This looks like an interesting book: The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks. He delivered this year’s Science and Democracy Lecture at Havard University’s School of Design (see Learning to love the irrational mind | Harvard Gazette).
The other day, in More on the science of morality, I referred to a problem some philosophers have with understanding human morality. So these quotes from the report of the lecture appealed to me:
“In a wide-ranging talk, Brooks laid out the conclusions he found while searching for an explanation for ’this amputation of human nature’ in politics and everyday life. What he found, he said, is that scientists who study the mind, rather than theologians or philosophers, are yielding the most interesting answers to questions of what constitutes character, ethics, and virtue.”
And, according to Brooks:
’If we base policy on a shallow view of human nature … we will design policies that are not fit for actual human beings,’ he said. ’We will have child-rearing techniques which continue to underemphasize the most important things in life. And we will have moral discussions that will remain vague and inarticulate.’
Definitely another book I will have to read.
Circular theological arguments
Local Christian apologists have tried to outdo each other with their partisan reviews of the recent debates between their hero, WL Craig, and Lawrence Krauss and Sam Harris. Interesting that they feel the need to debate scientists to justify their god beliefs.
However, Matt Flannagan, from the blog MandM, provided a nice little example of the sort of circular arguments theologians get into in their attempts to offer a divine foundation for human morality. He wrote:
“Goodness is best understood in terms of an exemplar, that good is identified with the perfect paradigm of a good person and that the goodness of everything else is measured by its resemblance to this paradigm. An analogy to this idea is the official ’metre stick’ that exists in France today. The metre stick is exactly one metre long, and the length in metres of every other length is determined by comparison with it. In the same way, God is both perfectly good and is the standard of goodness for everything else. . . . To claim God is good is to claim that he is truthful, benevolent, loving, gracious, merciful and just, and that he is opposed to certain actions such as murder, rape, torturing people for fun and so on.”
So humans have designated a standard metre. At one period this was defined by the distance between two lines on the International Prototype Metre kept at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures near Paris, France. In 1960 the metre was redefined in terms of the wavelength of light emitted by the krypton-86 isotope. And then in 1983 in terms of the speed of light. (I wonder if theologians have bothered updating their god as the standard of goodness over the years?)
Just as the International Prototype Metre was defined as the standard for a useful measurement unit by humans our theologian has defined his god as a standard defined by humans for useful human moral values. This theologian has, along with most people, concluded that honesty, benevolence, mercy and opposition to murder, rape and torture are good human values. So he has invented an artificial “person”, an “International Prototype Good Person,” to enable calibration!
But notice – this theologian knew these human values were good well before he constructed his prototype. The same the rest of us know these values are good – because they are based on human nature. As I said in Foundations of human morality humans are effectively wired for The Golden Rule.
For the life of me, though, I can’t see why this theologian needs to define an “International Prototype Good Person.” Values are qualitative, not quantitative. It’s not as if we have to transfer a measurement from one person to another. Morals are not like height or girth.
If we already know what is good, and use that knowledge to define a fictional good person, so that we can then use that fictional character to find out what is good aren’t we needlessly creating a middle man? And don’t all middlemen exploit the rest of us by clipping tickets, taking a percentage or a tithe?