Uncommon Descent Serving The Intelligent Design Community

L&FP, 48m: The legitimate authority of knowable moral truth in service to justice, thriving and prudence


In the current thread on an unfortunate event with a newborn, there is an exchange of comments:

BA, 45: Suppose the overwhelming majority regarded dumping newborns in dumpsters as good. Would it then be good?

Sev, 56: Presumably, it would be good in the minds of the majority who approved of it. It would not be a good thing from my perspective.

This, of course reflects the core relativist thesis that rejects objective, warranted, generally knowable moral truth, and so I commented, 57: “thereby hangs the fatal error of relativising and undermining knowable, warranted, objective moral truth reducing it to clash of opinions backed by power. Justice evaporates.”

Such brings us back to a core issue, legitimate, morally anchored authority (thus, too, leadership and especially reformation leadership). As Dallas Willard remarked in his 2010 talk, associated notes (and he has said much the same elsewhere):

What is knowledge and what does it do? Knowledge is the capacity to represent something as it is, on an appropriate basis of thought and experience. It and it alone confers the right and perhaps the responsibility to act, direct action, formulate policy and supervise its implementation, and teach. This helps us see what disappears along with “moral knowledge.”

We may compare Plato, 2360 years ago, in The Laws, Bk X:

[The avant garde philosophers and poets, c. 360 BC] say that fire and water, and earth and air [i.e the classical “material” elements of the cosmos — the natural order], all exist by nature and chance, and none of them by art . . . . [Thus, they hold] that the principles of justice have no existence at all in nature, but that mankind are always disputing about them and altering them; and that the alterations which are made by art and by law have no basis in nature, but are of authority for the moment and at the time at which they are made.-

These, my friends, are the sayings of wise men, poets and prose writers, which find a way into the minds of youth. They are told by them that the highest right is might, and in this way the young fall into impieties, under the idea that the Gods are not such as the law bids them imagine; and hence arise factions, these philosophers inviting them to lead a true life according to nature, that is, to live in real dominion over others, and not in legal subjection to them [–> nihilistic will to power not the spirit of justice and lawfulness].

We may thus see that evolutionary materialism is ancient and has consistently opened the door to nihilistic, lawless factionalism when it has become a dominant strain of thought. It is inherently relativistic and amoral (having no IS that can properly ground OUGHT), opening the door to to the twin notions that might/manipulation makes ‘right’ — the nihilist’s credo — and that authority of whatever ‘moral’ or ‘justice’ principles are prevailing in a given time or place is a matter of power and associated manipulation. So, naturally, it invites the ambitious to engage in lawless factionalism to gain power to move the community as they will. Where, the same will extend to fellow travellers who may not actually adhere to outright evolutionary materialism but enable it.

Further, kindly note: the issue here is not whether communities or civilisations “have clay feet.” In a world where we are finite, fallible, morally struggling and too often ill willed, that will inevitably be a challenge. The issue is, instead, that we are addressing an ideology and its fellow travellers that in principle undermine legitimate authority, justice and knowable moral truth. In short it is anti-civilisational.

Lewis Vaughn similarly notes:

Cultural relativism is the view that an action is morally right if one’s culture approves of it. The argument for this doctrine is based on the diversity of moral judgments among cultures: because people’s judgments about right and wrong differ from culture to culture, right and wrong must be relative to culture, and there are no objective moral principles. This argument is defective, however, because the diversity of moral views does not imply that morality is relative to cultures. In addition, the alleged diversity of basic moral standards among cultures may be only apparent, not real. Societies whose moral judgments conflict may be differing not over moral principles but over nonmoral facts. Some think that tolerance is entailed by cultural relativism. But there is no necessary connection between tolerance and the doctrine. Indeed, the cultural relativist cannot consistently advocate tolerance while maintaining his relativist standpoint. To advocate tolerance is to advocate an objective moral value. But if tolerance is an objective moral value, then cultural relativism must be false, because it says that there are no objective moral values. Like subjective relativism, cultural relativism has some disturbing consequences. It implies that cultures are morally infallible, that social reformers can never be morally right, that moral disagreements between individuals in the same culture amount to arguments over whether they disagree with their culture, that other cultures cannot be legitimately criticized, and that moral progress is impossible. [Doing Ethics, 3rd Edn]

Here is a picture of my wider context:

That, is, I am concerned that the marginalisation of generally knowable, warranted truth about duty to right conduct etc can help pave the way for lawless ideological oligarchy. As a needed reminder, here is George Orwell warning, in the voice of Winston Smith in 1984, on doublethink:

To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself—that was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word—doublethink—involved the use of doublethink.

No sane person wants to go there, no community imagines it could end there, but that is precisely what happened with the big dictatorships of the last century.

In The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge, Dallas Willard observes:

One can easily see why it has been thought we would do better to
have knowledge of the moral life. In any area of human activity, knowledge brings certain advantages. Special considerations aside, knowledge authorizes one to act, to direct action, to develop and supervise policy, and to teach. It does so because, as everyone assumes, it enables us to deal more successfully with reality: with what we can count on, have to deal with, or are apt to have bruising encounters with. Knowledge involves assured truth, and truth in our representations and beliefs is very like accuracy in the sighting mechanism on a gun. If the mechanism is accurately aligned—is “true,” it enables those who use it with care to hit an intended target. Correspondingly, if our representations and beliefs about virtue and duty are accurate, one might think, that would enable us to succeed in doing and being what is right and good—though it would not guarantee that. This would be a desirable outcome. (No one, regardless of their theories, finds just any and every thing in human character and behavior acceptable.) Furthermore, if we know that those representations and beliefs are accurate, we will count on them, effectively communicate them to others, and—in the light of them—successfully coordinate our efforts toward the right and the good. This is how things are in every area of human endeavor. How could it be otherwise in moral matters?

So, it is pivotal that restore confident access to objective, generally knowable, warranted truths about right conduct etc, especially branch on which we all sit first principles such as the Ciceronian first duties of responsible reason:

1st – to truth,
2nd – to right reason,
3rd – to prudence [including warrant],
4th – to sound conscience,
5th – to neighbour; so also,
6th – to fairness and
7th – to justice
[ . . .]
xth – etc

As has been noted, these duties are readily recognised as self evident due to their branch on which we sit first principle character. The objector (as we have seen so many times here at UD) is found to be already appealing to them to gain persuasive traction, as would be the one commending a proof (which appeals to 1, 2, 3). It is not wise to saw off the branch on which one is sitting . . . and on which the whole civilisation sits, too. But of course, mere common good sense will never deter the determined ideologue or hyperskeptic; we duly note that such exist, correct for record out of decent respect for the watching world and move on. Where, the yardstick cases such as a kidnapped, sexually tortured and murdered child (heartlessly destroyed for “fun”) or the holocaust should suffice to show relevance of such duties.

Going further, we must recognise these principles and the underlying legitimacy of moral knowledge and its legitimate authority if we are to have sound reformation. END