Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Something FLG Was Thinking About Today

I'd far rather debate somebody whose entire argument is the Bible says so than somebody who views their position as self-evident. If somebody says they are for or against something because the bible says so, well there's a text and body of thought to which one can turn. If somebody asserts that something is a self-evident right, and that's that, then there's no real room for maneuver there. Moreover, too often the failure to recognize the self-evident right shuts off all debate and the accusations begin because failure to see the self-evident right is somehow a character or moral flaw.

Granted, the benefits of having a text to turn toward come with the constraint of the content of the text itself, but I vastly prefer that to the alternative.

8 comments:

Andrew Stevens said...

It depends on how complex the self-evident proposition is, doesn't it? I do believe some very basic moral principles are self-evident, but they are very basic. Virtually nobody disagrees with them, except those people who claim to disagree with them, but always act as if they were true anyway, and people who genuinely do have moral or character flaws (e.g. psychopaths).

For example, I would never argue that there is a self-evident position on abortion or the death penalty or any other issue of controversy, since this clearly isn't true, but I would say that it is self-evident that "torturing a small child just for the fun of it is wrong." If you claim not to believe this, I have to conclude that you are either lying, seriously confused, or a psychopath.

For myself, I find it tedious to argue with people who claim to not accept obvious bedrock principles like the basic laws of logic or very basic moral principles. If someone is simply going to deny any premise, no matter how obvious, then, as Aristotle said, he might as well subside into a vegetative state in which no assertions whatsoever can be made. I'm not even sure what the purpose of such an argument would be. Here is how it would go, I suppose:

Me: "Ripping a baby from its mother's arms, throwing it in the air, and catching it on a bayonet is wrong."

Him: "Why is it wrong? What reason do you have to believe that?"

Me: "It's obvious, isn't it? Why do I need a reason?"

Him: "You have to have a reason for believing something or it's just an arbitrary assertion."

Me: "What reason do you have for believing that?"

Him: "I don't know. It's just obvious, isn't it?"

I don't know of any other way for it to go since nobody has ever given me a reason why I need a reason to believe something obvious.

For what it's worth, I don't regard any rights as self-evident, though I do believe you can arrive at them through more basic moral principles and then reason your way up.

Also, what does "room to maneuver" have to do with the quality of an argument? You mean that a good argument should leave you free to continue to believe something false? Because I'm pretty sure I can't get behind that.

Andrew Stevens said...

It depends on how complex the self-evident proposition is, doesn't it? I do believe some very basic moral principles are self-evident, but they are very basic. Virtually nobody disagrees with them, except those people who claim to disagree with them, but always act as if they were true anyway, and people who genuinely do have moral or character flaws (e.g. psychopaths).

For example, I would never argue that there is a self-evident position on abortion or the death penalty or any other issue of controversy, since this clearly isn't true, but I would say that it is self-evident that "torturing a small child just for the fun of it is wrong." If you claim not to believe this, I have to conclude that you are either lying, seriously confused, or a psychopath.

For myself, I find it tedious to argue with people who claim to not accept obvious bedrock principles like the basic laws of logic or very basic moral principles. If someone is simply going to deny any premise, no matter how obvious, then, as Aristotle said, he might as well subside into a vegetative state in which no assertions whatsoever can be made. I'm not even sure what the purpose of such an argument would be. Here is how it would go, I suppose:

Me: "Ripping a baby from its mother's arms, throwing it in the air, and catching it on a bayonet is wrong."

Him: "Why is it wrong? What reason do you have to believe that?"

Me: "It's obvious, isn't it? Why do I need a reason?"

Him: "You have to have a reason for believing something or it's just an arbitrary assertion."

Me: "What reason do you have for believing that?"

Him: "I don't know. It's just obvious, isn't it?"

I don't know of any other way for it to go since nobody has ever given me a reason why I need a reason to believe something obvious.

For what it's worth, I don't regard any rights as self-evident, though I do believe you can arrive at them through more basic moral principles and then reason your way up.

Also, what does "room to maneuver" have to do with the quality of an argument? You mean that a good argument should leave you free to continue to believe something false? Because I'm pretty sure I can't get behind that.

Andrew Stevens said...

Sorry for the double. Hit the Back button on my browser.

FLG said...

Andrew:

I agree. I'm not arguing that there aren't self-evident truths. It's just that, as you said, you need to reason your way up to political issues. Most self-evident truths have limited political ramifications in and of themselves.

Andrew Stevens said...

That's why nobody disagrees with you in the comments. Here I was looking forward to a good debate and you just turn around and agree with me. (Perfectly fair. I thought there was a chance you were just being overly general in the post.)

The Ancient said...

To be fair, there are wildly different sorts of biblical citation. If someone starts talking to be about the inerrancy of the Old Testament, I don't know what to say to them.* If they shrug away chronological inconsistencies in the New Testament, I tend to agree. It's only when people start cherry-picking scripture to justify this or that political position as a moral absolute that I get genuinely nervous. (Because with the NT, it's really all or nothing -- though here, too, there is considerable disagreement. I believe the usual term for this is "Episcopaleanism.")
____________
*I prefer the former Cardinal Ratzinger's formulation: "Myth, legend, and primitive reportage."

P.S. If you take The Didache seriously as a statement of Christian belief, there is not a lot of wiggle room on certain questions.

P.P.S. I remember a dinner party decades ago where half a dozen women, feminists to the last man, were reduced to sputtering rage by someone's suggestion that while life "obviously" began at the moment of conception, it wasn't "sacred." (No one gives up theological cover without a fight.)

P.P.P.S. Andrew Stevens -- What if one tortures a small child for religious reasons? The Carthaginians, perhaps, or the Aztecs? Do you think that is self-evidently wrong?

Andrew Stevens said...

Wrong, but not self-evidently wrong.

Andrew Stevens said...

By the way, as far as I know neither society actually practiced child torture though both are alleged to have practiced child sacrifice. With the Carthaginians, it is contentious that they ever had such a practice. I know some historians believe it is a blood libel propagated by their enemies, the Romans.

The Aztecs, as far as I know, mostly sacrificed captives, not their own people, with the exception of one sacrifice a year to Tezcatlipoca and it was considered a great honor. This is a stickier situation since the Aztecs would probably agree that it's wrong to sacrifice Aztec children. The major difference between ancient morality and modern morality isn't so much the content, but to whom it applies. Practices which would be completely unacceptable if practiced against one's own people were viewed as perfectly justified if practiced against foreigners.

 
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