Do ethics have an ontological status? Is there such a thing as metaethics? Regardless of the answer ethics cannot be informed without referring to experience. In other words – ethics is meaningless without the people we love and love to hate.
Secularism is not anything in itself per se, though some challenge the assertion that secularism has no “position.” I take this to mean that they believe secularism itself is a stance, that is has substance in both a political and philosophical sense. But this obscures what secularism really is – it is a vacuum. It is a political and moral vacuum into which fly all sorts of ideologies and moral systems. The danger is that this secular vacuum takes the form of, morphs into, whatever zeitgeist holds sway. At one point it is a mostly homogeneous, Protestant, and white America; the next it is a heterogeneous, spiritually nebulous, and diverse America. The only meaningful way to talk about the failure of secularism is if the vacuum, the messiness of what we call the American experiment, takes a permanent form. And it does not matter if the permanence is theocratic or totalitarian – they are the same thing.
A strange convergence of medical ethics, the debate over abortion, and family rights has people talking in Texas. The New York Times is reporting the story of Marlise Munoz – a 33 year-old woman who is now brain dead after collapsing due to a blood clot in her lungs. Unfortunately she was pregnant at the time of the incident, but remarkably the baby is still alive, and is now being kept alive because Marlise is on life support. You can read the story for yourself, but here is a quote from Munoz’s father:
Mrs. Munoz’s father, Ernest Machado, 60, a former police officer and an Air Force veteran, put it even more bluntly. “All she is is a host for a fetus,” he said on Tuesday. “I get angry with the state. What business did they have delving into these areas? Why are they practicing medicine up in Austin?”
The complexity of this situation leaves one with more questions than answers and I feel for the family caught in this horrible situation. That being said I’m honestly shocked by the family’s stance on this – their grandchild, the only connection they will have left to their daughter is alive, yet they wish to end the pregnancy by taking their daughter off life support.
Despite my shock the issue is better left to the family to resolve. But does the state of Texas have a right to interfere is what is clearly a delicate and complicated family affair? In a state where abortion politics are a hot button issue it will be interesting to see what public opinion is on this horrendously sad situation.
At the end of my last post I mused openly about the nature of metaphysics (and the limitations therein), but I also mentioned something about revelation – which needs a bit more explanation.
Essentially (at least in my mind anyway) the gist of my argument is that all positions are essentially faith positions. But I add this caveat: some positions are more faith-based than others. While Coyne has to put some sort of faith in the legitimacy of his theory on altruism, so too does Douthat with his own justification (God as the explanation). But knowledge of God rests on revelation. I’ve noted that it’s secondhand. That doesn’t mean it isn’t true. It’s just that, for me, there is too much tension between revelation and more rational epistemological systems. Presuppositional apologetics have much to say on this subject (it’s been discussed here before) but in my humble opinion presuppositionalism rests on rationalism while at the same time expounds on its inadequacy.
For me faith is more existential, perhaps in a Kierkegaardian sense (without denying the importance of scripture).
This is a back-and-forth for me. I think openly and I’m not afraid of criticism. Whenever I try to adopt a system (theological or otherwise) I feel like I’m adopting an ideology, but I have too many questions to keep myself in a self-imposed box. So I’m just not going to do it anymore – the name of this blog is WaughThinks. I like to think about things, to explore them. I like to explore ideas and possibilities – and if it takes me off the reservation sometimes, so be it. At least I’ll be honest with myself and with others.
I think I need to change my theology page…
An interesting back-and-forth between evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne and New York Times columnist (and Catholic) Ross Douthat has garnered attention on-line. It started when Coyne, who has become a star player on the team of the New Atheists, wrote a piece for The New Republic. In it Coyne provides a plethora of reasons why Douthat’s Christmas musings in an earlier piece were, let’s just say, lacking sophistication when it came to his criticisms of secularism. Coyne flies through many of the traditional atheist tropes, but (per usual) avoids the harder arguments made in favor of biblical Christianity. Much of what was said had a lot to do with metaphysics (familiar ground for theists). Coyne states:
As for where altruism comes from, who knows? My own suspicions are that it’s partly genetic and partly cultural, but what’s important is that we feel it and can justify it. I can justify it on several grounds, including that altruism makes for a more harmonious society, helps those in need, and, as a selfish motive, that being altruistic gains you more respect. None of this justification has anything to do with God.
Douthat, for his part, responded with a little bit more sophistication than Coyne probably thought possible. In a word he simply devastates Coynes’ glib and rather smug article. Douthat writes:
Again, if this is the scientific-materialist’s justification for morality, then the worldview has even more problems than I suggested. Coyne proposes three arguments in favor of a cosmopolitan altruism, two of which are circular: Making a “harmonious society” and helping “those in need” are reasons for altruism that presuppose a certain view of the moral law, in which charity and harmony are considered worthwhile and important goals. (If my question is, “what’s the justification for your rights-based egalitarianism?” saying “because it’s egalitarian!” is not much of an answer.)
Essentially Douthat proves that Coyne is guilty of metaphysical malpractice. What Coyne considers as self-evident is really without any justification whatsoever. It seems that most atheists, not just the “new” ones, don’t realize the weight of this argument. Or perhaps they do, but don’t give much credence to metaphysical assertions. According to Merriam-Websters dictionary metaphysics is a division of philosophy that is concerned with the fundamental nature of reality and being and that includes ontology, cosmology, and often epistemology.
Forgive the teaching moment.
The force of theistic arguments come from metaphysics (the Kalaam cosmological argument would be one example). One could even say that theology itself is built on metaphysics (I know I’ll get arguments on that one). But here’s the thing: metaphysics aren’t falsifiable. So while Coyne is guilty of not proving his burden, Douthat may be in more trouble. How do you test a metaphysical standard established by a God that neither side can prove? It seems to me that any field you can think of, say ethics, has to be founded on some form of empirical knowledge. Appealing to some standard won’t work: how do you know which standard to chose? The Judeo-christian notion of revelation doesn’t help either – revelation is always secondhand, unless you’re a Mormon.
So in the end, who is right? It could be that we can’t answer these questions, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t real answers.