Friday, January 27, 2012

Cosmic Rules of the Road

We're discussing the Ten Universal Principles with which you can't go wrong -- or, more like it, without which you will definitely go off the realroad.

Why is the cosmos built in this "negativistic" manner? Because if it were not so, free will would essentially be impossible. In other words, if there were a one-to-one relationship between action and outcome, the world would be just one big operant conditioning chamber, or Skinner box, as in the helpful illustration below:


Think of yourself as the rat, the response lever as the Divine Law, and the food dispenser as instant gratification. In such a set-up, there is no real possibility of growth, risk, learning, development, etc. Rather, you'll just keep hammering the joystick. Better to provide a wider field of action, with boundaries indicated by various Don't Go Theres, or Thou Shalt Nots, so you don't fall off the edge of the cosmos and into the abyss in the course of your terrestrial sojourn.

This is the purpose of the system of ordered liberty devised by our founders, in which we are free to do all sorts of things that are impermissible. Conversely, the left always wants to force us to do things it regards as the only things permissible, for example, to discriminate on the basis of race, to fund Democratic campaigns by stealing from future generations, or to purchase certain products of which it approves.

Think about how you raise a child. Now that Future Leader is almost seven years old, I've been exposed to a fair sample of children, and there is a certain quality that always attracts me, or at least doesn't annoy me. To put it simply, these are children who are well behaved and yet full of spontaneity, adventure, fun, and imagination. This is in sharp contrast to children who are well behaved but repressed, so that the life force is quashed; or children who are full of life, but who are obnoxious.

So the problem is, how do we introduce "rules for living" that don't end up making life a crashing bore? Clearly, there is some truth to the liberal caricature of this type of person, e.g., Ned Flanders.

We'll address that question as we proceed. Yesterday we discussed the three principles of epistemology, or of evidence and truth: 1) The best opinion or theory is the one that explains the most data, 2) Valid opinions and theories have no internal contradictions, and 3) Nonarbitrary opinions or theories are based upon publicly verifiable evidence.

Next up are three principles of ethics, or of how to behave toward others. Note that they aren't at all repressive, so long as one has truly internalized and assimilated them.

In fact, that's not quite right, because it is more the recognition of a reality that is already there, not something that is radically extrinsic to us (for if it were extrinsic, we could no more learn it than can a rattle snake or grizzly bear). It is a kind of "intrinsic morality" that nevertheless needs to be modeled in order to awaken and actualize. And the best way to model it is in interacting with one's child, day in, day out.

The first principle provides a minimal ethic that would nevertheless, if it were respected by everyone, result in a kind of terrestrial paradise: Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.

Notice that this is not the "golden rule," but rather, the silver rule; instead of asking us to do good, it merely enjoins us to do no harm. You don't need to be a saint. Just don't be an assoul.

But again, to the extent that this principle is internalized -- or recognized -- it is rooted in a kind of deep intersubjective empathy through which we are able to put ourselves in the place of the other, and understand that "my brother is myself."

Once one is capable of reliably intuiting this, one doesn't have to be reminded or goaded into not gratuitously hurting people. Rather, it just "comes naturally," even though it is what would more accurately be described as a "supernaturally natural" capability.

As Spitzer explains, this principle is "the most fundamental of all ethical principles, because if it fails, then all other ethical principles fail as well." He points out that the logic behind the principle is as cogent as, say, the principle of non-contradiction.

Why? Because denying it immediately introduces a kind of primordial injustice, i.e., "I am permitted to harm you, but you are not permitted to harm me," and acquiescence to the latter principle would render civilization impossible. It would reduce to a Hobbesian war of each against all. Conversely, "if others are obliged not to harm us unnecessarily, then we are obliged not to harm them unnecessarily."

The second ethical principle is the consistency of means and ends, i.e., the end does not justify the means. The only exception to this rule -- and it is an important one -- is that "one can use an objectively wrong means (such as lying) to prevent a greater evil (such as murder)" (ibid.).

This is a principle that secularists (obviously) and many religious people get wrong, the former because they imagine that the exception proves morality to be entirely relative, the latter because they concretize the rule so as to deny the exception.

Dennis Prager often discusses this, and he gets a considerable amount of disagreement from the fundamentalist crowd, i.e., that there are degrees of sin. (Lower case o) orthodox Christians have no difficulty with this idea, but a lot of fundamentalists seem to occupy a kind of unambiguous either/or, saved/damned universe, which goes back to what was said above about obsessive-compulsiveness masquerading as religiosity (there is a considerable amount of this religious OCD in the Islamic world as well).

The third ethical principle is full of implications that I won't have time to fully explicate, but it is The Principle of Full Human Potential: Every human being (or group of human beings) deserves to be valued according to the full level of human development, not the level of development currently achieved.

This principle results from the fact that man is always simultaneously himself and not himself; rather, he is always "on the way" to himself, from the moment of conception to the moment of death, and we have no right to impose some arbitrary time slice and insist that anything less is not a human being. Which is why, for example, the entire legal basis of abortion is completely illogical.

For it is pure sophistry to define a human being by one of his stages instead of by his totality.

20 Comments:

Blogger julie said...

Yes, I thought the Silver Rule was interesting; one of those which should be obvious, as a corollary to the Golden, but is rarely explicitly stated.

Re. obsessive/ compulsiveness masquerading as Christianity, I'm reminded too of those practitioners of pacifism, who would refuse for example to take violent action in order to save an innocent life. Or, for that matter, of leftists who religiously follow ever more rigid and complex sets of rituals in order to "save the earth."

1/27/2012 09:31:00 AM  
Blogger Van said...

" The second ethical principle is the consistency of means and ends, i.e., the end does not justify the means. The only exception to this rule --and it is an important one -- is that "one can use an objectively wrong means (such as lying) to prevent a greater evil (such as murder)" (ibid.)."

I've always had a problem with ' the ends don't justify the means'. It's a convenient short hand, and I've often used it because of that, but as you point out, it shoots itself in the foot too easily.

I think that it's more of a case of ' The ends must begin by being justifiable, and the means commensurate with them.'... But that doesn't roll off the tongue quite so well.

1/27/2012 11:05:00 AM  
Blogger JP said...

"So the problem is, how do we introduce "rules for living" that don't end up making life a crashing bore?"

I never was able to figure this one out.

How to make life not painfully boring while complying with the moral order.

I've tried the "ignore the moral order" approach, but engaging in anti-social behavior for the express purpose of engaging in anti-social behavior didn't accomplish much.

Although with respect to Julie's comment, I did read of the report of a possibly accurate divine intervention (instead of some wild crank story) once that resulted in allowing people to blow themselves up without harming others. Instead of disengaging the explosive device, the innocent people were shielded. That would preserve free will without allowing the innocent people to come to harm.

1/27/2012 12:35:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

Now that Future Leader is almost seven years old, I've been exposed to a fair sample of children, and there is a certain quality that always attracts me, or at least doesn't annoy me.

Yes, I am learning that lesson well, though mostly it seems the parents who are the problem. I've come to realize there are some parks which it's probably best to avoid in the future. Not because of the playground itself, or even the other kids, but because of many of the parents who bring their kids there. They tend to be either completely absent (for instance, allowing a toddler younger than mine to play on big equipment with only a five-year-old brother for supervision; they were getting snacks from somewhere and leaving their trash on the ground, but adults were nowhere to be seen), or present and on the verge of rage at their own kids. So the kids behave about as well as you'd expect. Sad to see. This morning my boy thought he was being yelled at by another mom; he didn't know how to react, but it bothered him enough that he completely stopped playing until she and her child left, both of them yelling all the way.

1/27/2012 12:51:00 PM  
Blogger mushroom said...

On degrees of sin, I had an evangelist friend who got himself ostrasized for saying exactly that. At the very least it ought to be obvious that certain sins have more destructive consequences than others -- which I think was the point my friend was trying to make.

Yes, it is a bad thing to torture soemone. I don't like to see any living thing suffer and will extert every effort to avoid it happening. But if I needed to get information out of someone in order to save the lives of innocents, he'd still be able to talk, or write, maybe not both.

1/27/2012 01:25:00 PM  
Blogger mushroom said...

And somewhat on the same topic, I'm thinking about joining my wife next she wants to watch figure skating.

1/27/2012 01:31:00 PM  
Blogger ge said...

Hey that rat needs another speaker, stereo baby!

1/27/2012 01:51:00 PM  
Blogger mushroom said...

I wonder if rats go more for Debussy or Death Metal?

1/27/2012 02:05:00 PM  
Blogger Van said...

More like Michael Jackson, I'm guessing....

1/27/2012 02:24:00 PM  
Blogger Kv0nT said...

I have encountered this christian fundamentalist OCD strain any number of times. Oddly enough, these individuals describe themselves as literalists who simply uphold what the Bible says. However, Jesus argues for this very exception against the self-serving fundamentalism of the Pharisees who criticize him for healing on the sabbath.

I think this kind of unthinking fundamentalism is a form of spiritual pathology already present that merely finds a home in religion. I also think it is fair to say that certain religions/denominations are more receptive to this pathology.

1/28/2012 12:26:00 PM  
Blogger JP said...

"I think this kind of unthinking fundamentalism is a form of spiritual pathology already present that merely finds a home in religion. I also think it is fair to say that certain religions/denominations are more receptive to this pathology."

It's kind of the need for ideal mathematical and scientific accuracy applied to the moral field. My unfortunate impulse tends to be directed toward what I characterize as moral fundamentalism (meaning that absolute morality exists irrespective of culture - like math). Although I'm not a religious fundamentalist. I was originally much more of a scientific fundamentalist.

Now, with that, I have an irritatingly large amount of the punisher-enforcer mixed in:

From psychology today on the enforcer:

"Wilby is an enforcer—compelled to punish wrongdoers and stamp out injustice even when it means making himself a target. Self-assertive, with a deep sense of right and wrong, and with occasional authoritarian tendencies, enforcers do whatever they feel is necessary to keep their community in order—no matter the personal cost. While most of us bite our tongues when we see someone cheated or treated unfairly, enforcers cannot be stifled."

So basically, I have a desire to enforce an absolutist moral order on the entire human population.

Naturally, I repress this desire.

One of my friends once advised me, in so many words, that I should never get involved in any form of absolutist cult to the point where I completely buy into their warped worlview due to the damage I would potentially inflict on humanity.

Mostly I limit myself to annoying statements like my desire to recriminalize divorce.

1/28/2012 03:25:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

No time for a post today.

Carry on.

1/30/2012 07:28:00 AM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

"Next up are three principles of ethics, or of how to behave toward others. Note that they aren't at all repressive, so long as one has truly internalized and assimilated them."

Unlike lefty ethics which is always repressive, but then again that's the point of leftism because that's all they know besides depression.

Dear lefties, if your utopia is always repressive then you're doing it wrong.
Or better yet, you should get out of the Utopia R Us (Noidvana) business postehaste.

Yes, I know, I'm a h8ter.

1/30/2012 09:48:00 AM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Leftists: "We have to repress the world in order (order, lol-ed) to save it."

1/30/2012 09:50:00 AM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

We'll look back on these times in the future and it will be known as the Great Repression.

1/30/2012 09:52:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Off topic, or possibly apropos the Silver Rule, Letters of Note: To My Old MAster

1/30/2012 12:37:00 PM  
Blogger Van said...

An interesting and short post: A policy-free post on life after death By Charles Murray


"January 24, 2012, 11:16 am I finished listening to Christopher Hitchens’s Hitch-22 a few days ago, read by himself, and highly recommend it both for entertainment value and as a commentary on the political landscape of the last half-century. But the recording had special poignancy because by the time Hitchens did it he already knew he was unlikely to be long for this world, and yet he retained his sneering contempt—his voice drips with it—for the possibility of an afterlife.

Today, I am just back from an early morning walk at our eco-resort in far northwest Thailand which included a steep pitch that caused me considerable shortness of breath. That, along with my recent 69th birthday, got me to thinking about the afterlife. And that brings me back to Hitchens’s utterly confident nihilism.

What if survival after death is a choice? Suppose there is indeed a transcendent dimension to the universe (something I don’t find implausible) and that evolution gave humans the unique capacity, unshared even by dolphins and African Gray parrots, to tap into that transcendence, in the same way that it gave humans the unique capacity to solve quadratic equations. But neither happens automatically. You have to learn algebra to solve quadratic equations, and you have to nurture and exercise your potentially immortal soul to enable it to survive the death of your body. That nurturing and exercise both involve systematic, purposeful seeking after the nature of the transcendent. More colloquially, you have to work to understand God, in the same way that you have to work to understand math. And so Christopher Hitchens’s soul never became viable and is now extinct, whereas, say, Thomas Merton’s soul—or those of his Buddhist, Jewish, or Islamic counterparts—lives on.

It’s a scary thought, if you’re like me and haven’t worked at it. I have adopted the convenient belief, perhaps one that some of my secular readers will recognize, that (a) probably there isn’t a God, but (b) even if there is, I’m really a nice person and an all-knowing God will understand that, and give me a pass.

If it doesn’t work that way, I’m in trouble. I need to come to my deathbed able to survive it, just as I need to come to a marathon able to run 26 miles or to an algebra test able to solve quadratic equations. Being a nice person has nothing to do with it.

It puts a whole new spin on Pascal’s Wager. It’s not enough to bet that there’s a God and a heaven, because a formalistic faith doesn’t help. You can’t even have a deeply felt conversion at the last minute. If you haven’t done your homework, you’re dead.

That exhausts my thoughts on the subject. Back to my day job."

1/30/2012 04:26:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

Van - he makes some great points. I think there are far too many people today who think - who have been encouraged all their lives to believe - that because they are "nice," if there is a god he'll totally cut them some slack. Never mind that this allows them to spend their lives being "nice" (whatever that may mean, if it means anything at all) while avoiding doing anything that would bring them closer to god. Especially anything that might diminish their worldly pleasures.

He is wrong in one respect, though: according to One who would know, there really is a chance for even the latest of last-minute heartfelt conversions. What that means on the other side, I couldn't say, but it does mean that so long as there is life, there is hope for life beyond death.

1/30/2012 08:35:00 PM  
Blogger Kv0nT said...

Van- I think it defies reason to believe that the Self is somehow only situationally immutable. Any theory of the immortal Self rests solely on our personal divinity, that is a shared existence with Christ, the Godhead, etc. That they are a vital, integral ingredient to the makeup of our Self, and that exploration of our true Self is an exploration of this divinity. I do not see how a soul or Self that is the very quintessence of existence can every admit of nonexistence.

Obviously this isn't a comment on salvation and the path thereto, just on the everlasting nature of Self.

1/31/2012 08:28:00 AM  
Blogger Van said...

Kv0nt said "Obviously this isn't a comment on salvation and the path thereto, just on the everlasting nature of Self."

I saw it as an interesting comment, on themself, regarding the possibility that pleasant behavior might not hold the metaphysical significance they previously assumed it had... that there might possibly be more significance to considering Truth deeply, and in consequential relation to their own soul.

A soul, which they previously did not believe they 'had', or thought could exist without the body if it did exist at all - to say nothing of God.

I thought it was interesting to see his thoughts as he suddenly considered the possibility that 'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy'.

I found it to be interesting, not a theologically significant statement.

1/31/2012 09:09:00 AM  

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