In a recent conversation with oldschoolcontemporary (OSC) about objective morality, we ran into many stumbling blocks to our ability to properly communicate with each other. So far as I could tell, OSC had immovable metrics in place by which to measure objective morality that were almost necessarily religious (redemption, salvation and infallible imposable authority) which were, so far as I can see, superfluous to morality. Morality, and hopefully we call all agree at at least this point, pertains to actions. But, this was borne out of what I suspect was a much bigger issue: OSC appeared to have an incredibly two-dimensional and uniform view of all morality that was ‘other’ to his own.
The morality I offered pertained to wellbeing (queue a million surprises), and the idea that we can progressively learn about this morality through open and honest discussion. The idea that we can learn about morality is based on what the Ancient Greeks initially spoke of, and which translates approximately to ‘Natural Law’. Natural Law is the concept that heavily informed the writing of the EU and UN documents on Human Rights. This concept of Natural Law has spanned cultural differences, national borders and religions. It is discoverable through the values we often related to the 17th Century Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment values are that of open enquiry, speech and the right of and to criticism. Those values have appeared in many places, and when they do they are accompanied by advances in civil rights and justice. The mini-Enlightenment of Ancient Greece, for example, laid the ground for for the first political use of democracy (at least, the first one that was recorded and those records have survived). Athenian democracy has its warts: only land-owning men were allowed to vote. Still, that was a great leap forward from where they were before. The Golden Age of Islam, for all its nonsense, did foster religious and cultural tolerance and intellectual freedoms.
My argument is that, given those conditions, human conversations nearly always (with the occasional bump; I’m not arguing this is perfect) conclude in social progress: wanting to extend liberties to other nationalities and ethnicities, to all genders, to other species; to the writing of human rights and the acknowledgements of war crimes; to freedom of sexuality and love, and to freedoms of migration.
OSC doesn’t accept any of that as necessarily ‘good’. To be a little more precise, OSC doesn’t accept that any of this meets the ‘grace of God’. This, apparently, is a key definition in what ‘good’ is, according to OSC. And that makes sense; that’s the only way to then demand the surrender of moral autonomy to a God and a love of Jesus and his sacrifice.
I attempted to address what I saw as shortcomings in OSC’s theistic morality from a base of common ground: this idea of God’s expectation of us being perfect, of authoritarian and tyrannical definitions, of the paradox regarding what ‘good’ actually is (God’s nature or something God ascribes to), the fact a human sacrifice is so contrary to human moral sensibilities (which presumably God made for us). This is why I was then surprised and frustrated to read OSC’s reply to me, where he demonstrated profound misunderstandings of what I said.
OSC attempted to define ‘wellbeing’ as narrowly as he possibly could, something that comes across as a dishonest strawman: he made it just about human wellbeing, but the expedient function of the human machine (i.e. “healthy” to the human body, with no regard even for psychological health). He converted the ideas of freedoms into “whims and fancy”, completely discarding the fact that humanity frequently agrees to extend these rights, even to people beyond your pragmatic interest (but, evidently, not beyond our moral interest). He set up an analogy where a religious person went to a humanist academy, and made the humanists into modernistic pragmatists with a disregard for experience and wonder, and gave those attributes to the religious character. This is despite those characteristics clearly belonging to the flourishing of wellbeing, and the people routinely going through predefined motions are those who define morality theistically.
All this I may have been willing to address and answer. In fact, I made some efforts. But, OSC’s comment persisting in deviating further into the absurd as the comment progressed. The first major transgression from anything I thought could even be argued an honest misunderstanding was the question of whether a wellbeing-based morality would permit a person to rape and torture 2 children, to save the lives of 3 children. The honest answer is that I don’t know. I don’t know all 5 children surviving, where two are raped and tortured is better than 2 children surviving without rape and torture, and three dying. (The fact I don’t know doesn’t stop that being an objective question. I also don’t know which is heavier: an average apple or an average nectarin.) But the thought experiment is so poorly thought-through. The person being indicted here the person who has to choose between the rape or the murder? Because it seems to be the person who should be indicted is the person who actually set-up this twisted little scenario. But, also, what is the Christian answer here? Should you permit 3 to death, or rape and torture 2? The failure of this thought experiment isn’t wellbeing, it’s that all options are heinous. Christianity fails to get a happy resolution to this, as well.
At some sort of tipping point, OSC stepped into politics. He started talking about utopianism, and how all ideas of utopia have been just-the-other-side of awful and heinous things. He started talking of the suppression of religious freedoms under the Soviets. He started talking about eugenics under the Nazis. He started talking about how my view―that of safeguarding wellbeing and having an open and frank discussion about what is good―would lead to horror and atrocity. I didn’t force his views―one of understanding morality through some epiphany or religious revelation in a relationship with God―into Crusades and Inquisitions or religious persecution and Witch Hunts. But, apparently, no such courtesy was extended to me. Everything that is not theistically defined morality, to OSC, is all Soviet oppression and Nazi eugenics.
Do I have to answer that? From a practical sense, are there people who read a conversation like that and will have OSC’s absurd strawman slip past their intellectual faculties? How much work is ahead of me when my interlocutor doesn’t get a single element of my proposal right and compares it to the complete antithesis of what I’ve said? I’ve got to restate my position, actively disavow and untangle that position from the smear and then start unpicking anything they presented as their own view. It’s overloading, putting work before me that I should never have to do.
My response to OSC was frustrated and angry. OSC is an elegant and intelligent writer, and for that reason I had been hooked into a long and time consuming discussion with him. Some of his religious views are nuanced, intricate and require considerable ruminations over, especially the epiphany-interpretation of Christianity I explored in my last post. This (along with the fact morality matters to me) is why I responded badly, having felt betrayed by OSC sudden descent into such insane argumentation.