Philosophical Systems

(by Russell Johnson)

The history of ethical philosophy has bestowed to us an inheritance of many theories about the nature of morality. While the “-isms” may be esoteric, the ideas are commonplace in moral discourse. After all, aren’t ethics just:
–the greatest good for the greatest number, or
–treating people as ends rather than means, or
–ways of living that respect others’ innate human rights, or
–pragmatic rules for social cohesion, or
–social norms that have developed to help us propagate our genetic material?
When you get rid of all the theological trappings and folk psychology, it is assumed, you arrive at the essence of morality, and it’s simpler than we thought. There must be some one basic reason why we frown on murder, rape, and intolerance. After all, there has to be some essence to all of these rules and standards, or else they wouldn’t all be categorized as “ethical.”

There are two key problems with this way of thinking. First, this whole search for something common to all ethical rules and standards itself begs the question. We have no reason to believe that all the multifarious ethical truths “boil down to” one essential principle. Thus, the debate between utilitarians and deontologists (or, to oversimplify, “greatest good” advocates and “treat people as ends” advocates) is based on a shared assumption that there is one ethical rule standing behind, as it were, all of the other ethical rules. This is an assumption we do not need to make. I won’t dwell on the point for too long, but I will direct the reader to the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein on what he called “family resemblances.” Just as there is no one common feature we can point to in all things we call “games,” Wittgenstein argues, so there needn’t be one common feature we can point to in all things we call “morals.” Utilitarianism, inviolable human rights, and other attempts to systematize and simplify ethics are examples of reductionism. In an effort to analyze our ethical beliefs down to their least common denominator, we inevitably change their content to make them fit our theory. More could be said on this, but I will focus for the rest of the essay on the second problem.

The second problem with these ethical theories is that they do not ground the least-common-denominator ethical principle they maintain. That is to say, utilitarians can marshal some stunning arguments about how our pre-existing ethical beliefs boil down to “the greatest good for the greatest number,” but utilitarian theory does not explain why we should want the greatest good for the greatest number. Similarly, Immanuel Kant and his successors have tried to show how our varied ethical truths boil down to treating others as means rather than ends, but they leave it a mystery about why we ought to treat people that way in the first place. It’s one thing to show how both murder and theft violate the so-called “golden rule,” but it’s quite another to explain why the golden rule is itself worth following. Similarly, even if one can identify which basic human rights all people have, one is then left to explain why those rights should not be violated. In short, ethics can be analyzed and reduced by these ethical theories, but not justified. They’re like comprehensive rulebooks which can explain how to follow all the rules of rugby but do not in themselves tell you why rugby is worth playing, or its rules worth following. One could agree with every part of utilitarian theory and then say, “Yes, all of the ethical norms people seem to share are ultimately about the greatest good for the greatest number. But since I don’t care whatsoever about the greatest number, I’m going to scrap the whole thing and do what I want.” Now, by this argument I am not necessarily claiming that these theories are all wrong. Merely that they are incomplete. Something else is needed, if morality is to be grounded in such a way that it becomes more than just an arbitrary choice.

Consider the claim, made in various forms by different atheistic thinkers, that the rules and paradigms and aversions we have are the products of naturalistic, evolutionary development. That is to say, our ethical ideas are socially inherited and arose out of pragmatic concerns to carry on our genetic material. Altruism, it has been argued, is seen as a good ultimately because humans are social animals and we figured out millennia ago that cooperation works better than unlimited competition. On this theory, survival of the fittest gives the best account for the emergence and endurance of such norms as “do not murder,” and ethical claims are theoretically traceable to pragmatic, biological claims. Even if this theory could compellingly account for all of our ethical beliefs, it neglects to give a proper justification for behaving morally. As above, if ethics are all ultimately about propagating the species, one could reasonably ask, “Why ought I propagate the species? Why is the continuation and growth of humanity worth working towards?” If survival of the fittest gives the best answer to the question, “how did we get the ethical notions we have?” it nevertheless still fails to answer the question, “why ought those ethical notions be heeded at all?” If we are consistent, we cannot hold others accountable for their decisions. Once we realize that all talk of right and wrong is merely a thin veneer concealing talk of survival and death, our moral judgments become arbitrary. We legally prosecute the arsonist because his behavior is not conducive to human survival, but there is no reason for preferring human survival over its opposite, and thus we are forcing our arbitrary choice on the arsonist. The arsonist could claim humanity’s survival is not a worthwhile cause, and we cannot say he’s wrong but we can only overpower him by brute strength. Rationally speaking, everything is permissible and justice is a facade.

Perhaps no one saw this better than Friedrich Nietzsche. He postulated what someone would act like who saw through the facade: a pure opportunist, amoral, seeking only to exert his or her “will-to-power.” But, at least in theory if not in practice, we can go one step further. Why should we care about our own will to power? Why is getting our way preferable to not getting our way? Nietzsche’s undeceived ubermensch has no rational grounds for choosing between sanguinary domination, nihilistic suicide, or quiet gardening. Thus, of course it does not follow that those with a naturalistic worldview automatically become wicked people. It does follow, however, that those with a naturalistic worldview become people incapable of justifying their actions in such a way that those actions are anything more than mere whims.

The argument above does not necessarily lead to Christianity as the only alternative to moral arbitrariness; someone could reasonably hold to a utilitarian, deontological, or socio-evolutionary model of ethics with a deistic, polytheistic, or atheistic justification. Discerning between the many theories of both the content and ground of morality is a task for another time. But I will say briefly that Christianity provides a grand narrative in which the chain of “whys” does reach a satisfactory end. Christians believe that we live in certain ways because we have a purpose woven in the very fabric of the universe, in communion with a God who is ultimate significance itself. Even when we act immorally, which of course happens quite frequently, we recognize a standard of right and wrong that is higher than capricious will. Those who disagree with Christian ethics, then, can present their arguments but only after they have a firm reason why we ought to be ethical at all.

With the current political discourse in America dominated by discussion of the pros and cons of the Tea Party movement, libertarian political philosophy has left the wilderness of third-party politics and has entered the realm of serious public discourse.

Libertarianism is generally thought of as a political philosophy of minimal government and maximum feasible personal freedom. However, libertarianism is more than a political philosophy. At its core it is a worldview, rooted in certain assumptions about the nature of reality.

The libertarian worldview is founded on the belief that humans have free will. We can make conscious free choices. These choices are not based on what has happened before us. We might have a tendency to prefer Coke to Sprite, but we can always pick Sprite. We have the freedom to choose. Our future is not determined by our genetics, or outside stimulus factors. Our future is ultimately determined by us.

In turn, a person  is responsible for both the benefits and detriments of their choices. If a person makes choices that lead him to gain property, it is his to keep. If a person makes choices that cause him to lose his property, that is his loss. He is responsible for the outcome, no one else.

This is the basis for libertarian political philosophy. The future is governed by individual choice, so suppressing this individual choice is wrong. It is sometimes necessary, in that we must have a legal framework to protect freedom from becoming anarchy, but it is to be kept to a minimum. Rights are based on our autonomy as individuals, and property rights are the most sacrosanct of all.

This philosophy appears to be consistent, but does it hold up under scrutiny? More importantly, is it, as many libertarians assert, compatible with Christianity?

Assuming the existence of God and God’s omniscience, this means God has foreknowledge of events that will happen in the future. Now, I do not mean to answer the question of how we can have free will while God has divine foreknowledge. That is for another post. What I mean to do is examine libertarian views of free will in the context of divine foreknowledge.

The concept of divine foreknowledge implies that God is in ultimate control of the world. Yet, in libertarianism, man has the ultimate free will to make his decisions. Man is in the ultimate control of his fate, alone in the storm, the “captain of my ship, the master of my soul.” A man stands alone versus the world, destined to rise or fall by his own merits.

This is contrary to the Christian view where man does not have the capability to make it on his own. God is the ultimate sovereign in a man’s life, and while he has free will he must always acknowledge a higher power in control of the universe, whose ways he cannot fully comprehend. Ultimately, a man does not rise or fall by his own merits, for man does not save himself by his own works but is saved through the grace of God.

Likewise, the libertarian focus on property is also misplaced. God is the omnipotent, omniscient Creator, and as such made the entire world and everything in it. Despite his protestations and vain appeals to immutable rights, man does not really own anything, for all that he thinks he owns belongs to God. All his worldly possessions are but transient objects in his life, on loan to him from the Almighty. What he has one day he may lose the next. What he has when he dies will not travel with him. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.

This is not to say that there should be no such thing as private property in the legal sense, or that humans have no responsibility because we have no free will. Rather, I simply aim to point out that there are higher principles at work than are allowed for within libertarian philosophy.

Libertarianism is at its core a nihilistic system, where man stands facing an uncertain future with only his reasoning ability to guide him. There is no divine moral order, just mankind facing uncertainty and making choices which may lead to his success or his failure. Libertarianism’s close cousin Objectivisim denies this nihilism and worships reason instead. In place of God, the objectivists have made a demi-god of reason personified as Ayn Rand. All of these philosophies ultimately fail because they hold up something as The Ultimate which is not, in fact, the ultimate.

How does this apply to our contemporary political discourse? It means we must beware of all-encompassing philosophies, of ideas of man which promise to solve what is wrong with the world if we just support the right mix of philosophy and policy. It means we must evaluate policy proposals on their impact and their morality, not on their ideological purity. It means, in short, that we must place a higher value on our responsibilities than on our rights, for God is sovereign and owes us nothing, while we have much that is commanded of us by God.