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What’s the big idea?

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From the ethics of belief to the leap of faith; from the Golden Rule to the categorical imperative; where next?

This article follows Categorically imperative.

It continues a discussion which started in The ethics of belief.

Back in Any fool can make a rule I said I wanted to take a few big ideas – other people’s ideas – and glue them together into something else.

The first big idea was the Golden Rule, or to be more accurate the trio of Precious Metal Rules. This discussion threaded through Any fool can make a rule, Precious metal rules OK? and Once more without feeling.

The second big idea was Kant’s categorical imperative, which Any fool can make a rule and Precious metal rules OK? touch on, but which is the focus of Once more without feeling and Categorically imperative.

Before starting on the third big idea though, I need to recap how and why this line of argument started.

William Clifford (1845-1879)

William Clifford (1845-1879)

The subject is The ethics of belief.

The Introduction positions this as being about the ethical implications of believing something, and in particular the implications of whether or not the belief is justified.

A convenient place to start (in Clifford’s razor) was with 19th Century thinker William Clifford, who declared that it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.1

Then in Which Will to believe? I try to do justice to William James’s riposte to Clifford’s principle. The James discussion continues in Getting pragmatic, which takes in Pascal’s wager and what would now be called ‘positive thinking’; and then Better believe it and As if, as if – which both dig deeper into James’s special pleading on behalf of religious belief.

James is of the view that there is a kind of moral excellence which can only result from belief in the religious hypothesis. So far from it being always morally wrong to believe something on insufficient evidence, James claims there is something about religious belief which, even though it may not be justified evidentially,

gives to the world an expression which specifically determines our reactions, and makes them in a large part unlike what they might be on a purely naturalistic scheme of belief.

[William James, The will to believe2]

William JamesThe ‘expression’ is of unique ethical value, unavailable to one who strictly obeys Clifford’s dictum.

Tempest in a teapot then surveys a number of possible claims about the how ethics and religious belief could interrelate. But it neither substantiates nor demolishes James’s core claim, that there is a particular kind of desirable or even ideal ethical behaviour which can only accrue from sincere religious belief.

I suspect there is something in his claim. But I do not accept it lock, stock and barrel. This is because I also suspect he has been insufficiently analytical, and has assumed that certain features of religious belief necessarily belong together when in fact they can be separated out. If my suspicion is sound, then the unique ethical value which James is afraid of throwing out with the bathwater may not be as inconsistent with Clifford’s principle as it appears – and we can therefore save the baby.

Infinite and mysterious obligation characterises James’s position as a kind of ‘pragmatic divine command theory’. There could be sufficient evidence that behaving as if a god exists is the best thing to do, but insufficient evidence that that god exists. James is not just saying the unique ethical value comes from behaving as if there is a god, but also that therefore it must be right to believe the god actually exists.

From this point on I feel I am walking on hands and knees, in a half-light. I’m stumbling for a passageway between the ontological claims implicit in James’s first affirmation and the leap of faith in his second affirmation:

Religion says … that the best things are the more eternal things, the overlapping things, the things in the universe that throw the last stone, …and say the final word. [This is] the first affirmation of religion…

… The second affirmation of religion is that we are better off even now if we believe her first affirmation to be true.

[William James, ibid].]

It is not the leap of faith which worries me, but the metaphysics of the first affirmation. It does not seem illogical for an ethical position to involve a leap of faith. What seems unacceptable is to leap into a fairy tale:

In the interest of our own ideal of systematically unified moral truth … we … must postulate a divine thinker, and pray for the victory of the religious cause.

[William James, The moral philosopher and the moral life3]

James writes as if there is no alternative. Indeed it is a ‘forced’ option: EITHER the unbridled scepticism of the naturalistic hypothesis OR the leap of faith into the religious hypothesis.

Thinking like this seems stuck in a time-warp. On the other hand the alternative we need to refute James’s ultimatum may not be just any secular basis for ethics such as have been proposed over the centuries – like utilitarianism for example.

My own stumbling may get nowhere. But I am following a clue to see where it leads. The clue is in James’s phrase infinite and mysterious obligation [ibid.]. Does the infinite have to be mysterious? Does infinite obligation have to be mysterious? And in this context, doesn’t ‘infinite’ boil down to ‘universal’? I am also wondering whether the leap of faith itself in some way creates this universal perspective.

These are hardly completed thoughts. Which is the reason for proceeding carefully and tentatively. It is also why I wanted to start with a handful of ideas which are not my own, but which do seem to shed light on this idea of universality.

The first idea, that of the Precious Metal Rules (Any fool can make a rule; Precious metal rules OK?; Once more without feeling), seems as sound as it claims to be. The Rules do not claim to be the foundation of moral obligation, as they presuppose it. But I find them less exposed to ‘clever’ objections than clever objectors seem to imagine. I have not even begun to consider where they might come from. But they seem to work.

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant

The second idea, that of Kant’s categorical imperative (Once more without feeling; Categorically imperative), does claim to be foundational. Indeed, if both the Precious Metal Rules and the categorical imperative are sound, then the categorical imperative would explain why the Precious Metal Rules are sound and also where they come from.

The ingenious architecture of the categorical imperative articulates relationships between concepts like rationality, law and freedom which we intuitively understand as key to moral experience. I am not convinced however that Kant establishes that his various formulations lead to imperatives which hold categorically for all rational and autonomous beings per se, rather than, for example, just for all humans. But they have to hold for all rational and autonomous beings if the principle is to be the foundation of ethics. This is because the principle is deduced from the concepts of rationality and freedom – ie as a synthetic a priori truth – not from any a posteriori experience of what human beings happen to be like.

The third big idea I now want to discuss is unarguably a product of the a posteriori domain of science. It is the evolution of reciprocal altruism.

Read on


1 William Clifford, The ethics of belief, 1877.

2 William James, The will to believe, 1896.

3 William James, The moral philosopher and the moral life, an address to the Yale Philosophical Club, published in the International Journal of Ethics, April 1891.

© Chris Lawrence 2008.


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