain than the people who resisted it. And isn’t emotion something we generally try to avoid when conflicting groups are hammering out an understanding they can live with?

The reason isn’t just that emotions can flare out of control. If groups are going to talk out their differences, they have to be able to, well, talk about them. And if the foundation of a moral intuition is just a feeling, there’s not much to talk about. This point was driven home by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt in an influential 2001 paper called “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail” (which approvingly cited Greene’s then-new trolley-problem research). In arguing that our moral beliefs are grounded in feeling more than reason, Haidt documented “moral dumbfounding”—the difficulty people may have in explaining why exactly they believe that, say, homosexuality is wrong.

If everyone were a utilitarian, dumbfoundedness wouldn’t be a problem. No one would say things like “I don’t know, two guys having sex just seems … icky!” Rather, the different tribes would argue about which moral arrangements would create the most happiness. Sure, the arguments would get complicated, but at least they would rest ultimately on a single value everyone agrees is valuable: happiness.

Whenever I see someone arguing that “science” can tell us which moral framework to adopt, it sets my Spidey-sense tingling. Simply saying we should all be utilitarians dodges a bunch of important and contested philosophical questions, like

–What is “happiness” (or “utility”)? Is it just the net balance of pleasure over pain (as the founder of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, thought)? Or does it include “higher,” more complex elements (as Bentham’s protégé and critic John Stuart Mill thought)?

–Assuming we can define happiness, can we quantify it in such a way that allows us to determine which course of action in a given case will yield the most of it?

–Even if we can define and quantify happiness/utility, might there not be other things that are good and whose promotion should enter into our moral calculus? What about beauty? Truth? Should those always be subordinated to happiness when they conflict?

–Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism. But can we know what the likely consequences of our actions are ahead of time? Can we even specify what counts as a consequence of a particular action with any precision?

Wright says that Greene studied philosophy, so presumably he knows this. And it’s not that utilitarians don’t have responses to these questions. But they don’t all agree among themselves on what the answers are. And these are properly philosophical questions, not questions that the natural sciences (including neuroscience) can answer in any straightforward way.

To Wright’s credit, he is skeptical of Greene’s advocacy of utilitarianism as a kind of “moral Esperanto.” And he notes that some of the most intractable conflicts in our world aren’t necessarily conflicts over ultimate values, but over facts. For instance, most Americans are, at best, dimly aware of our history of meddling in the internal politics of Iran, so they attribute Iranian mistrust of the U.S. to irrational animus or religious fanaticism. The problem is that we are all afflicted with a self-bias that inclines us to filter out facts that our inconvenient to our cause and which makes it difficult for us to view a situation from the perspective of our opponent. Christians would call this a manifestation of Original Sin.

UPDATE: At Siris, Brandon offers some thoughts on the Atlantic article and utilitarianism in general.

Liberals aren’t sexual relativists

In an article that otherwise makes some good points about conservatives’ “populist” defense of junk food, Rod Dreher just can’t resist taking a swipe at a time-honored liberal strawman:

For conservatives, it may be revealing to compare the defensiveness with which many of us discuss what we do in the dining room to the defensiveness liberals approach discussion of what they do in the bedroom. Liberals, to overgeneralize, believe that what consenting adults do in bed with their bodies is immune from moral judgment. Social conservatives recognize the falsity of this view, understanding that immoderation in sexual matters corrupts individual character and can have deleterious social consequences.

I can see why this neat bit of parallelism may have been too tempting to leave on the editing-room floor, but it just doesn’t wash. A more accurate approximation to the “liberal” view would be that what consenting adults do in the bedroom is not a fit matter for state regulation. But liberals are hardly barred from making moral judgments about sexual relations. This is because consent is a necessary, but not sufficient, criterion for morally appropriate sexual acts. A liberal can easily say, for instance, that a relationship of equality and mutuality is morally superior to one based on humiliation and degradation, even if all the parties involved consent to their treatment.

Dreher here makes the common conservative mistake of assuming that because liberals object to some longstanding moral prohibitions (on, say, homosexual relationships) that they must object to all moral judgment in matters of sex. This only follows if you treat sexual ethics as a seamless whole that can’t be altered without the whole thing unraveling. But liberals typically take a different approach: they look for the deeper, underlying principles that justify a particular sexual ethic and try to prune off the bits that seem inconsistent with those principles, understood in light of changing social contexts and new knowledge. Thomas Aquinas and Immanuel Kant made some particular judgments about sex that nearly all of us (conservative and liberal) would now reject, but we can still use the principles of human flourishing or respect for persons to articulate a consistent sexual ethic.

Do the evolution

As everyone not living under a rock now knows, in an interview with ABC yesterday, President Obama–who recently had said that his views were “evolving”–announced that he now supports the right of same-sex couples to get married.

Some liberal critics complained that Obama’s announcement does nothing to change the status quo, with marriage still being essentially a state matter. This of course was vividly demonstrated just two days ago by North Carolina’s amendment of its state constituion to exclude recognition of any relationships other than heterosexual marriage, even civil unions.

But others pointed out–such as in this article–that this may be part of a broader strategy on the part of the administration. This strategy includes its ending of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and its decision to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act in federal court. In addition to being good ideas on the merits, these may help set the legal stage down the road for the courts to recognize a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. As Chris Geidner, the author of the article, sums it up, “Obama’s legal, policy and personal views are not in any way contradictory and present a clear path forward toward the advancement of marriage equality across the country.”

Also worth noting is that the president couched his change of mind in explicitly religious terms. Writing at Religion Dispatches, Sarah Posner highlights this part of Obama’s comments:

when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated. And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids and that’s what motivates me as president and I figure the most consistent I can be in being true to those precepts, the better I’ll be as a as a dad and a husband and hopefully the better I’ll be as president.

Posner goes on to contend that

Obama didn’t just endorse same-sex marriage today. He abandoned conservative religious rhetoric about it and signaled that religious conservatives, even his close religious advisors, don’t own the conversation on what Christianity has to say about marriage.

Similarly, Ed Kilgore writes today that Obama’s “evolution” actually puts him in closer alignment with his own relgious tradition, the United Church of Christ, which has affirmed same-sex relationships as a denomination since 2005:

Relgious conservatives may scoff at the UCC (or the Episcopalians, or other mainline denominations that are, to use the buzzword, “open and affirming” to gay people). But the UCC is the country’s oldest Christian religious community, and among other things, was spearheading the fight against slavery back when many of the religious conservatives of the early nineteenth century were largely defending it as a divinely and scripturally ordained instituion.

So Obama has pretty strong authority for saying there’s no conflict between his faith and support for same-sex marriage.

Liberals are prone to arguing in bloodless, technocratic terms, so it was nice to see Obama making the case in explicitly moral–even religious–language. I personally think liberals could stand to do this more often.

Of course, no one seriously doubts, I think, that there was at least some degree of political calculation in this announcement. (Do presidents ever say anything that isn’t politically calculated to some degree?) And it remains to be seen if that calculation will pay off in November. But even granting mixed nature of his motives (and Christians of all people should be the first to acknowledge that we never act from completely pure motives), it was the right thing to do. Nice job, Mr. President.

Does vegetarianism kill more animals than meat-eating?

Contrary to what you may have heard, I don’t intend this to be an all-vegetarianism, all-the-time blog, but this objection came up in comments to the previous post, and it seemed like it was worth addressing separately. The objection here is that a vegetarian diet also results in animal deaths, since animals such as voles, field mice, and certain birds will be killed in the process of clearing land to grow crops and during harvesting.

I’ve seen this argument canvassed more widely in recent years, and its popularity seems to stem in part from a 2003 paper by Steven Davis in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics. Davis argued that, because of the animals killed unintentionally in raising crops, a diet consisting of plants and pasture-raised beef actually would actually result in fewer total animal deaths than a strictly vegetarian diet. Note that Davis is not defending the status quo–his “least harm” diet would actually require a radically different food system (chicken, pork, eggs, and dairy are out, as is conventionally raised beef).

Moreover, Davis’s article was criticzed by, among others, Gaverick Matheny, who pointed out some critical flaws in Davis’s calculations, including that he assumed that the same amount of land would be required to support a plant-based diet as one that included beef. Since less land is required to produce the same number of calories from plants than meat, the relevant comparison should be animals killed per capita. Matheny also pointed out that Davis only considered animal deaths and ignored the question of animals’ suffering during their lives, which is surely a relevant part of the moral calculus.

While this is an interesting debate, I’m not sure it’s a terribly relevant one. As I’ve pointed out before, the debate between proponents of all-vegetarian (or vegan) diets and proponents of free-range, “humane” meat-eating is a rarefied one. The overwhelmning majority of meat produced and consumed in the U.S. results in far more death and suffering for animals than either. That’s why I think “progressive disengagement” from the factory farming system is a worthy goal, but am not particularly interested in picking fights with people who choose to eat meat raised in more humane or sustainable fashions.

Redefining moral rules?

Gene Callahan had a post recently on this Salon article by Irin Carmon. In the article, Carmon writes:

The Rush Limbaughs of the world don’t get to define the boundaries of appropriate sexual or moral behavior. But something is happening: Women are defining those boundaries for themselves, with many men alongside them, and they’re being reminded that there’s a concerted movement to take that right of self-definition away. And we’re mad.

Gene comments:

Hey, and let’s have serial killers define their own morality for themselves as well. It’s hard to see how Carmon could object to that, except to say it doesn’t fit her definition.

I agree that morality isn’t whatever we say it is (i.e., I’m not a moral relativist.). But let’s see if there might be a worthwhile point lurking around here.

Here’s one plausible (I think) account of what ethics is: a goal-oriented activitiy aimed at reducing suffering, increasing happiness, facilitating social coordination, increasing fairness, and cultivating virtues, among other things.

On this account, the purpose of ethical rules is direct us toward these ends. Obeying them isn’t good in and of itself; rather, following them helps us acheive the goals that morality is concerned with.

If this is the purpose of ethical rules, then as we learn more about the world and about human nature–about the sorts of things that lead to suffering, happiness, fairness, etc.–certain longstanding ethical rules could turn out to no longer make sense. That is, we learn that some rules are not as conducive to human flourishing as we thought and require revision or abandonment.

To take one fairly obvious example: much of force of the traditional prohibition on homosexual activity came from beliefs that it was associated with vice, suffering, and ill-health. But we now know that this isn’t the case, so the old rules seem–at least to many of us–obsolete. Note that this isn’t a form of moral relativism, but rather a revision of moral rules as our understanding changes (and, we hope, improves). (If the reader disagrees that the traditional prohibition on homosexuality is wrong, then she can substitute another outmoded moral rule of her choosing.)

Clearly this isn’t the only way to think about ethics. But, as I said, it’s a plausible one–and one that I think helps account for sentiments like the ones expressed in Irin Carmon’s piece.