Saturday, August 29, 2009

johnemack said back

Posted by JohnEMack31 of 36 warn tnr respond

A few thoughts on Mr. Basman's critique of my posting. The main difficulty I have with it is that it assumes what needs to be argued. He says "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." They are certainly proof against certain kinds of tyranny. But what is the source of our concern about those forms of tyranny? After all, millions of people live under governments which most Americans would consider tyrannical in Basman's sense, and appear to like it.

So an important source of our abhorrence for these forms of tyranny would seem to be historically contingent. One of these historical contingencies is religion. I am not sure that Basman and I disagree on the proposition that most of our ethical precepts are historically conditioned. We do not reason about our ethical obligations from a blank slate, and religious injuctions are an important part of what is written there. But it sometimes becomes necessary to question such injunctions -- otherwise ethics and morality would never change. When that happens, we need to employ broader principles, and thinking about them is the job of philosophical ethics.

I used primitive utilitarianism as an example of a set of principles which might help to bridge the gap between theory and praxis, but there are others, such as deontic ethics, preference theory, theological absolutism, etc. But I stand by my broader point that ethical practice is dependent upon ethical theory, that this dependency involves a mechahnism for converting theoretical principles into "rules of thumb" which are analogous to positive law, and that religion is one of the more important of such mechanisms. This is not (necessarily) to claim it is a very good one. But it is possible that all sources of ethical theory rest on foundations which are ultimately arbitrary, whether they are religious or materialistic or something else. If so, Coyne's critique of Wright is as problematical as Wright's own analysis.

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