Good and Evil, Part 1b

In my article, Good and Evil, Part I, I set forth reasons for defining good and evil as the “distance” between what is and what ought to be. In Naming the Elephant: Worldview As A Concept, Sire writes:

The close connection between ontology and epistemology is easy to see: one can know only what is. But there is an equally close connection between ontology and ethics. Ethics deals with the good. But the good must exist in order to be dealt with. So what is the good? Is it what one or more people say it is? Is it an inherent characteristic of external reality? Is it what God is? Is it what he says it is? Whatever it is, it is something.

I suggest that in worldview terms the concept of good is a universal pretheoretical given, that it is a part of everyone’s innate, initial constitution as a human being. As social philosopher James Q. Wilson says, everyone has a moral sense: “Virtually everyone, beginning at a very young age, makes moral judgements that, though they may vary greatly in complexity, sophistication, and wisdom, distinguish between actions on the grounds that some are right and others wrong.”

Two questions then arise. First, what accounts for this universal sense of right and wrong? Second, why do people’s notions of right and wrong vary so widely? Wilson attempts to account for the universality of the moral sense by showing how it could have arisen through the long and totally natural evolutionary process of the survival of the fittest. But even if this could account for the development of this sense, it cannot account for the reality behind the sense. The moral sense demands that there really be a difference between right and wrong, not just that one senses a difference.

For there to be a difference in reality, there must be a difference between what is and what ought to be. With naturalism--the notion that everything that exists is only matter in motion--there is only what is. Matter in motion is not a moral category. One cannot derive the moral (ought) from the from the non-moral (the totally natural is). The fact that the moral sense is universal is what Peter Berger would call a “signal of transcendence,” a sign that there is something more to the world than matter in motion. --pg 132.

On the one hand, I’m delighted to have found independent confirmation that ethics relates to ought and is, and the acknowledgement of Hume’s guillotine. On the other hand, I’m worried because of the association between this definition and the potentially erroneous step from “there is something more to the world than matter in motion” to a “signal of transcendence.” Has the possible leaven of this conclusion leavened even the definition of good?

We know that there is something more than just “matter in motion.” As Russell wrote:

Having now seen that there must be such entities as universals, the next point to be proved is that their being is not merely mental. By this is meant that whatever being belongs to them is independent their being thought of or in any way apprehended by minds. --The Problems of Philosophy, pg. 97.

Russell has to say this, since he denies the existence of Mind, that is, God. The theist can argue that universals exist first and foremost in the mind of God; the naturalist cannot. So what did Berger mean by transcendence? If there is no god, then our thoughts are solely the product of complex biochemical processes: ”matter in motion” gives rise to intelligence. Intelligence gives rise to morality and imagination. No one should argue that the Starship Enterprise is a sign of transcendence. It is simply a mental state which is the result of matter in motion. If imagination is not a “sign of transcendence” then neither is ethics. Berger is assuming that mental states require something more than biochemical reactions which is an assumption that a naturalist need not grant.
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