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.
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.