Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Acts 27 test, 3: Facing the moral issues put forward by radical relativists and academics that undermine the soundness of democracies in our day

This morning, I followed up on some blog exchanges at the UD blog where I contribute.

One of the issues that came up is the justification of morality, with implications for the role of moral issues in democratic decision-making. Which echoes the themes, concerns and issues of Acts 27.

As this is an area under particular attack in our day at the hands of radical groups and the academics that back them up with arguments that can be impressive, I think a one slice of the cake has in it all the ingredients (HT: Billy Hall) example may be helpful here at KF.

KN, below, is a philosophy professor and is challenging the issue of the objective vs the subjective in morality, with obvious implications for democratic politics.

Let me therefore start a bit earlier with clips from a comment where I highlighted the issue of what is objective vs what is subjective, to which KN was responding, and from which I snipped what I went on to discuss earlier theis morning.

Notice, how I picked up the key Acts 27 case:
 Definitions that may help:
Collins English Dict:
OBJECTIVE: objective [?b?d??kt?v] adj
1. (Philosophy) existing independently of perception or an individual’s conceptions are there objective moral values?
2. undistorted by emotion or personal bias
3. of or relating to actual and external phenomena as opposed to thoughts, feelings, etc.
SUBJECTIVE: subjective [s?b?d??kt?v] adj
1. belonging to, proceeding from, or relating to the mind of the thinking subject and not the nature of the object being considered
2. of, relating to, or emanating from a person’s emotions, prejudices, etc. subjective views
3. relating to the inherent nature of a person or thing; essential
4. (Philosophy) existing only as perceived and not as a thing in itself
Notice, it is subjects who know, so the bridge between the mentality of the subject and the objectivity of what is known is warrant. Warrant that creates the status of beliefs that are credibly true and well warranted.
It should be patent that the vote of 51% or more generally of three wolves and two sheep on what is for lunch, is not sufficient to provide warrant that would lead to the conclusion that the result of a vote is warranted as true, rather than reflective of the agendas and desires of a given cluster of subjects at a given time on a particular topic.
In a storm and heading to be aground at Malta . . .
This in turn may well simply be the result of the sort of manipulations and distortions that led to the famous incident of sailing out from Fair Havens when that sweet south wind blew, in Acts 27. For here we have a case where prudent counsels based on the warrant of wide and painful experience (three shipwrecks to that date) were brushed aside in light of the smooth words of an interested ship’s owner and his kubernete, playing on the discomfort of the general lot of passengers and suppressing the pivotal issue of the risks that were being run.
Kindly, cf the study on this incident here.  [Also cf. here.]
I fear, this is all too relevant to where our civilisation as a whole now is, and so also to where all too many of its governments, dominant media houses, opinion leaders, countries and communities are at this time.
 This was followed by a multi-sided exchange of comments, and I clipped and commented this morning, as follows:
KN, re:
604: I think that if we’re really going to draw the line between the subjective and the objective in the right place, then “social facts” (prices, laws, etc.) will have to come out as objective. I’d like to place the onus on those who deny that social facts are objective to explain why that is.
So just because something is objective, doesn’t really tell us where in the ultimate ontology it will fall. The objectivity of social facts is clearly quite different from the objectivity of logical principles or physical laws, and the objectivity of morality is almost certainly different from all of them.
606: it’s not really clear to me just why it is that objective knowledge needs to be ‘grounded’ in a ‘world-view’. If we have really good reasons to accept that morality is objective, why does it need to be ‘grounded’ in anything else?
And as I’ve indicated many times before, I worry that ‘grounded’ in an “accordion word”: the meaning of it stretches and collapses according to context and use. I can think of at least three different senses of ‘grounding’: causal explanation, rational justification, and phenomenological elucidation. And while we do need all of them, they are not the same thing!
First, we live in a world where we face those who operate on the nihilist premise and praxis that might and manipulation make ‘right,’ and who routinely employ selectively hyperskeptical objections.
So, coherence in warrant leads to moving across a range of knowledge areas and points. Next, warrant is inherently going to ask for underlying support. That process of challenge is going to have to end up somewhere, not least because we are finite, so we are forced to stop somewhere.
In addition, we have things like the first principles of right reason that are rooted in the necessities of the world, i.e. identity is a first step, distinction is locked into it and confusion is locked out, or we get nowhere. Similarly, once a thing exists, it is legitimate to ask, why and to seek a good answer. That leads to issues of causation and contingency and to the contrasted necessity.
All of these and more push us to think worldviewishly.
Certainly, as a community of thought and argument towards understanding and action.
In that context what you call social facts are objective though often conventional. As the posted definition above highlights, they are of course understood and known by subjects but they are not simply in the minds of subjects. The definition of the unit of temperature, or length, or speed etc are objective but are conventional.
That does not at all mean that all facts are conventional, nor that the use of language or symbols renders such facts to be mere conventions. The truth in 3 + 2 = 5 is necessary, and will hold in any possible world. And I use possible world talk to underscore the radical contingency in our course of events, the sheer, it could have significantly been otherwise-ness of it. That is as legitimate an entry point to discuss contingency/necessity and cause etc as any other alternative. And because it is empirical, it is far more appealing to our common sense ability to reason. A world in which instead of typing just now I had decided to go get a fruit snack, is obviously a logically and physically possible state of affairs that just happens not to have been realised because I made a choice to type rather than to eat. (Onlookers, believe it or not, this is a debated point in the rarified heights of philosophy.)
Yes, the way in which something is objective varies on a case by case basis. No one pretended otherwise. But the basic point remains, such things are not figments of our fevered imaginations, and hold regardless of our opinions, power games and manipulation games. We defy them to our peril.
As the people of the Orient used to say, it is futile to try to order water to flow uphill. It would be even worse to try to build a social world on the assumption that water flowing downhill is a matter of convention and we can redefine reality to suit ourselves by making an agreement.
Or, in Abraham Lincoln’s deceptively simple example, he once asked one of his advisors what would happen if we defined that a sheep’s tail were a leg. How many legs would a sheep then have. Five. Nope, simply saying that a tail is a leg does not make it into a leg, e.g. it simply cannot do what legs do.
(For just one current instance on the significance of this sort of word magic confusion, those who are tossing around clever slogans on “marriage equality” and the like just now should do some serious rethinking about why marriage has universally been understood to be a way to stabilise and recognise the bond between man and woman in the context of raising up the next generation. And, we should ask ourselves some pretty hard questions about who would benefit from radical destabilisation of society through further undermining of marriage and/or who seeks to gain something enough for themselves that they are willing to run the social risks involved in manipulating society like this. [Onlookers, cf here and here on the Acts 27 challenge to democratic and managerial decision-making, in light of a highly relevant and instructive historical case. One I have used to teach the pitfalls in collective and managerial decision making.])
Just so, in the moral sphere, if lying were universalised, society would break down.
That is one way of reasoning about the destructive nature of evils, and it helps people see the importance of keeping to moral principles and cultivating the character that habitually lives by the right and the truth. But an analytical concept such as the Categorical Imperative [KN had earlier referred to this concept promoted by Kant], as just used, does not substitute for character cultivation or sound instruction in principles and examples, or the influence of positive models of the principles.
So, we see the very process of showing things objective puts them in a worldviews context, and points onward to the need for general grounding of a worldview. Absent that, we find the sort of all too malleable ignorance, lack of capability to think for oneself and resulting vulnerable instability that too many radicals are only too happy to find.
Wolves love nice, peaceable, gullible sheep, for lunch.
As in: easy meat.
And yes, there may be sufficient grounding in a narrow sense in showing a narrow warrant for a given case, but that normally happens in cases where there is a general agreement on underlying principles, premises and contexts of wisdom. We no longer have that state, we live in a world where radical, ruthless, polarising pressure groups are perfectly willing to try to overthrow any and everything, in the interests of pushing their agendas.
So, we need to address grounding issues in the full orbed worldviews sense.
Which as a philosopher, you should be well aware of. Perhaps, you are trying to play at Socrates to pull out.
Never mind, by the time of Aristotle, we see full didactic exposition as a standard approach and even in Plato’s Socrates, we often enough see Socrates or some other stand-in going into full lecture or presentation mode.
There is a place for back-forth conversation, thee is a place for formal debates and panels, and there is a place for exposition and articulation of views or cases. Then, one may carry out a critical review or even a discussion.
Indeed that is exactly what the UD blog often provides.
So, we live in a time where there are so many intersecting, interacting crises and issues and contentions that we routinely need to address worldviews level issues. Indeed, given what we have seen ever so often at UD, we too often have to start as far back as the credibility of first principles of right reason. (Onlookers, cf here on to see what that looks like at 101 level, in a Judaeo-Christian worldview context.)
That is how bad things are with our mortally wounded civilisation.
My only real hope for us, is that I do believe in miracles.
And, on morality, we need to start from key moral facts or points of consensus, and draw out the deeper implications and contexts that make sense of that, leading onward to the worldview context.
So, we start with a point that no-one will dare deny (but many will try to brush aside or ignore), e.g. that it is objectively , horrifically wrong to kidnap, rape, torture and murder a young child, to make a snuff video for sick fun and blood money profit.
This brings to bear many of the issues, current (sadly, snuff videos are credibly real through thankfully rare) and recently historical (e.g. what was happening in the Nazi death camps or the various Gulags was close enough to give pause), as well as from the deeper past (I could give you some horror stories on slavery . . . let’s just say that the second motto of the antislavery movement, based on Philemon vv 1 – 3 and 15 – 17, was “Am I not a Woman and a Sister?” The horrors that patently lie behind that, we need not elaborate. Just say, I am descended from slaves liberated in material part through the work of that society and its leaders. We must never ever ever forget.)
This brings us to the issue of rights, a universally recognised principle: fairness and fundamental moral worth behind it, raising issues of equality and duties of care to respect the other. Even, if marginalised, oppressed and voiceless.
That such basic rights are objective is seen from the patent absurdities and hopeless morass of contradictions and hypocrisies that result from ignoring or manipulating them.
That is, I argue here in a nutshell that once we listen to and cultivate the voice of conscience as the candle within and do not snuff it out, we will see that certain moral principles are fundamental and are self-evident, such that to abandon them comes at a price of absurdity, hypocrisy and destructive evil. And, onward, of crushing conscience and descending into a morass of darkness and evil as does not bear raising from the depths of our worst nightmares.
But we have had several examples in living memory.
Why is it that we are so often so insistent on forgetting or dismissing them?
Will we not even learn from history, if from nothing else?
Indeed, sadly, in the current pushes by radical agendas of various stripes but a common ruthless nihilism, we see that freedom of conscience, worship, opinion, speech, association and expression are — yet again! — under threat, with government backing in too many cases, all in the false name of liberation and agendas being pushed by radicals of several stripes.
When for instance we see so-called new atheists standing up in public or in print and declaring that raising a child in a Christian tradition is child abuse, given the laws and bureaucracies on such abuse that is a shocking declaration not only of contempt and willfully arrogant ignorance, but it is a threat, one that is already being acted on in subtle ways.
And, we do not hear a call to stop, rein in and apologise for such foolish, polarising and wicked rhetoric.
Instead, such men are feted and celebrated.
That speaks volumes, telling, shameful and horrific volumes.
But now, let us look at a pair of key historical state papers on the subject of rights and how pivotal such are , and their worldview connexions. Notice, also the clear historical links on the flow and further articulation of key ideas:
Dutch DOI, 1581: . . . a prince is constituted by God to be ruler of a people, to defend them from oppression and violence as the shepherd his sheep; and whereas God did not create the people slaves to their prince, to obey his commands, whether right or wrong, but rather the prince for the sake of the subjects (without which he could be no prince), to govern them according to equity, to love and support them as a father his children or a shepherd his flock, and even at the hazard of life to defend and preserve them. And when he does not behave thus, but, on the contrary, oppresses them, seeking opportunities to infringe their ancient customs and privileges . . . then he is no longer a prince, but a tyrant, and the subjects are to consider him in no other view . . . This is the only method left for subjects whose humble petitions and remonstrances could never soften their prince or dissuade him from his tyrannical proceedings; and this is what the law of nature dictates for the defense of liberty, which we ought to transmit to posterity, even at the hazard of our lives. . . . . So, having no hope of reconciliation, and finding no other remedy, we have, agreeable to the law of nature in our own defense, and for maintaining the rights, privileges, and liberties of our countrymen, wives, and children, and latest posterity from being enslaved by the Spaniards, been constrained to renounce allegiance to the King of Spain, and pursue such methods as appear to us most likely to secure our ancient liberties and privileges.
US DOI, 1776: When . . . it becomes necessary for one people . . . to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, [cf Rom 1:18 - 21, 2:14 - 15], that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security . . . .
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions [Cf. Judges 11:27 and discussion in Locke], do, in the Name, and by the Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
Do you notice how both these papers pivot on issues of rights, linked duties of office and general care, and the underlying premise that our nature is rooted in the law of our nature under our Creator, the good God who has given us a fundamental moral worth?
Let me further underscore, from the extended citation by Locke in the passage in his second treatise on civil gov’t, Ch 2 sect 5, in which he referred to “the judicious [Anglican Canon Richard] Hooker,” to ground such pivotal concepts:
. . . if I cannot but wish to receive good, even as much at every man’s hands, as any man can wish unto his own soul, how should I look to have any part of my desire herein satisfied, unless myself be careful to satisfy the like desire which is undoubtedly in other men . . . my desire, therefore, to be loved of my equals in Nature, as much as possible may be, imposeth upon me a natural duty of bearing to themward fully the like affection. From which relation of equality between ourselves and them that are as ourselves, what several rules and canons natural reason hath drawn for direction of life no man is ignorant . . . [[Hooker then continues, citing Aristotle in The Nicomachean Ethics, Bk 8:] as namely, That because we would take no harm, we must therefore do none; That since we would not be in any thing extremely dealt with, we must ourselves avoid all extremity in our dealings; That from all violence and wrong we are utterly to abstain, with such-like . . . ] [[Eccl. Polity, preface, Bk I, "ch." 8, p.80]
We had better wake up and think through what is going on, before it is too late for even a miracle to save us.
In short some very serious issues are at stake behind the smooth curtains and group-s of talking heads spouting well crafted, focus group tested  media spin-based talking points that so often pass for both news and views or even political deliberation on matters of importance today.

My fear is that we are about to end up -- if we are lucky -- caught in a storm and then hitting on the rocks like Paul's ship in Acts 27. If we are not lucky, our fate may be far more bloodily costly than merely losing ship, cargo and possessions in a shipwreck.

 So, that is why I am calling for a very, very serious and sober reconsideration of what is going on as we so glibly talk and echo the talking points about rights, freedoms, equality, prosperity, peace, sustainability etc etc and democratic decision-making in our region and wider civilisation today.

I fear, our civilisation is at Fair havens, and the money interests, technical experts who know who pays for their bread and butter, academics and so forth are busily spinning away, and in many cases will not hesitate a moment if they think they can get away with a big lie tactic, as Hitler so often resorted to.

Let me quote him (via the excellent site, Jewish Virtual Library) on a subject where he is a genuine expert, as the ghosts of sixty million victims of his demonic madness -- and, though it is extremely politically incorrect to day such, I mean that quite literally (too many could not discern such an evil spirit until it was too late!!!!) -- can testify:
. . . in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying. These people know only too well how to use falsehood for the basest purposes. [Mein Kampf, p. 134]
Of course, he compounded the effect of this declaration by twisting it about and casting it in the face of his intended targets, the Jews, as a turnabout false accusation tied to polarising stereotyping, namecalling and scapegoating:
From time immemorial, however, the Jews have known better than any others how falsehood and calumny can be exploited. Is not their very existence founded on one great lie, namely, that they are a religious community, where as in reality they are a race? And what a race! One of the greatest thinkers that mankind has produced has branded the Jews for all time with a statement which is profoundly and exactly true. Schopenhauer called the Jew "The Great Master of Lies". Those who do not realize the truth of that statement, or do not wish to believe it, will never be able to lend a hand in helping Truth to prevail.

Sadly, the warning on turnabout, polarising false accusations, scapegoating and so on are again all to relevant, and the pattern of hostility to Jews is again on the table.

That, however, is not our main point.

What we must soberly consider, is where we are and what we face now as a civilisation.

Frankly, in some regards, maybe Fair havens is not the right point to pick up the story of Acts 27. In too many cases we have already set sail, beguiled by those who tickled our itching ears with what we want to hear, and we are sailing along in the smug, euphoric confidence of that sweet south wind that seems to be oh so favourable.

Whatever could go wrong? It's smooth sailing, never mind those fuddy duddies and nay sayers.

Just wait till we round the cape.

Then, we will be learning what he following warning from the prince of prophets means:

Isa 5:18 Woe to those who draw iniquity with cords of falsehood,
    who draw sin as with cart ropes,
19 who say: “Let him be quick,
    let him speed his work
    that we may see it;
let the counsel of the Holy One of Israel draw near,
    and let it come, that we may know it!”
20 Woe to those who call evil good
    and good evil,
who put darkness for light
    and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
    and sweet for bitter!
21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes,
    and shrewd in their own sight!
22 Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine,
    and valiant men in mixing strong drink,
23 who acquit the guilty for a bribe,
    and deprive the innocent of his right!
24 Therefore, as the tongue of fire devours the stubble,
    and as dry grass sinks down in the flame,
so their root will be as rottenness,
    and their blossom go up like dust;
for they have rejected the law of the Lord of hosts,
    and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel. [ESV]

We are playing with fire, and frankly, too often the pulpits of our churches and the voices on our Christian radio and magazine shows are utterly irrelevant, bereft of sound intellectual and prophetic cultural leadership.

Do we not understand that if we allow people to be so deceived that they cannot or will not hear the voice of the Living God, that is to their peril?

Do we not understand that we need to provide a reasonable alternative, in intelligible terms, in sufficient good time that when we have to stand up as good men and women in the storms to come, we will be heard?

Is that not exactly what Paul laid out before us as an example in Acts 27?

And, is that not the exact contrast he lays out in Eph 4:
Eph 4:9 (In saying, “He ascended”, what does it mean but that he [Jesus] had also descended into the lower regions, the earth?[a] 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)  

11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds[b] and teachers,[c] 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood,[d] to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 

15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

17 Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 

18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. 19 They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practise every kind of impurity.  

20 But that is not the way you learned Christ!— 21 assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, 22 to put off your old self,[e] which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. [ESV]

If this is anything, it is a call to prophetic intellectual and cultural leadership that under Christ, opens the door to reformation and to transformation of life and community through repentance and trust in Christ.

How can we do any less in a day like ours?

So, yet again: why not now? Why not here? why not us? END