thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Fabulously absolute #3

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We are edging closer to the point.

That point being of course the concept of an absolute God which is both a metaphysical God and an ethical God. Your typical monotheistic God in fact. (See Fabulously absolute #1 and Fabulously absolute #2.)

Personally I do not think such a God (or any God) exists. But that’s not the issue for this discussion. The issue is whether the concept of such a God is a good thing. I think it is a bad thing.

The reason is connected to the is-ought question: can an is imply an ought? Is it OK to say: Because x is the case, you ought to do y or be z?

John Searle

John Searle

There is a library of philosophical literature on the is-ought question, beginning at least as far back as the passage from David Hume’s Treatise quoted last time. A bit more recently John R Searle’s How to derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’ sparked a small inferno of response and counter-response.

I am not yet sure I want to come down hard and fast on Hume’s side. I suspect he may be right, but I don’t know if it can be convincingly demonstrated that it is never possible to derive an ought from an is. What I do think though is that if you do think it’s possible to derive an ought from an is, you need a sound justification – and I have yet to come across one.

Searle’s argument is effectively that you can get from a statement about what ‘is’:

(1) Jones uttered the words ‘I hereby promise to pay you, Smith, five dollars.’

to a statement about what ‘ought to be’:

(2) Jones ought to pay Smith five dollars.

Well, big deal. I don’t think this was quite what Hume had in mind. I think Hume was thinking more of:

God created the world. Therefore we ought to worship God.

Or perhaps less grandiose:

I am your father. So you ought to do as I say.

Searle’s statement (1) is either ‘serious’ or not. If Jones seriously meant what he said, then – perhaps subject to a few more conditions – by saying those words he placed himself under an obligation.

Jones didn’t have to be ‘serious’. He could have been telling a joke. It could have been a line from a play. Perhaps he was learning French or German and had been asked to translate a ‘promise’ construction into English.

If he was ‘serious’ though he was placing himself under an obligation. If he was not ‘serious’ then he was not placing himself under an obligation. In order to derive statement (2), statement (1) has to be interpreted as Jones placing himself under an obligation to pay Smith five dollars.

Smith is also a player in the piece. Statement (1) must be taken in context. Jones must have uttered the words in Smith’s hearing, and Smith must have understood English well enough. Or other people heard what Jones said and relayed the promise to Smith. Smith must have been justified in hearing (or hearing of) Jones’s words as a genuine promise to pay him five dollars.

Immanuel Kant

If Smith was justified in hearing the words as a genuine promise, but Jones later maintained that he had not been serious, then either Jones was guilty of deception or carelessness, or the whole episode was a genuine misunderstanding. To qualify as a genuine misunderstanding there needs to be a sound justification that clears Jones of guilt. In short: statement (1) puts us in an ethical domain.

It is no coincidence that promising, and telling the truth generally, are paradigm cases of ethical behaviour that seem to suit Kant’s categorical imperative formula down to the ground:

Always act in such a way that you could also will that the maxim on which you act should be a universal law.

For more on this see Three wise mentalities. The point for now is that as soon as we talk about promising, and telling the truth generally, we are in an ethical domain. So although ‘Jones makes a promise to Smith’ could be described as a statement about what ‘is’, it is a statement about what ‘is’ in the ethical domain – like ‘Fred is under an obligation to Joe’ or ‘Richard Nixon is guilty’.

‘Is’ sentences like these are in this respect very different from ‘The sun is hot’ or ‘The cat is on the mat’, which are completely outside the ethical domain.

Searle’s statement

(1) Jones uttered the words ‘I hereby promise to pay you, Smith, five dollars.’

is therefore not a purely ‘is’ statement from which we can derive the ‘ought’ statement:

(2) Jones ought to pay Smith five dollars.

Richard Nixon resigns (1974)

Richard Nixon resigns (1974)

Both (1) and (2) are in the ‘ought’ domain.

This one example does not of course prove it is impossible to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. But if this is the kind of argument we have to counter, it looks as if the burden of proof is on those who think you can derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, not on those who think you can’t.

So what does all this have to do with God?

Well, quite simply that your typical ethical-cum-metaphysical absolute monotheistic God is a perfect example of a conjoined is-ought.

The conjunction could be of the ‘is-therefore-ought’ kind, eg:

God created the world. Therefore we ought to worship God.

I’m only using ‘God created the world’ as an example of a metaphysical statement about God here. (See Fabulously absolute #1 for what I mean here by ‘metaphysical’.) I am not assuming all believers who entertain the concept of an ethical-cum-metaphysical absolute monotheistic God believe their God created the world. I am only assuming there is at least one metaphysical statement or attribution about God which each one would accept. I could have said for example:

God is that in which ‘we live, and move, and have our being’. Therefore we ought to obey God.

Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz: The Creation of the World

Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz: The Creation of the World

If the conjunction isn’t ‘is-therefore-ought’, it could be ‘is-and-ought’, eg:

God created the world. And we ought to worship God.

God is that in which ‘we live, and move, and have our being’. And we ought to obey God.

My position is this. As far as the concept of an ethical-cum-metaphysical absolute monotheistic God is concerned I do not think the ethical attributions can be derived from the metaphysical attributions. Someone who did think God’s ethical attributions derive from God’s metaphysical attributions would have to come up with a convincing argument.

So (my position is that) the conjunction is of the ‘is-and-ought’ kind. The absolute monotheistic God has a metaphysical dimension; and he, she or it also has an ethical dimension. The two attributions are distinct, and they may or may not be compatible.

Because the conjunction isn’t ‘is-therefore-ought’, it is ultimately arbitrary. Because of the nature and power of the attributes which are arbitrarily joined together, we arrive at a concept of God which can be dangerously tyrannical.

‘Can be’ – not necessarily ‘is’. The tragic irony is that the concept of an ethical-cum-metaphysical absolute monotheistic God is only safe in the hands of good people – the very people who should not really need it.

To be continued…

© Chris Lawrence 2010.

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Written by Chris Lawrence

17 July 2010 at 11:04 am

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