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We disagree because we disagree

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Rod Dreher has some interests thoughts and link roundups to the idea of Natural Law, by way of explaining how non-religious people need Natural Law to construct a rational foundation for ethics. I think Hume is right on this:

Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

The major problem here is that Christians (and other theists and believers in a fundamental metaphysical system) stand upon their hill, and explain how they have a grounding already. The problem is that they don’t. Saying you have a Ground of Being, and constructing complex narratives and philosophical systems around your assertion, does not a Ground of Being make. If you presuppose that God exists and define God as the Ground of Being, you have a word game. You may believe that this is a rock solid argument, but it is totally ridiculous to someone who rejects the premise of the word game.

This comes up in situations where Christians may object that atheists have no foundation for their morality, how can they justify their morality? But the question can be turned around, because atheists don’t believe Christians have a foundation for their morality either, and they are moral, and make justifications. Christians believe they have a foundation, but a belief in a fundamental fashion does not constitute reality. Concepts are not so concrete. This of course is a philosophical issue. If you are a Platonist of some sort you actually do believe that concepts are concrete! In sum, even the idea that you have a rational Ground of Being is a matter of faith.

The point of this post isn’t to convince anyone, rather, it’s to clear up some misunderstandings which often crop up. This issue is not limited to discussions between atheists and theists. Many atheists themselves cede to Christians the proposition that they have a Ground of Being, while atheism negates that possibility. Where I object is that this shifts the ground rules in a manner Christians are liable to win because the idea of something is transformed into the tacit reality.

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  • John · February 27, 2013 at 12:42 am

    I’m not sure that when Hume said this he was denying the existence of a rational grounding of ethics. He was simply saying that emotions are the way to “keep score”. For instance, Benthamite utilitarianism is a pretty self-consistent point of view, but it is explicitly hedonistic; it counts happiness as an end in itself. So Bentham would agree that the point of reason is to satisfy the passions, but I’m not sure he would agree that his philosophy was not rationally grounded.

    I’m not a Benthamite, but if he and I have irreconcilable views, reason seems to me to be the best way to try to determine who gets his way. It’s either that or force. Nobody has come up with a third way.

    Yes, it would be nice if we could be tolerant and let each other go our own way, but most people’s views are intolerant in the sense that to be moral, I have to perform positive acts that will appease their sense of morality. President Obama thinks that I have a responsibility to pay for other people’s health care. I cannot simply tolerate that view and do nothing. I either have to pay the money, persuade others to overturn the law, or take up arms.

  • Mark English · February 27, 2013 at 12:57 pm

    Christian belief is normally based on faith, and Christians readily admit this. Even the believer in some form of natural law does not necessarily try to base it on reason. It’s often an intuitive thing (quasi-religious?).

    As I see it, the believer in God or natural law is basically saying two distinct things: 1) I believe in God (or natural law); and 2) If God (or natural law) is real then ethics has a supernatural (or, in some sense, spiritual) grounding. (This second point seems quite defensible to me, though I happen to reject the premise.)

    With respect to your point about Christians (from the atheist’s point of view) not really having spiritually-grounded ethics but only believing they do, a false belief is quite real enough to affect behavior. Nothing Platonistic about this.

  • Thursday · February 27, 2013 at 3:53 pm

    The point though is that you need a ground of being. ;)

  • j mct · February 28, 2013 at 4:43 am

    Natural Law is what a ‘natural philosopher’ studies. A ‘natural philosopher’ is what we would now call a scientist was called until about 150 years ago. ‘Natural Law’ could be replaced by ‘how the world works’ without losing any of it’s meaning. In addition, if one were to do a start to finish chain of reasoning that ends in ‘a married man should not try to seduce his secretary’, one doesn’t get to thinking about natural law until after one is done thinking about God. I do not think that an atheist would care about the natural law all that much, but that’s because I think an atheist couldn’t really be a non Epicurean, and the natural law doesn’t spit out Epicurus, it spits out Aristotle, in the sense that the natural law doesn’t care what pleases you. If one believes that that God is the creator of nature and it’s laws, then of course that means that God doesn’t really think how pleasant the lives of humans are is all that important, and that syncs nicely with Christianity too.

    An atheist I would think has ‘grounding’ right in front of him, the best life, what human thriving looks like, is the most pleasant one, and morality is a deal between hedonists where ‘the greatest pleasantness for the greatest number’ as Bentham, who is the guru for our reigning kings and queens of intellectual style though most of them do not realize it. If one takes this really seriously one ends up in strange places, and the natural law really really doesn’t like societies that have an Epicurean view of what a well lived life looks like, but it’s really the only place I think an atheist can go.

  • CJColucci · February 28, 2013 at 5:46 pm

    Given that humans are natural beings and have natural needs and desires, I suppose you could cobble something together that rationalizes rules of behavior that do a fair job of helping humans satisfy these needs and desires and call it Natural Law. But I don’t see that calling what you’ve cobbled together by a name with Initial Capitals adds real value. Given the variety of concrete circumstances in which you would be trying to formulate sensible rules and practices, outside of a few very basic ground rules, a wide variety of rules and practices would pass muster. As someone once said, there is no natural law of property, but it is natural that there be some law of property. There may be some use in referring the uncontroversial ground rules as Natural Law, though I doubt it, but you won’t be able to make progress on any genuinely contested moral issue by reference to the concept.

  • j mct · March 1, 2013 at 8:46 pm

    The place one might start with this is to figure out what the word ‘good’ and the word ‘bad’ mean. If you look in the dictionairy, or at least in mine, all one will see for ‘good’ is examples of it being used, and lists of synonyms, there isn’t a definition.

    When we use the word ‘good’ we are comparing whatever it is we are looking at to something perfect, in that if we say something good resembles the perfect more closely than something bad. If one were to tell a kindergartener to draw circles the best circle would be the one that most resembles the perfect/ideal/platonic circle that geometers reason about. In addition if one circle is better or gooder that another one it’s closer to perfect, and if a circle is as good as can be, then we say that it is perfect.

    The second thing about the word good, and one hates to use this word for it since analytic types have been poisoning the well here for about 100 years, is that the word used by itself is meaningless. Something that is good is necessarily a good ‘something’. When I taste some wine, and say ‘That’s good’, I’m saying it’s good wine.

    If one were to say something about this law or that law, as in ‘I think that this law can be improved’ one is necessarily positing a ‘perfect law’ against which legislation can be measured. This is the ‘Natural Law’. The natural law of course is that which yields ‘justice’ or a set of laws that maximizes human thriving.

    A judge interpreting statutes really doesn’t do ‘natural law’. For common law, the existence of natural law, or at least the assumption that there is a natural law, is essential. Say a judge has a novel case in front of him, like ‘should software IP be a patent or a copyright’, the Holmesian ‘the law is pretty much whatever the judge decides’ might do for the lawyers awaiting his verdict, but it will not help the judge at all. He has to posit a ‘Natural Law’, and his decision is his best guess as to what that is. Another ‘Holmesian’ dictum that is more right is that the ‘life of the (common) law is experience’. Sometimes, even if the judge is trying his best, he might get it wrong, and the experience from living under his bad (very imperfect) decision will show he got it wrong, and a common law judge is supposed to reverse or modify the precedent (improve it, bring it closer to perfection, i.e. the natural law) and the reason he’ll give for doing so is that the previous judge got the natural law wrong. Common law jurisprudence cannot work without natural law.

    You can see that all this requires a common view on what ‘human thriving’ means, I guess. I’ve gone on long enough, so, if I haven’t bored everybody to tears, I’ll add to this later.

  • John · March 2, 2013 at 4:28 am

    You didn’t bore me, j mct. Well said.



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