Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Empathic Civilization or The Just Civilization?

My brother pointed out an interesting video by Jeremy Rifkin here, on what Rifkin calls The Empathic Civilization. The basic idea is that we are hardwired for empathy and should strive to expand our range of empathy beyond tribe and nation to embrace the whole world, and even into the animal kingdom.

That's all well and good, but the problem is that empathy by itself isn't enough to serve as a moral guide.  I may feel empathy for both the Red Sox and the Cardinals in the World Series, but one of them has to win and one of them has to lose. More seriously, our moral life often consists in making difficult choices between parties both of whom may engage our empathy. We may empathize with the poor man and support taxes to help him, but might we not also empathize with the working man who has his life's work confiscated from him through those taxes? We may empathize with the young woman who finds herself pregnant when she didn't plan it, but what about empathy for the unborn child in her womb who finds himself a potential victim of abortion? Empathy by itself doesn't decide which empathy takes precedence.

Even when empathy has a clear focus, it is not always a good guide. We may empathize with a child getting a shot, but we understand that the shot is in the best interests of the child even if getting it is unpleasant. More important than empathy is a well-developed sense of justice, which is simply willing the good for others - whether we empathize with them or not. We owe it to a child to give him the shots he needs whether he likes it or not, and however we feel about it.

Using empathy as a moral guide is to mistake the engine for the captain. Empathy can drive us to act for the good of others, but it doesn't by itself reveal what that good is or how it is to be achieved, nor how to balance competing goods. For that we need justice.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Sam Harris and the Moral Landscape

Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values is several years old at this point but is still generating controversy. Ross Douthat's recent take on it is here. For my part,  Harris is worth reading because of the straightforward, transparent manner in which he argues his case; Harris is an honest atheist and sincerely wishes to rationally persuade his audience. He also has a certain philosophical naivete, such that he does not always perceive the philosophical consequences of his positions, consequences that atheists have long struggled to avoid. I think this latter aspect of Harris's writing accounts for the not quite friendly response he has gotten from some secular reviewers. But more on this later.

Harris has issued a challenge to critics, offering a cash award for the best criticism of his book and an even larger cash award if that criticism persuades him. (Given that Harris is by definition the judge of the latter, it's not too much of a leap to suppose that prize is in no danger of being won.) I might submit an essay to this challenge just to see what happens. If I do, the essay will run along ideas like the following.

Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape acknowledges a fundamental challenge to his attempt to determine human values through science: If it is through science that human values are to be determined, how is the value of science itself to be determined? Harris recognizes the only possible answer: Science cannot  determine its own value, so that value must be recognized pre-scientifically:
Science is defined with reference to the goal of understanding the processes at work in the universe. Can we justify this goal scientifically? Of course not. Does this make science itself unscientific? If so, we appear to have pulled ourselves down by our bootstraps. (p. 17 - all references to paperback edition)

In the chapter "The Future of Happiness", he argues in this way:

It seems to me, however, that in order to fulfill our deepest interests in this life, both personally and collectively, we must first admit that some interests are more defensible than others. Indeed, some interests are so compelling that they need no defense at all. (p. 191)

The interest of finding truth through science is, of course, the principal interest Harris has in mind. In the Afterword to the paperback edition, Harris puts the matter in a way that makes the philosophical implications clear:

The fatal flaw that Blackford claims to have found in my view of morality could be ascribed to any branch of science - or to reason generally. Certain "oughts" are built right into the foundations of human thought. We need not apologize for pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps in this way. It is better than pulling ourselves down by them. (p.201-202, emphasis mine)

The italicized sentence is the one that will cause heartache in Harris's secular critics, for although Harris appears not to know it,  it is a foundational principle of traditional natural law philosophy, something modern philosophers have been hoping to discredit since the Enlightenment. Indeed, the typical modern philosopher thinks natural law philosophy was discredited at the dawn of the Enlightenment with the "discovery" of the fact-value distinction. This is why Harris's secular critics sometimes, like Colin McGinn, simply repeat the fact-value distinction and think they are done - for the fact-value distinction is a foundational principle of modern philosophy and functions as something of a litmus test. Denying it serves to identify oneself as one of those naive pre-modern philosophers who still believes in things like the natural law, and therefore may be justifiably and summarily dismissed (which is what McGinn does).

As I say, one of the attractive features of Harris is his relative philosophical innocence with respect to the larger philosophical battles waging around him. He simply calls things as he sees them, and does not hedge his views or couch them in obscurity for the sake of broader philosophical consequences. In this case, Harris acknowledges what is obviously true, that there are certain values (certain "oughts") that are self-evident to human reason and need no other justification. He does this because he sees the self-evident value of scientific inquiry. What he doesn't see (which his secular critics recognize with horror) is how much of modern philosophy is undermined, and classical philosophy affirmed, with that simple acknowledgement.

For starters, the Kantian project is shown to be misguided. For Kant's premise is that nothing can be truly known without a prior evaluation of the range of human reason - a "critique" of reason that defines its powers and limits. But if the value of something (in this case science) can be immediately known absent a prior critique, then the Kantian project is shown to be unnecessary and even counter-productive, since it may result in the obscuring of truth that can be immediately known yet might not survive a critique.

Harris doesn't see that the consequentialism he favors - and is popular amongst modern philosophers - is put in danger by acknowledgement of fundamental natural law principle:

Here is my (consequentialist) starting point: all questions of value (right and wrong, good and evil, etc.) depend upon the possibility of experiencing such value. Without potential consequences at the level of experience - happiness, suffering, joy, despair, etc. - all talk of value is empty. Therefore, to say that an act is morally necessary, or evil, or blameless, is to make (tacit) claims about its consequences in the lives of conscious creatures (whether actual or potential). (p. 62)

But Harris has already given us an instance of where the talk of value without respect to potential consequences is not empty: Talk about the value of science itself, which is based on an "ought" built into the foundations of human thought, not demonstrated via its consequences. Given that Harris acknowledges the existence of at least one pre-consequentialist "ought", he must acknowledge the possibility that there might be others (maybe there isn't, but the possibility can't simply be dismissed without investigation). And if there are other pre-consequentialist "oughts", they must be discovered and understood and consequentialist conclusions evaluated in light of them rather than vice-versa.

Another way of saying the point is this: Harris recognizes that "certain oughts are built right into the foundations of human thought." He has in mind the value of science. We "ought" to prefer truth to falsehood and science is the best way of distinguishing between the two. His project is to recognize the value of science pre-scientifically, then use science to bootstrap a comprehensive theory of good and evil. All well and good.

But he fails to see certain consequences of this view. The first is that it is clear that the most important values are the ones known pre-scientifically, for it is on the pre-scientific value of science itself that Harris's whole project is based. All other values stand or fall on it. The second consequence is that there may be other pre-scientific values other than the value of science itself, other "oughts" built right into the foundations of human thought. Simply because Harris only recognizes the value of science and simply ignores any other possible pre-scientific values does not mean that they are not there (and, incidentally, violates Harris's oft-stated distinction between "no answers in practice" and "no answers in principle" p.  3)

It is no good to critique other possible pre-scientific values based on the results of Harris's scientific inquiry into morality: For those other potential pre-scientific values compete with science at the level of science's own value. To take the value of science for granted, then evaluate other potential pre-scientific values in light of science's conclusions, is simply to beg the question against other pre-scientific values that might compete with the value of science. Those other candidate's for value must be evaluated the same way the value of science was: Pre-scientifically.

What I have been just discussing exposes a typical misunderstanding of natural law philosophy found in writers like, well, Sam Harris. Traditional opposition to things like abortion, homosexuality, gay marriage and contraception comes in for rough treatment by Harris in The Moral Landscape, where he writes as though his scientific morality case against traditional views is conclusive almost before he states it. What he doesn't understand is that his case for his scientific morality on those questions begs the question against traditional natural law opposition to them: For that natural law opposition operates at the level of pre-scientific value, "oughts" built right into the foundation of human thought itself, and is susceptible to criticism of the "scientific morality" sort only to the extent that the question is begged.
The natural law opposition may be opposed, but it must be done in the same way that the pre-scientific value of science was defended - not through science, but a philosophical case.

The irony of Harris's project, an irony that I think his modernist critics recognize and want to distance themselves from, is that to the extent Harris is right he must leave off the scientific criticism of the things he most wants to attack (traditional moral views on matters sexual and life-related) and fight them on the traditionalists own turf in the arena of natural law. For the game is all about those pre-scientific values - by Harris's own account the most important ones - that he acknowledges exist but modern philosophers have been struggling to banish to the realm of mythology since the sixteenth century.

The Moral Landscape is, I think, a case of needing to be careful what you wish for.

I will have more to say about Harris's book and its relation to traditional thinking on morality in subsequent posts.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Sam Harris and Free Will

I just finished reading Sam Harris's Free Will, a brief defense of Harris's view that free will is an illusion. Harris is worth reading because he is an excellent writer, with a clear and succinct style. He doesn't hedge or avoid the more disturbing logical implications of his position, but addresses them head on and with confidence.

Free Will is also worth reading because Harris, unintentionally, reveals the weaknesses of the modern understanding of free will while leaving the classical understanding entirely unscathed. In fact the classical understanding becomes all the more attractive in comparison to Harris's conception. (By "classical" I mean mainstream philosophy up to roughly St. Thomas Aquinas, with Aquinas representing the pinnacle of the classical tradition).

The key to understanding the classical conception is that it is inextricably linked with the intellect. The intellect and will in classical philosophy are almost two sides of the same coin, and it is difficult to make sense of one without the other. Freedom is found in the interplay between the two.

Harris writes at the start of his chapter "Changing the Subject:"

It is safe to say that no one was ever moved to entertain the existence of free will because it holds great promise as an abstract idea. The endurance of this notion is attributable to the fact that most of us feel that we freely author our own thoughts and actions (however difficult it may be to make sense of this in logical or scientific terms). Thus the idea of free will emerges from a felt experience. (p 15)

The fact that Harris is likely true about this says more about the poor state of contemporary popular philosophical reflection than any failure of the promise of free will as an abstract idea. The old notion of free will did not arise out of any felt experience, but simple empirical observation, and it issued in an idea (aren't ideas by nature abstract?) straightforwardly intelligible. Men observed that inanimate objects  like stones are acted on but have no interior principle of action. In that sense they are entirely unfree. They also noticed that plants, unlike rocks, can initiate their own actions like sinking roots into the soil or growing toward the sun, and so are in that sense freer than rocks. Animals, beyond plants, have the ability to perceive their environment and pursue their desires as well as flee from their fears. An oak tree can't move itself to better soil or run away from a forest fire, but a wolf is free to find better hunting grown or flee a conflagration. In that sense, the wolf is yet more free than the oak tree.

Man, alone in physical nature and by the power of his intellect, can know the truth about himself and the universe, and so perceive his own good through that truth and pursue it as such. The wolf will devour raw meat because it perceives it as desirable and it reacts on that basis. Man also perceives meat as desirable, but he also knows the truth that meat is good for him because of its nutritional value, and the end of nutrition is health, and so he may not devour meat even if his animal nature desires it if he decides it is not healthy for him (e.g. he is cutting down on red meat to lower his cholesterol). Man, then, is free in a way that no other earthly creature is because freedom for him means the power to act in light of the truth and in pursuit of the good as such.

It's easy to see why the classicals stressed the relationship between intellect and will. Free will in the classical sense means a will enlightened by the intellect with truth; absent the intellect's knowledge, the will has no object and becomes impotent. It becomes reduced to an animal or plant will that merely responds immediately to perceived desire or fear.

We can also see that the classical conception of freedom is dynamic. It depends on knowledge, and as our lives move between the poles of ignorance and knowledge, so our will moves between the poles of slavishness and freedom: A philosophically primitive barbarian is in a very real sense not as free as Socrates, but may become so to the extent that he is educated. Thus the classical aphorism that "the truth shall make you free."

The classical conception also recognizes that our behavior is derived from both rational and non-rational sources. I may conclude that it is good for me to lose weight and so begin a diet (a rational cause). But I may have difficulty staying on it because my desire for cheesesteak subs (a non-rational cause) overwhelms my rational determination to diet. The moral life consists, in part, in training the non-rational side of our nature to follow the rational side.

Finally, it is important to see that the classical conception of freedom does not involve rescuing free will from a chain of causation. The free will is caused just like everything else is caused. The difference is that the will becomes free when it is moved in the chain of rational causes rather than the chain of non-rational causes. Why did I write "4" to the answer "What is 2+2?" Because it is true, and mathematically provable, that two added to two is four. This is an explanation in terms of rational causes. There is a parallel explanation in terms of non-rational causes as to how that "4" got written: My brain sent an electrical signal to my hand which moved a pencil to write a symbol of the shape "4." But no matter how detailed this account, it has no bearing on the truth of the account in terms of rational causes that is the basis of freedom: I wrote "4" because 2+2=4.

The modern version of free will differs from the classical insofar as it separates the will from the intellect. This had its origin in the early modern's dazzlement by the advances of science. Science seemed to provide an account of the world entirely in terms of dumb matter and irrational causes - Newton's clockwork universe. Rational causes - Aristotle's formal and final causes, and which are at the heart of the classical understanding of free will and intellect - were not so much refuted as simply left out of the account, having lost respectability in the non-rational account of nature provided by science. The classical intellect and will simply disappeared from view as invisible to modern science.

The result was that free will, which was not particularly mysterious for classical philosophers, became an impenetrable mystery for modern philosophers, for what could freedom mean in a clockwork universe devoid of rational causation? The issue of causation becomes the central focus of modern thinking about the will because the only way moderns can conceive of freedom is as some sort of escape from the chain of non-rational causation (which is why free will can only be felt rather than demonstrated, because demonstration necessarily involves an account in terms of causes, and for moderns free will is a mysterious uncaused cause).

Sam Harris puts great stock in experiments like the Libet experiments that detect neural evidence of our decisions before we are actually conscious of making the decision:

The physiologist Benjamin Libet famously used EEG to show that activity in the brain's motor cortex can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move. Another lab extended this work using functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): Subjects were asked to press one of two buttons while watching a "clock" composed of a random sequence of letters appearing on a screen. They reported which letter was visible at the moment they decided to press one button or the other. The experimenters found two brain regions that contained information about which button subjects would press a full 7 to 10 seconds before the decision was consciously made. More recently, direct recordings from the cortex showed that the activity of merely 256 neurons was sufficient to predict with 80 percent accuracy a person's decision to move 700 milliseconds before he became aware of it. 
These findings are difficult to reconcile with the sense that we are the conscious authors of our actions. (p. 8-9)

They are certainly difficult to reconcile with modern attempts to find some space for freedom within the clockwork universe thought to be heralded with the advent of modern science. Those attempts, e.g. those of Descartes or Kant, attempted to save freedom by removing it to a realm beyond the reach of science, either in an immaterial soul mysteriously attached to the body (Descartes), or another realm beyond the reach not only of science but of rational inquiry altogether (Kant). They are all, in the end, attempts to rescue free will as some sort of spontaneous uncaused cause. It is not surprising that this conception of freedom would fall apart as soon as human choice was shown to be susceptible to physical causes (something, incidentally, the classical philosophers never denied because they had no need to.)

But experiments of this type say nothing about the classical understanding of free will. I am free to the extent that I act in light of the truth. Suppose I take a math test, and write down the answer "0" to the question "What is the limit of 1/x as x goes to infinity?" I am free because the answer to the question "Why did I write down 0" is "Because it is true." It is entirely irrelevant that Benjamin Libet could detect my impulse to write the answer down a few milliseconds before I actually decided to move the pencil. And it means nothing that someone could predict with 100% accuracy what my answers will be to a simple math test before I take it. They can safely predict that I will get nearly all the answers right because I am educated enough to know the answers to simple math questions.

It is fascinating, and revealing, that all the examples Harris cites in his book to refute free will involve non-rational decision making, i.e. they do not involve the engagement of the intellect with the will that is the foundation of the classical conception of freedom. In the above cited case, subjects were asked simply to press a button based on a visual cue; in other words, a test suitable for a monkey. That the resulting decision is something that might be explained in terms of purely physical causation is nothing that would surprise Aquinas or Aristotle, for it is only when we consciously act in light of rational causes that we are free in the sense of human freedom.

Here is another example of free will in terns of non-rational causes that does not survive Harris's deconstruction:

I generally start each day with a cup of coffee or tea - sometimes two. This morning, it was coffee (two). Why not tea? I am in no position to know. I wanted coffee more than I wanted tea today, and I was free to have what I wanted. Did I consciously choose coffee over tea? No. The choice was made for me by events in my brain that I, as the conscious witness of my thoughts and actions, could not inspect or influence. Could I have 'changed my mind' and switched  to tea before the coffee drinker in me could get his bearings? Yes, but this impulse would also have been the product of unconscious causes. (p. 8)

But as we have seen, the really relevant distinction crucial to free will isn't between conscious and unconscious causes, but between rational and non-rational causes. From the classical perspective, the decision to choose tea over coffee (unless it involved a rational deliberation about the good) was never really an instance of free will in the first place. It was on the level of a dog choosing which bowl of food from which to eat; something entirely explainable in terms of the physical chain of causes involving non-rational desires and stimuli.

Here are some of the other putative examples of free will Harris examines:

"For instance, I just drank a glass of water and feel absolutely at peace with the decision to do so. I was thirsty, and drinking water is fully congruent with my vision of who I want to be when in need of a drink.  Had I reached for a beer this early in the day, I might have felt guilty; but drinking a glass of water at any hours is blameless, and I am quite satisfied with myself. Where is the freedom in this? [Nowhere, because there is no freedom in water buffalos going to the watering hole, which this essentially is. DT] It may be true that if I had wanted to do otherwise, I would have, but I am nevertheless compelled to do what I effectively want. And I cannot determine my wants, or decide which will be effective, in advance. My mental life is simply given to me by the cosmos. Why didn't I decide to drink a glass of juice? The thought never occurred to m. Am I free to do that which does not occur to me to do? [italics in original] Of course not. (p 19)

Harris has essentially described the life of a bear or a fish. Animals are driven by their desires, not rational consideration of the good, and so are not free. What's interesting about this example are the words in italics at the end, which present the possibility of recovering something of the classical understanding of freedom. The will cannot choose that which is not presented to it as an object; the will cannot choose that which we do not know. So the more we know, the more freedom we may have as the range of our options increases. This, again, is why knowing the truth can make you free - and why the best way to keep someone a slave is to keep him ignorant.


Thoughts like 'What should I get my daughter for her birthday? I know - I'll take her to a pet store and have her pick out some tropical fish' convey the apparent reality of choices, freely made. (p. 32)


For instance, in my teens and early twenties I was a devoted student of the martial arts. I practiced incessantly and taught classes in college. Recently, I began training again, after a hiatus of more than 20 years. Both the cessation and the renewal of my interest in martial arts seem to be pure expressions of the freedom that Nahmias attributes to me. I have been under no 'unreasonable external or internal pressure.' I have done exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to stop training, and I stopped. I wanted to start again, and now I train several times a week. All this has been associated with conscious thought and acts of apparent self- control. 
However, when I look for the psychological cause of my behavior, I find it utterly mysterious. Why did I stop training 20 years ago? Well, certain things just became more important to me. But why did they become more important to me...?" (p. 43)

and the final and clearest example of an attempt at non-rational free will:

In fact, I will now perform an experiment in free will for all to see: I will write anything I want for the rest of this book. Whatever I write will, of course, be something I choose to write.  No one is compelling me to do this. No one has assigned me a topic or demanded that I use certain words. I can be ungrammatical if I pleased. And if I want to put a rabbit in this sentence, I am free to do so. 
But paying attention to my stream of consciousness reveals that this notion of freedom does not reach very deep. Where did this rabbit come from? Why didn't I put an elephant in that sentence? I do not know. I am free to change 'rabbit' to 'elephant,' of course. But if I did this, how could I explain it? It is impossible for me to know the cause of either choice. (p. 65)

This is a perfect example of the muddle into which modern thinking about free will has gotten itself. The search for a truly free act is seen as the search for an act immune to any intelligibility; somehow an act can only be free if we can't find any reason for it, rational or otherwise. This is freedom as the Uncaused Caused, i.e. a freedom only God could possibly have.

Thomas Aquinas would be baffled at this understanding of human freedom. Surely the best evidence of Harris's free will would not be the random insertion of words into the text - again, something a well-trained monkey could do - but rather the intelligible content of the book as a whole. Harris's freedom is expressed in his attempt to grasp the truth about free will and communicate it to the rest of us, something monkeys, trees and rocks are not free to do.

Free Will is a relatively short book (82 pages), but then the case against freedom in the scientistic worldview of Harris is straightforward and brief:

Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them. (p 5)

This is surely true if you only recognize as causes non-rational efficient causes. But if the reality of rational causes (Aristotle's formal and final causes) is acknowledged, then we can be responsible for our actions, and our actions be free, even if they occur within a chain of rational causation. Socrates made the distinction a long time ago in the Phaedo:

I felt very much as I should feel if someone said, 'Socrates does by mind all he does'; and then, trying to tell the causes of each thing I do, if he should say first that the reason why I sit here now is, that my body consists of bones and sinews, and the bones are hard and have joints between them, and the sinews can be tightened and slackened, surrounding the bones along with flesh and the skin which holds them together; so when the bones are uplifted in their sockets, the sinews slackening and tightening make me able to bend my limbs now, and for this cause I have bent together and sit here; and if next he should give you other causes of my conversing with you, alleging as causes voices and airs and hearings and a thousand others like that, and neglecting to give the real causes. These are that since the Athenians thought it was better to condemn me, for this very reason I have thought it better to sit here, and more just to remain and submit to any sentence they may give. For, by the Dog! these bones and sinews, I think, would have been somewhere near Megara or Boeotia long ago, carried by an opinion of what is best...

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Inspiring Socratic Quotes, Part 2

"You are wrong, my friends, if you think a man with a spark of decency in him out to calculate life or death; the only thing he out to consider, if he does anything, is whether he does right or wrong, whether it is what a good man does or a bad man."

- Apology, WHD Rouse translation

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Inspiring Socratic Quotes, Part 1

This may be my favorite quote in all the Platonic works, and the one I go back to when tempted by despair of philosophy.

" 'Then, Phaidon', he said, 'it would be a pitiable disease, when there is an argument true and sound, and such as can be understood, if through the pain of meeting so many which seem sometimes to be true and sometimes not, instead of blaming himself and his own clumsiness a man should in the end gladly throw the blame from himself upon the arguments, and for the rest of his life should continually hate and abuse them, and deprive himself of the truth and the knowledge of what is real.'
... 'First, then, let us be careful', he said, 'and let us not admit into our souls the belief that there really is no soundness or health in arguments. Much rather let us think that we are not sound ourselves, let us be men and take pains to become sound: you and the others to prepare you for all your coming life, I to prepare myself for death.'"

- Phaedo, from the WHD Rouse translation.

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Breaking Bad Finale and Moral Truth

/*** Warning Breaking Bad Spoiler Alert ***/

 Breaking Bad may be the best television series ever. Certainly I can't remember savoring every moment of a series the way I have this one. And the series finale lived up to the quality of the rest of the series. Vince Gilligan did his fans a service by resolving all the major plot lines and not taking a cheap way out (ala Lost).

But although I enjoyed the series finale, it did nonetheless break the arc of the plot and, in the end, muddled the moral truth that was at the heart of the series. Gilligan has stated that his idea with Breaking Bad was to turn "Mr. Chips into Scarface". Walter White certainly started out as Mr. Chips, but he wasn't really Scarface at the end. In fact, in many ways Walter White at the end of the series is a more virtuous man than the Walter White at the beginning of the series.

At the series start, Walter White is a mild-mannered chemistry teacher and something of a milquetoast. He lacks self-confidence in everything but his chemistry. Diagnosed with cancer, he embarks on a secret career as a crystal meth producer in order to make money for his cancer treatments and to leave a legacy to his wife and family. In this secret life Walter is put in a number of life and death, kill or be killed situations that force him to find inner resources of courage, cleverness and coolness under pressure. In that sense, Walter grows in virtue through his criminal life, for courage and coolness under fire are certainly virtues. This is all well and good because Walter also grows in ruthlessness and develops a coldly calculating heart, to the point that, besides committing a number of cold-blooded murders, he also permits a girl to drown in her own vomit and poisons a child. It is clear that Walter is becoming an evil man, even a monster, and whatever practical virtues he has developed are overshadowed by the degeneration of his soul and its moral compass. One of the great virtues of the show is the manner in which it shows that Walter, even as he grows in self-confidence and practical cleverness, becomes ever moral blind to both the moral truth and the truth of his own nature.

And this is, of course, one of the consequences of sin. We don't become wise through sin, we become ignorant. Sin leads to darkness and lies to oneself and to others, not self-awareness. The Godfather series shows this in Part 2, which ends with Michael sitting silently alone in his Lake Tahoe boathouse, pondering his life as the execution of his brother is carried out on his orders out on the water. There is no flash of self-awareness, just a parade of images of where he was and where he is now, which only serves to show how much more (morally) attractive Michael was at the beginning of the series than he is now.

Breaking Bad shows this through most of its length as Walter's lies become ever more elaborate and his rationalizations ever more flimsy. In the penultimate episode Walter kidnaps his own daughter and calls his wife with the authorities listening on her end. He engages in a self-justifying, irrational rant that his brother-in-law got what was coming to him by crossing Walter. This would have been an excellent way to end the series, or to end it by following it up with the traditional shootout with the police ("Top of the world!"). But it turns out that the phone call was really just a clever con job by Walter to get his wife off the hook, who was in trouble for being an accessory to his crimes.

In the last episode, Walter has one final meeting with his wife, where he admits that his standard justification for his criminal life ("everything I did was for the family") was a lie: In fact, he admits, everything he did was for himself and because he liked it. It made him feel alive. This is a level of self-awareness well beyond that of the Mr. Chips at the beginning of the series, and it is a level of self-awareness that should not be available to someone who has corrupted himself through sin as deeply as has Walter White. Despite his crimes, the Walter White at the end of the series is more attractive than the Walter White at the beginning of the series. The later Walter is stronger, more courageous, more self-aware, and even more at peace with himself than the earlier Walter. This makes for an enjoyable ending, but not one genuinely reflective of the moral character of the universe.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Dennis Prager and the Natural Law

Richard Dawkins, unsurprisingly, thinks that religion doesn't provide us with a true moral compass. Dennis Prager responds to Richard Dawkins's at National Review here.

Unfortunately, Prager's argument undermines itself. He seems to favor some version of a divine command theory of morality: "To put this as clearly as possible: If there is no God who says, 'Do not murder,' murder is not wrong." He then goes on to denigrate reason in its quest to discover the nature of good and evil:

So, then, without God, why is murder wrong?
         Is it, as Dawkins argues, because reason says so?
My reason says murder is wrong, just as Dawkins's reason does. But, again, so what? The pre-Christian Germanic tribes of Europe regarded the Church's teaching that murder was wrong as preposterous. They reasoned that killing innocent people was acceptable and normal because the strong should do whatever they wanted. In addition, reason alone without God is pretty weak in leading to moral behavior. When self-interest and reason collide, reason usually loses. That's why we have the word 'rationalize' - using reason to argue for what is wrong.

The question naturally arises as to why Prager is writing the article at all. If reason is little more than rationalization, and if reason loses when it collides with self-interest, who is the intended audience? Those who already agree with Prager need no convincing, and those who don't won't be convinced by his arguments - since they will rationalize in favor of their self-interest. The only point of writing an article in the first place is if reason, at least sometimes, can overcome self-interest and rationalization and apprehend the truth. To the extent that Dawkins believes this more than does Prager, I'm on the side of Dawkins.

I wonder if Prager has thought through his divine command theory of morality. The natural law view is that God wrote morality into the very fabric of the universe; it isn't something he later pasted on with the Ten Commandments. (Was murder okay before God announced its immorality on Sinai?)  Murder is wrong because it is the nature of rational creatures to be ends in themselves; it is true that God is ultimately responsible for the creation of this nature, but it is also true that it is possible to reason to the nature of man (to the extent of appreciating him as an end in himself) while failing to reason to the existence of God, or to God as conceived by Judaism and Christianity. If murder is only wrong because God says it is, rather than being written into the nature of man himself, then man can't be an end in himself (otherwise there would be the possibility of reasoning to morality which Prager denies). It would then follow that man may be licitly used as a means (rather than an end in himself) unless God has explicitly spoken against the case in question. Slavery, for instance, is the paradigmatic case of treating a man as a means rather than an end, and it is famously permitted in the Old Testament (as atheists are not shy about pointing out). Neither it is explicitly condemned in the New Testament, although here the case is a little more ambiguous given certain Pauline texts (e.g. the Letter to Philemon). Since God has not explicitly condemned slavery, what is the basis for condemning it? There is either a case founded on reason or there is no case at all.

Generally speaking, God's pronouncements to us are necessarily finite (we can only listen to so much) but the moral life is potentially infinite; it is forever presenting us with novel circumstances and situations. Either we can reason our way to an authentic moral understanding of such novelties, or our divine command version of morality will always be a day late and a dollar short.