Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Thinking about thinking

Objective v. neutral There is an interesting read to be had here. The author is J. Budziszewski, a teacher at University of Texas in Austin.
Many educators believe that the right way to handle issues of conscience is to be neutral among competing convictions. I disagree, because there is no such thing as neutrality. As Joseph Boyle has observed, any ground on which conflicts between moral perspectives can be arbitrated “will in fact be some moral perspective and the illusion that it is neutral will have the effect of disregarding [some] moral views.” (Joseph Boyle, “A Catholic Perspective on Morality and the Law,” Journal of Law and Religion 1 (1983) 233-34) To put this another way, neutralism is merely bad-faith authoritarianism. It is a dishonest way of advancing a moral view by pretending to have no moral view. The question of neutrality has been profoundly obscured by the mistake of confusing neutrality with objectivity. A most interesting point is that this mistake is made by both “modernists” and “postmodernists.” Modernists assume (1) that neutrality and objectivity are the same thing, (2) that objectivity is possible, and therefore (3) that neutrality is possible too Postmodernists assume (1) that neutrality and objectivity are the same thing, (2) that neutrality is not possible, and therefore, (3) that objectivity is not possible either. A plague on both their houses. I suggest the premodern view that neutrality and objectivity are not the same, and that objectivity is possible but neutrality is not. To be neutral, if that were possible, would be to have no presuppositions whatsoever. To be objective is to have certain presuppositions, along with the manners that allow us to keep faith with them. We presuppose that we exist, that our students exist, and that we exist in a really existing world. We presuppose that perception is not wholly illusion, and that the consequent relation — “if this, then that” — does correspond to something in reality. We presuppose that nothing can both be and not be in the same sense at the same time. We presuppose that good is to be done and truth is to be known. We presuppose that we should never directly intend harm to anyone. And so forth. In the language of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, we presuppose the inescapable first principles of practical and theoretical reasoning and the conclusions which flow immediately from them. In the language of the Bible, we presuppose those things which the Creator has made plain even to those who reject the more particular revelations of Scripture. In saying these things are plain, of course, I do not mean that we cannot deny them. I only mean that we can’t not know them, whether we admit that we know them or not. They cannot be proven, of course, but they do not depend on proof, because, like axioms in geometry, they are that on which the proofs themselves depend.

Same author, different writing. From the introduction to his book, What We Can't Not Know:
[British bioethicist Jonathan] Glover sees himself as replacing traditional moral principles with a morality "less likely to be eroded." The reason he thinks manmade morality more durable is that he cannot take seriously the idea of morality coming from God. A wise God, he thinks, would not have ordained a world "in which people are hanged after spending their last night nailed by the ear to a fence, or in which babies are cut out of their mothers' wombs with daggers." A wise God would have made man good, or at least made him grow better over time. There is a problem with this line of reasoning. It is hard to see why Glover should object to a world in which babies are cut out of their mothers' wombs with daggers, but not one in which mothers invite daggers into their wombs that their babies may be cut out. And that is only the beginning of his incoherencies. The whole meaning of morality is a rule that we ought to obey whether we like it or not. If so, then the idea of creating a morality we like better is incoherent. Moreover, it would seem that until we had created our new morality, we would have no standard by which to criticize God. Since we have not yet created one, the standard by which we judge Him must be the very standard that He gave us. If it is good enough to judge Him by, then why do we need a new one? Now any thinker can commit an error in logic. Multiple, matted incoherencies, like Glover's, seem to call for a different explanation. When, despite considerable intelligence, a thinker cannot think straight, it becomes very likely that he cannot face his thoughts. The closer to the starting point his swerve, the more likely this explanation becomes. Somewhere in his mind lies a mystery of knowledge which he must hide from himself at all costs. If he presupposes the old morality in the very act of denying it, the lesson is not that the old morality should be denied, but that he is in denial. If he makes humanity God and yet cries out against God's inhumanity, it is clear who has really been accused. The form of the indictment is not "If you deny P, then you are in denial about P." One is not "in denial" just because he denies that ice is cold, or that dogs normally have four legs. He might merely be mistaken; he might never have felt ice or seen dogs. Put right, the form of the indictment is "If your objection to P presupposes P, then you have not given us any grounds to disbelieve P; rather you have have given us grounds to think that you know P after all." Perhaps the older thinkers were correct after all. Perhaps the foundational moral principles really are the same for all not only as to rectitude but as to knowledge. Perhaps they really are not only right for all, but somehow known to all.
The point here is the same as that C.S. Lewis made in The Abolition of Man, which I posted about a few days ago.

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