Friday, 29 January 2010

How can I be just? The intellectual incoherence of the West

Following the (non) reaction to my post about the ‘legality’ of the Iraq war, I wanted to return to the question of law and modern society. This is an area where I feel two issues arise. One is that Christians ought, from their unique perspective of the gospel, to have something radical to say. The other is that this issue highlights what I believe to be the increasing incoherence of modern society.
Why do I speak of ‘incoherence’? The reason lies, I believe, in the tension between what I will call moral demand and material narrative.
On the one hand, we see a continuing moral demand for justice and, with it, an expectation that law can be so framed as to produce that justice. Hence, according to some modern commentators, Tony Blair must not merely be condemned but ‘arrested’ for starting the Iraq war because what he did was ‘illegal’.
On the other hand, we have the prevailing material narrative which undergirds our understanding of the nature of existence. That narrative, quite simply, is that human beings are just one amongst many meaningless products of meaningless processes. We are distinct from animals —or rather from the other animals —only in degree, not in kind, and our much-vaunted ‘ethical’ values are nothing more, ultimately, than the product of evolutionary forces written into our genes by natural selection.
What is justice?
Thus, whether we realize it or not, there is a contradiction between what we believe we want and what we believe we are. The ethicist Peter Singer puts it like this:
Justice is not, as often thought, a sacrosanct moral principle imposed on us by a divine being, nor is it somehow engraved into the bedrock of the universe.
His first point is, of course, gladly embraced by most of our leading moral commentators. There is no God, therefore moral principles have no divine sanction.
What is generally missed is his second point: neither do moral principles derive from the fabric of the material world. You may look down through a microscope or up through a telescope, but you will see nothing that tells you what you ought to do when faced with a so-called ‘ethical dilemma’. What, then, is ‘justice’? Singer continues,
Justice is neither more nor less than a set of conceptual tools for making Tit for Tat work in the real world. (Peter Singer, How are we to live? [Oxford: OUP, 1997], 176)
Tit for Tat (or Doing unto others as they have Done unto you) is, quite literally, Singer’s basis for ‘moral’ behaviour, advocated because it ‘works’ in producing what Singer argues is the best outcome for everyone (and is therefore the ‘best’ outcome). In all this, Singer is thoroughly reductionist — the proof of Tit for Tat morality is in game theory and the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’, and when we see it applied in human society we should recognize we are doing nothing basically more than chimpanzees grooming one another for fleas — but on it he wishes to rest the whole edifice of moral living.
Whence justice?
Singer’s particular ‘explanation’ does not appear to have gained wide acceptance. Nevertheless, I suspect that the general principles it entails are becoming almost universal in Western thinking, albeit in a semi-conscious way. The atheist who is also an unthinking materialist would surely find little to contradict in Singer’s view that justice is neither divinely imposed nor a fundamental property of the material universe. It must then, in some sense, be derived from ourselves alone.
The problem is, from whence in ourselves can such a notion of justice derive, and of what value is it once it has been so derived?
The standard ‘evolutionary’ explanation increasingly focuses on ‘altruism’ as the basic source of ethical behaviour — evolutionary altruism being behaviour which appears to be inimical to the survival of the individual but actually favours the survival of the group, and which is therefore increased by natural selection.
On this view, our sending money to help the people of Haiti is an unconsciously driven ‘human survival’ mechanism. And indeed, one can see how such an explanation has a superficial appeal. If our ‘being good’ comes down, ultimately, to prospering the human gene, then clearly appeals for help will tend to succeed, whether they be those of crushed Haitians or drowning swimmers.
But actually that is not how things work, as is shown by the so-called ‘bystander effect’. The truth is, we are not all impelled by instinct to help those we perceive to be in trouble. On the contrary, we turn off the TV, we look the other way, we regard it as ‘none of our business’, even when the personal risk is minimal. Somehow, our ‘altruistic instinct’ turns out to be rather inefficient.
On the other hand, Singer himself is adamant that argument and reason can, and must, be used to induce ethical behaviour. It would appear that our genes are not strong enough —indeed, Singer sees this as taking us beyond “the straight line of evolution” which gave us the capacity to reason in the first place (p 269).
What is ‘I’?
But that being the case, we must ask, “With what are we reasoning and on what is our reasoning working?” The automatic answer is that we are reasoning with our minds. But what is the mind? The contemporary Western material narrative says that the mind is created by physical processes resulting from evolutionary forces. (That may not be what modern research is showing, incidentally, but it is, I believe, what is being accepted as the ‘popular view’.)
The key question, though, is whether we can control those forces. If ‘I’ am the product of material forces, how can ‘I’ turn round and, in an instant, manipulate those same forces which make up ‘me’? It would surely be like a puppet suddenly grabbing its own strings. The material narrative can tell me how ‘I’ experience what I do as a result of electrical processes in the brain. I can even watch them happening. But it leaves me with a problem as to how the brain that produces those phenomena can be told what phenomena to produce.
The modern dilemma
Like many moderns, Singer is an ardent ‘moralist’. That is to say, he is a man for whom human moral issues are a consuming interest. I am sure he would make a very good neighbour (unless you were, perhaps, senile or terminally ill, in which case I am not so sure).
It is similar moralists who want Tony Blair arrested. But what, according to the material narrative, has Blair done wrong? Biologically, he is a product of evolution. Individually, his thoughts and decisions are the product of material processes in the few pounds of jelly contained in his cranium. His is, to use Desmond Morris’s terminology, a ‘naked ape’ — as are we all.
The pure materialist might argue that rather than being arrested, Blair should be put down. Yet that would surely require a judgement which would be independent of the same limitations that the nature of material reality imposed on Mr Blair. And it is difficult to see how, according to the material narrative, that is something any of us has.
Revd John P Richardson
28 January 2010
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1 comment:

  1. Time to re-read C S Lewis as in Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain and so on. He is v strong on the vacuity of trying to get ethics out of materialism.

    Nigel Feilden
    Highmuir Croft
    Aberdeenshire AB41 4DA