DiaBlogue: The Ethical Trilemma

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Having finally Found: Two Goalposts, which I support and he denies:

I. Ontological dependence on an omnipotent, benevolent Deity as the ultimate source of virtue and truth
II. Epistemic dependence on received Scripture as a reliable indicator of divine will

Alan and I can now turn our attention to pursuing answers rather than merely seeking questions! I’ll start with the first one, where I assert:

I. Belief in a transcendent moral purpose for the universe is as well-justified and essential for social inquiry as belief in the transcendent mathematical nature of the universe is for scientific inquiry.

Note that in (I) I am merely trying to establish the meaning and relevance of Deity — what might be called Strong Deism — not full Theism.To be sure, Alan has implied in the past that he doesn’t object to deism per se, but his response implies that he sees no need for this kind of deity.

Obviously, I do. [Read more] to find out why…

To start, let me make a couple of things clear. I readily accept that:
I. Atheists are not intrinsically immoral. It is an easily observable fact that many self-proclaimed atheists (such as Alan) in fact lead more ethically defensible lives than many self-proclaimed Christians (cf. certain medieval popes).
II. It is possible to construct useful ethical systems without explicitly invoking God. In fact, I find many admirable qualities in A Secular Humanist Declaration and “What an Atheist Ought to Stand For”, two sources Alan is fond of quoting and which I presume reflect his personal beliefs.

Further, I think Alan and I both agree that certain thing are objectively “good” (or at least demonstrably “better” than others), and that it is possible to rationally explore these questions. Right, Alan?

Where, then, do we disagree?

The short answer is that the atheistic ethics I’ve seen feel a bit to me like Aristotelian physics: useful and well-thought out as far as they go, but lacking the sort of deep grounding we’ve expected from physics since Newton established a coherent mathematical foundation for physical inquiry.

Put another way, I can readily see why atheists might (and do) believe in such noble ethics as above, but I’ve never been quite clear why it is not equally possible for them to believe in something else.

In particular, I’ve yet to see a rational system that can fully address what I call “The Ethical Trilemma.” The Trilemma arises in trying to identify the greatest good. That is, what is the destination of virtue — the thing sought for itself — as opposed to those things which are merely good in relation to something else.

Building on Alan’s earlier statements, and other ethical systems, I see three potential candidates for things that are “inherently good”:

A. Belief in truth
B. The welfare of society
C. Personal happiness

These could be formulated in terms of three competing categorical imperatives:

A. I ought always to act so as to maximize my ability to believe/obey truth
B. I ought always to act so as to maximize the good of others
C. I ought always to act so as to maximize my personal happiness

Given these rough (but hopefully still meaningful) definitions, the Ethical Trilemma is simply this:

How can we reconcile these three competing ethical claims?
I would hope it is obvious that these three principles are at least prima facie in conflict: that is, though sometimes all three are in happy alignment, it is fairly easy to construct scenarios (“moral dilemmas“) where this is no apparent way to resolve the tension between competing imperatives. In fact, I believe Alan already alluded to such, when discussing [link?] whether it was better to investigate the habits of snails or save a drowning neighbor.

This is more than an academic exercise. I would argue that this in fact the problem which every political, religious, and ethical system has to solve; and further, that a failure to adequately address this question becomes the ultimate cause of a system’s mortality.

As far as I can see,there are only three possible responses to the trilemma:

i. Moral relativists deny that anything is (or at least can be known to be) absolutely good, and that so-called “inherent” goods are all really just “relative to social, cultural, historical or personal circumstances”
ii. Affirm one or two, and deny the other(s), the way some Romanticists deny Truth, Egoists deny Love, and Altruists deny Happiness. To be sure, they may pay lip service to the missing leg as an “indirect beneift”, but when push comes to shove they are willing to sacrifice it for the sake of the others
iii. Make the ontological assertion that all three are ultimately always aligned, and it is only our imperfect understanding that creates the illusion of conflict.

This third option (iii) is aesthetically the most attractive, but it is an enormously strong statement. It basically asserts that the multitude of biological, psychological, and evolutionary forces responsible for humanity are fundamentally compatible with the scientific, philosophical, and intellectual investigation of the ultimate nature of reality — even when there appears to be strong evidence for conflict!

To me, (iii) is an ethical assertion equivalent to the modern belief in the unitary nature of physical law. That is, all physicists fundamentally believe that at some deep level general relativity and quantum mechanics must be reconcilable to a common mathematical “theory of everything” — even though we have no tangible proof that such a theory exists, or must be comprehensible to human minds.

So, the questions I have for Alan are:

a. Do you accept my formulation of the Trilemma as a meaningful question?
b. Might you phrase it differently, but still accept the fundamental tension between these three?
c. If so, how (if at all) do you resolve that tension?
d. If you choose (iii), do you have any rational basis for that belief?
e. Do you have any empirical evidence for the viability of your approach?
f. Do you see why I consider (iii) equivalent to asserting a “transcendent moral purpose for the universe” —

Sorry for the deluge of questions, but this Trilemma has been bugging me for several months, and I’m dying to hear Alan’s answers. Over to you, Alan.

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