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Ch. 4 - "Ethical Character in a Godless Universe" 
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Post Ch. 4 - "Ethical Character in a Godless Universe"
Value & Virtue in a Godless Universe

Ch. 4 - "Ethical Character in a Godless Universe"


Please use this thread for discussing Ch. 4. ::44

Edited by: Chris OConnor  at: 12/19/05 9:29 am



Mon Dec 19, 2005 9:24 am
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Post Re: Ch. 4 - "Ethical Character in a Godless Universe&qu
Major points
1. W does something fairly common but still curious in this chapter. After having rejected the theistic basis for morality, he goes on to assert many of the same values, and often by giving them similar logical supports. My question is, why look for corresponding values? If the premises of Christian and naturalistic ethics differ so starkly, shouldn't the virtues that arise from each differ as well? It seems entirely probably that starting from two different moral foundations should lead to different sets of virtues. A naturalistic ethical system need not -- and probably ought not -- constrain itself to a choice of pre-existing values. That is so precisely because those values arose from a mode of thought it has rejected.

Assuming that a naturalistic ethics is possible, the values it asserts need not resemble Christian virtues at all; they need not resemble any value with which we have previously been familiar, and to call them by the same names would likely only serve to confuse. W seems to have contented himself with the task of demonstrating that we can play the same game with different rules, rather than finding a new game.

2. W may have succeeded in showing that humility can be a naturalistic virtue -- and I emphasize may -- but he has not yet shown that it should. Why is it "mere snobbery and foolishness" to suppose that one should relish their advantages over another? C.S. Lewis has a cosmological reason for his support of humility; W rejects that support but affirms the virtue without replacing that support.

To put it in a clearer context, ask yourself why the only criteria for determining, in a naturalistic scheme, the relative worth or merit of two people should be the fact of neither having had control of the circumstances of their birth. Why shouldn't a rich man claim that he is, by virtue of his wealth, superior in that moment to the poor man, regardless of whether or not he himself had any control over their relative wealth.

We can affirm our commonalities and take that as a basis for behaving morally to one another, but nothing in the naturalistic ethics presented by W makes that affirmation necessary or obligatory.

3. Further, it may be questioned whether or not W's derived value of humility is really productive of tangible good. Take this hypothetical: A man ascends to a position of power through nepotism or dumb luck. How does W's derivation of humility prevent the man from abusing that power? How does recognition that one's power is not the result of one's own achievement necessarily effect the exercise of that power?

A comparison might clarify a little. W says that very little of what is good in our lives is really the result of our own achievement, but suppose for a moment that another man was capable of achieving power by his own efforts. Why should we assume that this second man would be any more or less prone to use that power immorally than the man who received power arbitrarily?

It seems to me that one's estimation of how they arrived at power is likely to play a negligible role at best, or a large role in only a minority of cases, and only with other considerations involved. Once a person is in possession of power, the exercise of power is a moral concern apart from its acquisition. The person who knows he doesn't "deserve" power is just as capable of abusing it as the tyrant who thinks himself a god, and I see no particular reason why he wouldn't when the other would.

4. Why should lack of control necessarily engender an obligation to help the less fortunate? W writes, "Is it not clear that it is not morally permissable to refuse to offer help to those less fortunate...?" But there's not argument to make that viewpoint clear, no recourse to reason; W has fallen back on an appeal to sentiment, but it is by no means clear in a naturalistic ethics that sentiment is a reliable guide to moral obligation.

Minor points
Page 103: In claiming that religions impose an injunction against "transcending one's place," W ignores the Christian injunction to be like Christ, which is analagous to Aristotle's endorsement of contemplation as an ethical virtue. The notion of transcendence is far more common to religion than to secular philosophy.

p. 107: "According to Aristotle, in virtue of this difference between the two, Smith deserves more honor than Jones precisely by virtue of Smith's 'noble birth.'" Actually, in the passage W has quoted, Aristotle only says that "men of noble birth, of power, or of wealth are regarded as worthy of honor" (emphasis added). Aristotle is apparantly dealing with a social reality rather than with a moral ideal, with an "is" rather than an "ought." His subject is the way in which people deal with one another, whereas W seems to be talking about intrinsic worth.

p. 114: "...humility involves recognition of one's proper place in the universe..." In a naturalistic morality, how does one ascertain their "proper place?" That implies an objectively established pattern or plan that is more natural in a theistic cosmology than it is in a purely naturalistic world-view.

p. 120: W cites a number of Greek philosophers to substantiate the claim that "the idea that the universe is fundamentally reasonable and moral is a conviction that is widely held among thinkers of a variety of religious orientations." Two points need be made in this context. The first is that the bulk of philosophers he names in this context represent a religion that hasn't been practiced in nearly 2000 years; it's hardly representative of modern thought. The second is that the Greek philosophers meant by their use of the term "justice" something more than simply the limited moral justice we mean. They speak of the laws of nature as conforming to a kind of natural and physical justice, and it is from such usage that our use of the term "natural law" derives. Thus, when a person is brought to earth by the force of gravity, it is, to the ancient Greek philosophers, an act of justice, so to speak. To regard this as support for the claim that most or even many theistic moral systems posit a fundamentally reasonable and moral universe is sheer distortion.




Tue Dec 27, 2005 4:10 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 4 - "Ethical Character in a Godless Universe&am
wielenberg walks a slippery slope by bringing issues of free will into the text. i have always been torn on the issue understanding one side to be correct but suspending rational thought to allow my thoughts to trend towards a nietzschian will to power. ultimately, every action or thought we have can be traced backwards in time so that it is possible to say humbaly that everything is just dumb luck and a result of the past. but put me in a room all by myself and ask me to make a decision. that decision is generated by thoughts caused by everything in the past, but still in a bizarre way, i 'tell myself' - perhaps lie to myself - that in that moment, i have the power of choice. it eliminates the tendency many people have to let themselves drift in the world because 'it doesn't matter any ways.' regardless, to the point, i think this attitude of being humble is complete and utter crap. pride and a sense of accomplishment are not bad things and one can still believe in a naturalistic concept of 'dumb luck' while also having a very high self concept and self worth and thinking fondly of accomplishments. it is psychological folly to be completely humble to dumb luck.

what is up with the authors' desire to control lust physiologically/chemically? i don't see how lust is a bad thing. acting violently or aggressively due to lust is in most cases bad, but that is aggession and violence, not lust. bringing me to the author's BEST point in the book so far which i would like to quote from p141:

Quote:
In an environment in which the sweetest kind of food is fruit and protein is relatively rare, having a strong desire for sweet tastes and meat may be beneficial in the long haul. But when the environment is laden with easiy accesible cakes, candies, and bacon double cheeseburgers, such strong desires produce obesity on a scale the world has never seen, together with a slew of serious health problems. Similarly, in an environment in which there are strict limits to the amount of destruction that a single human being can produce, uncontrollable fear, anger, and lust::75 may be relatively advantageous over the long haul. But as the capacity of individual humans to destroy increases as a result of advancing technology, such emotions becoming [sic] increasingly dangerous.

this paragraph seems kinda of topic as it more directly is in reference to questions regarding technology vs. humanity in that our technological abilities have outpaced our evolutionary disposition. but i think it is one of the best points in the book regardless of being on topic or not and is something interesting to think about. the author's desire for genetically altering or drugging humans to produce behavioral or value/ethical changes is dangerous, in my opinion, and a discussion which has produced many other texts. while not completely against such efforts (certainly the current trend towards doping people has not permanentyly improved lives but rather made a drug dependant society that has received some benefits), i think extreme caution should be extended towards such issues that would fundamentally biologically, chemically, or genetically alter humans for the sake of improving values and morals.




Sun Jan 01, 2006 7:44 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 4 - "Ethical Character in a Godless Universe&am
riverc0il: that decision is generated by thoughts caused by everything in the past, but still in a bizarre way, i 'tell myself' - perhaps lie to myself - that in that moment, i have the power of choice.

What's odd to me is the idea that, assuming we have no free will, we would lie to ourselves about it. If we really have no free will, why should we lament that fact? It's not like we're any worse off than anyone else. People with no free will don't "drift" -- they do exactly what they would have done regardless, because it's all determined by the mechanistic processes of the material world, right? But then, I tend to take the fact that we ever raise the question as an indication, if not evidence, that we have at least some limited form of free will.

i think extreme caution should be extended towards such issues that would fundamentally biologically, chemically, or genetically alter humans for the sake of improving values and morals.

It also goes to the question (did I already bring this up?) of whether or not "programming" people to behave a particular way actually produces virtue. It seems to me that it eliminates the possibility of virtue, since virtue must be, at root, the result of a subjective choice.




Tue Jan 03, 2006 5:01 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 4 - "Ethical Character in a Godless Universe&am
mad, my wording likely confused the issue i was trying to suggest. i do not specifically lie to myself, i accept that the foundation of every decision i make is a combination of everything that has ever come before me. i feel i have a more proactive and forceful reaction, a will to power of sorts if you will, when i "think" like i have free will, ignoring the fact that every second of my existance may likely be the result of every second before it. like i said, i don't think free will was a good topic to delve into, lol.




Tue Jan 03, 2006 6:08 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 4 - "Ethical Character in a Godless Universe&am
No, I think I confused the issue by sticking to you as an example. But the argument holds. If you assume that there is no free will, then you have to conclude that everyone who believed that they are acting freely is deceived.




Wed Jan 04, 2006 2:55 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 4 - "Ethical Character in a Godless Universe&am
This chapter annoyed me, because of the choice of topics as much as anything.

E.W. starts off saying that he'll assume that naturalism is true throughout the chapter, which I found encouraging after all the God talk earlier in the book. Immediately after that, he discusses the fall of Man in the Garden of Eden.

Then he spends 10 pages discussing humility. That's an odd topic in a book on ethics, since ethics involves actions more than emotions. Besides, when considering feelings, humility has less ethical significance than love, hate, acceptance, racism, etc.

Also, he suggests that humility and recognition of the uncontrollable factors in life are necessary for ethical behavior in a naturalistic universe. However, an arrogant person who takes credit for his successes can still act ethically and charitably.

The next section examines feelings like despair that some people may experience when they view the world as godless. However, those psychological consequences aren't really ethical concerns. Also, even though people find solace in religion, believers still experience plenty of despair over the course of their lives.

The chapter ends with a discussion of the present and future implications of scientific advances upon ethics. He believes that the intellect needs more control over emotions, and that science can help in that regard. That attitude reflects a naive view of psychology that minimizes the crucial significance of emotions, which can be positive or negative.

E.W. neglects some major topics, such as how one makes ethical decisions in the absence of divine guidance. Instead, he spends his time on less important side issues.




Wed Jan 11, 2006 4:31 am
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Post Re: Ch. 4 - "Ethical Character in a Godless Universe&am
JulianTheApostate: Then he spends 10 pages discussing humility. That's an odd topic in a book on ethics, since ethics involves actions more than emotions.

It makes sense in the context of virtues, though, since humility is one of the traditional Christian virtues. Wielenberg might have done well to give at least a small chapter to the topic of ethics in general. If nothing else, he might have explained some of his assumptions concerning the nature and structure of ethics. That might have made for less confusion.

The next section examines feelings like despair that some people may experience when they view the world as godless. However, those psychological consequences aren't really ethical concerns.

Again, it sort of depends on what you mean by ethics. Wielenberg's academic speciality seems to be Aristotle, and Aristotle framed the question of ethics as that of "how we may attain the best life." If you look at ethics through that lens, then it may make a difference whether or not you feel despair at the nature of the universe.




Wed Jan 11, 2006 7:21 pm
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