Convergence?

Here and here are some provocative thoughts regarding Ronald Dworkin’s most recent work, which was published after his passing in February of this year.

“…to show that it’s possible to adopt what he calls a “religious attitude,” a worldview which “accepts the full, independent reality of value,” as distinct from scientific fact, and which holds that both individuals and the natural world they inhabit have intrinsic, transcendental value, without believing in a personal God. Putting naturalism and its proponents, who are committed to the position that there can be no independent objective realm of value, to one side, Dworkin’s goal is to emphasize “the importance of what is shared” by subscribers of both “godly and godless religion.” That, in a word, he thinks, is faith. And while believers may think their faith in God differs substantially from the “faith” of an atheist, Dworkin’s rather startling conclusion is that the faith of theists is necessarily identical to that of religious atheists.”

Hmmm, sounds interesting.  His “startling” conclusion is something I’ve been talking about for some time now.  Convergence?

Whether what Dworkin is trying to accomplish can be pulled off without belief in God or some sort of transcendence is, of course, another matter.  But, just like we saw with Peter Singer, many are now seeing the importance of moving beyond the fact/value distinction characteristic of modernity and grounding morality in something beyond pure power and will.  This is another positive feature of the postmodern move.

The largest hurdle to overcome in what Dworkin is saying lies here:

“If religious values are self-justifying just like mathematical axioms are self-justifying, one outcome is that they don’t require the existence of a deity to be true. And that claim, if you accept it, breaks the field wide open. Suddenly, the deepest convictions of atheists and believers become accessible to each other; a disposition about god no longer walls each side off from the other.”

The problem here, unfortunately, is that all it does is push the problem back further.  After all, the fact that we live in a universe that has mathematical order “built” into it and that we can grasp it, manipulate it, predict with it, and so on, is the very thing that has led many to assert, “A universe such as that can hardly be an accident.”  Obviously, one could view it as an accident—but it certainly should give any thoughtful person pause before doing so.  It is an awfully sublime and perfectly calibrated “accident”.  More importantly, here is what Dworkin is really missing.  If values, like math, are woven somehow into the very nature of reality, and thus objective, then why do values differ over time and cultures?  Many thought that slavery was an actual “good” because it “saved” the person from a life of savagery and ignorance.  I think many of the Nazis felt it was an actual “good” to rid the world of what they thought were inferior races.  Were those “values” objective and built into reality?  Of course the naturalist will answer that values differ over time and culture for the very reason that they are not objective, they are subjective culturally (read psychologically) produced prejudices.  And when cultures differ?  Well, it is really just a war of prejudices at that point.  Besides, the objection that morality must be subjective, just like the person who believes miracles to be impossible, is finally reducible to, or amounts to, question-begging as to the existence of God in the first place and thus go nowhere.

So, even if we posit that values are objective and woven into reality like mathematical axioms- we still face the problem of choosing what those values are.  We still have to say what the good, the true, and the beautiful are.  Dworkin and Singer no doubt want their western, secular, liberal, progressive, and modern values to be the ones we see as “objective.”  Shocker.  The problem is that none of those values came about by anyone suggesting they “just” happened to be a part of reality, in an otherwise accidental and purposeless universe.  Those values are a result of the Judeo-Christian and Enlightenment narrative, which whether through the specific God of the Bible or a deist one, certainly did not see those values arising as Dworkin is now suggesting.    

However, putting all that aside, notice what this move to show how we all live by faith also does.  It allows us to focus on what we share and not what divides us.  At least Dworkin sees the importance of doing away with the fact/value distinction and grounding morality in something besides subjective power.  We can put off the discussion regarding where the grounding may better lie for now, but this is a step in the right direction for our times especially.  
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1 Response to Convergence?

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    “But, just like we saw with Peter Singer, many are now seeing the importance of moving beyond the fact/value distinction characteristic of modernity and grounding morality in something beyond pure power and will.”

    It is worth saying that this way of speaking is a misrepresentation. Subjective morality is grounded in preferences (whether innate or cultured). If we express our preferences in power terms terms, then that expresses our preference for a violent world. If we prefer a peaceful world, then our morality will tend in that direction. It is sort of like saying that the Catholic church is grounded in guilt, laying aside all the other foundations it may rest on. It is biassed and inaccurate.

    It is also odd that you ascribe so little value to accidents. Evolution is built on them. My own birth, let us say, may be the result of an “accident”. This would hardly obviates my life and meaning. So much that is good in life comes of accidents. I think this yearning for the Hollywood narrative, where everyone has a place, and we come into a magical inheritance that was always meant for us, by some parental figure… well it speaks very strongly of our psychology, but not of reality.

    ” The problem is that none of those values came about by anyone suggesting they “just” happened to be a part of reality, in an otherwise accidental and purposeless universe. Those values are a result of the Judeo-Christian and Enlightenment narrative, which whether through the specific God of the Bible or a deist one, certainly did not see those values arising as Dworkin is now suggesting. “

    This is curious. An interesting admission that values are developed in a (eternal) cultural process, not really discovered. Or so it seems, since my impression was that the scriptures gave the story of morals being immutable and discovered as a part of reality. Anyhow, either way, it seems that you would be making the case here for further movement in the cultural project of moral development (further revelation, one might say), in the form of secular culture. Perhaps Christian culture has played its part in the historical process, as Greek culture and Roman(!) culture did before. Now we are on to a new phase, which is hard to say how it will be labeled by future generations. I think a Hegelian might be inclined to think this way, as well as others.

    And it seems in keeping with Dworkin as well. He seems to be taking basically a secular Jewish tack, of spirituality/reverence without dogma, which I am sympathetic with.

    On the other hand, the “self-justifying” nature of mathematical axioms is not apparent to me at all, nor of morals. Axioms in math are arbitrary, but not productive unless they allow the user to construct a self-consistent system. And then they are not applicable to reality, necessarily, but need to be justified in that use by empirical application. Nothing is self-justifying. And in morality likewise, we have a base set from biology, which are beyond justification, but may be understandable from an evolutionary perspective. We culture those as we (i.e. our parents) wish in order to fulfill our long-term preferences, which means tamping down many of our most immediate and innate precepts. The justification of this system is entirely in its (empirical) fruits, not intrinsic.

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