There are some things that you can’t not know. For example, the holocaust is often used as the very quintessence of evil because you can’t not know that the Nazis’ murder of millions was evil. The holocaust was objectively evil. Now of course our materialist interlocutors cannot admit that “good” and “evil” are objective categories, and they frequently twist themselves into knots trying to elude the issue. But occasionally you will get a perfectly candid materialist. The commenter who goes by “nightlight” is one such.
In the comment thread to an earliest post nightlife and I argued about whether there is an objective basis for ethical standards. I argued from the “deontological” perspective that good and evil are real ontological categories. Nightlife argued the standard materialist line that good and evil are not real categories; that they are subjective manifestations of evolutionary adaptations.
Here is a snapshot of our exchange:
The only difference between the two types of ethics [i.e., deontological ethics and utilitarian/consequentialist ethics] is who evaluates ‘the greatest good’ utility function . . . In either case, the evaluation ends up working itself out in the built in biological pleasure-pain circuits and in both cases doing good feels good, doing evil feels bad.
You express your nihilism very candidly. . . I evaluate the holocaust as wrong only because contemplating the murder of millions triggers a pain circuit in my brain? No. The holocaust was wrong in the objective sense of word, and if I were the only person in the world who considered the holocaust to be wrong, I would be right and everyone else in the world would be wrong.
The cases of (war) atrocities, whether those from recent history or ancient ones, are result of different evaluations by the opposing sides in the conflict. Since there is no solution manual of the harmonization problem of the universe to tell you what is the ‘correct’ answer, one has to rely on the heuristics of judging them ‘by their fruits’ i.e. re-evaluating the ‘maximum total good’ after the consequences have worked themselves out.
What is the point of that sentence? The Nazis’ efforts to exterminate the Jews certainly resulted from a “different evaluation” than the forces opposing them. So what? Again, the holocaust was objectively evil. What’s more, [you know] it was objectively evil. And if [you say] otherwise [you are] a liar.
Speaking of incoherence, that would be incoherent, to say nothing of concluding that the ‘maximum good’ evaluation algorithm that just happens to be presently running in the tiny speck of the universe that contains ‘you’ already has The Solution. Lucky you. The gold medal must be on its way.
I will perhaps take you seriously when you admit that one cannot not know that the holocaust was evil. Until then, you are just another lying poseur with inflated views of his own intellectual prowess. And you are evil. You say the holocaust was the result of nothing but a flawed ‘evaluation’ on the part of the Nazis. One who will not stand up and say unequivocally that unspeakable evil is unspeakable evil is himself evil.
I didn’t say ‘flawed’ but ‘different’ from our present evaluation. They certainly didn’t think their perspective and methods were flawed. Eugenics, ethnic cleansing and deliberate mass slaughters of enemy civilians of any age were fine tools of the day in the ethical programs of the era, to them and to all others. The disagreements were merely about what the ‘purity’ meant, thus who needs to be ‘purified’ away to achieve the utopia.
[You] are a seriously evil (perhaps I should use a capital E) person. Anyone who can speak about the ruthless murder of millions with such insouciance doesn’t need an argument; he needs simple correction. Here, let me spell it out for you in words adopted to the meanest understanding: The ruthless murder of millions is evil. Spare us any more of your blitherings to the contrary.
Notice in particular my last comment. Nightlight does not need an argument; he needs simple correction. One cannot argue “for” first principles; one argues “from” first principles. This is true whether we are talking about first principles of mathematics (2+2=4) or thought (a proposition cannot be both true and false at the same time and in the same sense) or ethics (the Nazis’ murder of millions was evil). If nightlight will not admit a first principle it is literally senseless to argue with him.
For example, if he denied that 2+2=4, I could make no argument to try to demonstrate to him the truth of the proposition. If he denied the law of non-contradiction, I could not demonstrate the truth of the law by appealing to more basic principles. If he denies that the murder of millions is evil, I cannot appeal to even more fundamental ethical principles to try to convince him. I cannot argue with him. I can only correct him (and attempt to shame him into admitting the obvious).
Please do not misunderstand me. When I say that first principles cannot be demonstrated this does not mean that I believe they are possibly wrong or subject to being refuted. I mean they are the bedrock upon which all arguments are based. As C.S. Lewis explained in The Abolition of Man:
you cannot go on ‘explaining away’ forever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.