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The Subjection of Women

February 10, 2013

Following my last post, another issue that came up that was interesting was the question of a sort of relativism: if someone is content with their situation, who are we to judge that it is bad?

In a little more detail, the problem is as follows. Say that someone is born into the bottom of the caste system in India. We may judge that the caste system is a bad thing, as it systemises discrimination, leads to extreme problems relating to things like marriage outside the caste, and generally contributes to limiting the well-being of individuals via the accident of birth. The counterargument is that many people are content with their lot – they are born into the caste system, do not consider it a bad thing and help to perpetuate it. If we judge it to be a bad thing we are either being paternalistic or just plain wrong. It can’t be bad as we can point to someone who is affected and is content (I will call this person Bob).

The argument certainly seems attractive at first glance. We don’t want to say that there is only one way to live “the good life”. Indeed, the good life would seem less attractive if everyone we encountered was interested in exactly the same things as us. So, maybe the caste system is just another form of the good life, which Bob exemplifies.

The answer to this is as follows. While there are different forms of the good life, it is not the case that Bob’s contentment means that (s)he is living one of them. Indeed, Bob may be part of a system that is helping to perpetuate the means by which Bob is being held back from the good life.

This was pointed out by John Stuart Mill in 1869 in The Subjection of Women. In a utilitarian argument, Mill argues for equality of the sexes. He notes a possible counterargument of the form above:

But, it will be said, the rule of men over women differs from all these others in not being a rule a rule of force: it is accepted voluntarily; women make no complaint, and are consenting parties to it.

Western readers cannot fail to agree with the fact that for many (but not all) women, the system of inequality was accepted voluntarily. As Mill goes on to point out:

All men, except the most brutish, desire to have, in the woman most nearly connected with them, not a forced slave but a willing one, not a slave merely, but a favourite. They have therefore put everything in practice to enslave their minds. The masters of all other slaves rely, for maintaining obedience, on fear; either fear of themselves, or religious fears. The masters of women wanted more than simple obedience, and they turned the whole force of education to effect their purpose. All women are brought up from the very earliest years in the belief that their ideal of character is the very opposite to that of men; not self will, and government by self-control, but submission, and yielding to the control of other. All the moralities tell them that it is the duty of women, and all the current sentimentalities that it is their nature, to live for others; to make complete abnegation of themselves, and to have no life but in their affections.

Society made it such that women came to belief that there position in society was that that made men superior. They became “willing slaves”. This does not mean that their situation is good! If we accept that women should not have been treated thus, surely we should accept the analogous argument relating to the caste system?

Another point worth noting relating to their lot is this:

a great number of women do not accept it. Ever since there have been women able to make their sentiments known by their writings (the only mode of publicity which society permits to them), an increasing number of them have recorded protests against their present social condition

Women had been arguing vocally for some time in favour of improving their conditions. We could note Mary Wollstonecraft arguing for the education of women 100 years before Mill wrote. Mill was continuing this tradition, and pushing it further. While Wollstonecraft argued that women should be educated to make them better at their “womanly” roles at home (with some nods towards further emancipation), Mill argues that they should be educated to give them the chance to be mens equals in life, not just at their “complementary” roles to those of men. We can find similar examples of arguments against the caste system. Not everyone is content.

These are just two lines of argument relating to the idea that contentment with life implies we shouldn’t criticise the conditions of that life.There are also arguments about rights and about different forms of the concept of equality. But those would fill another couple of posts, so I’ll leave them for now!

Logical Preconceptions

February 3, 2013

Some interesting conversations recently have brought up some issues that are worth thinking about in detail. The first is this: what preconceptions do we bring to an argument, either in discussions with others or when engaging with a book/article?

The context in which I started thinking about this was an argument over atheism. I was told that I only sought out arguments that agreed with my preconceptions, in this case that there is no god or gods. This is a serious accusation, and the closed-mindedness that it implies is something that many religious communities are accused of on a regular basis.

Luckily the book I had in my hand at the time was a prime example of why this doesn’t apply – it was arguing for religious agnosticism, a position that I find very unsatisfying. That said, the book was giving me food for thought and making me reassess the grounds on which my own beliefs are formed. There’s also the fact I spent a term reading a lot of theology – not exactly a close-minded reading list for me.

Having said all that, I wanted to add what preconceptions I do bring to arguments, or at least those preconceptions I’m conscious of. At the time, I could only think of a short list:

  1. An argument must be logical; and
  2. Any proposition must be backed up by evidence, which I take to mean the broad claim that there must be sufficient reasons to think that the proposition is true (this could be physical evidence, scientific consensus, a decent argument, and probably a number of other evidences).

This seems like a decent list to me. There are some minimal requirements for an argument to precede, and I think this list embodies them. Other ideas I take into an argument, such as the idea that there are no gods, are not fixed premises, but propositions which are very secure given my background beliefs and as such have a higher burden of proof for someone wishing to persuade me of their falsity. The important difference between my fixed preconceptions and these beliefs is that without the preconceptions I do not think rational discourse is possible.

All of which leads me to a question I was asked in an argument recently: what do I mean that at argument must be logical? A gut reaction to this question is to reject it – we all know what it means to make a logical argument, and to call this into question is to open up our discourse to a form of relativism that I don’t really want to imagine, with people deploying different “logics” when needs must.

But on reflection there are some interesting thoughts to have here. In what follows I draw on a Rationally Speaking podcast that I happened to have listened to recently.

A logical argument is, to my mind, an argument that we can express in the form of a valid deductive argument, with a conclusion following from a set of premises. The deductive argument may be modified slightly to proportion the probability of the conclusion according to the probability of one or more premises being true, but the general form remains.

An important tool in my armoury of “logical” arguments would be that a proposition p cannot be true at the same time as it’s negation, ¬p. We cannot contradict ourselves. This seems clear… but it isn’t necessarily the case that a logical system requires this. There is a view in logic called dialetheism, which says that it is possible for p and ¬p to be true at the same time.

Consider the liars paradox, the sentence “this statement is false”. If the statement is true then it is false. If it is false then it is true. Intuitively the response to this statement is to say that it is nonsense – the contradiction that is implicit in it renders in meaningless. Meaningless could be seen here to be in opposition to notions of truth – a statement is true, fales or meaningless. Another response is dialetheism. We say that the liars paradox is both true and false. There are a number of other responses, which I won’t go into here…

Having said this we have a problem. In classical logic it is a well-known fact that if we are given two propositions p and ¬p we can use them to prove any arbitrary statement q. q could be the statement 1+1=3, which is provable based on the premises “the sun is made of cheese” and “the sun is not made of cheese”. The truth of any statement, no matter how obviously false, can be established based on a paradox. This is a problem known as explosion – everything, including contradictions, becomes true. This leads to the problem that, while the dialetheist might want a particular p and ¬p to both be true, they don’t want every contradiction to be true – they want to control the explosion of truth.

To deal with this problem we would need a paraconsistent logic. This is a logic system that in some way says that contradictions don’t explode. For example. we could have a requirement of relevance of premises to the conclusion. As the substance making up the sun is not relevant to the nature of mathematics, the example given above would not hold.

What all this calls into questions is the idea that an argument must be logical in an intuitive way – there are forms of logic in which contradiction is accepted, and a carefree bandying around of such technical terms as used above calls into question the very foundation on which our discourse is built.

The solution to this problem now seems obvious – we should avoid these technical terms. The answer to the question “what do you mean by logic” is this: informal logic. Informal logic analyses how we argue in “natural language”. It doesn’t deploy technical concepts from logic except to clarify the logic that we actually use when arguing in everyday settings. If we rely on informal logic we have the full classification of logic fallacies to deploy when encountering bad arguments and, importantly, the principle of non-contradiction!

This may seems circular. An argument is logical if it is logical. But this is not the case. The argument is that and argument is logical if it follows a certain set of rules,those laid out in informal logic. We are not allowed to use logical fallacies in an argument for the reason that classical logic, as it applies to the language in which we argue, says that they do not imply the truth of a conclusion given the premises.

There are important settings for formal logical systems, but our everyday discourse and argument is not one of them. We should deny people the ability to muddy the waters with the dirt of relativism. A statement about god, about homeopathy or about history cannot be both true and false. There are standards of conversation, and that is one of them.

Altruism and morality

January 24, 2013

I’m reading Philip Kitcher’s The Ethical Project. He starts off by defining altruism, which brought to mind a problem with the use of altruism (or, similarly, sympathy) as a basis for an ethical system. If this will be a problem confronted by Kitcher I don’t know, but here is the objection.

Kitcher defines three types of altruism:

  1. Biological altruism is behaviour that is detrimental to ourselves but that helps ensure the spread of my genes. Consider rescuing a sibling from drowning but yourself drowning in the process. You share genes with your sibling and as such have helped ensure their survival.
  2. Behavioural altruism is behaviour that is detrimental to our immediate desires but that helps fulfil the desires of others (as we perceive them). This may or may not be for the sake of the other; we may behave altruistically in the belief that it will be reciprocated at some future point in time, hence the behaviour is not other-directed.
  3. Finally, psychological altruism is defined as behaviour that is different from it would be were the other involved (and their desires) not present, that is aligned with their desires in some way, that is caused by consideration of their desires and that is not motivated by self-directed concerns. Psychological altruism is what we usually think of when we discuss true altruism.

Psychological altruism intuitively seems like a good thing. We would hold someone who acts on the basis of psychological altruism as morally praiseworthy. It may be tempting therefore to attempt to formulate an ethical system around this altruism. Perhaps we could say that psychological altruism is necessary for moral action. This is similar to the claims made by Mercer, Darwall and indeed George Eliot in relation to sympathy.

Here’s the problem as I see it. In an ethical system we want to be able to say whether particular actions are good or bad. This can be in relation to our own actions or the actions of others. For the former, we could imagine asking ourselves what the altruistic thing to do is. So far so good. However, in the latter case, how do we know that someone is acting with psychological altruism? The actions performed by the psychological altruist could be identical to those of the behavioural altruist.

What distinguishes psychological from behavioural altruism is the final condition that action is not motivated by self-directed concerns. Without perfect knowledge of the motivations of an agent we can never know if this is the case. We know what our own motivations are (well, this could be debated, but for the sake of argument let’s assume it’s true), but we can only form beliefs, impressions, ideas about what the motivations of another may be. We can only form tentative conclusions about the type of altruism exhibited by another.

Where this leaves us is only being able to say “their action was probably good” or something similar. Is this really what we want from an ethical system? It’s a similar objection to that made to theories of virtue ethics. While consequentialist and deontological theories allow an objective assessment to be made of an action, virtue ethics is vague and hand-wavey. We want an ethical theory to give us concrete results, and an ethics motivated by altruism doesn’t seem to be able to supply it. It can’t differentiate between actions performed for self-directed reasons and those performed for other-directed reasons except in theory, and hence seems to fail.

Arguing with Literalists

January 15, 2013

Two fun chats to have with biblical literalists, and the lessons they should learn from each.

What the the Ten Commandments?

Lesson: Read the Bible! It doesn’t always say what you think it says…

The ten commandments are found in Exodus. Every good literalist will know that. But what do they say? Exodus 34 (NIV) reads thus (apologies for the long quote):

10 Then the Lord said: “I am making a covenant with you. Before all your people I will do wonders never before done in any nation in all the world. The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the Lord, will do for you. 11 Obey what I command you today. I will drive out before you the Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 12 Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land where you are going, or they will be a snare among you. 13 Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherah poles.14 Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.

15 “Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land; for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to them, they will invite you and you will eat their sacrifices. 16 And when you choose some of their daughters as wives for your sons and those daughters prostitute themselves to their gods, they will lead your sons to do the same.

17 “Do not make any idols.

18 “Celebrate the Festival of Unleavened Bread. For seven days eat bread made without yeast, as I commanded you. Do this at the appointed time in the month of Aviv, for in that month you came out of Egypt.

19 “The first offspring of every womb belongs to me, including all the firstborn males of your livestock, whether from herd or flock. 20 Redeem the firstborn donkey with a lamb, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem all your firstborn sons.

“No one is to appear before me empty-handed.

21 “Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest.

22 “Celebrate the Festival of Weeks with the firstfruits of the wheat harvest, and the Festival of Ingathering at the turn of the year.23 Three times a year all your men are to appear before the Sovereign Lord, the God of Israel. 24 I will drive out nations before you and enlarge your territory, and no one will covet your land when you go up three times each year to appear before the Lord your God.

25 “Do not offer the blood of a sacrifice to me along with anything containing yeast, and do not let any of the sacrifice from the Passover Festival remain until morning.

26 “Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the Lord your God.

“Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.”

27 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenantwith you and with Israel.” 28 Moses was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments.

“Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk”? Since when is that one of the ten commandments we hear so much about? But these are the ten commandments – indeed, Exodus 34:28 is where we get the phrase “the ten commandments” from (“decalogue”, from the greek in the text). While Exodus 20 does contain a list of ten rules to be followed they’re not named as the ten commandments.

They may be separate lists of rules, so the Exodus 20 version is to be read in conjunction with Exodus 34, but then we have redundancy (Exodus 34:17 – “Do not make any idols”), surely not to be expected from a god. Alternatively it could be the case that the original version is wrong – Exodus 34 records the words written by God, while Exodus 20 is, as far as I recall, relaying what God said, presumably from the memory of Moses. Maybe Moses remembered wrong. Or just made it up.

Either way, the ten commandments are not what people think they are. Exodus 34:28 is pretty explicit: these are “the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments” (emphasis added).

The doctrine of election – are we all predestined to go to heaven?

Lesson: Individual verses should be read in context!

This is a fun discussion to have. See if you can persuade the literalist that your interpretation of Ephesians 1:4 is correct, then throw Ephesians 1:12 into the mix.

Predestination is the idea that we can do nothing to determine whether or not we go to heaven; God as already “elected” us for heaven or damned us to hell and there is nothing we can do about it. A favourite doctrine of Calvin for instance. This causes problems for some people, especially in these more liberal times when we really don’t want to say that people can’t go to heaven based on their good works and beliefs unless God chose them. So maybe a doctrine of universal election is called for? Everyone has been elected to go to heaven! One justification for this is taken to be Ephesians 1:4, which says:

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.

Karl Barth uses this passage to say that humans are elected, not just a subset elect. He chose us. He chose us in him. “He” refers to God, “him” is a reference to Jesus – see the next verse. Jesus was elected by God after taking on the sins of mankind, not just a chosen few. This is an integral part of the whole crucifixion story. Therefore, by electing “in him”, God elects us all. Obviously Barth develops this over more than a few sentences, but the thrust of the argument is clear.

So, we conclude that universal salvation is possible. But… Ephesians 12 (in context) says:

11 In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.

Herein lies the problem. The “us” in Ephesians 1:4 is the same as “we” in Ephesians 1:12, and these are those “who were the first to put our hope in Christ”, that is, Christians (and possibly only early Christians at that).

So, now the literalist either has a contradiction between two verses from Ephesians, or they have to reconcile non-universal election, the vicarious substitution of the sins of mankind by Jesus and Ephesians 1:4. Fun.

Does life have a meaning?

January 13, 2013

Over Christmas I found myself thinking about the meaning of life. This was started by a document prepared by the Templeton foundation on the question “does the universe have a purpose?”, which I found via Jerry Coyne.

After reading this the question I found myself stuck on wasn’t so much “what is the meaning of life?”, but rather “what does it mean for life to have a meaning?” This is a very different question. As a liberal atheist I think that life can take a variety of meanings, some possibly of better value that others, but nevertheless differing between individuals. “What is the meaning of life?” therefore should actually be phrased as “what is the meaning of my life?”. This is obviously an important question that we should all reflect on from time to time, but before we can do so, what does it mean to have a meaning or purpose to life?

A clear starting point is to set out some definitions. The best I could initially come up with is as follows. A “life” is a series of actions and events performed by and centered around one person. For this life to have “meaning” means deciding what one values and shaping the actions and events in life around that value. “The meaning” of life is the value chosen as it relates to the person involved (so for instance “love” isn’t the meaning of life, but “loving my family” could be). “Purpose” could therefore be understood as the end of realising this value in life.

There are some interesting questions raised by these definitions. An obvious objection to them is the emphasis on deciding, on the autonomy of the individual to define the meaning of their own life. We would probably not wish to say that the person who centers their life around stealing has a “meaningful” life. This implies that there may well be some requirement for an external check on whether or not the “meaning” of a life is a good one. If we consider someone for whom life consists (voluntarily) of solitary confinement repeatedly reading the complete works of Plato, they certainly have a meaning to their life under my definition above, but viewed from our perspective it is hard to say that their life is “meaningful” in any concrete way. My definitions probably need to be revised to allow for some influence of external factors.

This brings me to the real problem that caused me pause for thought. We are often told by religious believers that without a god life can have no meaning. What I want to know is, does this make sense?

The value that we decide should be the focus of our life can obviously point to something external to us. In the religious case, the value might be “serving God”, where the believer thinks that God is some “entity” separate from themselves. In my more secular example above, loving my family would obviously direct the value I seek away from me to my family. So, the value that choose to shape our lives and actions can be external to us.

However, does it make sense for the importance of that value to ultimately be imposed on us by an external entity? For this is surely what the religious believer means when they say that without a god life can have no meaning. It is only because God exists that life can have meaning, implying that God either dictates what is valuable in life or makes what is valuable good (there could be multiple “good” values, only one of which is able to give life meaning because chosen by God).

There are a number of points to notice about this statement. The first is that it seems susceptible to a Euthyphro  style argument: is a particular value meaningful because God says it is, or does God say it is because it is meaningful? If the latter then we have an independent means of assessing the value of a life. If the former, all the standard arguments relating to divine command theory can be deployed. I will note one point here.

Consider a person who consistently acts in a particular way the results of which are widely deemed as being “good”.We would hold them morally praiseworthy if they did so of their own volition, but not (or at least less) if they acted as a result of being compelled to do so by another. The free choice to perform an act adds a moral dimension to the action that is missing when the choice to perform the action is imposed externally. Surely a similar consideration holds for choosing the value associated with life’s meaning?

Again, we appeal to the concept of autonomy. If I have not autonomously chosen the value according to which I will shape my actions throughout life, isn’t the worthiness of that value diminished? I think so, as this would mean that the important thing in the life being considered, the person living it, is overridden and of secondary importance. Autonomy does not imply that no considerations external to the person are taken into consideration, but without the free choice of value I would say that life loses meaning to the person living it, and therefore any meaning worth talking about.

These are obviously thoughts that need to be developed, but they are at least a starting point.

Philosophy vs.Theology

January 10, 2013

After a (very) long hiatus, I’m going to try to get back to some semi-regular writing…

When I tell people I have studied both philosophy and theology, the two subjects are often lumped together in an unintended way. A stylised conversation of the sort had with a fellow atheist goes like this:

Me: I find philosophy really interesting, but theology despite being very clever, doesn’t have much useful to say.

Other: Philosophy doesn’t have anything interesting to say that’s relevant to real life: both philosophy and theology are “ivory tower” academic disciplines that don’t impact anything important. Both can largely be ignored.

Me: [Struggles to find reasons justifying the usefulness of philosophy]

Philosophy and it’s practical implications are reduced to the level of theology, only relevant to those interested in it. In a similar fashion I find that theists will do the reverse – they will increase (in my opinion) the importance of theology until it is on the same level as philosophy, to be listened to when deciding what to believe in the religions sphere.

The implication is that if I dismiss theology for being esoteric or divorced from any form of usefulness, others are justified in dismissing philosophy for the same reasons. I obviously disagree with this conclusion, so want to try and use this post to clarify my thoughts on the differences between philosophy and theology, which I think are very real.

A quote from On What Matters by Derek Parfit serves as a useful starting point for this discussion. In a discussion of works by Kant he says that:

‘Consistency’, Kant writes, ‘is a philosopher’s greatest duty.’ That is not true. Originality and clarity are at least as important.

While both philosophers and theologians can be consistent and original, of the two only philosophers can display true clarity at the same time as making statements that we can examine rationally in order to learn the truth or falsity of that statement. For me, philosophy has the aim of clarifying our thought, making us aware of the grounds of our beliefs and forcing us to rethink them if they turn out to be groundless. In order to do this, philosophers aim to unpick what we think (and how we think). Having done so, they then move on to attempt to understand what exactly individual beliefs mean, how they interact, how they are formed etc. In particular, philosophy aims to make the definitions that we use when discussing ideas, morals, everything, as clear as possible.

I freely admit that some philosophers have a ridiculously obtuse style. Kant is the prime example of this (indeed, Parfit goes to say that Kant made obtuse writing fashionable in philosophy, not a debt to be proud of!) But consider philosophers such as Stephen Law, A.C. Grayling and Philip Kitcher, who write clear and lucid prose that in a few short pages can utterly change the way you think about a particular problem. This style of philosophy is philosophy at it’s best, and demonstrates that philosophy can be, and is, clear, accessible and important.

While philosophy seeks clarity, theology seeks to confuse. It is not hard to see why. With the advancement of both philosophical and scientific ideas that run contrary to religious claims, theology has had to move away from making empirical statements regarding the nature of the universe to making statements that are much less amenable to verification. Theology now has to make faith a virtue (I understand faith to mean belief without evidence, but this would be disputed by any number of different schools of religious thought. This is itself a problem – faith is a virtue but we don’t agree on what it is…) This leads to all sorts of problems, not the least of which is the amazing number of presuppositions that have to go into any theological argument. As I’ve written before, one of the biggest is that God (and in Christian theology the Christian God) exists. There’s also presuppositions about the privileged status of the Bible as a reference text, the nature of Jesus and any number of claims about the God whose existence is assumed.

Even ignoring these difficulties, theology for me has one insurmountable problem. It uses language in a way that is purposefully unclear. It does this (possibly unintentionally) by using everyday words in different ways than we would normally. Two example are metaphor and mystery.

What does the religious believer mean when they say “God loves you”? Does God love me the way I love my parents? My friends? No, we are told. God’s love for us is different from human love, and should be understood as a metaphor? But a metaphor for what? We have ways of understanding metaphors, but these don’t apply. If I said “you are my rock”, you understand both the features of the rock that I am probably referring to and what these imply about you – the rock is a solid, unmoving object that never gives way, much as you are always there for me and nothing can move you away. We understand the object, the subject and the relation between them. Not in the case of a metaphor about God though! At the end of the day the subject of the metaphor is indescribable, and the metaphor meaningless.

Next consider the phrase “God creates”. Does this mean creates in the way humans create? Is it analogous to creating, say, a watch? No, most theologians would answer. We might be told that God, outside time, creates “in a timeless way”. What does this even mean? We can pretend that it means something because the structure of the sentence makes sense, but as a concept, it is meaningless. We then have to take it that it is a “mystery”, something that God can do but that we cannot possibly comprehend from our limited perspective. Again, this renders the language meaningless.

Theology therefore displays the ultimate lack of clarity; words are reduced to meaninglessness, only appearing to mean something because they do so in our human existence. Theologians don’t invent words. They use words that we understand and we can fool ourselves that this understanding translates into an understanding of the subjects of theology, but it doesn’t. At the end of the day, theology is as meaningless as the language it uses.

I have said why theology is not the equal of philosophy, but it remains to be seen if philosophy is useful. Does philosophy have practical implications? Yes. As Russell says in his essay Useless Knowledge:

…action is best when it emerges from a profound apprehension of the universe and human destiny, not from some wildly passionate impulse of romantic but disproportioned self-assertion. A habit of finding pleasure in thought rather than in action is a safeguard against unwisdom and excessive love of power, a means of preserving serenity in misfortune and peace of mind among worries.

In our relationships with other people it is important that 1) what we believe about the world in which we find ourselves is correct; and 2) what we belief about the other (and what the other is feeling) is correct. This will only be the case if we are good at thinking, about ourselves and others and other beliefs. For this reason I strongly belief that when it comes to the ethics of belief truth as a goal that is good for it’s own sake. To quote Philip Kitcher:

Responsible action cannot proceed from beliefs that are adopted groundlessly, through wishful thinking, arbitrary choice, or through a “leap of faith.”

Out beliefs, if they are to guide our actions in a morally acceptable way, must be grounded in some way that makes them likely to be true. Philosophy can help us get closer to truth; theology only mires us in an impenetrable bog of metaphor and mystery.

George Eliot on God and the Good

November 7, 2011

For Mercy has a human heart,

Pity a human face;

And Love, the human form divine;

And Peace, the human dress.

The lines above, written by William Blake in his poem Innocence, are given to us by George Eliot at the opening of chapter 76 of Middlemarch. It is in this chapter that Lydgate confesses to Dorothea, and in which Dorothea promises to help Lydgate in any way she can. The emphasis they place on the human is striking, and they echo one of the central messages found throughout George Eliot’s work; that it is through human actions and human feelings that we see “good”, and that this good should be driven by feeling for our fellow humans.

In this essay I will look at the treatment by Eliot of the “good” and human righteousness, both in her fiction and in her critical writings. I will explore the relationship that she saw between the source of morality and its application, and discuss the place for God that Eliot had in this picture.

Read more…