Saturday, August 29, 2009

I said:

JohnEMack's post #21 provides an entry way to a few thoughts on ideas that Wright and Coyne share. There is no difficult ethical question "Will killing Mr. X result in the greatest good for the greatest number?" And that question bears no substantial relation to the precept "Thou shall not kill." The question is utilitarian. The precept is moral. The codification and application of the precept are ethical and legal.

Religion is not "the source" of ethics or law. To take part of Wright's argument, not disputed by Coyne, religion was, and now in some places and instances may be, an instrumentality for the translation of the accretions of lived experience into guides for life and into legal principles and rules. That is part of a materialist account of law that Coyne and Wright agree on. Historical actuality precedes religious belief.

That said, in societies rendering unto Caesar, secular reasoning is precisely the means of creating law and religious belief has no part to play. Secular reasoning in the creation of law is not problematic as such (or, put differently, not necessarily problematic) though there are lots of examples of tyranny in Caesar-rendering societies. But we can, as do Coyne and Wright, identify liberal ideals and values, set out for example in the American Constitution and the comparable documents of other liberal democracies, which, if heeded, are proof against tyranny.

These ideals and values are hardly flimsy in their content and they are not reducible to "the greatest good for the greatest number". They include notions of the rule of law, equality before the law, due process, freedom from social arbitrariness and cruel and unusual punishment, rights of property, civil liberties, security of the person, privacy and other civil rights and liberties. It is facile to ask "why we should care". We obviously do care and take these ideals and values to be of the utmost importance. There is really no head scratching about their significance.

To get back to Wright and to Coyne, it is wrong headed to say "The problems is that secular reasoning is no more a necessary or a sufficient guarantor of good behaivor than theological reasoning is. And at least religious grounding for such behavior has some historical basis". As they are both materialists, they both say, as noted, experience precedes religion. Theological reasoning flows from the premises of material actuality which then get reified and institutionalized into dogma. (That is, by the way, inherently and necessarily problematic and to be distinguished from secular reasoning.)The "historical basis" is not, as the statement suggests, a proven track record. It is in fact the material conditions that both Wright and Coyne look to which precede, inform and modify religious belief-the ".claim that theology is malleable to social forces" as Coyne puts it agreeing with Wright.

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