Sunday, August 06, 2006

More on Fight Club

A few weeks back, there was a fascinating back and forth over morality and Fight Club. Lyn picks up some points I raised in very interesting ways. She offers a syllogism which, the more I tried to revise it into clearer logical form, the less meaningful it became. She offered:

We do good things because they are good.
We have an awareness of what is good.
Without this awareness, we would not do good things.

The problem is that the conclusion really ought to be something like "without this awareness, we would do some things that aren't good," not the more general statement that we would not do any good things.
I decided to flip the syllogism around and it became correct (for our purposes "good" and "evil" will be taken not as pure negations of each other, but as being identifiable on their own, consider it an integration of Nietzsche's slave morality and master morality):

A person who does not know good from evil will do things that are evil.
We don't do things that are evil.
We know good from evil.

One can put various group names instead of "we." Atheists, Jews, Muslims, Christians all substitute in just fine (better yet "some atheists," "some Christians," "some Jews," "some Muslims"). That point leads more naturally to the point I made, that the religion that generates a person's morality is less important than whether that morality works in practice. While I wouldn't necessarily say (as she paraphrases me) "the issue of the existence of God is neither here nor there," I think she got the gist of my argument. Whatever the origins of the awareness of what is good, we have that awareness. I can derive pretty much the same moral system from almost any theistic tradition, from non-theistic religious tradition, from game theoretic considerations in a social framework, and from philosophers from Plato to Rawls. There seems to be something essentially true about how we understand good. Which of those is the "true" basis for something being good is less important than that it is actually good.

In a pluralistic society, it's especially more important to focus on the merits of particular behavior than to focus on the metaphysical origins of a particular moral rule. Some things will be generally agreed to be evil, regardless of someone's metaphysic. Others will be generally regarded as good. Things that are in dispute should not be legislated, and ought to engender a certain skepticism about absolute claims. Abortion, gay marriage and drug policy all seem to be areas where metaphysics collide, and where legislation is fraught with complexity.

Lyn says that her "contention is that this awareness [of good] is from God." Which is fine. Lots of people think that. They do differ about which God they think provided that awareness. She rejects lots of gods which provide moral teachings, and yet she's moral. She writes that "atheists, whether they admit it or not, are acting in accordance with a practical belief that God exists. They are practical theists by their actions." I disagree. Lyn is no more a closet Buddhist because her moral actions match Buddha's teachings than an atheist is a closet theist.

Simple behavior that matches the Golden Rule can be found in other primates, in dogs, and in other social animals. Maybe those are all practical theists too, but I'm inclined to think that the morality we have is the one that works, and if we didn't have that morality, our society would have collapsed long ago. If God handed down a morality that matches the one that works, that certainly confirms the infinite wisdom of the Deity. But that the morality came from God is not itself a good argument for the goodness of morality.

After all, (following Plato's Euthyphro) if something issuing from God itself makes it good, we wind up with "good" being arbitrary. If "good" is not arbitrary, then God must be seeking to conform to some more abstract sense of the good, and we ought to judge ourselves against that same source, rather than going through the middleman.

We can take this further than Plato did because we have a pluralistic society. Let's just assume that by the universal, absolute moral standard I assert exists, action X is good. Among the many fascinating properties of X: it is entirely consistent with traditional Jewish teachings, Christian teachings, Islamic teachings, and Buddhist teachings. Charitable giving is one example that would work – not killing, not stealing, telling truth all would be others.

Let us also assume that Lyn is right, that we do good things because, deep down inside, our closet Christian is pushing us the right way. Is action X when performed by a Buddhist who never heard of Christianity, who acts to serve Buddha's teachings, good? What about when a pre-Christian Jew performs action X to satisfy the teachings of Torah? Or a hypothetical atheist who has no inner Christian, acting out of an interest in bettering society and the world? A lunatic who performs action X because the manhole cover told him to? I say that all have done something good, but the standard Lyn offers is ambiguous. If good is ultimately defined as doing what the true God commands, are apparently good works really good when performed by someone who derives morality from source that is unworthy?

I think that there is something inherent about good, that action X is good by its nature, not by the ontology of the actor's morality. My previous post suggested that the really scary people are the ones who rely wholly on religious commandments. The movie review I was responding to claimed "Quite honestly, if I didn't believe in God, I would join Tyler Durden in his philosophy," and blow things up. Someone who roots their morality like that could hear voices in his head and just give in. Someone who roots a morality in an internalized sense of good and evil has tools to resist the voices in his head. And also tools, like Huck Finn, to say "All right then, I'll go to hell."