Sunday, November 28, 2010

Moral axioms

Hector Avalos has attempted to cobble together a response to my “Help me! Help me!” post. So let’s review some of his responses:

I. Framing the Argument

It’s important to be clear on how Avalos chose to frame his original reply. For my response to Avalos is pegged to the terms of his argument. This is how he put it:

The first one is easy to refute because Triablogue just doesn’t seem to understand even the basics of relativist ethics. Moral relativism does not deny that logic operates once you have accepted the basic premises of your ethics. Moral relativism affirms that while the initial premises of any ethical system cannot be established by absolute rationales, one can still evaluate whether an ethical system is logically following the initial premises one affirms.

Avalos is an avowed moral relativist. And as he just defined his own understanding of moral relativism, he is in no position to judge another person’s “basic” or “initial” ethical “premises.” These enjoy an axiomatic status.

He can disagree with another person’s ethical premises, but he can’t hold another person to his own ethical premises. For that would require a belief in universal norms which transcend individuals or subcultures. In moral relativism, morality is relative in time and place. Relative to your own culture or in-group.

All he can do is venture a “factual observation” (as he puts it elsewhere) regarding the degree to which another person is logically consistent or inconsistent with that person’s ethical premises. He can’t offer a moral evaluation which is binding on a second party who doesn’t share his ethical premises.

In technical terms, Avalos is endorsing agent relativism rather than appraiser relativism. The salient standards are the standards of the party we are judging rather than the standards of the party rendering the judgment.

For instance, in a social contract there may be rules of behavior that apply to the contracting parties that don’t apply to outsiders.

II. The Allegation

This is what he’s accused us of doing:

In that sense, it is wrong for Triablogue to claim that they represent honesty if their definition of honesty entails telling people how they will use e-mails on their blogs. If honesty means that you represent yourself factually to someone from whom you are trying to extract an opinion, then we can certainly say that Triablogue did not act in accordance WITH THEIR DEFINITION OF HONESTY.

Notice that he doesn’t quote our definition of honesty. Rather, he seems to impute to us his own definition of honesty, then accuses us of a “flagrant ethical violations.”

To make his case, Avalos has to do two things:

i) Accurately state where we think our Christian duties lie.

ii) Show that we have violated our Christian duties, as we ourselves define them.

Unfortunately, Avalos hasn’t done either one.

III. Ethical Axioms

1. Disambiguation

Avalos has a bad habit of lumping together Steve Hays, Paul Manata, and Triablogue as if these were interchangeable entities. But I’m not Jason Engwer or Peter Pike or Paul Manata or Patrick Chan. They may or may not share some or all of my ethical premises.

2. Setting the Bar

I’m going to state my ethical premises–at least the premises which seem most relevant to the issue at hand. Once again, let’s be clear on how Hector has framed the argument. As he himself has cast the issue, it’s not incumbent on me to defend or justify my ethical premises. He can’t challenge my ethical premises. At most, he can venture a “factual observation” regarding the degree to which my conduct is logically consistent or inconsistent with my ethical premises.

3. Public Truth

i) Avalos seems to have a proprietary notion of truth. He apparently views truth as private intellectual property. Different property-owners hold the title-deed to different parcels of truth.

That attitude not surprising given his elitist, authoritarian viewpoint. He’s a college prof. In his world, the prof. is the social superior, while the student is his social inferior.

Therefore, the intellectual property owner must give permission for the use of his private intellectual property. A student must seek and obtain permission to quote his social superior.

More than that, a student must declare what he intends to do with these proprietary truths. He must also furnish a list of his associations for the professor to inspect. If a student belongs to the “wrong” association, then he should not be granted access to these proprietary truths.

This reminds me of the history of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Different archeologists discovered different scrolls. They then acted as if the scrolls belonged to them. They would only share the scrolls with their protégés. They willed “their” scrolls to their protégés. Other scholars were not allowed to study “their” scrolls. You had to be an heir to have access to the scroll.

ii) By contrast, I generally view truth as a public commodity. Except for God, no one “owns” the truth. No one holds an exclusive copyright to the truth.

iii) There are some practical exceptions. For instance, certain truths (e.g. military technology) can fall into the wrong hands. So it’s appropriate to classify certain truths.

Likewise, there are situations in which there’s a justified expectation of privacy. That, however, needs to be carefully defined and qualified (see below).

4. Concentric Social Obligations

i) I believe that some social obligations are general obligations. They apply across the board.

But I believe that other social obligations are specific to the type of social relationship. We have some obligations to a friend that we don’t have to a stranger. We are indebted to a friend, or vice versa, because we’ve done favors for each other.

As such, it’s possible to betray a friend in a way that’s not possible for a stranger. For friendship involves an element of trust. And trust is earned (as the saying goes). As such, it’s possible to betray a friend’s confidence. You can only violate someone’s trust in a trusting relationship. Moreover, that expectation is warranted given the nature of the friendship.

ii) That doesn’t necessarily carryover to other relationships. For instance, an undercover cop can’t properly betray the confidence of a mobster, for the mobster has no right to swear the undercover cop to secrecy.

You have to cross a higher threshold to justifiably breach the confidence of a friend.

So one consideration in “privacy rights” in the relationship between the two parties. That’s not the only consideration, but that’s one of the salient considerations.

5. Content

Whether or not disclosure constitutes an ethical violation also depends on the nature of the content. Publishing somebody’s private health records would generally be unethical. However, there are exceptions. For instance, a guy who suffers from narcolepsy shouldn’t operate a train.

6. Deception/Concealment

i) Sometimes concealment is deceptive. However, concealment is not inherently deceptive. There’s no general obligation to exhaustively state our intentions.

Take a whistleblower or undercover reporter. He is motivated to obtain inside information which will expose a criminal enterprise. But he has to conceal his intentions to successfully infiltrate the syndicate.

ii) There are also situations when deception is both permissible and obligatory. Take the textbook hypothetical of the Nazis who knock on your door, demanding to know if you are harboring Jews.

iii) BTW, in (1-6), my position is not another version of moral relativism. I’m not saying that what is right for one culture is wrong for another. To the contrary, we have the same obligations in the same types of situations. While obligations sometimes vary from one situation to the next, the obligations are invariant in a given type of situation.

7. Different agendas

There are many situations in which the intentions of the speaker may differ from the intentions of the questioner, and that’s perfectly appropriate. Take a homicide detective who is interrogating the suspect. The intention of the suspect is to avoid volunteering any incriminating admission. By contrast, the intention of the detective is to trick him into divulging an incriminating admission. To trip him up so that he will inadvertently say more than he wants to let on.

Or take the following illustration. Suppose a bright young atheist wants to write a devastating philosophical critique of Christian theism. Pursuant to that objective, he takes courses from Peter van Inwagen. He does so because he wants to master the most philosophically sophisticated exposition and defense of Christian theism. He also makes full use of Prof. Inwagen’s office hours to closely question the professor on what he believes and why he believes it.

On the one hand, the student doesn’t lie about his intentions. He doesn’t tell Prof. Inwagen that he’s a devout Christian whose ambition in life is to become a Christian apologist.

On the other hand, the student doesn’t volunteer his ulterior motives. He doesn’t say why he’s asking these questions, or what he plans to do with the information.

Has the student atheist wronged Prof. Inwagen? I don’t see how. Frankly, it’s none of the good professor’s business why a student poses a question.

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