Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The ones who walk away from Western civilization....

Maybe I'm straining at gnats and swallowing camels, but help me out here, I'm confused.

Per Thought Criminal we come upon this review of the last book by Richard Dworkin, a review in which I learn Dworkin spent his life working on a justification of Brown v. Board of Education, a justification which rests upon some, shall we say "eternal truths" which transcend and indeed undergird the law, however the law is particularly expressed in any time and any place.  But, as the book of my youth put it, without Marx (history) or Jesus (God).

So far, so good.  I have one of Dworkin's books, which I picked up in law school when I stuck my toe in the waters of jurisprudence.  I also got Rawls' most famous book then, and spent more time trying to follow Rawls' argument (which was neatly relegated to one volume) than Dworkin's (scattered across several), but I finally discarded Rawls because he was too interested in tweaking utilitarianism than discarding it.  James and Dosteoevsky, in other words, are better people to read on the subject; Rawls, for all his attempts to surmount the ethic/economic theory, ends up just an apologist for it.  I must admit I was never interested enough in Dworkin to follow him further.

But I digress.

Back to Dworkin's last work, and we start here:

But Dworkin went further: rights don’t just limit democratic authority; they also explain where democratic authority comes from. In addition to rights, Dworkin says, human beings have interests—for example, in having income and leisure. In contrast to rights, however, interests must often be compromised. Yet here, too, rights play a role. In a world in which people are seen as equal bearers of rights, interests may be justifiably balanced and traded against one another only provided that the interests of different people are considered equally. It is in giving expression to this kind of equality—the right to “equal consideration”—that the principle of majority rule matters. If we allowed a minority to outweigh the majority, that would mean the interests of the minority were being weighted more heavily than those of the majority, and so moral equality would be violated. Only through majority rule, Dworkin argues, does “each count for one and none for more than one.”
Now here the arch-conservatives will prate:  "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights...."  And even though the arch-conservatives use this as proof the "Founding Fathers" were all fundamentalist Christians, first they overlook the radical assertion that all men (humans) are created equal, because they want to insist that some are more equal than others.  And already we have a foundering of the "democratic authority," because authority always presumes a wielder of power and those against whom it is wielded, so that originally only white male landowners had the franchise, because they alone had "skin in the game."

And if you haven't heard that argument being resurrected, you haven't been listening.  We must exclude the poor and the impoverished, the argument goes, the renter and not the owner, because they have no "skin in the game," and will only vote to get their hands in the pockets of those of us who deserve the vote.  Humans, as the reviewer says Dworkin said, have interests, such as having income and leisure.  But some deserve those interests more than others; so the CEO gets a vacation, while the desk jockey at the bottom of the corporate ladder is lucky to get any time off at all.

And so on and so on; and who is to say the CEO is wrong, or is mistreating the desk jockey?  In America, at least, almost no one.  Which doesn't argue for ethics based on religion, since Norway and Sweden are far less religious, but famously have laws mandating much more time off for employees than American allows, or would seemingly ever allow.

Still, the modern consensus is if democratic authority doesn't come from all the governed, it is not democratic authority.  And yet isn't it clear today that the interests of the minority outweigh the interests of the majority?  Or is that just a structural problem of the system of representation established by the Constitution and the 50 states, and a general disinterest in voting for anyone beyond, occasionally, the President?  Do the interest of the majority, in other words, get expressed in polls, or at the voting booth?

On the other hand, it is clear the majority of the country is not rich, and that the minority of the country has the whip hand when it comes to elections and candidates and political parties.  So if the minority outweighs the majority, isn't it clear that moral equality (whatever that is; let us not presume we know) is violated?

And then, of course, how do we constrain majority rule so that we get Brown v. Board of Education, and not the injurious status quo?

Now, you can take God out of this:

One reply—Richard Rorty was among its best-known advocates—is to say that, although rights don’t have a foundation in religion, they don’t need them: morality is just about the ways that people judge and respond to various situations, and rights theory is the name for one kind of response. To say that you believe in “rights” is no more than a substantivized way of expressing that you are convinced there are things that ought not be done to people, even in pursuit of a good end. There’s no need to think that rights are some spooky kind of entity hovering behind the ways that people think and behave. To borrow a phrase from Rorty, ascribing rights to people is “the way we do things around here.”

But then you're back up against utilitarianism, and pretty soon we're living in Omelas, and no one can explain why you should leave or where you would go, because if you reject utilitarianism and God, what do you have left?

Aye, there's the rub.

Or, as our reviewer puts it:

Yet what justification can be given by someone who rejects that view? What is it about the individual whose life would otherwise be sacrificed for the collective good that makes the sacrifice wrong? To say that she or he has a right not to be put to death in order to save others is just to put a name to the problem. We also need, it seems, a satisfying reason why—something about the victim that explains why he or she has a value that overrides instrumental calculations about the greatest good. It is at this point that religious-sounding vocabulary tends to slip back into the discussion. Rawls, for example, talks about each person having an “inviolability founded on justice,” although he does not explain just what “inviolability” might amount to.
You can, in other words, build a better ethical system; but you've got a lot of building to do.

And let me return to the foundation of western ethics:  Aristotle.  Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics is descriptive rather than prescriptive.  Aristotle is the father of practical Western thought.  His ethic (behavior; customs) is to find a happy man and emulate him, because the end (telos, goal) of ethical behavior is to be happy (among those "self-evident" truths Jefferson identified), and doing what a happy man does will make you happy, too.  Monkey see monkey do is all you know and all you really need to know.

Which is why the Hebrews are more important to Western civilization for the matters of ethics than the Greeks are.

Here is the crux of the matter, and it is simply wrong, in part because it isn't in the least theological:

If morality were just a matter of God’s will, then presumably whatever God willed would be good for that reason and no more. But if God is indeed just, it must be possible for human beings to recognize independently why his commands are good. Of course, goodness is essential to God, so he could not conceivably will anything that was not good—but, still, it is not his willing something that makes it good. As Seneca once wrote, “I do not obey God; I agree with him.” So, Dworkin argues, any reasonable religion must acknowledge the priority of value over the will of the Deity. But in that case, the supernatural narrative of creation, revelation and prophecy that surrounds the moral teachings of religion is dispensable.
I say it isn't theological because the review starts out wondering why Dworkin ended his career considering theological issues.  But the presumption here is a silly one:  that obedience to God is based on fear of punishment from God (the "fear" of God referenced in the translations of the scriptures into English is not equivalent to the fear of nuclear holocaust).  That is a blinkered and frankly ignorant view of the Scriptures, a reading that often makes people think there is a disjunct between the God of Abraham in the "Old Testament" and the God of Jesus in the "New."  (One more reason I prefer the terms "Hebrew Scriptures" and "Christian scriptures").  The Hebrews were not punished by God with the Babylonian Exile; rather, God left them to their own devices.  God withdrew God's protection from them not because God was piqued, but because they suffered the consequences of their actions.  They didn't suffer for their apostasy, they suffered for their selfishness and greed.  The problem of David was that he lusted after Bathsheba; but the story of Solomon's lust for power isn't so graphically represented in the Scriptures, because he made sure he was represented by the wisdom he purchased by employing scholars.  And his representation is Ecclesiastes and the Proverbs, neither of which rests so firmly on God as to express an idea that if you don't dot every "i" and cross every "t", you will suffer for it in this life or the next.  Proverbs is practically Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, and Ecclesiastes is so dour and pessimistic it is hardly makes its way into the lectionary.  Yet both are far closer to secular ethics than to the ethic of pleasing God represented by the story (not the history, mind) of Jonah and Nineveh.

The prophets have one consistent message for Israel, which is why so many prophets over such a long period of time found their works included in the canon:  Israel failed to live the way God provided to them, so Israel suffered the consequences of that failure.  Not the consequences of their apostasy, else God might well have tossed them aside.  Israel didn't reject the God of Abraham and break the covenant; they failed to abide by the justice given to them through the covenant.  As Jeremiah says, in a passage that I think sums up the teachings of the prophets as well as any few verses do:

Woe to him who says,
"I shall build myself a spacious palace
with airy roof chambers and
windows set in it.
It will be paneled with cedar
and painted with vermilion."
Though your cedar is so splendid,
does that prove you a king?
Think of your father: he ate and drank,
dealt justly and fairly; all went well with him.
He upheld the cause of the lowly and poor;
then all was well.
Did not this show he knew me? says the Lord.
But your eyes and your heart are set on naught but gain, set only on the innocent blood you can shed,
on the cruel acts of tyranny you perpetrate.

Jeremiah 22: 14-17 (REB)

The lesson of the prophets is never about punishment and anger and rebuke; it is about justice, it is about righteousness, it is about how we treat each other.  Even when Ezekiel sees the spirit of God leave the temple in Jerusalem, it is an affirmation that God is not tied to a place (a radical notion at the time). And the valley of the dry bones affirms the "priority of value over the will of the Deity."

And the prophets all affirm that how we treat each other is the first and most proper subject of ethics.

We can argue the epistemology of revelation as only a supernatural matter another time; but that revelation, along with creation (the relation of God to what exists) and prophecy (the truth as told by God to God's people and ultimately the world) can be set aside is debatable if only because the argument here is not well founded.  God's will is not the directing of every thought and act of every individual human throughout time and across time.  Nor is priority of value superior to the will of the Deity, because we only know the will of the Deity through what is held valuable.  After all:

What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?

And the "Golden Rule," as pronounced by Jesus of Nazareth, is to love your neighbor as you love yourself.  Is that an expression of God's will?  Or of God's wisdom?  Once we step away from the idea of God as Cosmic Commander of our Days, we enter far more interesting territory about ethics and the nature of God.

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