Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Mirror Neurons and Morality

Knowledge is power. We all know it; it is in our core. If we know more, we can manipulate more. If we want to ride a horse, there are some basic facts we need to know: How to sit on a horse, how to direct a horse, how to remain on the horse when the horse makes a sudden movement. And this knowledge is not simply head knowledge. We could read five books on horse riding, but we will not really “know” how to ride a horse until we actually do it.

However, there is something we can do that accomplishes more than reading manuals about horse riding, still short of getting on the horse, and that is watching someone ride a horse. We can watch a person who is a little more skilled than we are ride a horse and learn most of what we need to actually get on the horse and try it ourselves. This doesn’t work as well if we watch a jockey racing—someone who is too advanced over us feeds us too much information and the wrong kind of information for us to try it ourselves. Besides, if we have never ridden a horse, we would rather know how to ride a horse walking than a horse at full speed.

The question is, how can we do this? There is so much information about riding a horse that it cannot be successfully communicated with words. But all we have to do is see it and suddenly we have enough information to try it ourselves. All of this is because of mirror neurons.

The mirror neuron is a recent discovery of neurology. They are parts of the brain in which we internally imitate what we see. In mirror neurons we “experience” things just by seeing them. We can watch someone playing a simple tune on a piano and even if we’ve never played before, we can sit down and try it out ourselves, with reasonable success. A savant can focus so well on this that they can accomplish great feats of skill without ever doing it before. But the basic ability to repeat what we have experienced second hand is something we all have.

And not just us. Most mammals have some level of mirror neurons. We can see this by who catches a yawn. If we see a yawn, our mind experiences it as our yawn and so replicates the act. Not only can we “catch” a yawn from a dog or a cat, but our dog or cat can “catch” a yawn from us. This means that they have some kind of mirror neuron.

However, the most successful mirror neurons are those developed by humans. There was an experiment done by an animal researcher where he allowed a chimp to hang out 24 hours a day with his son. His idea is that his son would teach the chimp how to be a human. This worked well at first, where they were creating their own games and the chimp did pick up on some pretty human traits. In the end, however, the researcher’s son became much more like the chimp than the chimp became like a human. This is because human mirror neurons are stronger, more able to pick up on others’ experiences than any other mammal. This also explains why humans have been a more successful species than other animals. Humans can draw on the experience of other humans, other animals and even insects and inanimate objects, while animals are more limited in their ability to fully know others’ activity.

Why do we have mirror neurons, let alone successful ones? Because mirror neurons have proven to be more effective in creating a successful species than any other physical apparatus. Chimps have opposable thumbs. Gorillas have the ability to learn language. And most species are more successful at obtaining food that is nutritious for them than modern humans. But humans are able to obtain and replicate more knowledge than any other species, and thus are more successful. And, because of mirror neurons, humans are able to create an ever growing store of knowledge. As a species, it only takes one person to learn something from an apple or a preying mantis or a horse, and we can all learn it. This knowledge passes on and the most successful of knowledge ends up in the permanent store of the collective human psyche.

Someone at this point will say that I am making an evolutionary argument. Not at all. God desired for humans to be more successful than other species, despite human weakness. And God created humans to be in His image. Mirror neurons are simply the apparatus by which God make human beings successful

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Is Atheism Too Simple?

“Atheism is too simple,” Lewis says. How does he come to this conclusion? Because we all have a sense of right and wrong, and we all make moral arguments. If there was no Christian God—or someone like Him—then where does a sense of morality come from?

But really, Lewis isn’t saying that all atheism is too simple, but only his sort. Lewis, when he was an atheist, felt that the world was too unjust for there to be a just God, and that the arguments of the Christians were just too complicated. But that just argues the point that there is an idea of justice, and that it had to come from somewhere.

What Lewis is actually saying, without explicitly stating it, is that pantheism makes more sense than his sort of atheism. That God is in everything, and thus everything—even cancer or child pornographers—is just as much a part of God as a saint. In other words, justice and morality is just an illusion. If the atheist continues to hold to morality, it makes no sense. But the nihilist, who admits that there really is not cause for any morality, can keep a simple atheism. The problem, Lewis seems to indicate, is not atheism, but morality.

So the question is, can anyone actually set aside morality? Can we live a life without a sense of morality? Or, even more so, is it possible to have a rational, God-absent, basis for morality? Although I believe that God is the source of human morality, yet still I think there is an argument to be mace for godless morality, and one that looks similar to Christianity, especially the popular form.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

All Truth Is God's Truth

It is very important for all Christians to note Lewis’ point at the beginning of “What Christians Believe”: that Christians do not necessarily think that other conceptions of God or truth are all wrong just because they consider themselves right. This is something Christians seem to misunderstand, especially when they see another particular worldview as “the enemy”.

For instance, many Christians want to claim that the Muslim Allah is a different God than the one they worship, even after they have studied Allah in Islamic texts. Does this mean that they have to deny that their God is merciful, beneficent, all-powerful and creator? Because we don’t have the right to tell other religions or worldviews what they believe. We can only explore what they believe. We can, however, determine what we personally believe. So if we see that another religion believes that God is omniscient, wise and all powerful, we can’t change their belief. All we can do is change our own. So if those outside of Christianity believe what we believe, must we change our own belief to keep their status as enemies?

The fact of the matter is, worldviews overlap a lot. We need to agree when we can agree and disagree when we must. And just because we disagree doesn’t make us enemies. However, if we see each other as enemies due to a different belief, then the enmity is created, not by the different belief, but because of the attitude of enmity.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Christian Ethics are Human Ethics

Previously I spent some time arguing against Lewis’ conclusion that a moral law in humanity necessarily means that there is some kind of Director of moral reasoning. My friend heard me present this argument and he asked me, “So where do you think the Moral Law came from?” I replied, “It was created by God within us. I am arguing against the necessity of that conclusion being true because of the existence of Moral Law. Human reasoning can come up with more conclusions than just one.”

Now, in Lewis’ fifth chapter of Mere Christianity, he tells us that his point was not to have us believe that there is a God. Even if he could draw that conclusion, he says, he wouldn’t have come close to the God of Christianity. The God of Christianity is the God of Jesus Christ, and even if you could possibly connect the creation of the universe and the placing of the Moral Law into human hearts, that is still distant from the God of Jesus, who caused the Old Testament to be written, who interacts with humans in the real-time universe, who heals and has mercy.

Rather, Lewis says that his point of this whole section is to prove to us that Christianity’s formulation of morality is correct. First of all, that there IS a standard by which we all can agree. It is not as specific as any given lawbook, nor is this morality agreed upon in all points, but there is a standard.

Secondly, we all must agree that we have all failed the very moral standard we agree upon. We have all screwed up and hurt people when we should have helped. In Christianity this is called “sin” but it could just as much been called a moral failing.

Next, the Moral Law shows us that these failings must be “repented” of. This doesn’t necessarily mean doing some penance, or some other dramatic ritual, but it does mean that we need to change our failings into successes. We cannot continue to live with our moral failings, but we need to act in accord with the moral law.

Finally, because we (almost) all have guilt due to our failings, we need to have a sense of forgiveness, of resolution of our guilty feelings.

Thus, Lewis says, the Moral Law shows that every single human deals with the outline of Christian truth. There is a moral standard, we have sinned, we need to be forgiven and we must repent. Even if you don’t agree with the Christian God, Lewis says, we must agree that this outline is a significant part of human life. So Christianity, even if it could be proven wrong, at least it deals with real human experience in an effective way.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Is the One Who Gets All He Wants Happy?

Talking about Plato's Republic and the character Thrasymachus' statement that "might makes right".

“We need to distinguish between two of Thrasymachus’ claims. The first is his connection of justice with power. That is not popular today because it seems too similar to crass totalitarianism. But his second conclusion is very popular. That morality is man-made. It happens by human social contract or by social consensus. It is not some universal, timeless objective truth that we discover as we discover the laws of physics or the truths of mathematics. Justice is an art, like building bridges. Or a game, like baseball. We make the rules, therefore we can change them. And we can cheat and sometimes cheating wins. That’s Thrasymachus.” -Peter Kreeft

Thrasymachus also says that the reason we have law is the attempt by the weak to control the strong. The weak band together to create government—a false, unnatural equality-- so the strong cannot have their will. “If this is the case, then there is no reason to be moral except fear of punishment. If you could get what you want by force—whether mental force or physical force—and if you could get away with it, why not? This is a question I ask my students in Ethics class. They think that we shouldn’t do anything morally wrong, so I ask them, ‘Why not?’ ‘Well, because you’ll be punished.’ Well, suppose you won’t, suppose you can get away with it? ‘Well, because people will hate you.’ Well, suppose they won’t. Suppose you can con them. Suppose your power includes propaganda, power over their minds. Or suppose you don’t care what other people think. Why not do evil if you can get away with it and get what you want?”

Yet if a person obtained all power, that person wouldn’t be happy anyway. Why? Because the people around him wouldn’t really be happy. We are not just isolated individuals, but we are connected to others. In the end, we cannot be happy with our own happiness, but we must have others around us be happy as well. Therefore, those who are truly connected to others will sacrifice some of their own happiness in order to create happiness in those around them. In the end, to make others happy increases our own happiness.

So why are we not happy in society, if everyone is connected to others, and some, let’s say, have the power to make others happy? Shouldn’t everyone be happy in that case? Well, no, because of separations and segregations in society. Judges don’t rub elbows with the homeless and Senators aren’t peers with people on welfare. If every president, justice, congressperson, bishop, governor and mayor were required, by law, to spend six month either living on the street or living in a mental health institution or in a nursing home or with a family on welfare, the society would change remarkably. Because then the poor would be real to those in power, they would have relationships with the poor and want to do something about it. Then, at least, the basic needs of those in society would be met.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Theology and Reputation

“It is difficult for me, living in such a secular and prosperous age, to fully comprehend the tremendous impact the juridical understanding of the atonement has had on the West. The view of God as a fierce Judge, angry, vindictive, pouring out His divine wrath on His Son Jesus because of “love” for us sinners appears ludicrous to many non-Christians. It explains in part why so many are repulsed by institutional churches and only admit to admiring Jesus on a strictly private and non-institutional level.” -Rev. A. James Bernstein

It not only seems ludicrous, it is. Love is as love does.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Cause: Unknown, Therefore God?

Let’s look at the moral argument, as Lewis presents it. It is basically the same argument as Aquinas’ proofs of God. We see reality. Reality cannot be formed on its own, but needs a creator. Therefore, there must be a creator. Lewis is just narrowing this argument to moral law. There is a universal moral law. It is inexplicable that such a moral law could exist amidst complex cultures. Therefore there must be a Source of Moral Law outside of humanity.

However, this is not the only possible explanation. For instance, one of the basic premises of this Moral Law is that the Other is equal to the Self, or, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” But neuroscience has recently discovered “mirror neurons”. These are cells in the brain that observe and then create a facsimile of what is observed in the brain. In other words, we might observe someone jumping off a cliff—in our minds we experience ourselves jumping off that same cliff, without all the messy bits that happen at the bottom of the cliff. This is why, when watching a video of someone jumping off a cliff, we find our heart beating harder, our breath catching, perhaps we might get a little dizzy. This is because our observation of the other is being experienced ourselves. The Other is the equal of our Self because we have actually experienced it. This is a part of our brain, and we have stronger mirror neurons than animals have. Thus, this could very well be a neurological basis for a basic principle of morality.

And all of the arguments about the existence of God typically go this way. Someone takes that which has never been explained and then claimed that it proves a higher reality. Until someone comes along with an explanation for the complexity without the need for a higher reality. Then those who believed in that argument for God looks foolish, because human interpretation has a greater imagination than was ever thought. Then the argument descends into heated philosophical and theological arguments that cannot be won by anyone.

Personally, I think that we should leave behind the “reality proves Gods existence” argument completely. Not because it isn’t true, but because it is terrible proof, and just makes everyone look foolish when an alternative reason is discovered. Ultimately, the argument is a bet against the human imagination. “I bet,” the argument says, “That you can’t find a reason for this mountain, therefore the reason must be God.” And when the human imagination finds a reason apart from God, then the arguer looks like an idiot. “I bet you can’t find a reason for consciousness, therefore it must be God,” says Francis Schaeffer. “I bet you can’t find a reason for all the stars in the sky…” “I bet you can’t find a reason for agreement in human morality…” etc. These bets are always lost. Human imagination is as vast as the universe and the fictions it can create are unlimited. It is best never to bet against it.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Moral Law-- Basic Ethical Principles for Everyone

This is just an outline. A longer discussion could follow. Do you think these are basic principles everyone considers right, even if they themselves don't follow it? Or are they too western, too influenced by Christianity? (Not that I mind that I'm coming up with Christian ethical principles)

1. Give Freedom
Every sentient adult is free to make their own choices, as long as they do not harm the community at large.

2. Be Responsible
“If you make a mess, clean it up”—We must correct any wrongs that we have done.
If you wrong another person, make it right in as much as you are able.

3. Community life
If you belong to a community—no matter how small or how large—abide by the rules of the community or find another community to live in.

4. Faithfulness
We must keep our promises or apologize for not doing so.
We must be loyal in a way that is appropriate in a relationship.

5. Do No Harm
Cause no damage to another unless it is for their benefit and/or with their stated permission.

6. Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do To You
Treat others as you would have them treat you, recognizing that everyone has different ways of receiving respect, help, etc.

7. Love Your Neighbor
Meet the needs of anyone you see who has needs, in as much as you are able.

8. Surrender what you have for the needy
Sacrifice your own needs for the sake of others’, especially for the weak who need protection.

Isn't Morality Simply Personal Preference? Part II

Of course, some ethical standards are determined by personal preference or culture.

It seems that we as humans have a tendency to take what we see as 'everyday' and to normalize it to such a degree that any activity that is not "normal" is ethically wrong. This isn't everyone, and in many cultures the "normal" is being degraded, but in general, for most of the world, that which is "normal" is also that which is ethically correct.

However, in a real discussion of ethics, we have to admit that this just isn't the case. Recently, on Science Friday, a group of scientists and ethicists were talking about the role of science in ethics. There was getting to be an agreement that science's role is in observation and experimentation, determining if a particular act is beneficial or detremental to people in general. Then one of the group piped up and said that we can "know" if some things are wrong without having done a study of it, for instance, having women wear burkas as a cultural standard. He said that such a standard is so "obviously" wrong that they don't need a study to determine if it is wrong or not.

The funny thing is, for me, that is exactly the sort of thing that should be studied. Yes, probably most women would find it oppressive. However, in that culture, perhaps women find the burka comforting or safe. We don't know if we don't ask the question. But just making the decision, a priori, that burkas are ethically wrong, is just a cultural presupposition. While forcing a woman to wear a burka who finds it oppressive would be ethically wrong, that doesn't mean that it is wrong for most people. That would be saying that insisting that people wear more than a loincloth is wrong. Our society demands it, others do not. But if a person feels oppressed if they wear more than a loincloth, then to make them do so, is that ethically wrong? No matter what the cultural standards are?

The fact is, there will be different ethical rights and wrongs within cultures. But oppression is always wrong. Injuring another permanently is always wrong. Treating some people one way and ourselves another way is wrong. There ARE moral standards. It is just the application of those moral standards that change.

Perhaps having a law saying that women must wear burkas is wrong. But if there are standards of modesty for both men and women, perhaps it is not wrong. It is something to investigate and to consider.

But for us to even consider such a thing, we need to know what moral standards are, what should and should not be the basis for cultural standards, and then apply these moral standards.

In a sense, C.S. Lewis' argument is weakened because he talks about a general sense of "fairness", but he doesn't tell us what that sense consists of. Just because I think it is not fair that Paul Allen has billions of dollars and spends it on entertainment doesn't make me right. It just means I have that sense. We don't know if there is a universal Moral Law unless we actually see what it is. What does this Law consist of, that everyone can agree on?

I think I have a list of principles that we could work on. Coming up.

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Salvation Distant From Reality

“An essentially legal view of sin leads inevitably to a legal view of salvation. If salvation is primarily about the Father punishing the Incarnate Son on our behalf, then as a judicial necessity our failure to believe in Jesus compels God to punish us. Such theologies see the cross as saving us from the punitive, legally determined wrath of God—God the Son saving us from God the Father. In this view, I wondered, is really the obstacle that must be overcome, and must He overcome Himself for our salvation? Viewing God as vindictive can cause us great damage, particularly if we believe that the physical and spiritual harm we inflict on ourselves through sin comes from God. Confusing our guilt with God’s anger can cause us to fear and flee from Him, which only weakens us further, continuing the vicious cycle.” -Rev. A. James Bernstein

In other words, if Jesus only died to solve our position before God, then justice on earth doesn't matter. And that's strange, because throughout the Bible it is clear that justice and mercy and right living DO matter.

Also, if Johnathan Edwards is right-- as well as Calvin-- God is a monster, needing human sacrifice to appease Him. That's not my God. My God is ready to forgive and has the power to forgive. He is seeking repentance. Jesus' death gave the power for us to repent by giving us an alternative to Satan's kingdoms.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Jewish View of Atonement and Sacrifice

Italics quoted from Surprised by Christ by Rev. A. James Bernstein

“An Orthodox Jew… stopped to discuss theology with me. He was a very nice and civil fellow. As we talked he asked me, ‘Why can’t God simply forgive sins? Why does he need a sacrifice? In fact, why does He need anything?’
“I explained, ‘God cannot forgive our sins because He is just and from the beginning has provided sacrifices to atone for our sins.’ Leviticus 17:11- ‘For the life of the flesh is in the blood and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.’
“My interrogator explained that atonement can mean many things and that the Leviticus passage did not necessarily mean God could not forgive sins without blood…. He pointed out that living a holy life and praying is more important than having a sacrifice. He said that because God is Love, he didn’t understand why God’s love could not be unconditional. Second, he thought I had a very legalistic view of God and of His Love, because I believed that God was incapable of forgiving us without a sacrifice.”

Interesting that a Jewish person, whose whole people have had two thousand years of learning to live with God without sacrifices had to explain to the evangelical God’s marginalized viewpoint of sacrifice. Sacrifice is a ritual to reflect the heart of the offerer, just like baptism or the Lord’s supper, or, frankly, weddings. In all of these circumstances the ritual is essential because the ritual mirrors the heart, and without the ceremony there isn’t a fair representation of the significant commitment. But it is the commitment that is the power, not the action. To put all power into the ritual is to bastardize the action—to rip it apart from the spiritual truth.

Even so, OT sacrifices and Jesus’ sacrifice is reflective of a true repentant heart, one that will do all that he can to get right with God. To live a holy life, to act in love as God does—this is the power of Jesus’ death. Without this, Jesus death in meaningless.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Is Inequality in Society Bad?

Notes taken from the podcast, Philosophy Bites. This episode is an interview with Alex Voorhove about Inequality
Italic passages are quotes from Alex Voorhove.

What kind of society has extreme inequalities, for instance, a huge gap between the rich and the poor?

Society of Domination and Envy
One group has all the power, and the lower group has no way of correcting power to meet their own needs.
The uppers and the lowers cannot connect or understand each other.
The lowers have envy and resentment or lack of self confidence or subservience
The uppers have a sense of entitlement and empowerment, that society should be run by them. They want to protect their position from the poor.
Thus, large inequality makes it impossible for the different groups to love each other
“No man should be rich enough to buy another and no man poor enough to want to sell himself.” –Rousseau

Everyone should have enough to have their needs met, and to have dignity before each other.

Do we just want to change the inequality gap, even if it improves no one’s life? In other words, should we take from the rich just so that they become closer to the poor? No, because although inequality matters, how people’s needs are met in absolute terms is more important.

“If you should get some manna from heaven which provides all your needs and someone else gets nothing and are doing very poorly, and there is nothing we can do to move it back and forth between you, then there is some unfairness there. It would be more fair if there were more balance.”

Inequality can matter without it being intrinsically bad. “Suppose that Anne has a moderate disability. She can walk on a level surface, but she can’t climb stairs and she can’t walk around outside. Suppose that Bob has a very severe disability. He can only sit up in bed on his own and he can’t move around on his own. Suppose you have to do one of two things. You can completely cure Anne, who has a moderate disability, restore her to full functioning or you can somewhat improve Bob’s situation so that he ends up, rather than very severely, he is only moderately disabled. And also suppose that both increases are equally valuable, there is an equal increase of well-being for either Bob or Anne. You can help only Anne or Bob. Who would you help?
“Almost everyone who has been asked questions of this kind think, If the gains are equally large to a better off person or a lesser off person we should give the gain to the lesser off person, if we can’t give it to both. This is a preference, in distribution, to those who are lesser off. It doesn’t follow that you believe that inequality is bad in and of itself. It doesn’t follow that you are committed to thinking that if we can’t help Bob it would be best to deny Anne treatment so that things would be more equal. But you can still think that Bob has a greater claim than Anne to a resource because he’s worse off.”

This idea has significant political and economic applications. The poor should be granted resources rather than the rich, if only one can get the resources. On the other hand, the rich shouldn't just have their wealth taken away from them for the purpose of creating a more equal society.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Is Man The Measure of All Things? Part 1

Lewis now is trying to make a conclusion based on his assertion of the Moral Law. I think that his argument for a Moral Law is a good one and pretty solid. Now he is trying to apply universal morality to understanding the nature of reality itself. In this, he speaks of the scientific process. That science is simply about observation and communicating that observation of reality. I agree, that’s the main point of science. Interpretation of observation is less science than scientific theorizing. But observation and drawing rational conclusions from that observation is what science is about.

However, Lewis says that the nature of reality cannot be determined by science. Because it is all about observation, therefore it does not allow for deep interpretation. That is the job of the philosophers and theologians. Again, I agree. Once a scientist says what the nature of reality is, they are no longer performing the observation of a scientist, but instead doing the job of a philosopher. This does not mean that a scientist cannot do both jobs adequately, but we need to recognize that there is a difference.

Then, Lewis says that reality cannot be determined by observation of outer things, but by understanding the interpreters, namely Humanity. This goes back to the ancient Greek argument that “Man is the measure of all things.” That, in the end, the interpreter is what determines reality. Since Humanity is the interpreter, then that is the standard of measure.
Lewis then wants to go on and say that what we understand about Humanity is reflective of the reality. So if all humanity has a Moral Law, therefore that is something that is reflective of the reality of the universe. This is where I think Lewis makes his first misstep.
The only thing we can determine by looking at Humanity is the nature of that which is interpreting, not necessarily that which is behind that nature. If we look through the most powerful microscopes, we can see atomic particles and how they move. In observing their movement, we may be able to guess what the particles are that make up these atomic particles. This is where theories about quarks and such are found. However, we cannot say decisively what the reality is behind the atomic particles. We can make pretty solid guesses, but there are other guesses that are equally solid. And this is the way with the interpreters of reality. We might guess as to what is behind that level of reality, but frankly we are guessing.

Some might say, “Well, we are human, so shouldn’t we know best what the reality governing us is?” In fact, I would argue the opposite. We are human, and thus we have an idea of how our lives OUGHT to work, not how they DO actually work. We are the consummate interpreters and we interpret first and explain later. We have our interpretation in mind when we look at ourselves and we see partly what we want to see, but more importantly we don’t see that which we think cannot exist.

Frankly, we are our own worst interpreters. We have interpreted ourselves before we have interpreted anything else and everything we see about ourselves feed into our interpretation. This has been what psychology has, for the most part, been about. It has been somewhat successful in seeing social aberrations, but it has been terrible at explaining why those aberrations exist. Theology can be seen as a series of cultural assumptions about the reality of life, despite the text one theology is supposed to be based on. The texts only determine the questions one asks of reality, but they almost never determine the theological answers—that is determined by the interpretation of the theologian.

Even so, I think that Lewis’ jump from the interpreter of reality to that which is behind reality’s interpretation is too quick. He hasn’t made his case. He gives me no good reason to determine why we can rely on this interpretation.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Is the "Moral Law" a Law?

Lewis argues that the Moral Law is a Law, in that it is known by everyone as a standard code of conduct. However, it is not a Law like the Law of Gravity, because it is not universally obeyed. He calls this “odd” because everyone sees it, but not everyone does it, at least not all the time. Everyone sees that it would be a benefit to society if it were done, but everyone finds exceptions to living up to it, at one point or another. Lewis stops there, saying that this is all we can really know.

I want to go a little further, however. I believe that the reason it is difficult to live up to is because of two reasons: First, because of what was mentioned before that there is a conflict between a code of what is good for everyone, and that which is good for ourselves. So there is preservation of society, and also a preservation of self, and these two instincts do not always work together. I can either share my chocolate with my children or I can have it all to myself, and I have to make a choice. I may choose to keep it all myself and have my reasons to do so, but it would be more difficult to explain that to my children. I will use moral reasoning to them, as if it were for their own benefit that I was not sharing my chocolate, but the real reason is that I was hoping to eat it all myself. Thus, I struggle with these two principles in my soul—that of benefiting the other or that of benefiting myself.

Kant believed that the benefit of the other is the only pure moral. However, reality is in fact much more messy. I could benefit both my children and myself by sharing the chocolate, because too much chocolate is bad for me, as it is bad for them. But if we all moderated the chocolate, then it is a benefit for both. So if I shared the chocolate, Kant would point his accusing finger at me and say that my motives were completely pure because I gained some benefit from it, both to my health and to my taste buds. But if we look at the many moral choices we make everyday, we find that the benefit to others is not often separated from a benefit to ourselves. Our motives are constantly mixed and often difficult to decipher because we often have more than one motive involved. Thus, when many people make an evil choice, say, like killing all the Jews in Europe, our motives may seem mixed, but how different is that from any other moral decision we make. From the Nazi point of view, the moral choices all look the same. It only looks different if we see it strictly from the Jewish point of view.

Also, exceptions are found because the Moral Law is not singular. Newton’s three laws of motion were found to be contradictory in the context of a black hole, and this led to the discovery of a much more complex set of laws called Relativity. There are still laws, but there are a number of them and it is difficult to determine which law will reign in a particular context unless one really works it out. And whether time slows or not is certainly not intuitive.

It is a similar case with the Moral Law. There is not a single law, but a set of them and given the context that we may be in, they may be contradictory. For instance, there is a law of human freedom, in which adult human beings have the freedom to do as they please, as long as they do not hurt another. But there is also the law of responsibility in which if a human makes an error, they must do their best to correct it. But do these laws not contradict each other? If one has responsibility, then one does not have perfect freedom and the more responsibility one has the less freedom one has. There is a balanced to be reached between these two laws in every life, in each situation, and the conclusions that would be correct may not be intuitive. It requires thought and careful reasoning.

However, most people are not trained in moral reasoning. In fact, most people are trained to obey laws, not to understand and apply moral principles. It has been determined in the ancient days that it is simpler to tell the masses “do this” rather than teach them how to determine themselves what is the best thing to do. However, we find in modern society that we have multiplied the laws to such a degree that we cannot expect everyone to know exactly what it is that they must do. To “do this” turns out to be more complex than simply learning to think for ourselves what the right thing it is to do.

But in education we still do not teach moral reasoning. Instead, we teach the obedience to rules, whatever they may be. This is a fault and a wrong. If, like Calvinists believe, every human is innately corrupt and selfish, then “do this or else you will be punished” is the right way to go, and all we have to do is find the right selfish incentive. However, studies of human nature have found that humanity is more complex than simple corruption or selfishness. We do have a code of right and wrong that we really do want to follow. However, it is too complex for us to figure out, if we are not trained to do it. Unfortunately, those who lead us in morality are just as empty in their moral reasoning. They are no better at making moral choices than the rest of us. Thus, what we are told to do is as morally weak as deciding ourselves what to do.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Isn't Morality Simply Personal Preference?

This is the basic argument that morality is simply what one prefers, not a universal ideal. If, however, all morality is simply individualistic, then it would be difficult to communicate across cultures moral decisions or reasoning. It would be just as difficult to communicate in another language.

However, morality across cultural lines is surprisingly easy. For instance, let’s take a movie. There is the movie Avatar which is a very moralistic film—yet it has communicated clearly its moral reasoning to all kinds of cultures, not simply western ones. As well, very moralistic films such as those made by Japanese directors Maiyazaki and Kurosawa are very moralistic from a Japanese perspective, yet they are easily understood by people from all kinds of cultures around the world, after they are translated.

If morality was individualistic, or culturally based, then such cross-cultural communication about morals would be very difficult. However, even if we disagree on a moral reasoning, we typically understand the argument the other person is making. And the disagreements tend to be in application, not in the basic principles of moral reasoning. No one, in any culture, says that it is reasonable to kill an innocent human being without cause. One may argue about the causes that are justified, or one might argue what a human being is, but the basic principle remains the same throughout all cultures. This is amazing and not easily explained. Some level of moral reasoning must be innate. So the question remains, why?

Isn't Morality Simply Taught To Us By Society?

Lewis agrees that right and wrong are taught by parents and teachers, but this doesn’t mean it isn’t a natural law. After all, he says, the multiplication tables are also taught, but that doesn’t mean that mathematics don’t reflect a reality outside of that teaching. Morality is certainly the same. We can see this by what generations rebel against. That which is simply cultural is usually set aside by one generation or another. Yet there is this moral standard which almost every generation uses as a standard to lambast other generation’s principles.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Is Morality Human Instinct?

The argument is that what C.S. Lewis calls the Moral Law, or an innate moral agreement all humans share, is simply a developed instinct for species survival. Lewis admits that this may be the case, but there is also the instinct for self-preservation which often runs against species survival. Why is it that we know the “right” choice is to help the other person in need and not self-preservation? Lewis argues that it is because there is a third, mysterious inner heart that decides which instinct is more moral.

Monday, November 8, 2010

What is Justice?

The basic question of The Republic is this: What is justice?

Justice is taking what is good to do to others and applying it to a community. So if it is wrong to kill a human being, then there is a law that applies that idea to all, equally. When law allows some to kill human beings while others cannot, that is injustice.

Ultimately, the basic principle of ethics, and thus the foundation of justice is, “Do to others as you would have done to yourself.” This does not mean that we should treat each other exactly with what we would prefer, e.g. I like chocolate, thus everyone should have chocolate. Rather, it is understanding human nature that we all share, and granting people to do the good that we all share. We all have life, and a drive for survival. Thus continued physical existence is something we all share. Thus, we should recognize that life is a right that we all share and so should be supported by the community. When the community accepts the responsibility to protect the lives of all human beings equally, that is justice in that area of human nature.

God supports this idea by giving us a command not to murder, and by extending that command in Jesus to love our enemies. Thus, life is to be protected in all its forms, even to those who do us harm. Life is a basic principle that is to be granted to all humanity. This is the wisdom of God and if we see this accomplished in a community then God’s justice is realized.

“Might makes right” can also be summarized with another cliché: “The end justifies the means.” “There is no moral absolute. Morality is just a set of rules or ideals, something abstract in human minds, it isn’t real. This moral subjectivism or moral relativism was quite rare among the ancients, except among the Greek sophists, but it is far from rare among the intellectuals in our culture. In ancient culture, the teachers were more moralistic than the students—it is just the opposite in our culture.”

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Might Makes Right, Part 3

However, there is an argument that says that God is the source of justice not by means of might. This is that God is the wisest in the universe, due to his great knowledge and the application of that knowledge in creation. In this argument, God is the source of justice because He knows what justice is and thus applies it to creation. In the previous arguments, it would be pointless for humans to determine the essence of justice, for justice is held in the decision of God, which cannot be sought by human beings—all we can do is follow His commands, whatever they may be. But if justice is held by God simply because He is wise, then that justice can be sought by humans and imitated by them. We can look to God as an example, we can understand and apply the principles of justice in reality.

And these two approaches to justice is one of the major differences between the law of Moses and Jesus. The law of Moses gives laws, rules, commands, which one either obeys or disobeys. Justice is ultimately a mystery, and the closest a human can get to justice is to obey God. But Jesus gives us principles instead of laws. Jesus does not say, “Put a rail around your roof”, but rather, “love your neighbor.” Jesus does not say, “Place the entrails of the animal upon the altar”, but rather “Love the Lord your God with all your heart.” Jesus does not say, “Keep your vows to the Lord,” but rather, “Let your yes be yes and your no, no.” Jesus speaks principles and we are to apply those principles in our circumstance.

Jesus’ approach to justice is different from the law, because Jesus is not looking for clones, but lovers. Everyone is not supposed to worship the same way, or to do justice exactly the same way, but rather to be led by the Spirit, and the Spirit leads different people in different ways. This means that justice might look differently in different places, but ultimately comes from the same source of wisdom. God can lead both a modern city and a small tribe by the same principles, and each context will look different, but still be unified in the wisdom of God.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Reversal Theory of the Atonement

Just in case you thought I was totally out of my mind when I discussed the atonement, here's a paper which presents a pretty close point of view:

Reversal Theory of the Atonement

Might Makes Right, Part 2

This point of view, that might makes right, is shared by many who think that they don’t hold to this point of view. It is held by those who claim that democracy is the best kind of government and that the world would be better if the whole world was made up of democracies (by which they usually mean a democratic republic, not a true democracy). They claim that if people were given power, that they could create their own laws and governance, that they could establish their own kind of justice for themselves. But this means that justice is different in each place, and looks like whatever those with power—the people—make it. Also, democracy of any form is actually granting those of wealth, popularity and majority the upper hand, while the disenfranchised or the minority do not allow their concept of justice to be realized. For instance, the homeless in the United States do not get their idea of justice realized, nor do women in a democratic Muslim country. Thus, democracy is ultimately might makes right, and while the power isn’t just one person, certainly those who can sway majority opinion are those with the vision for “justice”.

Another group that agrees with Thrasymachus are most religious ideas of justice. Justice, the religious philosopher claims, is held by God because He is God and no one can argue with God. God is, by definition, just, therefore God is justice. But this is basically to say that God is the most powerful being and thus justice is held by him. To be honest, this is pretty much the argument made by the book of Job. Job argues with God about justice, and God answers him by contrasting His power with Job’s. “Where were you when each star was made by my hand?” This is basically the argument that God is the most powerful and so He determines the rules. Might makes right.

A similar religious argument is that God is justice because He created the world. Because God is the Maker of all things, then He can determine what justice is, by right of creation. This is an argument of origin and possession. God created, therefore He owns all things. And the one who owns can determine the rules. This also is a “might makes right” argument.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Might Makes Right, Part 1

Italicized quotes are by Peter Kreeft in his lecture series, "What Would Socrates Do?"

In Plato's book The Republic, Socrates is looking for the essence of justice. This is not just a definition of the word, but what justice truly is, what it looks like, everywhere.

“Cephalus says, ‘Justice is paying your debts and telling the truth.’ But that definition doesn’t work in all cases because it doesn’t make sense to return a weapon to a maniac. Polymarkus says that justice is giving people what they deserve. He identifies this with ‘helping friends and harming enemies.’ But Socrates reminds him that we make mistakes and sometimes we think of our enemies as our friends and our friends as our enemies. So Polemarchus improves the definition to: ‘helping true friends and harming true enemies.’ Doing good to the good guys and bad to the bad guys. Socrates critiques this definition by saying something quite amazing. That justice should do good even to your enemies, to the bad guys! Because justice is a virtue, a virtue is a good, and good can only do good to everyone without exception. Socrates holds to the same principle as Jesus, ‘Do good to those who hate you, love your enemies.’ At this point Thrasymachus barges in to interrupt in order to bully Socrates. Thrasymachus claims that justice is whatever the strong man wants. Might makes right. Justice is only a mask painted on the face of power.”

Thrasymachus’ point of view is not so much a definition of justice as a denial of it. To say that justice changes with each powerful ruler is to say that justice resides in the heart of the powerful, and thus cannot be determined by reason or from a single source. That there is no essence of justice.