On the Objectivity of Ethics

I’ve been teaching ethics to 7th and 8th graders this term, and it’s been quite an interesting – and sometimes a disturbing – experience.

Let me preface the rest of this entry by saying that I was raised in a Christian home and kept in constant exposure to the Scriptures for all of my formative years. Consequently, I picked up numerous biblical “modes of thinking” without always critically thinking them through. As I’ve taught these kids this term, I’ve been reminded of one of the most basic lessons I learned when I first started seeing that Chrisitianity has a serious intellectual side: the lesson that that as an adult it is enormously important to think through your faith.

What I’ve seen this term is that I myself “intuitively” know a great deal about biblical ethics, but because I never had occasion in my life to critically think through what I had picked up merely in the process of being raised a Christian, I have sometimes had difficulty making straightforward, rational presentations of ethical principles for the kids.

One issue I’ve had to examine in my own way of thinking is the simple fact that ethics is objective. If you were raised a Christian and kept in constant exposure to the Scriptures, you just know this is true even if you cannot articulate in logical syllogistic form why it is true. If you read and hear the Scriptures enough, it just gets “in your bones,” so to speak, so that the contrary idea (ethical subjectivism) doesn’t even make sense, let alone appear worthy of consideration. But how do you teach this to others, especially to children on the verge of turning toward adulthood?

On the one hand, you could stand up in front of 7th and 8th graders and just bluntly assume the posture of uncorrectability: your word is “law,” so to speak, because you are the teacher. They are the students, and they are there to listen to you because you know the subject. Your goal is to put it out there for their consumption; their goal is to pick it up from you and run with it. Up to a certain age level, you, being the adult, can just simply tell kids what to believe, and they, being wired by God as kids to do so, will simply believe you.

However, this starts to change around Middle School years, as the kids’ reasoning faculties start to develop and their lives become full of physical and emotional changes that make them question everything from their personal identity to the meaning of life to what they ought to be doing with their time and what they ought to be looking forward to in the future.

They start wanting to know why they should believe you. They start coming up with (sometimes unbelievably) sophistical counter-examples to anything and everything that you say, and acting as if they really are quite as knowledgeable as you, if not more knowledgeabe. They start acting as if they are put on this earth to correct all the stupid adults who don’t know anything about the world. They have a very difficult time understanding why something that they feel so deeply within themselves (and so right there on the surface of their consciousness) shouldn’t be the norm for their behavior. If you aren’t ready to rationally articulate what you “just know in your bones” to such kids, you might come across as not really knowing and thereby lose them. Simply assuming a posture of authority doesn’t work on this level. Only demonstration does – and even then, not always.

Anyway, some in my bunch of students are pretty mixed up about some ethical issues. It’s a Christian school, but not all of them are from Christian families – some are “refugees” from atrocious public school systems, and they have little to no biblical character formation. Others are members of rather Liberal churches, where it’s all about “love” and good feelings and (completely unjustifiable) optimism about human nature and activity. (For example, a few days ago I had two 12 year olds start lecturing me – I use that word deliberately – about how the Bible teaches that “love” is the most important thing, so therefore gay marriage is OK with God).

It’s in this context that I’ve had to do what I never had to do before: critically think about my own Christian heritage of ethics, and come up with solid, rational ethical arguments to present these kids so that, hopefully, they can be a little better prepared to face the increasingly ethically-obtuse world we live in.

Now here’s the point of this entry. It occurred to me the other day while I was thinking about how to rationally establish the idea that ethics are objective, not subjective, that one way to do this would be to parallel ethics with reason itself. In particular, reason is a set of principles about correct and incorrect thought. Among these principles is the law of noncontradiction, which states that “a thing cannot be itself and its opposite at the same time in the same way.” This principle is the very basis for the distinction between “true” and false,” for if this principle is itself not true, there is no way to distinguish “true” from “false.” The law of noncontradiction literally defines the distinction between “true” and “false.”

And here’s the kicker – the law cannot be proved or disproved, because all arguments that would attempt to prove it or disprove it would implicitly use it in their own construction. You literally cannot disprove the law of noncontradiction. Any disproof would conclude with the statement “The law of noncontradiction is not true,” but since the law itself defines what “true” is, the disproof would itself be false. The law simply has to be assumed, or we cannot do any thinking at all.

It occurred to me that a similar argument could be made about ethical objectivity. A person who wished to argue for any particular ethical statement would be arguing that that statement expressed an ethical good and forbade an ethical evil. But if one asked “What is good and what is evil?”, the only way to answer the question would be to assume an objective distinction between the two – that is, a distinction that was not merely subjective and thus open to questioning by other people.

The very idea that things called “good” and “evil” exist and that it is possible to meaningfully talk about them simply assumes a mind-independent standard of “goodness” and “evil,” and thus, it simply assumes ethical objectivity. Just as to say that subjectivism is the true ethical position assumes that the law of noncontradiction holds, so too to say that any particular ethical action is “good” or “evil” simply assumes ethical objectivism. If it does not assume objectivism, then the only thing we are left with is an endless regress of skepticism. Why should I believe the ethical subjectivist? Because she says so? If ethics really are subjective, who is she to tell me what is ethically good and act as if I am somehow bound to accept her view?

Ironically then, any argument for ethical subjectivism is fundamentally parasitic on ethical objectivism – and this involves the ethical subjectivist in a formal self-contradiction, which means that his ethical subjectivism is, to put it in one word, false. Trying to argue that ethics are subjective is every bit as vain and foolish a position as trying to disprove the law of noncontradiction in logic. The only conclusion open to the consistent rational mind, then, is that ethics are objective.

Now, I don’t imagine that I could say all of this in just this way to my 7th and 8th graders and expect them to understand it, but working through it for myself has been a very helpful exercise in “faith seeking understanding,” and, if I can somehow reduce it all to 7th and 8th grade levels, perhaps it might somehow help them think more clearly about ethics.

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14 Responses to On the Objectivity of Ethics

  1. Eric Parker says:

    Tim,

    Thanks for posting this. I will soon become (for the first time) a high-school teacher at a local Christian school and have wondered how to present the objectivity of Ethics – I’ll be teaching that course along with Bible and Church History. When we contemplate the world we not only have to strip away the material element in things but also the assumptions that we bring to the table. It’s always been difficult for me to engage in that sort of contemplation because I forget that I’ve always presupposed a sort of Cartesian epistemology – as most Americans do. If I have to assume objectivity then what good is it? Assuming is a bad thing right?

    Then I learned the Medieval definition of scientia and realized that Philosophy is more like Geometry than Modern Psychology. If you don’t know the formula you can’t work the problems, and if you contradict the formula you come out with the wrong answers. Of course, it’s more complicated than that but true nonetheless. I once used a line from Lewis’s Peralandra in trying to explain the futility of living a life of sin to a group of homeless guys. There’s a scene where Satan is tempting the Queen of Peralandra to go against Maleldil’s [God's] will. She replies, “to step out of Maleldil’s will is to step into nothingness.” That whole scene where Satan tempts her and Ransom tries to intercede might help explain the objectivity of good and evil. Everyone knows that those who seek pleasure as the summum bonum end up looking less than human. Anyway, I know it’s easier said than done … suppose I’ll find out soon enough.

    Pax Christi,

    Eric

  2. Brian says:

    This is a subject I’ve been thinking about this week under similar conditions to your own. My online Global Politics class was discussing “Human rights” and many people thought they were merely culturally determined. Since in my view human rights have to do with moral rights and responsibilities I tried to turn the discussion to show that the moral order is objective and not culturally determined. Unfortunately, my only resources on the subject were the first part of C.S.Lewis’s _Mere Christianity_ and _The Abolition of Man_. clearly I need to do more reading on the subject. Thanks for your post and consider posting your 7th grade version later for the rest of us!

  3. Bret Saunders says:

    Tim,
    You are right about the difficulty of dealing with children in the logic stage. However, I wonder about the “objectivity” of the LNC and other so-called rational ‘axioms.’ Does the Trinity contradict the LNC? Insofar as each person is a relation-with-another, ie the son is being-generated-by/from-the-Father, etc. The Son is only “himself” insofar as, in the words of Von Balthasar, he receives his entire will, his “I” from the Father. Therefore, the Son is only himself by not being himself, by not being for himself or self-identical. With respect to this issue, sicne we are imagines dei shouldn’t our reasoning be based on Trinitarian “logic” or Aristotelian logic?

  4. Tim Enloe says:

    Bret, I haven’t read von Balthasar, so I can’t interact with your representation of him.

    However, I am not sure that the LNC is “Aristotelian.” I was taught that it was just basic logic. Nor do I understand what you mean by “Trinitarian” logic. I don’t suppose that God expects us to think about Him by violating the only criteria that make it possible for us to have intelligible thoughts.

  5. Tim,

    I think you prove the opposite of what you hoped to. As you appear to admit: We can and do talk using meaningfully the words ‘evil’ and ‘good’ and do so without committing ourself to any form of Platonist – or otherwise – ontology. The words clearly mean without the philosphical addition. The biblical texts hardly support your paradigm. You do not have a cogent argument here. Neither does Wilson, or Craig. Hitchens does.

  6. Tim Enloe says:

    Not sure what you mean, Michael. At the very least, I intended to be saying that even without an explicit commitment to an ontology, the true ontology necessarily operates in the background as we talk about ethics. I have not read Hitchens, so I do not know what his argument is.

  7. Thanks for the reply. Faith seeking understanding indeed – contemporary philosophical fundamentalist faith seeking understanding at any rate, and I wish you all the luck (I do not use the fundy word as an insult here). To ellaborate: Following apologetic American tradition, you assume a false alternative between an extreme form of objectivism and an extreme form of subjectivism – I do not accept either. What is important is how we naturally use the words ‘good’ or ‘evil’, what we mean by them, which is not dependent on any abstract principles of objectivity. You make a similar mistake for our notions of reason and rationality. As far as the real world goes, reason is a process. Reason is not a set of principles – the set of principles is the later – dubious at times – pedagogical attempt at classifying and systematizing. It seems as though ‘mind-independent’ is getting used a little too freely here as well. What about “that is red and not blue” or this is “a really fine cigar”? Talk of justice and truth lead to the same temptation. As one philosopher tried to put it to me years ago: for some there is truth and justice with a lower case t and j and for others a capital J and T.

  8. Tim Enloe says:

    Michael,

    I’m not sure how I’m being “fundamentalist,” but even if that is so, note the context of my post: my ongoing experience with teaching a particular class of 7th and 8th graders. We have had many vigorous discussions in class, and I am not “assuming a false alternative” when I tell you that they are very much in the grip of a severe form of subjectivism. No matter what I present to them, many of them inevitably come back to standards of ethics that are based entirely on their feelings, and they seem immune to reductios about feelings that arise from evil desires and tend toward evil ends. If I’m not being philosophically precise by calling this “subjectivism” and the alternative to it “objectivism,” fine. Maybe you, being formally educated in philosophy, can help me get the terms right.

    I still am not sure what the basis of your criticism is, though. I agree that “real world use” is important, and I agree that “sets of principles” are a posteriori pedagogical attempts at classifying and systematizing. But unless you’re saying that whole enterprise – and so really, the bulk of the Western intellectual tradition, both pagan and Christian – is an exercise in futility, I’m not sure what your criticism of me is about.

    At any rate, I don’t care for the skepticism about “talk of justice and truth” that seems to be implied by your last remark. Perhaps it’s because I’ve read so much Socrates and Augustine this last semester in school, but I find my old convictions about what I am calling the “objectivity” of reality and the fact that people often confuse appearances with reality quite thoroughly strengthened. Socrates was right about Truth and Justice, and the Sophists were wrong.

    But, recalling the facts that (1) I really have not had any extensive dealings with you, and (2) I did not understand your terminology of “biblical nominalism” on that one thread on your blog, I’m sure it is the case that I don’t understand where you are coming from.

  9. Bret Saunders says:

    Tim,
    I know you’re not saying that “basic logic” is (value-) “neutral,” but it sure sounds like it. Is there really something which is not in any way affected by the antithesis? So what would “Christian” logic look like? The Trinity. This may not be helpful. I just think the notion of objectivity is dangerous. I don’t think it’s “basic” but rather modernistic. Perhaps junior highers need something like “objectivity,” but I that’s not how we should think about it.

  10. Tim,

    You are not being a fundamentalist here. If you were, I would not be writing in this thread. But you are furthering the traditional fundamentalist moral argument – that’s all. I think your reasoning is more constrained than you suspect.

    I understand you are using your classroom experience as spring board, but perhaps I was misguided in thinking you were trying to offer more than a practical response to seventh graders. For example, you say you want to know “how to rationally establish the idea that ethics are objective.” When I taught college freshmen I first allowed discussion on the distinction – and allowed many of the students to swallow my Nazi reductio – but then I did not allow the assumption of extreme subjectivism in the classroom when we went on to other subjects. But there is a lot of logical space between extreme subjectivism – which I would define as the attempt at being immoral while discussing morality – and your objectivism (from what I think I gather about it so far). Ironically, I classify Douglas Wilson as an extreme subjectivist – and immoral while discussing morality – since his objectivity is so obtuse as to deny genuine human morality and our natural language of good and evil at the start.

    I have no problem with your terminology. I think it is good. I am pointing to the substance of your view, in particular, the forming of an idea of ‘objective’ from the back-drop of extreme subjectivity. I would be interested to know how Socrates’ view of Justice and Truth differed from Plato’s. I was not attempting to offer a skeptical view of natural usage of ‘justice’ and ‘truth,’ although I might be skeptical of your notions of Justice and Truth.

    If you agree that “sets of principles” are only a posteriori pedagogical attempts at classifying and systematizing, then I do not know what to make of this:

    “parallel ethics with reason itself. In particular, reason is a set of principles about correct and incorrect thought. Among these principles is the law of noncontradiction, which states that “a thing cannot be itself and its opposite at the same time in the same way.” This principle is the very basis for the distinction between “true” and false,”. . . .

    Here, you contrast ethics with reason “itself” and then define reason as a “set of principles.” Further, the “law” of noncontradiction is the is the “very basis for the distinction between true and false.” How can a pedagogical attempt be the basis for distinguishing a statement that is ‘true’ from one that is ‘false’?

    Thanks
    Michael

  11. Tim Enloe says:

    Hmm, good questions, Michael. Let me again point out that in the post I said that until this term’s experience with 7th-8th graders, I had never had occasion to think through ethics the way I have other issues of the Faith. I am certainly grateful for yours and Bret’s objections, as they challenge where I presently am in my thinking.

    Perhaps my attempt to argue for “objective” ethics with these kids would have some problems if it was translated into a more sophisticated philosophical venue, but I have had to try to find something to get them to consider that ethics is not a matter of whatever they happen to be feeling at a given time. Because these kids are entering the “logic stage” (I assume the validity of the classical education model, even though I am not at present teaching at a classical school), I have chosen to focus somewhat on reason; hence, the thought that occurred to me about paralleling ethical norms with the LNC. These kids don’t have a grasp of such things as what you call “our natural use of the language of good and evil” – again, right now, they think it’s mostly a matter of how they feel. Reductios about rapists and murderers have helped them somewhat to see that feelings can’t be universalized as a standard for behavior, but on the other hand, they have proven themselves masters at coming up with a large variety of creatively nuanced exceptions to any rule that we discuss. If there is “a lot of logical space” between extreme subjectivism and what I am calling objectivism, these kids don’t know about it and I myself am not sure about its contours since this is the first time I’ve had to actually think through these issues.

    As I said, I have chosen to parallel ethics with reason in no small part because much of my Master’s education has been in various aspects of the classical pagan and Christian traditions. I’ve spent two years immersing myself in Plato and Aristotle and Augustine and Plutarch and Cicero and the like, so that was what is most naturally on my mind as I was preparing my curriculum for these kids.

    That tradition holds that ethics are a matter of reason moderating the emotions so that the will can make choices that are in harmony with the “objective”, or “mind-independent,” nature of things. I won’t say I understand all of what this entails, but the classical thinkers, pagan and Christian, treat ethical argument as if it is a species of logical argument. It’s not logical to value cowardice; it just doesn’t fit with the ethical structure of the world. It’s not logical to say that justice is whatever the strong can get away with; it just doesn’t fit with the ethical structure of the world. It isn’t in accord with rational analysis of the sort of creatures we are to live lives of rampant hedonism rather than of moderation. And so forth. Philosophy is rational, and for many of the classical thinkers, philosophy essentially was ethics, because ethics overarched all the other topics.

    In this sense, I don’t see what is “fundamentalist” about my argument. Unless Socrates and Augustine and Cicero were “fundamentalists,” anyway. At any rate, since you keep bringing Wilson up, I suppose I should say that this is one place where I respectfully, but firmly go the opposite direction from him. I am very much dismayed by Van Tillian skepticism about human reason’s ability to find truth, and I do not believe that the only truly credible source of truth we have is the “self-authenticating” Scriptures. Though in my time at NSA I did *try* to be a Van Tillian, it never did fully take. I have always believed in the basic intelligibility of general revelation and the legitimate use of it to establish what the Christian iteration of the classical tradition calls the “preambles of faith.” This is even moreso the case now that I’ve had the change to significantly immerse myself in some of the prime examples of so-called “autonomous” thought.

    Please do continue to expand your thoughts, though. I am willing to be challenged, since I think it will probably only help me sharpen my thinking.

  12. Thanks for the reply. I am not sure I would summarize, for example, Aristole the way you have here. The idea of human flourishing gives a naturalistic account that is amenable to a narrative understanding of ethics. Have you read MacIntyre’s After Virtue? If not, I think you would like it a lot – a Christian, a classic, and an interaction with some of the folks you mention.

  13. Tim Enloe says:

    Michael, would you point me to where you wrote about Hitchens’ argument about the ordinary use of moral language? Thanks.

  14. Haven’t gotten to precisely that yet. Although it seems a bit implicit in the summary of the debate, published by Canon Press:

    http://www.poohsthink.com/the-moral-argument-part-2/

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