"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Monday, February 25, 2008

Some thoughts from Salman Rushdie

From Rushdie's letter to the six billionth living person:

As for mortality, the second great question - how to live? What is right action, and what wrong? - it comes down to your willingness to think for yourself. Only you can decide if you want to be handed down the law by priests, and accept that good and evil are somehow external to ourselves. To my mind religion, even at its most sophisticated, essentially infantilises our ethical selves by setting infallible moral Arbiters and irredeemably immoral Tempters above us: the eternal parents, good and bad, light and dark, of the supernatural realm.

How, then, are we to make ethical choices without a divine rulebook or judge? Is unbelief just the first step on the long slide into the brain death of cultural relativism, according to which many unbearable things - female circumcision, to name just one - can be excused on culturally specific grounds, and the universality of human rights, too, can be ignored? (This last piece of moral unmaking finds supporters in some of the world's most authoritarian regimes, and also, unnervingly, on the editorial page of the Daily Telegraph.)

Well, no, it isn't, but the reasons for saying so aren't clear-cut. Only hard-line ideology is clear-cut. Freedom, which is the word I use for the secular-ethical position, is inevitably fuzzier. Yes, freedom is that space in which contradiction can reign, it is a never-ending debate. It is not in itself the answer to the question of morals, but the conversation about that question. And it is much more than mere relativism, because it is not merely a never-ending talk show, but a place in which choices are made, values defined and defended.

A response from Alex
I whole heartedly agree with Rushdie's discomfort regarding morality being unquestioningly legislated by "religion". Even his comments on "fuzzieness" I find myself empathizing with. One insight I have come to recently is that on the level of the individual, moral truth can only be recognized through praxis. When I speak of an "absolute morality" I would want to clarify that what I am advocating is not that there are a certain set of actions that will be true for all peoples in all places. Neither would I wish to be construed as saying there's an exhaustive list of rules somewhere that if we just followed all of them we'd be "absolutely moral". Reality is more complicated (or maybe simple?) than that. To try and construct such a list only leads away from Christianity and towards moralism.

Still, I continue to disagree with any line of thinking which claims humanity ultimately has no transcendent ground yet we can still have such things as moral obligations. I would wish to reemphasize that my position does not at all claim that people who do not believe in God cannot be good, but rather if there is no God there's no such thing as good.

So where does the Christian find his guiding star when it comes to ethics? Is it because all actions have an inherent (deontological) moral bias? Perhaps that's to constricting. Would it be better to then only consider the results of our actions? (teleological) Bernard Adeney has a few helpful words here:

Deontological and teleological ethics are often treated as mutually exclusive. The polarization of means and ends, the antithesis between principals and results, this is a characteristic weakness of Western dualistic thought. It leads to war between the absolutists and the relativists. The absolutists are thought to be too narrow and rigid. The relativists are thought to be too wishy-washy.

Actually, the distinctions between deontology and teleology helpfully show two necessary and contrasting elements in moral choice. These are not contradictory, but complementary. The way they fit together cannot be determined by abstract philosophical principle. The concrete situation in which moral choices are embodied reveal the ways in which principles and results interact. [emphasis mine]

As a Christian I believe there are absolute moral principles and rules that reflect the character of God. These moral principles underlie all human behavior and are based in the fact that we live in a moral universe. Human beings were created in the image of God and have an intrinsic value. in the words of the Westminster Confession, we are created "to glorify God and to enjoy him forever." While these deontological absolutes are expressed and emphasized differently in different places and times, they are clearly affirmed by Christians in all cultures.

The central moral absolute that follows from these Christian affirmations is " 'The Lord our God , the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' ... 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these" (Mk 12:29-31).

Strange Virtues, Ethics in a Multicultural World pp.149-150

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Blogger Alex said...

Hey Matt,
Thought provoking quote. So much so that it provoked a thought... which I then posted in the body of the post.

7:54 AM

Blogger Matt M said...

Thought provoking quote.

Straight back at ya. :-)

humanity ultimately has no transcendent ground yet we can still have such things as moral obligations

I think a strong argument can be made for rationality being, in some sense, transcendent - as what is and isn't rational (in any given circumstance) can't be changed. If, as a human being, I'm hungry, then, all things being equal, I can't change the fact that it's rational for me to eat and irrational for me not to.

It's also important, in my opinion, to emphasise that obligations are not absolute, but are best seen as guides to action in particular situations. If I make someone a promise then I'm obliged to keep it only in the sense that I need people to trust me if I'm to see certain central desires of mine realised.

The central moral absolute that follows from these Christian affirmations is...

Hmmm, if this lies at the heart of all morality, then doesn't that rule out any moral discussion between believers and non-believers? If belief in God is required for us to be truly (as opposed to accidentally) moral then that has to be your focus - it's no good telling me that I can/can't do X if we don't share the underlying fundamental proposition.

Otherwise it's like trying to explain theft without bothering to validate the concept of property rights.

8:29 AM


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