Sunday, September 5, 2010

Good and Oughtness

Reflecting on the fine distinction between defining good and explaining why one ought to do that which is good prompted me to consider how a secularist might defend moral dogmatism (and even moral subjectivism, given the following). I think that a lack of precision when questioning a secularist about the nature of good contributes to the question-begging statements which the secularist inevitably proceeds to make. There is a simple method which would avoid this confusion: simply ask at the beginning of the conversation for the secularist to define the nature of good

(1) If, after asking this question, the secularist answers by providing some list of choices, actions or consequences, ask why anyone ought to follow such a list. Even if, for the sake of argument, one were to grant the secularist’s definition of good, there is not, within the definition, any intrinsic justification of the authoritativeness which a command to follow such a list would presuppose. Example: ignoring other obvious problems with Utilitarianism, defining good as “that which causes the greatest pleasure to the most people” does not, without further ado, explain why one should endeavor to do what is good – in this case, cause the greatest pleasure to the most people. Here, the distinction between the what-question (“good”) and the why-question (“ought”) is clear. Another example: in my most recent essay, I noted that God’s precepts demarcate what is “good.” Yet unlike Utilitarianism and other secular ethical systems, while this definition does not precisely explain why one ought to obey God’s precepts, I, as a Christian, am able to explain the irreducible answer as to why one ought to obey God:

//…God’s declaration that men are responsible for obeying His law reflects their created natures. That God sovereignly made men for His own ends and glory functions as the very means by which Paul substantiates, in Romans, his claim that men are responsible (Romans 9:19-21). In the absence of a Creator-creation distinction, moral dogmatism is irrational. A dictator may desire to heedlessly enforce his ideas, but he can never possess the divine prerogative. Only a sovereign Creator can universalize His moral precepts to those whom He has created for that purpose, and this God has done by the full, sovereign, and authoritative disclosure of His holy nature and law in Scripture.//

(2) I imagine, however, that a secularist could define good as “that which one ought to do.” In this case, it is only necessary to reverse the above process: instead of asking why one ought to follow a list [which allegedly demarcates what is good], ask what demarcates good – i.e. what is the “that” which one ought to follow? – and how one knows such. If one pays careful attention, he will see that the secularist will doubtlessly equivocate as to the meaning of “good,” confounding the “what” with the “why.”

Kant’s categorical imperative provides, as a final example, how the secularist may provide an answer to the question of the nature of good which, at first glance, may appear not to fall under either of the above categories. The categorical imperative reads as follows: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” In actuality, this answer is, in disguised form, one of the above possible answers: (1) or (2). The question is how to discern which it is. If one should encounter such a definition of good which at once seems to include both a list of choices and an ought-statement (“[one ought to] act only according to that maxim…”), he should ask, in a manner similar to the following, whether the secularist thinks:

(1) “Choosing that which would not lead to self-contradiction if universalized” is good, so one ought to act accordingly, or

(2) “Choosing that which would not lead to self-contradiction if universalized” is subsumed under ‘that which ought not to be done.’

For the morally dogmatic secularist, defining good is less than half of a losing battle.

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