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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Saturday, May 15, 2010

"If I had a hammer ..."

Speaking of nailing things down, say I reach into my toolbox, down in the garage, and produce a hammer, which I offer to my friend X. X needs it to drive nails because, I dunno, maybe she wants to build a table or to hang some stuff on her walls at home. "This is a good hammer," I assure her (maybe her own hammer was broken, or something).

Consider the word good.

Following J.L. Mackie and other philosophers, I'm going to say that this word means something like "effective for the purpose in question between me and my friend". I.e., it's effective for the purpose of driving nails into wood. It gets its effectiveness from such things as the weight and hardness of its head, the sturdiness of its construction (the head won't break off when my friend uses it to strike a nail), maybe something about its balance. Somebody who knows a lot about hammers could doubtless assess mine on the basis of such properties and tell me whether I really have a "good" hammer. There can be an entire science (or at least an engineering discipline) of hammer design.

Still, its goodness as a hammer is ultimately about whether it's effective in doing the job of driving nails.

In other words, we assess whether this is a "good" hammer or a "not so good" hammer relative to a standard: the standard of effectiveness in driving nails. In that innocuous sense, judgments about hammers are relative.

It would be crazy to assess this hammer relative to some other standard, such as its ability to catch mice or mop the floor. (If it were a warhammer, we'd have a different standard.) In the circumstances, my friend and I know what we want from my hammer. The standard we use is not arbitrary or idiosyncratic. And I can't make the hammer a good one just by thinking about it.

However, note this point: the standard we use for judging the goodness of hammers relates to the needs, interests, desires, etc., of beings that possess subjectivity, in this case, all the human beings who need (if they are to fulfil their perfectly understandable goals) tools that are effective in driving nails. In that innocuous sense, goodness-of-hammers talk is subjective.

All of us, always, live in a social world that is awash with the needs, purposes, goals, desires, values - affective attitudes, in short - of human subjects like ourselves. Philosophers' thought experiments about other minds aside, there's nothing odd or mysterious about this. We swim in human society like a fish swims in water. Well, not exactly like that ... but you get my drift.

Notice, though, getting back to the hammer, that it really does have the properties - the hardness, weight, sturdiness, balance, etc. - that make it effective for driving nails. If all human beings suddenly vanished, it would still have those properties. We can be total realists about these properties of hammers, including the functional property "effective for driving nails" (to be even more specific: it is effective for driving nails when used by an adult human being of ordinary strength, not so effective when used by an alligator or an octopus). What we can't do is claim that the "goodness" of the hammer is divorced from all human subjectivity.

And yet, to repeat, our judgments about hammers are typically not arbitrary or idiosyncratic or unreasonable. We can, quite rationally and non-arbitrarily and for reasons that could be provided to others (who'd understand them), decide to discard one particular hammer and choose a different one. Or we could get our existing hammer fixed with a new handle, if that's what's needed. We are not made for hammers; hammers are made for us.

What if someone, let's call him "Y", picks out a strange-looking tool and says, "This is a good tool!"

In reply, I ask, "Good for what? Driving nails? Sawing wood? Drilling holes? Turning screws?"

"No," Y says, "you miss the point. It just is a good tool."


"It's a good tool. It has the property of being good."

"Yeah, but for what?"

"It's not good by a standard," he says scornfully. "And its goodness has nothing to do with anyone's goals or needs or desires, or anything like that. It's good in a way that transcends such things. It just is good. All tools should be like this tool, but not because that would make them more effective at filling any need or purpose that anyone might want a tool for."

After a few iterations of this, I am none the wiser about what this tool might be effective for or how its use relates to any human desire or purpose or goal or anything like that. I'm not confident that the damn thing is any use to man, woman, beast, or tentacled alien.

Y keeps insisting that this is all irrelevant. It just is a good tool, he argues. Why don't I "get" it? It has this OBJECTIVE PROPERTY of goodness that has nothing to do with what people might want to use tools for. Its goodness does not relate in any way to any of the stuff I want to talk about.

Frankly, I think Y is deluded. I hope that Sam Harris agrees with me.

Societies' codes of morality (and their individual moral rules), are like hammers. Discuss.


NewEnglandBob said...

I think Sam Harris will agree with you. He also seems to be saying that we, collectively, (not everyone but most of us) can decide whether the hammer is a good one or not. I think he will also say that science can help us decide which hammer is good or what the properties of a good hammer is to be defined. Maybe he is saying more than this, but we have to wait for his book to find out.

Friend of Icelos said...

"Good" metaphor. I may use it (with due credit of course). We don't need an objective standard, merely a common goal, and I really think enough people have common goals for it to work. This conversation is open to all who want a peaceful society full of happy people, and I've honestly never met anyone who wanted chaos and suffering, although I'm sure there are a few out there.

I've also thought that most people don't promote controversial values just for the sake of it. For example, if you ask an anti-homosexual bigot why he hates gay people, I doubt he'll reply, "Oh, I don't know, just because." He'll probably say things like, "Gay people anger God, and corrupt children, and lead to the downfall of society, and so on." In other words, they try to justify their position with reasoning that may be objectively analyzed. I suspect this is also true for unsavory positions on issues like abortion, burqas, and female genital mutilation. As long as people try to justify these values in objective terms, then we can say something about their logic and premises. I'm sure that in these specific cases the premises probably rest in religion, in which case we can argue that these premises are not rationally justified, and this happens to be what Sam Harris is best at.

Zachary Voch said...

It sounds similar to a point I make about the nature of deductive `truths.'

So, for the hammer, `goodness' is a property of `goodness for'; it is goal-dependent. Similarly, mathematical truths in a formal system are axiom-inference dependent: they are matters of definition in terms of a given language derived from a set of assumptions within the language from rules of inference themselves described within the language. Point being, mathematical truths are formally language-axiom-rule dependent.

Your point is very broad, actually, and one which I come across quite frequently in discussion on religion. Take the identification of the Christian trinity with Logos/truth/etc.

Suppose that we consider `goodness' as something non-relative and intrinsic. What then do we have? We have, as they are called in formal mathematical systems like that of Principia Mathematica, primitives. They are undefined, but most importantly, they are themselves meaningless. By granting `goodness' an independence of other attributes/properties/goals/purposes, we place it in a vacuum of vacuousness. It becomes by definition unrelated to anything unless we accept it as an assumption from which to derive other things. In other words, assigning it this primitive and intrinsic character is to give it the function of an axiom -- it is now a `starting point' which, unfortunately, has no meaning which can be conveyed.

This is the case in mathematics. In Euclid's Elements, the axioms are quite intuitive and are explained by example, but they remain assumptions (a discovery which disconcerted a young Bertrand Russell).

We have the general dilemma: Words are defined in terms of other words. Those words are themselves defined in terms of other words. The way to break this cycle of symbolic interdependence is to give a correspondence between a word and something objectively comprehensible, i.e., a physical object or commonly shared subjective feeling.

If no objective meaning independent of the symbol `goodness' can be understood, it might then only be understood in terms of other symbols. If `Y' provides no relation between his usage of `goodness' and other symbols or provides no other meaning, then he might as well have said that `this hammer is pla3-9130rjiflkj.'

Zachary Voch said...

Since `Y' states (in all caps no less) that the goodness of the hammer is `objective,' he is stating one of two things:

1) You are to take the goodness of the tool as axiomatic.
2) You are to take the goodness of the tool as demonstrated.

As he has rejected standards, (2) is not an option. For (1), he lacks (and indeed prevents formulation of) for previously discussed reasons any way of communicating even the meaning of the statement `the tool is good.' If he can not give it a correspondence to some mutually understandable item or define it in terms of other symbols (which he already rejects), then he cuts himself off from giving an understanding of the `goodness of the tool' even at the very basic level of meaning, much less a defense of this statement as satisfying the properties of an axiom.

`Y' is a silly person.

Robert N Stephenson said...

Well, damn the hammer, I have the nails, and they have only been used once - they are good nails, very good nails in fact.

Okay, you will need a hammer, but any hammer will do, even an average hammer will knock them in, as I said, they are good nails.

Where did I get the nails? Oh, from the guy who makes hammers, he gives them away so he can sell more hammers - what use is a hammer with out nails he says. Now I know these are good nails, they've done a good job before and there is no reason they won't do a good job again.

And yes, the nails are free - what good a hammer without nails - heh?

Unknown said...

Russell said, The standard we use for judging the goodness of hammers relates to the needs, interests, desires, etc., of … the human beings who need (if they are to fulfil their perfectly understandable goals) tools that are effective in driving nails. In that innocuous sense, goodness-of-hammers talk is subjective.

I don't know. 'I want this hammer' is subjective, but 'This is a good hammer' is not. 'I want to nail this door shut' is subjective, but 'This hammer is a suitable tool for that project' is not.

It seems to me that when you say "goodness-of-hammers talk is subjective" you are mashing two things together that were better off separated. The two things are 1. 'good' as in 'suited for the task' and 2. 'good' as in 'I like it'. These are distinct and distinguishable uses of the word 'good'.

The hammer … really does have the properties - the hardness, weight, sturdiness, balance, etc. - that make it effective for driving nails. If all human beings suddenly vanished, it would still have those properties. We can be total realists about these properties of hammers … . What we can't do is claim that the "goodness" of the hammer is divorced from all human subjectivity."

Of course not -- but I still think you're mixing categories.

If there were no humans, no one would want to nail anything, and therefore no one would have a question about the most effective way to drive nails. But the "answer" to this unasked question would still be present -- in the form of physical facts about materials and forces. In other words: given the fact of people who want to hammer, there are facts about what makes one hammer better than another. Not opinions, facts.

Some of these facts, we may never get to know; but they are facts nonetheless.

Our moral norms should be like hammers, in the sense that they should be practical, repeatable, improvable solutions to human problems. Too often, they were designed to solve problems other then the ones we actually have, simply because norms tend to be invented by the strong and imposed on the weak.

Russell Blackford said...

No, "subjective" does not mean "suited for the task". That's what "good" means - effective for the task in question. And the judgment of "goodness" is relative to that task - it's not some kind free-floating "goodness", whatever that could be.

But this kind of relativism is innocuous. Usually when people talk about relativism they either have something else in mind or are just plain confused.

"Subjective", in my innocuous sense, means that the task has something to do with the goals, desires, and so on of creatures with subjectivity. Again, people often seem to have something else in mind or are just plain confused.

As far as I can see, I'm keeping all my ducks ... er, concepts and categories ... in order.

And yes, the following is true even in World 666, with no human beings: "In some other world (call it World 615) with human beings with certain desires, goals, etc., that define certain tasks which include driving nails with certain specified properties into wood with certain specified properties, a hammer with certain specified properties will be effective for the task." That's a logical truth, not a fact about our world or about World 666.

Similarly, if you specify enough information there can be logical truths about what moral system a person with certain properties should endorse in specified circumstances in a sufficiently specified counterfactual reality. I.e. you can specify what she wants of a moral system and what, in the specified circumstances, will deliver it. So there are even logical truths about moral systems.

Logical truths are not action-guiding, however. We can only be guided in our actions by a mix of (1) contingent truths about world and (2) our own affective attitudes.

Basically what we need to do is keep this straight, rather than tricking ourselves into thinking that morality is relative or subjective in some sense that entails passivism. I think that Harris is getting some of this slightly wrong, but what he's saying is not a bad (for his own purpose which I more or less share) approximation.

And there may well be utility in relying on an approximation. For Zeus's sake, he's basically an activist, not a philosopher. I think he only got into trouble when he got more metaethical in the TED talk than was actually needed, and more defensive with Sean Carroll than was desirable.

I also think that - fortunately - we intuitively keep track of most of this stuff to a reasonable extent most of the time. It takes a philosopher or an anthropologist to muck things up by arguing that there's something subjective in morality, therefore we should not oppose female genital mutilation. That simply doesn't follow.

Anyway, Roy, I'm glad you agree with me that we need a morality that's practical, addresses our real problems, etc. I agree with what you're saying in your last couple of paras (though it may not just be the strong imposing stuff on the weak; that can happen, but other things, such as various kinds of sheer ignorance, can have the same effect).

I still need to write the promised post focusing on Harris's latest. This will draw some stuff together. But I hope this post and my longish response to Roy (Yashwata) give an idea of why I sort of agree with Harris while sort of not agreeing with him.

Overall, more strength to his arm, which is not to say that he totally, um, nails it.

Richard Wein said...

Russell, I have a few observations that might be helpful.

Russell: "Subjective", in my innocuous sense, means that the task has something to do with the goals, desires, and so on of creatures with subjectivity.

I think this is far too broad a sense of the word to be useful in this context. Surely what's at stake here is whether propositions about goodness are truth-apt matters of fact. It is a true fact that I like ice cream. It is a true fact that my goal of eating ice cream can be satisified (for a short time) by giving me a Cornetto. I see no benefit to the present discussion in describing such facts as "subjective".

I would also say it's a true fact that certain hammers are more effective (overall) at serving the usual purposes of hammers than others. Since a hammer has more than one purpose, and the people who use hammers differ, there will be many pairs of hammers where one is not distinctly better than the other. But I think we can say without fear of contradiction that a piece of cardboard would not make as good a hammer as a top-of-the-range tool.

A poor hammer might make a good paper weight, but we wouldn't therefore call it a good hammer. The "good" in "good hammer" is specifically being used to qualify the word "hammer", so we would normally take it to mean "effective for the usual purposes of a hammer". "This is a good hammer" is not the same as "this hammer is good". The latter is less specific about what the hammer is good for, so (depending on context) could possibly refer to some other purpose, such as weighing down papers. Arguably, it might not even refer to any specific purpose at all, but just be a general approbation.

More generally, I would say that non-moral goodness statements vary in the degree to which their truth can be assessed as objective matters of fact. It depends on the extent to which the context dictates the purposes in question. Is Kasparov a good chess player? Of course he is. Unless otherwise indicated the question is clearly about his profficiency at winning chess games. (If the questioner retorts, "No, I meant is he well-behaved chess player?", we would sigh and reply, "Why didn't you say so?") I would say that non-moral goodness statements are not categorically matters of value or matters of fact, but are on a continuum from highly-value-laden to hardly-value-laden.

But I would argue the same is not true of moral claims, because moral claims do not refer to any goal that the subject has. "It is morally good to do X" or "you morally ought to do X" implies a moral obligation on you to do X even if that would not be the best way to achieve your goals. So I think the analogy between good hammers and moral goodness is a poor one.

Russell: In other words, we assess whether this is a "good" hammer or a "not so good" hammer relative to a standard: the standard of effectiveness in driving nails. In that innocuous sense, judgments about hammers are relative.

Why not just say that we judge a good hammer by its effectiveness in driving nails? "Relative to a standard" seems like an unnecessary and potentially confusing middleman. I think the term "relative" causes a lot of confusion in metaethics, and I would leave it out unless you have a good reason to use it. I'm a moral anti-realist, but I reject the label "relativist".

GTChristie said...

I love this discussion [insert book in progress LOL]. Especially I like the hammer metaphor and how "good" might relate to an entity. It tells us a lot about valuation.

Notice that Y, in calling goodness a non-contingent (independent) property which objects may have or have not, resembles a Platonist. The world according to Plato included a realm of Forms (think of them as Perfections) that the "real" world sometimes resembles.

Goodness, thought Plato, is a perfection that exists in this ideal realm which a pure intellect can perceive and, once it is perceived, this perfection can be used as a standard. Obviously Y can mean "good" only in this sense: an ideal, independent of physicality.

The problem is that "good" is an evaluative term, but there is more than one type of evaluation (which Plato conflated).

Other perfections (Forms) conceived by Plato would include the ideas of roundness (though in the real world nothing is perfectly round), hardness (ditto), solidity, etc., which can be properties of objects -- all of which can be called ideal perfections even if no actual objects are perfectly round, hard, solid etc.

These other perfections can be related to real things by asking "how round," "how hard" etc. Those "hows" appear to be evaluative questions -- but they're not. They are measurement questions and, in fact, require us to create a standard of measurement to quantify "round" before we can answer the seemingly evaluative question.

"Good," however, often is evaluation of another type. The question "how good" requires a quantification just as "how round" does. But in many uses of the term "good," such a measurement is practically impossible to create: there is no physical example to measure (analogous to the steel in a hammer) that helps us establish a scale. Ie, there is no actual, observable physical goodness to measure.

"Good" as used in the hammer metaphor is instrumental good. But "good" in the Platonic sense is pure goodness independent of measurement. These are actually two different ideas using one term. Plato (and Y) confuse them.

Evaluation of goodness as "how admirable" is different from evaluation of hammers as "how useful." (Bracket the idea that I can admire my hammer because it's so useful.)

One of the problems of philsophy over the many centuries since Plato has been to detect the difference between these two evaluative types, especially since Plato's idealism makes them fuzzy by placing all Perfections in one imaginary realm beyond "reality." In other words, he created an axiomatic system (exactly as Roy is pointing out) in which everything relates to the axiom, rather than to anything necessarily real.

By making this fuzzy realm, Platonists find themselves able to discuss "good" as an objective evaluative entity, rather than as the subjective evaluative entity it actually is.

GTChristie said...

By the 20th century, the fallacy of doing so became "obvious" to positivist logicians (for instance) but not so obvious to the more mystical (Platonic idealist) type of metaphysicians. The latter can view "good" as a palpable property of objects. This is what Hume's empiricism attacked in ethics, resulting in the is/ought dichotomy. Science cannot measure good in the sense of "admirability;" it can measure it only in the sense of "utility" or "instrumentality." Platonism does not distinguish between the two senses. (Some scientists make the same mistake, using both senses of "good" in an argument without noting which sense is in use at any point.) There's our mixup.

Now we can see the roots of the conflict between Science and western Christianity, whose philosophy is based on Platonism: science can use "good" in the instrumental sense only, while the Platonistic church uses the term as an idealist standard.

Often they're just talking past each other.

Most philosophers up until Hume used "good" in the latter sense, as an objective form or ideal. At Hume, philosophy split into those who could no longer sustain "objective goodness" as observable and those who still could (for essentially Platonic metaphysical reasons).

Is there a (metaphysical) realm of perfection in the Platonic sense? No.

The evaluative function that is instrumental belongs to science. But the evaluative function that is not instrumental -- "good" as the value term "admirable" -- does not go over to science by default. Restricting "good" to always mean something instrumental seems logical enough, but it cannot capture the idea "admirable." Yet admirability is usually the meaning of "good" we normally intend in moral discourse. The unobservability of this sense of good does not mean morality isn't possible. It just means morality must be an object of something other than science.

"Admirable" is unquantifiable -- and so is good, in the admirable sense.

All of this restates somewhat technically what Blackford is saying above (more picturesquely). I'm just noting the historical roots and perhaps also illustrating how damned complicated ethics can be.

Now, the problem inherent in Sam Harris' "is/ought" remarks is this: to make ought derivable from is, he must use "ought" as an instrumental (rather than admirable) evaluative statement. He seems to think "oughts" may be factual -- but he doesn't recognize (or admit) that these can be only instrumental oughts. A hammer ought to be good for pounding nails, but that does not make it a morally culpable hammer.

Sam's instrumental ought seems logical enough to do until we read also that in his writings he uses this instrumental goodness to recommend (for instance) a probably unadmirable war against approximately 1/3 of humanity, based on their Islamic faith.

Most people would intuit that's a bad idea -- but it's difficult to see just why that's "bad" if "good" is just instrumental ... y'see.

Such a war might not be "bad" in some instrumental sense (it resembles a Final Solution), but WISE it would not be. This leads me to intuit that some defensible non-instrumental definition of "good" is necessary to explain why not.

Meanwhile anyone who discusses Sam here should examine his statements to see whether the above analysis applies to him. Does he conflate instrumental good with moral good? I think he does. In a sense that makes him the mirror image of a Platonist who makes the same mistake.

Russell Blackford said...

Richard, I actually agree with most of that, and you've helped me get a couple of things clearer in my mind. I don't call myself a relativist or a subjectivist either. But if someone wants to say, "Aha! I've caught you out in being a subjectivist," then I'll say: "Well, if you want to call it that. But it's a limited and innocuous kind of subjectivism." I could add that there's no agreed definition of subjectivism among metaethicists and that by some definitions it's not subjectivism at all!

So, yes, subjectivism and relativism don't actually play a role in how I think about things (with one caveat that I'll need to remember for next time ...).

Standards do figure importantly in my thinking, though. We judge "good" hammers, apples, Olympic diving, and just about everything else by standards, and I think it's useful to bring this out explicitly. It's useful to bring out that the word "good" has this sort of meaning across a whole range of judgments, not just those about hammers. It's usually some sort of effectiveness that's involved.

We can also judge moralities, i.e. positive moral systems, by standards other than just whether or not they are identical to some supposedly objectively correct morality (in my view there's no such thing, but once again that depends on the meaning of "objective" and its cognates). Of course, those standards will be based on human desires, values, and so on, but that doesn't seem terribly problematic to me. I think I'm entitled to say: "This is a good moral system" or "This is a bad moral system."

There's a possible problem, which you've kind of hinted at. There's no controversy about what a hammer is for. There's quite a bit of controversy about what we want moral systems for (to ameliorate suffering? to maximise welfare? to make social coordination possible? to serve God?). That might be another reason why the analogy is a poor one, but I don't actually think it's all that poor, even if I still haven't said enough about why I find it revealing (and still won't in this comment).

(I agree that I don't judge an action morally just by whether it achieves my particular goals. Moral judgments are not the same as judgments of practical rationality. But if moral standards are not evaluated by appealing to considerations of practical rationality involving shared goals, I don't see how they can be evaluated at all. I do think that they can be evaluated like this, and are therefore not arbitary, but I must admit that it starts to get complicated here, and I could well take a misstep. So I won't say much more for now.)

Please keep this going. It's a helpful discussion.

Marshall said...

"Good" can be considered a Universal in that it can be applied to anything.... we can always think about a "good-bad" axis, on which any instance of a whatnot can be placed relative to other instances. But how we go about evaluating an instance depends on what sort of whatnot we have. We can say this Craftsman tool is a good hammer and this rock is a poor one, but that means something entirely different than saying that this is good potato salad (where nails are not in question). But yet again, it is meaningful to say that I am in general willing to spend extra money to get better stuff. No problem, that's just how the usual language games work.

So are language games "objective" or "subjective"? Bad question! From my personal point of view as an individual, my language is objective: I had to learn it, it is what it is, and if I choose to "speak in tongues", I won't be able to communicate socially. From a cultural perspective, a language is "subjective" in that it is what it is only because of people's collective history of preferences, it can't be precisely defined apart from usage, and it inevitably evolves over time. Notions of "goodness" in potato salad are like that, some mix of personal and social opinion; even goodness in hammers changed with the introduction of steel nails.

Language doesn't evolve freely; it is constrained by the nature of human beings, by our "instinct" for language, whatever that means... something about how our brains are wired. On the other hand, our brains evolved to efficiently support the kind of communication people found it useful to do.

I would suggest that Morality is like that. Morality only exists as a Consensus relative to a Society, and it evolves towards evaluating the kind of things that members of that society collectively find it useful to do, or not do, including defining the boundaries of the society. Inevitably the range of possible moralities for human society is limited by the human "moral instanct" (whatever that means). So we can approach "goodness" of some morality just as the goodness of some hammer or some potato salad: is it tasteful, is it efficient, does it do the job well. We can "scientifically" examine what morality is currently operative within what boundaries, what consequences, how it has evolved, what the effect would be of this or that change; what are the limits of possible change. But I don't think anyone should expect to scientificly decide what potato salad is optimal; de gustibus non disputandum est.

Janet said...

OK, I am not a professional in this area at all, so I will just leave aside all the fascinating commentary above and offer a naive take on this.

Personally I wouldn’t say that the goodness of the hammer is objective or subjective; I would say it is contextual. The hammer is good in this particular situation. It might not be good in another.

Witness the fact that there are actually different types of hammers for different tasks. And even hammers made for the same task can differ in design. So there might be, say, a ball-peen hammer that would be good for me, but not for you, because we differ in our physical characteristics (size, strength, etc.).

Don’t know if that contributes anything, but it is a somewhat different view. Call it the home handyman perspective. :-)

Unknown said...

GTChristie, I am deeply saddened to learn that Sam Harris recommends warfare against Islamic populations. I thought I had read everything of his, but I have not seen such a recommendation. Can you point out the offending passage?

Unknown said...

GTChristie referred to "the roots of the conflict between Science and western Christianity, whose philosophy is based on Platonism". This is misleading.

Science is not a brand of philosophy, it is the pragmatic study of the world. Scientific practice has shown that almost all statements about the world made by religious authorities are false. This is not a philosophical point against Christianity; science does not make philosophical points. It accumulates facts.

On the other hand, the philosophy (such as it is) of Christianity is not "based on Platonism." It is based on scripture. The explicit, confessed purpose of theology is to justify scripture. Plato is merely one of the authorities theologians invoke when inventing their justifications.

Robert N Stephenson said...

It might be good to think back on the concept of morality, it was an existent idea back in the days of cave painting and uggs.

I think some jump too quickly on the Christian moral ideal without ever understanding its own routes, which were not of a religious nature at all.

Call this the hammer. But as people wield the hammer not one know who first foundered the hammer, where did the idea of this hammer come from? The hammer just didn't appear one day and go bang.

In moral concept the first major recording of this moral set was 100 laws inscribed on a stone wall in the middle east (I'm sorry, I lent my reference to this to someone of fundamental standing and they threw it away)

anyway, the 100 laws of the captured people plainly laid out how the king wanted the people to live. Over time this set of laws spread wide and in a way became a kind of morality and all problems were brought to the king - naturally (Here the hammer became) - was it a good hammer, who knows.

Later the 100 laws became the ten commandments and the name of the king was replaced with God. So, someone refined the hammer in a way and renamed it. And in a way it was a better hammer because it was easier to use. Sadly easy didn't always work out to be better in some instances and those instances have been magnified by those who hold tight to the edited 100 laws.

Now the discussion of good is interesting as good and god were very closely related as in terms, though the original god version is based around Mesopotamian idols and not what Christians or other religions may claim.

A 'Good' hammer is really only as good as the hammer handler, by itself it is just an object incapable of any kind of metaphysical goodness or badness - it 'is' and nothing more.

True the analogy was playing a different logic set, but I don't think it worked effectively - if fact it had a bluntness about it that suggest the hammer was right because it was good, when the hammer, when seen as a hammer is just a hammer.

Good moral concepts are not based on scientifically reasoned logic, it is often based on socially acceptable understanding and commitments by a population regardless of the actual personal belief system. Instead of a hammer, you have a virtual factory of them and as the hammer is only as good as the handler you now have virtually every kind of outcome possible, good and bad.

A general good has to be formed and it won't make everyone happy because they love their hammers. So, over time, a long time, a reasonable set of understanding was developed to cover the range of good available, from not so good, to brilliantly good.

Now, all this said - I still believe the nails are a missing point in this analogy -- a hammer without nails is in the not so good area, in fact it even stops serving the point of being a hammer in the first place, don't you think?

Russell Blackford said...

Actually, Christian philosophy is largely based on Platonism. St Paul seems to have been very influenced by Platonism, as was the writer of the Gospel of John. Moreover, much of the historical philosophy of Christianity comes more from St Augustine, who was certainly influenced by Platonism (and not just via St Paul). Of course, Christian philosophy is also largely based on Aristotelianism via Aquinas.

Protestants may be keener to try to base their philosophy directly on scripture, but inevitably they turn to St Paul, who gives the best theoretical expositions in the Bible. And anyway, Protestants are the minority even now, and have not been dominant in shaping Christian philosophy.

Robert N Stephenson said...

so true Russell -- though Christian Philosophy has come of age in some areas and is steadfastly put down and argued against - The Catholic Church also wield power of publication of Christian materials and that which it doesn't control or influence is inundated with with US based Fundamentalism.

There was an interesting documentary done by Time Life about the discovery of the garden of eden -- it isn't quite the place fundamentalists believed it to be, and it was a place that also had unusual snake worship practices.

This is one of those DVDs if you can see is worth the journey - it would show you a little about how contempory and more wide thinking Christians see the world.

I think I have said this before, but in many instances I can be considered an atheist who believes in the teachings of Jesus - the man.

Do I believe in God - yes but not quite how most would term that meaning

I tend to believe many of the Christian philosophers were only trying to strengthen a legal hold over society for the church -- not all of it is say wrong - it is just the wrong hammer was in use at the time

Russell Blackford said...

To follow up a point from yesterday, RichardW said that the hammer is not a good analogy because people make what I'll call absolute judgments about actions that are judged morally, whereas they make judgments against a limited standard when judging hammers. Actually, that's not what he said - it's my language. He said: "It is morally good to do X" or "you morally ought to do X" implies a moral obligation on you to do X even if that would not be the best way to achieve your goals.

I totally agree, and I think that's fine. Moral judgments are not the same as advice based on practical rationality. But it goes beyond that. Many people seem to think that there's a moral obligation to do X regardless whether it achieves any goals whatsoever.

The point I was making in the post is something like this: they're thinking about morality like Y thinks about his weird tool. In my view that's incoherent, and at least some of our moral talk (people like Richard Joyce and J.L. Mackie think most or all of it) is infected by this incoherence.

So yes, there is a disanalogy between this way of thinking about morality and how we think about hammers. But I think we should (not that this is not necessarily a moral should) use moral talk that is more like our talk about hammers.

I also think that we already do this in practice more than might be apparent. The conclusion I've been coming to - but I'd love some debate about this - is that a lot of moral talk is in fact not infected by the incoherence or error. Not because the error doesn't exist - I think Mackie is correct about that - but because moral talk is not monolithic. A lot of real-world moral talk is more like hammer talk, and a lot of it is actually noncognitive. Not all of it. Not the bits that philosophers tend to focus on. But a helluva lot of it.

Aaargh, and I'm painfully aware of how cryptic that is.

Russell Blackford said...

On the business about Sam Harris wanting to go to war against Islam, he denies that that's what he meant. Having re-read The End of Faith recently, I kind of side with him on this. He never really said that, though he may have seemed to imply it. The trouble is that that book is a mixed bag. In many ways it's a wonderful book, but it also throws a lot of thoughts out there that never get, ahem, nailed down into clear policy prescriptions.

Although I don't think the book advocates some kind of extermination program against Muslims or some kind of institutionalised practice of torture, it contains passages that intelligent people have read that way, and it's because they're open to that reading. It's not just that the readers are ill-willed (clearly GTChristie isn't). Fortunately, Sam has since clarified his views in various places.

Russell Blackford said...

Damn, I meant at one point above "Note that this is not necessarily a moral 'should'."

Richard Wein said...

Russell: We can also judge moralities, i.e. positive moral systems, by standards other than just whether or not they are identical to some supposedly objectively correct morality (in my view there's no such thing, but once again that depends on the meaning of "objective" and its cognates). Of course, those standards will be based on human desires, values, and so on, but that doesn't seem terribly problematic to me. I think I'm entitled to say: "This is a good moral system" or "This is a bad moral system."

I suspect that what you're calling a moral standard is not what other people would consider a moral standard. It seems to me that what most people mean is a formula (in a broad sense) for evaluating (or generating) moral claims, like "this action is wrong". To be of any interest it must evaluate some such claims as true. But I think you've agreed that all such claims are false (or at least not true). So a moral standard in this sense makes false or fictional evaluations. Perhaps you're taking a moral fictionalist approach, and saying that a good moral standard is one which creates the sort of society that people generally want, by encouraging false but useful beliefs. But it seems you mean something else...

Russell: But I think we should (not that this is not necessarily a moral should) use moral talk that is more like our talk about hammers.

I've noticed in the past that when you discuss matters of moral concern you tend to avoid terms of moral judgement and concentrate on talk about goals. That's fine. But I don't see how you can fit moral standards into such talk. I'll have to await your future posts to find out what you mean.

Russell: The point I was making in the post is something like this: they're thinking about morality like Y thinks about his weird tool.

Yes, I agree. That point was a good one. I was concerned about a different sort of analogy between moral and non-moral talk, which maybe wasn't relevant to your post.

Unknown said...

Russell said, Actually, Christian philosophy is largely based on Platonism. St Paul seems to have been very influenced by Platonism, as was the writer of the Gospel of John.

I believe that this is an unexamined platitude, and that if you think about it for a moment, it will fall apart.

The purpose of theology is to make a case for the proposition that it's good, both morally and intellectually, to believe in the Christian God.

It is not possible to start with Plato and reason your way to (for example) the Holy Trinity. What happens, of course, is that a writer already committed to the idea of the Trinity drafts Plato into service as an amicus curiae. Essays composed in this fashion are not "based on Platonism", they merely cite Plato as an authority. What they are based on is faith -- as, in general, the author will happily attest.

Unknown said...

Russell, I am deeply saddened to learn that there are passages in The End of Faith that can be read by intelligent, well-meaning people as advocating "some kind of extermination program against Muslims or some kind of institutionalised practice of torture." Can you point me to the offending passages?

Russell Blackford said...

Roy, that could be a lot of work, if I started analysing particular paras to extract a meaning that I'm not arguing for. But the stuff about torture is near the end - there's a long discussion round about page 190. To get it in context you probably need to read the whole of that chapter. Islam is discussed throughout, and again it would be difficult to go through cherrypicking passages that have led other people to an interpretation that I'm not defending. But you at least should read the chapter entitled "The Trouble with Islam". It's probably worth reading the whole book again - after all, it's a very readable book with lots of great material - to see whether you think the interpretation of Harris as adopting these extreme positions is fair.

Russell Blackford said...

RichardW, I think I'm more a partial abolitionist than a fictionalist. I agree that my own language tends to avoid the use of straight-up categorical imperatives or anything similar that suggests that I buy into the moral overlay. It's deliberate. Mackie, Joyce and others, and my own independent thinking have made me conscious of this. I tend to talk more about what we "should" do, what our goals are, etc. And I never engage in moral rights talk, because I think moral rights talk is nonsense on stilts.

Joyce tends to recommend fictionalism, though he hedges his bets. I'm not really with him on that, but I think that we can use a certain amount of conventional moral language in daily interactions without too much intellectual dishonesty.

I also notice that a lot of what we say in informal settings really does seem more like noncognitive language. Philosophers who are cognitivists (as I am about paradigm moral claims such as "X is a morally wrong act") seem to overlook this.

But I'm working this out as I go. What I'm clear on is that morality does not have the absolute, inescapable authority that Mackie, Joyce, etc., object to. It is ultimately grounded in human desires, etc., combined with facts about the world. Where we go from there is a difficult question.

As for Harris ... he says things that suggest he agrees on this if pressed. But then he deprecates it by saying, in effect, that it's a trivial problem that would also affect the practice of medicine and science if we took it seriously. I don't think that works very well. The thing is, the problem probably does affect other practices, including medicine and science. But it doesn't affect every practice to the same degree.

GTChristie said...

We're not really supposed to cite wikis in academia, but this is where I discovered the info about Sam Harris' views on Islam.


I do not want to enter a discussion whether science IS a philosophy, and I probably should not have expressed the "conflict between science and christianity" as if science is an institution in the same sense as "the church" is an institution. But it is not misleading to say that the roots of Christian philosophy are deeply influenced by Platonism, and that Platonism is not scientific. That is what I meant to point out. If I did that too clumsily, consider this my correction.

I am usually quite careful about usage and it really makes my feet itch when my words can be turned like that. LOL. So ... better technique from now on.

I need to apologize to Zachary for alluding to HIS remarks on axiomatic systems and attributing them to "Roy" ...

And finally, the points made by Blue Ridge above are outstanding, in particular the passage about ethics being defined within societies (I usually tag this as cultures). We can escape the word chase around defining "good" by understanding that the word is invented, used and defined by cultural processes, including the process of "what to attach the evaluative word of approval to," which comes right back around to the values of the culture. If we understood how values actually are invented, we'd lose a lot of this "definition chase" in moral philosophy. If anything, what I see in above remarks is that "analysis of goodness" is thankless and, as BlueRidge implies or suggests, analysis of culture would go much farther.

Now Sam Harris looks awfully unreasonable from the cultural perspective in ethics, for apparently wanting to eliminate one. I don't believe in killing anyone in the name of religion or anything else.

What surprises and disappoints me is that Islam, according to those who criticize it, recommends exactly that. Is that true? I already know what Christians recommend for heretics ... but how do we get a world of peace from these warlike ideas? We can't decide whole cultures deserve to die. Millions of Muslims lead moral lives, based on their cultural values. If Sam Harris' instrumental view of ethics allows destruction of that, there's something wrong with a premise somewhere.

Gee. Now I dont have to publish my book. People are getting it anyway. LOL.

Unknown said...

GTChristie said, "Now Sam Harris looks awfully unreasonable from the cultural perspective in ethics, for apparently wanting to eliminate one. I don't believe in killing anyone in the name of religion or anything else."

This is making me angry. Sam Harris has never advocated killing (or torturing) anyone, for any reason, ever. Where on Earth did you get that idea? Not even that Wikipedia article supports it!

When Harris talks about war, he is referring to the fact that self-identified Islamists have killed thousands of "infidels". He has never recommended that we in the West start killing Muslims.

Harris has rightly pointed out that the notion of a "war on terror" is absurd. And it is conceivable that he has said something like: our enemy is not terror but Islam. But even if he said that, he was referring to the fact that they are attacking us. He has never said that we should attack them.

Unless there is some evidence you can share with us, Mr Christie, stop accusing Mr Harris of murderous intent.

Unknown said...

GTChristie said, "it is not misleading to say that the roots of Christian philosophy are deeply influenced by Platonism"

The roots?

Deeply influenced?

Yes, it is misleading.

GTChristie said...

A bit of clarification: I have not said that Christianity itself is based on Platonism, as in reasoning beginning from Plato to derive the Christian religion.

Distinguish Christian philosophy from Christian theology. The theology is based on scripture. It isn't proper argumentation to take the two as interchangeable, and object to a point about Christian metaphysics by making it sound like a point about its theology. I haven't used the term theology (the intent of which is not my issue), I've used the term philosophy -- and for a reason. I know this will cause trouble but here's the wisecrack: the teachings of Jesus define the theology (as in the so called will of God) but the philosophy produced by Christian thinkers (what is the world, how do we understand it) is Plato first (via Augustine and Paul, as Russell points out) and later Aristotle via Aquinas (who argued that Aristotelian science was not incompatible with Catholicism). That is to say, there is Greek metaphysics alongside Judaic belief in God and the two are distinguishable. My original point was, this Platonic idealism affects philosophers, not that it defines scripture. I think that's a switcheroo to object to the point about philosophy by making a point about theology.

Off the cuff, basically I agree with you as far as the two issues are kept apart, and disagree if you don't distinguish between them.

Unknown said...

Is there really a discipline rightly called Christian philosophy and distinct from Christian theology?

I am certainly not an expert on authors like Aquinas and Augustine, having been exposed to them mostly through Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy and counting that enough horror for one lifetime. (The rest of the book is much more fun.) If that's Christian philosophy, then sure, it's heavily indebted to Plato. But I reckon that where it's Christian it's not philosophy, and vice versa.

If I had a Christian doctor, and he cured my gout with vitamin pills, I would not call that a Christian cure. I would call it a scientific cure -- or just a cure. A Christian cure would probably involve hideous suffering and it would probably not work.

It seems possible, in principle, for a nominally Christian writer to put his "faith" aside and write some real philosophy. That sort of a person might lean on Plato or Aristotle like any other scholar; and then you could describe his work as based on Platonism -- but not his Christian work, because this particular work is, ex hypothesi, not particularly Christian.

Maybe that's enough clarification for such a minor point. I mean, this is not a huge disagreement. Not like that Sam Harris thing. :~)

Friend of Icelos said...

After reading this discussion, I think I should point out that the passages in question from The End of Faith are posted here on Sam Harris's website along with his own clarifications.

Unknown said...

Thank you, friend of Ocelos! I lost my copy of The End of Faith; you have saved me a trip to the library.

Taken out of context, Harris's statements on war and torture certainly sound extreme. But the context, of course, is everything.

Reading these passages from The End of Faith carefully, we find that Harris is not so much recommending extreme measures as he is carefully declining to rule them out under all circumstances. Is torture never, ever the right thing to do? Harris considers, and replies: I'm not prepared to say that. He is not the kind of absolutist who would say something like, "If you're the torturer, you've forfeited the moral high ground, every single time." Personally, I would say that, and I am dismayed that Harris does not.

But it's not as if he is saying that torture is okay! In fact, he's saying that it's so not okay that we should make it completely illegal, figuring that if anyone is ever in a position to consider it a necessary evil, they'll have to do it even though it's illegal! Now that sounds pretty strange, but I think it represents the mainstream view of Western society: that torture is totally hideous, and we should never do it, except possibly under certain scenarios that seem unlikely but cannot be totally ruled out. This is not a radical position. It is perfectly reasonable.

Harris's statements on war have the same character. "IF," he says (my reading!), "someone is insane, AND they have the Bomb, AND maybe a few more conditions, THEN are there certain things that, although we could do them to save ourselves and our civilization from total annihilation, we must rule them out on moral grounds? Sorry, I can't think of any." Again, the point is not to threaten anyone but to call our attention to an already existing threat.

Let me remind you of the broad context. The core thesis of The End of Faith is that religious ideas are dangerous -- perhaps more dangerous than we can even imagine. Some of Harris's language is extreme, for a very good reason. Religion has been telling us for 10,000 years that it is the ultimate good. We are fortunate if once in a blue moon someone is willing to step up and say No, that's a lie, and take the full measure of abuse for doing so.

Contrary to the accusations raised against him (and carelessly repeated on this page), Sam Harris has never proposed or advocated war or torture against anyone, for any reason. The closest he has come to such a position has been to say that if we should encounter certain most extreme threats, he is not certain that there is any response that should be ruled out, in advance, on moral grounds. Surely such an attitude is beyond reproach.

GTChristie said...

Thank you for this analysis of context in Harris' views. I know the "careless" citation belongs to me (I did not have the book in hand); I just went to wiki to look up Harris because I had not heard of him before coming to this blog. And that is what I found -- and found it troubling. I brought it up and in my own defense I can say only "that's why I brought it up" and certainly not to mischaracterize anyone. That's why we have these discussions. So I withdraw any accusatory connotations my words may have carried and subject them to the condition that, if your analysis is correct, I apologize to all for having perpetuated a misconception. However, I have a feeling many people can (mis)read Harris and this might have as much to do with his own expressiveness as with any intent to misread him. I'm willing to stand corrected -- if yashwata's analysis is right!

Christian philosophy is distinct from its theology. Its biggest influence is on "canon law," which is the human interpretation of divine law -- think of it as the judicial branch of Christianity, where reasoning must occur, in addition to faith. The line is hazy. An example would be the philosophical roots of the Catholic rule of celibacy in the priesthood. That's not in the bible. It's a philosophical position taken with the bible and theology in mind -- but it's not theology. It's got a lot to do with "how do we interpret scripture" (literally? figuratively?) or read divine intent where no specific scripture can be cited. And, of course, this trickles down to the philosopher who is also Christian Believing in "sanctifying grace" for instance, which was not a teaching of Jesus, can color or inform even the most nominally secular philsopher's attitudes to metaphysics etc. All the debatable points within Christianity cannot be settled by scripture, therefore philosophy is done to interpret scripture. So it is that Luther posts a manifesto on a church door ... a conflict of philosophies concerning the divine will. Etc.

The conduits for Plato into early Christianity were Augustine and Paul

GTChristie said...

What's Platonic in Christianity is the way the Ideals or Forms echo the belief in a realm outside or above human comprehension. In particular this belief, coming as it did from the Greeks, greatly affected the learned Church fathers who taught that the things of this world pale by comparison with the infinite rewards of heaven -- it's a borrowed Greek metaphysics to bolster (and build bridges to) the new faith (Christianity). This metaphysics supports many of the statements of the Nicene Creed, for instance -- none of which is in the bible but which was necessary to create, to make the new faith coherent (and of course to tell a believer from a heretic).

You will find a lot of religion (and morality generally) has as much to do with identify ("who we are") as it does with doctrine. "We are the people who believe X, and I am one of us" creates in the individual a sense of belonging and in the community a rod to measure the individual's acceptability. In all the talk about hammers etc, we have not dealt much with real people and actual behavior. Ie, in our culture we are more comfortable with rules, ultimates, goals, formulas and derivability than we are with belonging, acceptance, ostracism, group behavior, socialization etc. Morality is in great part a function of how people cooperate, in which a "like-minded" group is more effective (even evolutionarily) than a disorganized group. Actually the science ABOUT morality is pointing in this direction.

I believe there is no possible science of deriving judgments from universal rules. So the role of science in ethics is to inform human nature, not to tell us what to do.

But ... that's a discussion for another day.

Unknown said...

As you probably know, it is not true that "the things of this world pale by comparison with the infinite rewards of heaven." It is not even a philosophical position. It is just a lie.

When you refer to "the learned Church fathers," I want to grab your shoulders and shake the nonsense out of you.

Of course that style of intervention is almost certain to create more problems than it solves. Which is why I have never tried it -- except in my imagination.

Rich Griese said...

I am also interested in the study of very early christianity. I am currently reading, Walter Bauer's _Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity_. I have studied the topic for almost 20 years now. I have read a number of other of the great works on this topic like Strauss, Harnack, Schweitzer, two additional Bauers (FC & Bruno), and many many others, but this is my current read.

I am always interested in meeting others that are interested in the study of earliest christianity to have ongoing conversations and share reading lists, etc... you can contact me by email at RichGriese@gmail.com

Do you have specific aspect of the study that interest you, that you might be interested in discussing, and perhaps having on going discussions on the topic in general? Feel free to email me to talk about it.

My main interest is the very earliest period. Perhaps from the modified Messiah idea that may have begun around the time of the Maccabean revolt through the beginnings of christianity itself, till the Council of Nicea in 325CE, and perhaps a few years after that as some of the results of that council took effect.

You can find the beginnings of my religion site at;



Russell Blackford said...

Well, it looks to me as if we can all agree that something rightly or wrongly known as "Christian philosophy" was influenced by Plato via St Paul and St Augustine. We can also agree, I hope, that Sam Harris does not really take the extreme positions often attributed to him, but that this is not clear if some of his statements are read out of context. (Perhaps someone should edit his Wikipedia article, however.)

At least I hope that much is now agreed by everybody involved in the discussion. If not, I reckon I'll give up here and concentrate on the next long thread that's developing.

Rich Griese said...

I would offer simpler meaning for "good". I would say good means "successful". So a good murder, is a murderer that has successfully murdered someone. So I would disagree with your statement that goodness is relative. Good is a modifying term. meaning, it cannot stand alone. So you can be a good murder, or a good artist, or a good programmer, but you cannot simply be good. When people say "he is good", there is really a tacit subject, like husband or man implicit. Argument CAN come when people disagree on the subject, not good. Good means successful, that is clear. But to one a murder is one that murder one person, and to another it is a person that murders ten. So in your example of the hammer, the argument is not if IT is good or not. but what IT is. meaning, they can argue about what a "hammer" is. Only when we agree on the subject, is it possible to consider if it is a "good" example of that subject.

In your "good tool" example, the person is most likely views a "tool" as something that is "well made to last a long time". Sounds like that person is a romantic, that probably likes the idea of building things like his house with only hand tools, etc...

So you see it is the "subject" that is at issue. Once we agree on the attributes of the subject then all can determine if it is a "good" example of the subject. People actually know very well what "good" is. (setting aside the supernaturalists desire to try to pervert the idea of good as a modifier or attribute for some thing, and try to make the word stand alone, but this is simply sophistry) What they not not agree on is what is an "ideal" example of the subject in question.

So... if an "good football player" one that makes the most yardage? Or one that will play with a broken nose without complaint?

The key way to proceed with your "good tool" person, since he is not being helpful in explaining himself. Is to say "give me 3 attributes of a 'good tool'". Then you can begin to actually see what he is talking about.

Every one knows what "good" is, it is the definition or idealization of the object good is modifying that they may differ on.


Russell Blackford said...

Not necessarily successful, but capable of being successful (the hammer may never have been used so far). I.e. effective for the purpose or goal or desire.

I'm not keen on "relative" as a word for this either. "Relational" if you prefer. But it is always good in relation to something. There is no just good. That's an illusion.

Rich Griese said...

You philosophical types love to argue about word. :)

The point is that everyone knows what "good" means. What most people don't think about is that "good" is a modifier of some OTHER subject. The reason for that is that supernaturalists have latched onto certain words "good" being one. And will say things like "god is good", or "only god is good", and try to make "good" into a concept in itself, rather than allowing "good" to be a modifier for something else.

Another term they do this for is "believer". And they have been successful in this too. For example, sometimes you will hear the question "Are you a believer?". I would submit that all humans over 5 years old have beliefs. Yet many people will say "no, I am not a believer." This is in fact incorrect, and you can explore that with them, by asking... "You mean, you don't believe in gravity?" To which they will probably say "oh, of course". Well... then they are a believer.

The problem is that the supernaturalists have cooped the term "believer" to imply that only one particular "belief" is relevant to that question. The cure for this is to not allow the supernaturalist to "own" that term, and if asked "are you a believer?", the only rational response is "believer in what?"

Back to the "good" issue. I believe that almost every human understands the concept of "good", just as they understand the concept of "greater than" or "less then". Usually when topics of "good" come up, the issue to be explored and clarified is the object or concept that "good" is being called on to modify, NOT the concept of goodness.


GTChristie said...

When you refer to "the learned Church fathers," I want to grab your shoulders and shake the nonsense out of you.

I would like to point out that having knowledge about a subject is not the same as believing the teachings of that subject. I am making a point about history there.

I am not religious (as I have pointed out in other posts); in fact I am irreligious.

The learned Church fathers -- ie the educated men of the early centuries of Christianity -- were influenced by Plato. In particular they were influenced by the theory of Forms (or Ideals) which holds there is a realm beyond physical reality.

That is a historical statement. Now explain to me how that is nonsense.

Also explain to me what sentence construction or "context" in my analysis leads you to conclude that I believe there is a realm beyond the physical? Do I not say in one of the previous comments, clearly, "Is there such a thing" and clearly say "No"?

I am willing to eat words that I have said, if they are wrong. I am not willing to have words put in my mouth.


Unknown said...

GTChristie, I'm sorry, I have spoken too harshly again.

I did not mean to imply that you share the beliefs of the "learned Church fathers". I was trying to get you to acknowledge that these men were not admirable. It could be argued that what they did was more damaging to Western civilization than the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. They used Plato, Aristotle, introspection and bald-faced lies to justify their Christian affiliations. That was their profession (in both senses of the word). As far as we know they did nothing of value. They were slime.

On the other hand, my demands that you despise their project with the same passion I apply to it have been overstated and rude.

GTChristie said...


Western philosophers have been trying since the Enlightenment to create a secular philosophy of ethics. If it were easy, it would be done by now.

Back to the hammer thing. LOL.

GTChristie said...

A Postscript
The larger point I had in mind in analysis of the hammer metaphor got inundated by the distractions about theology etc -- distractions partly caused by me.

The main point was the distinction between "instrumental good" and the "absolute good" found in Platonism and later related Idealism. And the big conclusion I made, which nobody actually shot down, was this:

If instrumental ("useful") good, which CAN be objective (as in evaluating hammers) is the only form of measurement in ethics, it leaves ethics open to ideas like Final Solutions. And, as I said:

"[a] war might not be 'bad' in some instrumental sense ... but WISE it would not be. This leads me to intuit that some defensible non-instrumental definition of 'good' is necessary to explain why not."

And since non-instrumental good is not an object of science, I am saying, science is not sufficient in creating moral judgments.

Literally I am arguing THIS point, which I was hoping to justify on reasoned rgumentation:
there can be no moral science.

I wish that my clumsiness in exposition had not distracted this thread from discussing that. Again, my apologies to all for the distraction.