Monday, September 27, 2010

Aristotle's Darwinian Ethics (6): Hare on Aristotle's Platonic Religion

As a proponent of the divine command theory of ethics, John Hare (a professor at Yale University) criticizes my Darwinian ethics for not recognizing that morality without belief in God is impossible.

In his book God and Morality: A Philosophical History (2009), Hare tries to show the fundamental influence of theistic religion in the history of Western ethical philosophy. He concentrates on four philosophers--Aristotle, Duns Scotus, Immanuel Kant, and R. M. Hare. These four thinkers represent four periods--ancient, medieval, modern, and contemporary. They represent four kinds of ethical theory as concentrating on virtue, will, duty, and consequences respectively. And they represent four conceptions of god--God as magnet, God as lover, God as sovereign, and God as model. He pairs each of the four philosophers with successors who abandoned the theological premises of their forerunner. I am paired with Aristotle, Jean-Paul Satre is paired with Scotus, Christine Korsgaard is paired with Kant, and Peter Singer is paired with R. M. Hare.

For the Aristotle chapter, Hare begins with a photograph and a description of Raphael's depiction of Greek philosophy in his sixteenth-century fresco in the Vatican--The School of Athens. Plato and Aristotle stand at the center of the painting. Plato's right arm is raised vertically, and his right index finger is pointing to heaven, while his left hand holds his book Timaeus vertically. Aristotle's right arm is extended horizontally, his right hand is spread out with his palm gesturing down towards the center of the group, and his left hand hold his book Nicomachean Ethics horizontally. The obvious suggestion is that Plato is a more "vertical" thinker, in pointing upward to the heavens or the divine, while Aristotle is a more "horizontal" thinker, gesturing downward towards the human beings around them.

Hare suggests, however, that this difference between the vertical Plato and the horizontal Aristotle is only a matter of emphasis, and that in fact Aristotle incorporates into his thought the vertical dimension of Platonic religion. He supports this with the claim that Raphael was probably influenced by Renaissance thinkers like Marsilio Ficino and Egidio da Viterbo who had sought to reconcile Plato and Aristotle. Some scholars of Renaissance art believe that Raphael was guided by a program laid down by Egidio, who argued that Plato and Aristotle agreed that humanity combined two natures--the sensual nature that is embedded in matter and the rational nature that is free from matter. While Aristotle stressed the material side of human experience more than did Plato, Aristotle showed his agreement with Plato in the tenth book of the Ethics by affirming that the highest part of humanity is pure intellect, which grasps what is divine and eternal by imitating the Divine Intellect.

This introduces Hare's argument that Aristotle agrees with Plato's religion--God as Cosmic Intellect towards which all human beings are drawn by their intellectual love of the Ideas. This is what Hare calls "God as magnet"--the magnetic force of the divine radiating out through the great chain of Being.

Hare offers plenty of textual evidence for this conclusion. For example, in the Timaeus, it is said that God has given human beings Intellect as a divinity that looks up to heaven, while struggling against the mortal desires of the body.

When a man devotes himself to the love of learning and to true prudence, and has exercised himself in these things above all others, then there is every necessity, I suppose, that he think thoughts that are immortal and divine (if in fact he touches on truth); and again, to the extent that human nature admits to a share in immortality, he does not fall short of this; and since he's always caring for his divine part and keeping well-arrayed the divinity that dwells within him, he is supremely happy. (90b-c)

This sounds a lot like what Aristotle says about the contemplative life in Book 10 of the Nicomachean Ethics.

We should not follow the recommendation of thinkers who say that those who are men should think only of human things and that mortals should think only of mortal things, but we should try as far as possible to partake of immortality and to make every effort to live according to the best part of the soul in us; for even if this part be of small measure, it surpasses all the others by far in power and worth. It would seem, too, that each man is this part, if indeed this is the dominant part and is better than the other parts; so it would be strange if a man did not choose the life proper to himself but that proper to another. And what was stated earlier is appropriate here also; that which is by nature proper to each thing is the best and most pleasant for that thing. So for a man, too, the life according to his intellect is the best and most pleasant, if indeed a man in the highest sense is his intellect. Hence this life, too, is the happiest. (1177b31-78a8)

But as I have noted in some previous posts, the reasoning offered by Plato and Aristotle for this divinization of the human intellect and the elevation of the contemplative life as divine is remarkably dubious. So the careful reader might wonder how seriously to take this.

Hare is ambiguous about this. On the one hand, he clearly thinks we are intended by Aristotle to take his theological language seriously. On the other hand, Hare admits that this theology of the contemplative life is "in tension" with much of what is taught in the Nicomachean Ethics (17). Hare observes: "Unfortunately Aristotle gets tentative when he starts talking about God" (19). At least initially, Aristotle is drawing from traditional religious opinions--as in Homer's depictions of the gods. But it's not clear whether Aristotle is sincere about this. Sometimes he speaks of gods in the plural, but then he shifts to speaking of God in the singular. He says that God or the gods are so self-sufficient in their lives that they don't care about human beings. But then he says they love philosophers. Sometimes he suggests divinity is inside us, but at other times he suggests divinity is outside of us.

Aristotle indicates that traditionally the gods were originally human beings who were divinized for their heroic deeds by their fellow human beings, which suggests that talk of divinity is just one way of talking of heroic human virtue. Aristotle quotes Homer as having Priam recognize the exceptional goodness of Hector by saying he was a God, and thus "people are turned from humans into gods by a surpassing degree of virtue" (1145a20-24).

Moreover, Hare is never clear as to what difference this confusing theological language makes for Aristotle's ethical teaching. His general argument is that the case of Aristotle illustrates how morality is impossible without God. But Hare never explains exactly how Aristotle's conclusions about morality depend on his theology. The only clear case of this is that Aristotle apparently thinks that elevating the philosophic life over all other lives requires religious language, but the confusing character of his reasoning makes the reader wonder if he is completely serious about this.

Hare tries to argue that my Darwinian Aristotelianism is not really Aristotelian, because it ignores the theological foundation--the "vertical" dimension--of Aristotle's ethics. But, then, he concedes that I and Aristotle are in agreement on the fundamental principle that the good is the desirable, and the human good is the harmonious satisfaction of our natural desires over a complete life, which is happiness (55, 69, 71, 254, 271, 278). And yet, Hare also insists that since I don't accept Aristotle's theistic religion, I can't resolve the tragic conflicts in human desires: "Arnhart is stuck in a difficulty that Aristotle is not" (72).

I argue that sometimes the natural human desires create tragic conflicts between human beings that can only be resolved by force or fraud. For example, in the conflict over slavery in the United States, in which the master's desire for mastery came into conflict with the slave's desire to be free from exploitation, the only final resolution came with the Civil War.

Generally, Hare argues that a religiously grounded morality is free of tragedy. Thus, the theistic teaching of universal love allows theists to overcome tragic conflicts of interest. But Hare is never exactly clear how this works. Does universal love require absolute pacifism and socialism in which all human beings would love one another impartially without any bias towards themselves or those close to them?

Consider the famous case of the Dutch householder hiding a Jew in her attic during the Nazi occupation of her country. When the Nazis come to her to ask if there are any Jews in her house, is it immoral for her to lie? Here, Hare admits, is a tragic situation where the woman must lie but then confess that she had violated the moral law against lying. Hare explains: "Putting the difficulty theologically, the person who lies is breaking God's command, but perhaps (given the situation) in the hope of mercy" (282).

"In a similar example," Hare writes, "some bishops in the early Christian centuries required soldiers who had killed, even in a just war, to abstain for a while from Communion on their return" (282-83). So does this mean that just killing in war is against God's commands? But God will forgive us for our sin of not loving our enemies?

Hare explains: "The position we imagine as ideal is one in which all the people involved, including ourselves, are loved the same. But that is not a position we in fact occupy. It is the position God occupies, if there is a God" (285). It is hard for me to see how this provides any reliable guidance for our moral conduct.

Even with all of his insistence that morality without God is impossible, Hare actually concedes that there is a natural moral sense that allows atheists and believers to understand one another's moral language. Some people might understand the chemical properties of water, while others might not. But they could all talk about "water" with mutual understanding, without having to talk about its chemical properties. Similarly, Hare suggests, theists and atheists can talk about what is "right" or "good" with mutual understanding, even though the atheists will not share the belief of the theists that what is "right" and "good" ultimately arises from God's commands (272).

If that is Hare's position, then he's agreeing with me that while religious belief can reinforce our moral judgments, our morality can stand on its own natural ground as part of our evolved human nature even without religious belief.

Related posts can be found here, here, here, here, and here.


Greg R. Lawson said...

I often return to the same quetion, which, I suppose is ultimately unanswerable-

Even if we could have a morality without recourse to religion, is that really morality qua morality? Or is it simply a form of utilitarianism that has no overarching, or transcendent teleology?

In other words, where is the meaning for morality? If it is just an evolved mechanism for successful biological interactions (at some level), then we are left with an ultimately absurd existance where existance is futile in any sense beyond the relative immediacy of the moment (or at least within a finitely comprehensible timeframe).

Larry Arnhart said...

Could you explain what you mean by "overarching or transcendent teleology"--without which morality would have no meaning?

Are you refering to eternal rewards in Heaven and eternal punishments in Hell? If so, would you say that anyone who doesn't believe in Heaven and Hell is living a meaningless, absurd life? Would this include Aristotle? Would this include Jews--most of whom have no clear idea of Heaven and Hell?

Or do you have something else in mind? An afterlife without Heaven and Hell?

You seem to be saying that human life in itself cannot possibly have any meaning on its own--that human existence cannot possibly have any worth on its own, independently of some value coming from some cosmic source outside life. Is that true?

Are you saying, for example, that our love for our friends, our families, and our fellow human beings has no intrinsic value?

Greg R. Lawson said...

"Are you saying, for example, that our love for our friends, our families, and our fellow human beings has no intrinsic value?"

Simply put yes.

While I am cognizant that we may place subjective value on our families, friends and fellow human beings, through our love, I have to emphasize the term subjective.

It seems to me impossible to find ultimate meaning without finding an external reference point, be it deity or something else that transcends the merely biological.

Again, I can understand how a "morality" and an ethics can be generated through a Darwinian process as you elucidate. I simply do not think it has any meaning external to the meaning we create for it ourselves on a subjective basis.

In other words, if the only meaning is to perpetuate mere biological existence, I suppose that is a purpose, but how do we determine that there is an "intrinsic value" to this? After all, there may really not be any value at all, especially if, ultimately, existence itself is merely the result of a random accident.

In that sense existence would be abusrd because the only purpose or teleology is ultimately self referential.

Consequently, while I agree we can have a Darwinian account of morals and ethics, it seems to me that such a morality and ethics is mere utility in the service of a meaningless biological existence.

If love and reciprocity works to facilitate our biological needs then we will adapt to that reciprocity and perfect it. If annihilating a group of people works then we will adapt and perfect our destructive capacities as well.

In a world without a transcendent reference point, then how can there be any value beyond mere utility.

This is my ultimate concern. I believe we need to ground morality and ethics in something that gives us a purpose besides merely existing and perpetuating an existence that would essentially be nothing more than "one damn thing after another."

I will stipulate that this transcendent grounding certainly can, but need not necessarily be,of Judeo-Christian conception.