Cosmic Rules of the Road
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.