An interesting discussion of ethical systems has sprouted on the TTransition thread. As it semi-self-truncated, I’d like to give it a place to grow here.
Raises the issue of the necessity for a “God” to effective ethical systems, but then demurs of the answering it… in the subsequent comment:
There’s nothing inherent in a system of secular ethics that leans towards collectivism versus individualism. I won’t do so here, but I can give you a fully worked out secular ethical system from first principles that leads one to a Christian ethical framework with a libertarian political philosophy…
Well, I, for one, would love to hear just such a system. So I’m putting up this post as a place where JP Miller will hopefully expand on this opening gambit.
My response, just a bit further down the thread, was this:
Interesting points. Oddly, much of it sounds like I wrote it (though I’ve never written anything like it… only thoughts…)
My conclusion was that good religions were a “necessary belief” for a moral society.
The reasoning takes two tracks.
1) In a secular world, the unethical have an inherent advantage in hierarchical structures and will gradually rise to dominate them. (Look how much effort goes into anticorruption in governments and corporations as it is…) The unethical will win the structural battle without a huge countervailing force. Our society realizes this with phrases like “Good guys always finish last” and “To the victor goes the spoils” and more.
2) With no enforcer of the moral code, it becomes malleable., which allows its corruption into irrelevance given #1. The only enforcer above the rulers of humanity would be a “metaphysical” one, therefore religion becomes the necessary enforcer and social equalizer (limit on inflated self importance – think of those secular eugenics advocates…) It puts some things beyond the realm of human choice, and human corruption.
This may not be the only possible, but it is in existence now.
Imperfect though it is…
Which has the clear flaw (fatal?) that any artifice constructing a “God” as ethics enforcer has a rot at the middle of it, in that it begs to ask “Is a lie as good as the truth as long as enough people believe it?” and “What happens when one Evil Bastard exploits that belief while not holding to it himself? Are you not back at #1?”, which leads you eventually back to the question of the actual existence of a Moral Supreme Being… If one exists, this problem evaporates. If one does not exist, you are trapped in the fundamental immorality of the Polite Lie For Effect…
There is Pascal’s Wager to get you out of it:
“Pascal’s Wager” is the name given to an argument due to Blaise Pascal for believing, or for at least taking steps to believe, in God. The name is somewhat misleading, for in a single paragraph of his Pensées, Pascal apparently presents at least three such arguments, each of which might be called a ‘wager’ — it is only the final of these that is traditionally referred to as “Pascal’s Wager”. We find in it the extraordinary confluence of several important strands of thought: the justification of theism; probability theory and decision theory, used here for almost the first time in history; pragmatism; voluntarism (the thesis that belief is a matter of the will); and the use of the concept of infinity.
4. The Argument From Generalized Expectations: “Pascal’s Wager”
We continue the quotation.
But there is an eternity of life and happiness. And this being so, if there were an infinity of chances, of which one only would be for you, you would still be right in wagering one to win two, and you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against three at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you, if there were an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain. But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. It is all divided; wherever the infinite is and there is not an infinity of chances of loss against that of gain, there is no time to hesitate, you must give all…
Again this passage is difficult to understand completely. Pascal’s talk of winning two, or three, lives is a little misleading. By his own decision theoretic lights, you would not act stupidly “by refusing to stake one life against three at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you”—in fact, you should not stake more than an infinitesimal amount in that case (an amount that is bigger than 0, but smaller than every positive real number). The point, rather, is that the prospective prize is “an infinity of an infinitely happy life”. In short, if God exists, then wagering for God results in infinite utility.
What about the utilities for the other possible outcomes? There is some dispute over the utility of “misery”. Hacking interprets this as “damnation”, and Pascal does later speak of “hell” as the outcome in this case. Martin 1983 among others assigns this a value of negative infinity. Sobel 1996, on the other hand, is one author who takes this value to be finite. There is some textual support for this reading: “The justice of God must be vast like His compassion. Now justice to the outcast is less vast … than mercy towards the elect”. As for the utilities of the outcomes associated with God’s non-existence, Pascal tells us that “what you stake is finite”. This suggests that whatever these values are, they are finite.
Pascal’s guiding insight is that the argument from expectation goes through equally well whatever your probability for God’s existence is, provided that it is non-zero and finite (non-infinitesimal) — “a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss”.
This is followed by the usual ‘box’ with 4 squares. One line where “God Exists” and you have a probability of good outcomes for a wager that he does, and does not. For “God Exists : Proclaim God” the result is postulated as ‘infinite’ gain while for God:Non-God-Wager it is less. For the next line, God does not exist, and you get two other fractional values of return on your bet.
Counter to that, I’ve postulated what I’ve taken to calling “Smith’s Wager”.
What if God is just looking for a few good minds with which to share wisdom? To me, having someone “sucking up” isn’t all that pleasing. Similarly, having someone ‘pass judgment’ on my existence seems a bit much. So my four quadrants work out as:
Reality: God Exists God Does Not Exist I Claim God Exists: At best a tautology I'm a fool proclaiming lies or God can find me a presumptuous fool passing judgment on His existence. No God: Oh Dear! Frying in I'm stating the obvious Hell are we?... with no gain at all from it.
Now as I read those squares, none of them is a ‘win’ for me or my future.
Proclaiming the existence of God, I take a huge risk that God is a vain self centered entity lusting for my praise instead of an emotionally centered being looking for wisdom in others. I would like to think God at least as developed as I am, and I’d rather have folks to share thoughts with than a bunch of suckups praising me for existing… and being presumptuous that their opinion matters in the process.
Being a fool proclaiming lies is not exactly speaking well of my reasoning skills…
Frying in Hell, well, that’s not a very good outcome, is it?
Then running around shouting there is no God when there is none just makes me a self important ass who wants to piss on other folks beliefs.
Now as a Supreme Being (or even as a Superior One) I’d not be impressed with any of those choices by a ‘candidate for friend’ in cosmic pondering…
To me, the rational choice is to step outside the box. How to win this wager? To semi-quote WOPPER: “The way to win is not to play”. To be officially agnostic on the question of passing judgment on the existence of God. I simply do not know, and can not know given the available facts. That is the rational answer that I see, and avoids picking any of those squares. (In essence, it bets on God being a rational and emotionally balanced being lacking vengefulness for your lack of praise in an unknown, and appreciating your reasoning skills in a context of no data.) Then it becomes a matter of “choosing to believe” or not, based on the reasonably expected outcomes of that belief.
As I see much more good than harm from most ethical systems backed by a God idea (primarily the Judaeo-Christian batch), I choose to believe in that package. (Buddhism has it a bit more right, IMHO, but lacks the God bit as I read it. Just has a first enlightened teacher. To that extent, I find it in some ways more attractive. But then you get into variations like Shinto and the question of how many folks have essentially deified Buddha…)
So by Smith’s Wager, I end up at a tepid Judaeo-Christian end point, with sprinklings of Buddhism. But one lacking guilt, original sin, a vengeful God, one so emotionally weak as to need my praise and validation and so on. Perhaps a more mature and pondering God wondering at our misinterpretation of what it means to be a God…
Back At Ethics
So with that bit of background, here’s the actual text of that first comment, and a request to JP to expand a bit on the thinking behind it, plus the second comment:
JP Miller says:
24 December 2016 at 11:25 pm (Edit)
Gail Combs says, “Stefan Molyneux had at one time thought as you do. However he changed his mind after watching the result of moving away from Christianity. (I think it is this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vqQdc0mX1_c )”
Interesting…but that piece and the other links, excerpts, and comments you make seem irrelevant to the point I was making…. although I’m a rather linear thinker (with IQ several std deviations above 100), so maybe I can’t grok the larger point you were making with all of that.
So, while I’m not sure I understand your thinking, let me clarify mine, as that might give you something more focused on which to help me understand you better (if you’d like to continue our dialogue). First, let’s separate my beliefs from what I think is needed by society as a whole. I am an atheist in that I do not think there is anything “metaphysical” that “exists” — i.e., the traditional God that is a being or entity or force that somehow has an effect on the natural world does not exist. However, I am not, as Steven Molyneux suggests, politically liberal; I am libertarian. Government is a necessary evil to be narrowly focused on but a few things (I think our Founders got it right).
Now, what do I believe is needed for society? I am not against religion. For those who wish to believe in the metaphysical, I understand that need and have no quarrel with it. In that regard, the Judeo-Christian religions seem to me the best mankind has developed as philosophical systems to guide behavior (there may be others equal or superior — e.g., B’hai? — but I have not done a comprehensive study of the world’s religions, so I must be tentative in this remark). I would argue with some of the specific implementations Judeo-Christianity and with some current teachings, but generally the ethical core of those religions is pretty good. In fact, I do my best to manage my model my own ethical and moral framework on what Jesus Christ had to say about what it means to live a good life. I think humanity would do well if all humans adhered to the basics of Judeo-Christian ethics. However, I see no need for the metaphysical aspect of those religions as a basis for a just and civil society. I don’t need to believe in God or metaphysics (“life after death,” etc.) to find a rich meaning for my life that is constant.
The challenge for our age, I believe, is for mankind to create one or more secular systems of ethics that can be codified and named, so it/ they can be taught as a practice. Those who believe in a religion have a codified system of ethics that their religion provides, which is good (assuming that system of ethics is not materially inconsistent with the basic of a Judeo-Christian POV on right versus wrong). However, those who do not believe in a religion do not have any specific systems of ethics with which to identify that are named and taught. Each person is left to sort such things out for themselves, and too many fail to do so, with the result that they do not follow any basic system of ethics, which often gets them into trouble with themselves (e.g., what is the meaning of my life?) and into trouble with society.
To summarize, I’m not against religion. I personally see no need for metaphysics. Mankind can, and does, make good use of religion. However, many, like me, do not find religion useful (i.e., metaphysical “existence” is nonsensical), so people like me are forced to sort out their life’s meaning and a useful code of ethics on their own, which is not good. I believe my initial question to you was, “Why is belief in God necessary for a just and civil society?” I asked that question because I thought that was the point you were making.
JP Miller says:
24 December 2016 at 11:33 pm (Edit)
Gail, I appreciate apologize for not reading your subsequent responses to my note. Your final comment, “In summary…” makes sense to me. I would not disagree that current “secular ethics” focuses on collectivism versus individualism, which I agree is hugely problematic. But, it need not be so. There’s nothing inherent in a system of secular ethics that leans towards collectivism versus individualism. I won’t do so here, but I can give you a fully worked out secular ethical system from first principles that leads one to a Christian ethical framework with a libertarian political philosophy… kinda like the Founders sans the metaphysical!
With that, take a moment to ponder ethical systems in the context of a God, and without one.
Perhaps even toss some rocks at Pascal’s Wager (and maybe even Smith’s Wager ;-).
Consider that the world is full of Evil Bastards. Some sociopaths or psychopaths. Often advantaged in their rise in corporations and governments.
How to constrain them, given that they are unlikely to voluntarily submit to ethical structures.
What happens when they rise to power in the enforcement system of your ethical structure?
How does one decide “Is there a God?”, and is it something to run around shouting?
Can there be an effective Ethical System without a God Idea? Or even with one?…
I’m sure you can come up with more interesting bits…