Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The value of values

Daniel Morgan said...

“I would argue that:
1) Values and goals are not capable of being fulfilled unless we survive
2) Noble values (the virtues) and goals which confer benefits to self and others (such as meeting needs and desires) ought to be fulfilled and practiced
3) The ability to do what ought to be done is dependent upon survival
4) Therefore, we ought to survive, and foster survival in others around us.”

Sorry, Daniel, but this won’t fly:

1.You seem to be using survival as a first-order value which is justified as a precondition of second-order values (noble values/virtues).

But this only relocates the original problem. What’s the secular warrant for second-order values?

2.Moreover, obligation attaches to actual agents, not to nonentities. If there were no human beings, then there’d be no obligations for human beings to discharge.

You might as well contend that birth control is intrinsically evil because it preempts the existence of moral agents who would otherwise come into being.

But we have no automatic obligation to nonentities or unexemplified possibilities—to what might have been, but never was. We can’t very well deprive or defraud nonentities of something they never had in the first place.

3.Furthermore, you maintain your failure to prioritize personal survival over collective survival, or vice versa. Which is it, and how do you justify priorities in case of conflict between the two? Who goes down with the ship?


  1. Moreover, obligation attaches to actual agents

    How? With suction cups?

  2. Thanks, Ted.

    You never fail to rise to your level of mediocrity.

  3. So, obligation does not use suction cups? How then does it "attach to actual agents"? Scotch tape? Superglue? Covalent bonding? Electro-static cling? Little fingers? How?

  4. 1) I'm confused as to how there is "secular vs Christian" warrant. Perhaps I misunderstand your position Steve, but you seem to imply that certain levels of proof/evidence/support are necessary in one worldview, and different in another, with special pleading.

    If X is necessary for Y, and Y is a normative ethic, then X is subsumed as a part/component of Y. Thus X becomes a necessary means to the ethical end.

    In considering your position, this would be akin to God's command to "keep the Sabbath" -- the means of which are not working, but on any other day of the week, not working is not an ethical imperative. Context and necessity exist within your ethical framework and I see little value in labeling "secular vs Christian".

    2) Survival of existing life cannot be equivocated as an "obligation" to reproduction or nonentities.

    3) THis is a very good question. I have been reading a little bit on social contracts, and it appears to me that any tenable ethos is set up such that individual rights and freedoms are established as a foundation upon which societies and social contracts are framed. In this sense, we a priori rule against the infringement of basic rights (life, liberty, property), unless the person forfeits their claim to the protection of the contract by breaking its terms (breaking a law).

    Now, we can get bogged down in particulars about questions of "eminent domain" or the trolley car problem. In cases where we have no choice but to lose life, or lose property, and the question is "how much, and how many", then I suppose one word is key -- minimal.

    Do you want me to reinvent the wheel of utilitarian thinking? I can't. In cases where an individual may die in order to save many others, we would have to get specific. Does the individual have a choice? What is the dilemma? Whose responsibility is it for getting into the dilemma? If you want me to answer these questions, it would probably be futile for me to generalize, as I attempted to do above. Let's get down to the "nitty gritty"

  5. Steve and others,

    I have been on the "defensive" in justifying foundational tenets of a non-theistic worldview for a while now.

    What I would love to see is the Christian solution and justification to the Trolley Car Problem, or in Steve's dilemma, the sinking of the Titanic.

    I find it hard to believe that you can extract some sort of "Biblical support" for these dilemmas with more surety than I possess for non-Biblical ethical approaches.

    Regarding the sinking of the Titanic -- there is only room for two on a rescue raft, and a father, mother, and child will perish unless they jump aboard. Does the father sacrifice himself? The mother? According to the Bible, the man is the "head" of the family, but does this imply that he is responsible to take the fall, or that the woman is subservient and of less value? Should the man sacrifice the wife, since women are treated as baby factories by most of the OT ethic? (I esp. love Num 31:17 where non-virgin women are worthy of death but virgins are kept as "spoil") If the man is ultimately responsible for the child's welfare, shouldn't he be the one to go on and make sure it is raised properly?

    Does everyone act altruistically at all times? Is this practical, or reasonable?

  6. PS: I should say, that you can extract Biblical principles which are not subjective to your interpretation, or arbitrarily exclude certain verses or passages in favor of others.

    Since I'm basically going it alone against a lot of you, I may have to step back the posting soon.