Showing posts with label ethics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ethics. Show all posts

Monday, 2 November 2015

Why the Problem of Evil Creates a Problem

Undoubtedly the problem of evil is the most viscerally appealing, intuitive and ancient argument against the existence of an omniperfect God. In its oldest form, the argument from the existence of evil seems to have been adequately addressed. It went something like this:

(1) If God exists, evil does not.
(2) But evil does exist.
(3) Therefore, God does not exist.

The issue with this form of the argument is that it is too easy to show that the claim made in premise 1 is too strong; any plausible theodicy shows loopholes in the idea that God and evil cannot coexist. They standardly point to some good that could only be attained by allowing some evil, such as free will (part of Augustinian theodicy) or the importance of evil in spiritual growth (Irenaean theodicy). Some evil is a consequence of free will, which is important enough to tolerate that evil. Hence, it cannot be true that the existence of God is disproved by evil, since clearly God has reason to allow some evil.

The more modern and poignant form of the argument from evil is the evidential argument where evil is presented as something which lessens the probability of the existence of God rather than outright makes it impossible. These sorts of probabilistic arguments seem too nebulous to me to consider them seriously, so instead I will refer to the logical problem of evil with a more precise first and second premise: the argument from gratuitous evil.

(1) If God exists, gratuitous evil does not.
(2) Gratuitous evil does exist.
(3) Therefore, God does not exist.

Here, gratuitous evil is defined as evil that is not necessary to achieve some greater good. Explaining evil as required for some good is obviously not going to work here, but it does at least seem like gratuitous evil exists. Natural evils such as disease or natural disasters seem, in at least some proportion, to be gratuitous. Now, I think the theist has a very good counter at this point: just because it seems unclear to us why some particular evil exists does not mean that no such reason exists. We should be sceptical of our capacity to see the reason for evil if only because from out own experience we know that hindsight has shown particular events in our own lives which we evaluated as negative at the time to have redeeming positive qualities. Whoever had a day's sickness when the World Trade Centre went down, for instance, probably was not too pleased to be sick at the time and yet was rather pleased afterwards to know that they avoided a terrorist attack. God, however, has infinite foresight, so can see all the effects of any event and would be able to evaluate whether the good outweighs the bad.

This position is commonly known as sceptical theism and I think it is essentially correct. However, it implicitly contains ramifications which are disastrous for the religious person if not adequately addressed for it says something of the nature of God: God is clearly willing to tolerate evil for the sake of good. That is the implicit assumption of sceptical theism. This means that, in some sense, God is a consequentialist with regards to God's own actions (even if not for anyone else). What if God lies to us, or at least, allows some untruth to be said by some authoritative representative? Perhaps it could be responded that God would have no reason to do so - but sceptical theism has already postulated quite reasonably that God could have reasons which are beyond our comprehension or knowledge for allowing evil, therefore, God could allow such falsehood in divine revelation.

This in turn undermines the reliability of divine revelation as a whole, for the whole of sceptical theism is the statement that the absence of evidence for a reason does not imply evidence for the absence of a reason when it comes to what God allows or not. The philosopher Stephen Law goes further and argues that sceptical theism is a downwards spiral to the pits of scepticism, since all our faculties could be faulty if God had reason to deceive us, and for all we know God does in fact have such a reason. Law claims that full bodied scepticism is the logical end of sceptical theism, and whilst I disagree, it is irrelevant to the weaker claim which is that God's reliability is undermined.

Some theists reject sceptical theism because it leads to such consequences. To reject sceptical theism, however, is to claim that we must know the reasons behind God's actions, which seems patently false in general and more certainly false from a Christian perspective: the theodicy of the book of Job, for instance, seems essentially to assert sceptical theism. The unfathomable will of God, in turn, is cited by St Paul in his epistle to the Romans as the reason that salvation comes only to those whom God has elected. So sceptical theism, from the point of view of Christianity, seems true.

What can the Christian respond? I can only see one way out: faith. Let me be clear, however, by what I mean when using the word. I do not mean to say at this moment that Christians should believe God because they should trust that God could not have reasons to lie to them. That avenue is expressly ruled out by sceptical theism as a priori. What I mean is rather more inductive: based on the relationship to God as a person, Christians should bridge the gap and trust God. This is done every day by humans everywhere; we trust people who we know could be lying because we think we know them well enough to determine that they are not, in actual fact, lying. I believe this position at least safeguards the possibility of Christians considering divine revelation to be trustworthy. Once that is accepted it becomes a self-protecting belief because the Bible makes claims about God to the effect that God cannot lie, which can be interpreted as the claim that God could not have reasons to lie in actual fact.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Globalisation, Consumerism and Buying Ethically

We have all heard sayings like you vote with your money. Underlying it is clearly the point of view that money and power are intertwined, that spending money is really what we do with our “allocation” of power. Our experience suggests that this is, at least to some extent, correct: people with lots of money have more power than people with less money.

Whenever we buy a good or service, we are casting a vote of sorts, because we are funding some company or organisation. Indeed, all of us do it: we buy food, clothes, often electronics, transportation goods (like a car, bike, motorbike, etc.) or services (like tickets on buses, trains, aeroplanes, or a taxi), and so forth. At least some of these are what we could consider “basic”, that is, we have some need for them. It is true that we could live in such a way that does not involve money, like a hermit or a monk does, but for most people these are not really options.

Modern society, however, brings us two problems which were not really experienced by people a few centuries ago: we live in heavily globalised societies, and we live in economies which thrive on consumption. In other words, we live in such a way that our actions in what part of the world are connected to other parts of the world in ways that were essentially unimaginable in earlier periods of human history, and we live in economic set ups that really only work on the condition that people consume goods and services. Whether or not these are good things does not concern me at present: they are, for most humans in the West, simply facts.

These three things can be combined: we have to consume, our consumptions and actions affect people on a global scale, and we are giving funds, we are voting, when we consume. Add to all of this the implicit point that we are talking about humans in all these interactions, and we have an issue that falls under the magisterium of ethics.

This matter not only falls under ethics, it is a matter of profound ethical concern. It would be a matter of ethical concern even if the economy were not so globalised. The problem is made incredibly complex by the way the economy functions, though, because of how far reaching our actions are. The only solution that can be deemed “simple” is to not play the economy game at all, to be a hermit or monk. For most of us, those of us who will not do so, the ethical course of action is not clear.

Let me give an example of why this is difficult, one that was briefly discussed at the Glimpse conference I attended recently in one of the electives, involving clothes. It is fairly well established that the working conditions for many in Bangladesh are deplorable. That is an affront to human dignity, particularly as expressed in terms of worker's rights. So what do we do? If we do not, collectively, buy Bangladeshi clothes, then people no longer have a job. Their economy is based on the textile industry. If we do buy clothes from there, then we are funding their exploitation.

Suppose we work to ensure they have better working conditions, so that their clothes are fair trade. Chances are, a bunch of the multinationals that make a large profit margin from cheap labour in Bangladesh will just move to neighbouring countries, and once again, the Bangladeshi people working in textile factories will be out of a job and even worse off than before. Maybe the solution lies in not buying new clothes at all, after all, if we buy from somewhere like Vinnies, we support a good cause, and the original labour is (to some extent) secondary, because the clothing is second hand and the proceeds go to a good cause.1 But living in an economy built on consumption means that not consuming essentially means that someone else can no longer make money producing, and once again, someone is out of a job. Of course, that's aside the fact that someone had to have the piece of clothing first-hand in any case.

Clothing is not the only sort of thing that has this problem. I heard last year that many of our electronics, notably our mobile phones, have a metal called coltan, almost all of which is sourced from Africa, and particularly the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are other metals also sourced from mines in the DRC. However, the past fifteen years have seen about five and a half million people die in fighting which gets funding (and motive) from these mines. That's about the population of Cairns in half a year. So electronics must be subject to ethical scrutiny. Or consider food, like so simple a thing as chocolate. It was brought to my attention during Holy Week that the cocoa industry relies heavily on child slavery in West Africa. In a particularly startling quote, one former slave said that “when people eat chocolate, they are eating my flesh.” Whilst that is allegorical, it points to an underlying reality, which is that most of the cocoa in the world comes from West Africa, and substantial portions of it are produced by people who are effectively slaves, often child slavery.

These examples are ones I am using just to illustrate a basic point: our purchasing choices are exerting global influence that aid and create systems of injustice, and furthermore, there is no easy opt-out. I did not even have to include the environmental effects of our actions, existing though they are. Even the hermits and monks that I said were “out of the system” are really so out of the system that they are not truly helping, either, because they are not consuming.

I wish I had some sort of solution to this problem. One, very idealistic one, would be to universally improve working conditions so that purchasing anything would mean purchasing fair trade goods and services. Then there could be no “migration” of labour from a fair scenario back to an unfair one. That is not going to happen over-night, if ever, though working for fair working conditions is not therefore useless, it is just to be considered within an economy which gives incentives to exploitation because it is what makes money, that is to say, within a system where, from the perspective of the producer, fair trade in one place is a push to go somewhere else.

Clearly, we can make use of the “inefficiencies” of the market and buy fair trade wherever possible, since in reality what will happen is that a balance will be shifted towards countries with low working conditions, rather than a complete displacement of all factories to such places. So, for instance, if Bangladeshi workers rights were respected, then there truly would be a overall benefit. We must simply not be naïve enough to think that the response of the multinationals will be simply to pay more and offer better working conditions. And evidently, we need not consume so much in the area of electronics, where really, we gain very little from having the latest phone or music device. Goodness knows what effects that will have on the economic balance, though it will avoid formal cooperation in the evil of funding a bloody civil war.

Really, though, I have no solution, not even a proper guideline. Buy free trade where possible! But that's not in itself enough. Consume less where possible! But that will not be enough. The way that systems are set up allow for no easy solution which will promote the common good.

1Not always, actually. I have gotten new clothes from Vinnies. But let us stick to the second-hand case, and ignore the charity-shop-but-first-hand case.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

In Defence of Christian Vegetarianism? Introduction

For a very long time in human history, there have been people who did not eat animal flesh. The ancient Greeks referred to vegetarianism as "ἀποχὴ ἐμψύχων", or "abstinence from beings with a soul", and one of the more famous Greeks, Pythagoras, was a vegetarian. In the East, both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions have strong vegetarian tendencies. Among the Christian saints, St John Chrysostom and St Basil the Great seem to have been vegetarians. More generally among Christians, St Augustine of Hippo (certainly not a vegetarian himself) notes that Christians who abstain from meat are "without number" (cf. On the Morals of the Catholic Church).

Still, neither humanity nor Christianity have by any means been traditionally vegetarian. Even the many other Christians who abstained from meat have typically not done so for ethical reasons, but as part of some form of asceticism. Nonetheless, it is necessary to examine our practices, even those which have been practised for thousands of years, and ask: is this ethical?

Having thought about this issue on occasion for about a month now, I think there are about twelve arguments of varying strength for being a vegetarian, and about a dozen objections to Christians being vegetarians, each of which is worthy of note, but none of which are, in the end, successful. Not all the arguments for Christian vegetarianism are explicitly Christian, and I would not consider them all to be entirely convincing - for instance, I do not believe in human rights, so I am far from accepting the "extension" of these to animals. However, since talk of human rights is frequently found in Christian parlance, I have included it in the list. On the other side, I doubt most Christians will readily accept explicitly utilitarian arguments, even though I tend to find these more convincing than the rights-based ones.

Allow me to briefly summarize my position: the ideal for human life is to live in a world without death, both of animals and humans, where we live at peace with each other, creation, and God. However, whilst the coming kingdom of Heaven is like that, this is not the world we live in yet. Right now, there is death, pain and suffering, and the way we live our lives must recognize this fact. However, where possible, we should try and minimize unnecessary death and pain. Hence, we should avoid eating meat. More generally, however, our food (and other) choices should take into consideration the amount of suffering that is required to produce that food, and the meat industry, in general, produces more suffering than can be justified. It is therefore not right to eat meat, since this constitutes formal cooperation with the evil of that suffering. This is a position taken in light of current meat-rearing practices, and cannot necessarily be projected onto the past.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Epistemology is Prior to Ethics

I am currently doing a course about writing from a philosophical perspective on social ethics, and it is beginning by the usual, and frankly overdone, introduction to different ethical theories. There is consequentialism (used essentially synonymously with utilitarianism, which has a few brands that are mentioned), deontology (of which nobody but Kant is mentioned), virtue ethics (of which it seems Aristotle is apparently the only expert, despite giants in 20th century ethics being virtue ethicists) and the occasional mention of other theories – sometimes it is pragmatic ethics, this time it was feminist ethics.

Now, when feminist ethics was introduced, I found it bizarre because it was more of a critique, instead of a form of ethics in itself. It seemed essentially an aporia, a negative philosophy, attacking traditional ethical theories and replacing them (when they actually got that far) with a brand of situational ethics that seemed to either subtly re-introduce essentially the same values, or otherwise was so unspecific that it did not give any practical guidance. The feminist ethicists challenge the older theories as being products of patriarchy, enshrining male-dominated values into theories - which is all well and good, but what next? The tutor said that they rejected absolutes, but like most rejection of absolutes, I suspect what that means is that there is some absolute that is meant to trump the others.

Sitting later on in the day in a talk where I was challenged to not view things solely from within the context of my own mix of cultures (it was in the context of missions), I was reminded of that critique. Originally I had discarded it for the most part - sexist as the major thinkers behind these ethical theories might be, their arguments required no assumption of male superiority, for the most part, and in fact, results we consider should have been condemned can largely be ironed out now. Sure, Aristotle tried to argue that slavery could be moral, and yet it has not been missed by later minds reading Aristotle's ethics that the justification for slavery sits uneasy with his philosophy, suggesting that Aristotle was perhaps trying to argue himself out of the position that seemed to be demanded by his system. No doubt Kant would be considered sexist by today's standards, but his arguments concern things related to men and women: freedom, self-determination and autonomy, rationality, etc. And so on with other philosophers in these ethical traditions.

No, it was not the feminist critique itself that was convincing, as a feminist critique, but as a reminder of how our rationality is shaped by culture, and particularly so in the case of ethics. Let me consider utilitarianism, the system I know the best of the three (which is not that well regardless): it makes no sexist assumptions, and in fact, it was the utilitarians that originally alerted the world to another form of unjustified discrimination, that of speciesism (the favouring of one species over another without justification). It seems to require no assumptions which are not common-sensical, no unjustified discrimination...and yet it arose when and where it did for the most obvious of reasons. Britain was the standard of empiricism in the world, and utilitarianism is, at its root, simply the empiricist approach to ethics.

A similar story can be told about Kantian ethics and its backdrop in rationalist Germany. Kant's theory of deontological ethics is a masterpiece in rationalist ethics (even if I do think he makes a mis-step, pointed out by Bernard Williams). The point that becomes increasingly clear is not that culture informs, perhaps even dictates, our values – that point has been made over and over again, and is said better by MacIntyre than by the feminist ethicists – but that our cultural backdrop effectively dictates what one considers a rational approach to ethics. In short, before we worry about cultural subjectivity in virtues, we must be concerned with being objective in the case of epistemology. In short, epistemology is prior to ethics, and epistemology is not any less bound to particular traditions, particular cultures and particular people.

What does it mean for me to say that I think utilitarianism, generalized as I explained elsewhere, provides a coherent theoretical framework for ethical deliberation? Perhaps it means nothing more than that I am a sort of empiricist (generalized, again, as Lonergan has done). It is not in the slightest bit surprising, once I think about it, that my system of ethics depends explicitly and implicitly on foundations given by my epistemology.

The first question that arises is whether or not this is a problem. Certainly, living in a cultural context and studying in an academic context tightly linked to the analytical and empiricist traditions, I have epistemological views that seem foundational to my ethical views – but this is only a problem if there is some invalid step between epistemology and ethics, some sort of know-do gap that I am unaware of. Hence, whilst it is certainly the case that there is links between the two fields, it appears that it only implies that to be correct in epistemology means to be well-guided to pursue ethics.

Maybe this is only an issue for persons like myself, but there is another issue that arises: coherence. Suppose I know that ethical proposition E is true. If my epistemological theory implies an ethical theory that dictates that E is not the case, then I have evidence that my epistemological theory is flawed. For most people, epistemology to ethics is a one way street, but as a Christian reliabilist, I consider myself justified in knowing ethical propositions, in a sense, before elaborating an epistemological theory. Or in other words, whilst most people have no conceivable way of knowing E, and so no way of using E to falsify their theory, I do.

These questions, and various others, lead me to think that I should hold my tongue for the most part on ethical issues until I explore ways of getting around or accounting for the subjectivity inherent in developing an ethical theory as a particular person, in a particular cultural setting, at a particular time and place. Alasdair MacIntyre's work is probably the best place to start.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Issues with Utilitarianism

In the past few weeks, I have been developing an ethical theory that works within a fundamentally utilitarian framework (some of which can be seen in the past weeks' blog posts), but instead of equating utility to happiness or pleasure (as in classical utilitarianism) or preference (as in modern preference utilitarianism), I gave a somewhat vague idea of utility as the valuable, which would include things that are self-evidently valuable (like happiness or pleasure) as well as values which might be considered to be theological (like the value of life, for instance). I have begun to refer to this conception of utility as "generalized utility" or GU.

In generalizing utility this way, I think I have overcome one of the emotional objections to utilitarianism, which is the charge of shallowness. "Surely ethics is more than mere pleasure or mere happiness" the objection goes, and with Generalized Utility Utilitarianism (GUU), indeed it is. Still, there are other problems of a general sort, and I will refer to them as the problem of finitude, embodiment and depersonalization.

The last of these I will not comment on much here because I think a proper application of GUU solves it, though I will mention what it is: in classical utilitarianism, people are not valuable in themselves, but they are valuable because of their function as sentient beings. This produces some problems, most of which can be dismissed by classical utilitarians as moral squeamishness, but others jar our moral intuitions to such an extent that due consideration must be given. John Rawls points out one such consequence, that of telishment, which takes its root from the word punishment. The idea is this: if punishment for some crime, say rape, is to be justified in utilitarian grounds, then it must be the case that it maximizes utility overall. However, if such a thing as punishment (the inflicting of some suffering to reduce suffering overall, in utilitarian terms) is to be justified, then in some cases scapegoating innocent people will also work. If punishment is to act as a deterrence, then it only matters if the person is not responsible in the case that others know, so if nobody knows that someone else is in fact responsible for the rape, then telishment can act as a deterrent in much the same way. In short, the utilitarian framework justifies punishment only insofar as it deters others from committing the crime, not as an act of justice or of retribution. There is no room for people "getting what they deserve" in this classical utilitarian framework, unless it happens to be the case that it maximizes happiness, which leads to punishment-as-deterrence being non-specific to who actually committed the crime.

As I said, GUU seems to solve this problem quite comfortably, even if it can be criticized that it does so too comfortably: other values other than happiness make up Generalized Utility, and so Rawls' criticism falls flat if one were to add some value like justice to the mix.

The other two issues are far more substantial: embodiment refers to the fact that humans are situated in one place, at one time, living in concrete circumstances, such as particular familial and societal bonds. On the classical utilitarian view, absolute impartiality is demanded, so the difference between one's child and a stranger, or a baby child and a pig, is simply their capacity for utility. Failure to recognize this reality may lead to ethically erroneous results from utilitarianism.

Finitude is the term I will use to refer to the epistemic problem inherent in utilitarianism: an action that might usually have good results leads ultimately to a bad result, and so the person is said to have done the wrong action. Whilst a smile is usually harmless or brightens another person's day, for instance, smiling at some particular person may, in an unusual case, make them consider that everyone else must be much happier than they, and so lead to a cycle of self-harm and eventual suicide. Clearly a negative result came about from what is generally considered a good action, but nonetheless, since negative results ensued from the particular action of smiling at that particular person, the action must be condemned as morally wrong. How was the smiling person to know that their action would lead to a negative result? The essence of the problem of finitude is that the consequences of one's actions are ultimately unknown, and so the utilitarian is left with rules of thumb for acting, at best, and incurs the risk of doing wrong all the time.

These are real problems, even if in some sense they are not absolute: one can easily say that indeed, our intuitions about what follows from the fact of our concrete circumstances as individuals (as opposed to utility-containers) are flawed, and it is the case that one's duties towards one's consideration of one's children, as well as consideration of strangers, should be the same, that there is no moral difference between feeding one's child and the child of a stranger. The infamous ethicist Peter Singer seems to take this view in his well-known paper "Famine, Affluence and Morality", and his discussion of the drowning child story (as well as talk of the so-called "expanding circle") show that he at least cares little for geographical closeness. Considering this line of reasoning, the problem of embodiment is a form of the demandingness objection.

The finitude problem is also not absolute, in the sense that it is practical and not theoretical - the arguments for GUU could succeed without the practical capacity of actually being able to determine right from wrong in any given case. If that is the case, then one remains with the crucial question of trying to understand how to act morally, and then if the finitude problem proves unresolvable, then we are left conclusively in the dark, having proven that we cannot know what to do, morally speaking.

And yet, I do need to answer these objections, because GUU must result in, to put if quiantly, some sort of set of "family values", where my child and someone else's is counted differently, as well as being at least semi-practical in answering questions of "what ought I do?" In fact, just as with Rawls' telishment objection, I think family values can be incorporated into GUU. The more values get added to the calculation, however, the more difficult it becomes to solve the epistemic finitude problem, and here I am currently left to flail my arms, suggesting tentatively that a sort of rule GUU be used at present. Except, I cannot see how one is meant to justify that step in theoretical terms: if I really should maximize the good, then surely following some rules all the time will lead to actions which must be condemned. I cannot foresee how to solve the finitude problem.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Human Rights are Moral Illusions

I wrote previously on the question of whether human rights were to be given to humans insofar as they function as humans, or humans insofar as they actually are human (see here), in particular focusing on the issue of abortion, and I ended on that issue by noting that rights lend themselves to a hierarchical system of rights, where some take precedence over others, thereby leaving the abortion issue unresolved even if humans have the right to life merely by being human.
Illusions: things
are not as they seem.

I claim that human rights do not exist as moral realities, but that they are illusions created by other moral realities. Let me distinguish, however, between moral and legal conceptions of rights: clearly, legal rights exist, since they are existent by the mere fact that the legislation of some country, or international law, recognizes them as existent. Rights are important as legal concepts - just not, I claim, as moral or ethical concepts.

Before I continue, I must define more precisely what I mean by "human rights". I will take the first definition proposed by Jerome Shestack in the Human Rights Quarterly when he says that "Sometimes "right" is used in its strict sense of the right holder being entitled to something with a correlative duty in another."[1] This definition brings out two features that seem to me to be crucial to discussions of human rights: human rights are entitlements and they have correlative duties.

Various attacks on human rights have occurred in philosophy: Jeremy Bentham famously said that human rights were "nonsense upon stilts", Karl Marx rejected them as bourgeois inventions and illusions, and Alasdair MacIntyre argued that "there are no such rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and in unicorns." MacIntyre's point was that there have not been successful arguments for the existence of human rights, and I will take him to be correct on this point.

Other groups, notably animal rights activists, object to human rights being human to the detriment of other species - that is, they object on the grounds of speciesism. Whilst these objections are important to consider for defenders of the concept of human rights, it is clear that (in the case of the animal rights activists, at least) they wish to expand the concept of rights to other creatures, such as animals, or some have suggested even that the environment has rights. Hence, they would reject human rights only insofar as they applied exclusively to humans and hence negated the idea of animal rights.

Of the bases for human rights that have been proposed, all are unconvincing: early modern philosophers, such as John Locke, appealed to faulty notions of natural law. John Stuart Mill, from the utilitarian perspective, claimed rights could be founded upon utility, and yet, appeals to utility are too fluid for any recognizable understanding of rights (such as, that they are inalienable). Legal positivist accounts (Thomas Hobbes could, perhaps, fall under this category) claim that rights come from the authority of the state - a claim I can agree with only insofar as it is said that human rights come from the authority of the state legally, which says nothing about how they arise morally without some theory to the effect of "state-makes-right." Related to these are the rights that arise from Marxist conceptions of the state, where individual rights do not exist as unalienable, and are always subject to the changing needs (or whims) of the state - until the Marxist utopian ideal is reached, that is. Rights conceptions which rely on a conception of humankind as individual and autonomous suffer the same criticism as Kantian ethics does, largely because Kant underlies many such theories (I would suggest reading Bernard Williams' masterpiece Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy for such criticisms). I cannot comment on Rawlsian arguments for human rights because I am not sufficiently familiar with his theory (other than in outline). Perhaps Rawls can succeed where others have failed.

To establish the non-existence of moral rights will take more than a paragraph about the failings of other theories to prove them, particularly because not being able to prove something does not mean it is not true. Yet belief in them does not appear to be self-evidently justified - on what basis, other than perhaps the theological one I have not discussed, can homo sapiens be said to have moral entitlements? Suppose that I can now claim that human rights do not exist qua moral rights - what follows? I have labelled human rights as moral illusions, and this they are: supposing they do not exist, we nonetheless perceive them to exist, and my question is, why? What moral reality underlies our misleading perception that human rights exist as moral entities?

I have dismissed the idea that human beings have entitlements as human beings, and here the other part of the definition given by Shestack becomes relevant - do I dismiss also that human beings have correlative duties? No. Herein lies the proposed basis for the moral illusion of human rights: because everyone has duties as human beings, moral structures with the appearance of human rights appear. The appearance of rights is rooted in the reality of duties.

For instance, take the right to life: if everybody has the duty to respect the lives of others, then it at least seems, in general cases, as if everyone has a corresponding right to life. Or the right to freedom of speech: if everyone has a duty to allow others to think freely and speak freely, the illusion of a right to freedom of speech is born. The view that human rights are the fount of duties (to grant the entitlements and respect the liberties) is actually backwards: it is duties that becomes the fount of human rights.

This view will be, I think, acceptable to various groups: the animal rights activists may have to give up their name, but now have a much more solid foundation to claim the respect for animals that they seek. Environmental activists can now speak of environmental rights as shorthand for the duties which humans have towards the environment.

There does seem to be one glaring problem with my thesis: my adoption of a utilitarian framework may lead one to think that it must be conceptually difficult to speak of duties, since duties more naturally arise in deontological accounts of ethics. This is only superficially true, as it is clear that the duty to maximise utility is inherent in utilitarian theories. I will discuss how more specific sorts of duties arise out of this general duty, and so render this account of duties-to-rights intelligible at another time.

One particular case I will address was the one left unresolved when I discussed whether human rights were to be granted by function or by nature, that of prenatal children: I argued that they had the right to life, and yet, this did not lead conclusively to the position that abortion is always wrong, only that it is generally wrong (that is, unless exceptional circumstances warrant the setting aside of the right to life). I cited Naomi Wolf as someone who appears to hold this view.

Now I have proposed that rights come from duties, and now it seems clearer that I can make a firm moral judgement: from the fact that it is always our duty to consider our own good as interchangeable with that of others (a duty that arises from broad utilitarian considerations as well as Catholic edicts such as "love your neighbour as yourself"), and if it is the case that humans are loci of incredible value, then we have a duty towards humans. Again, the considerations of by function vs. by nature that I described previously in "Intrinsic Human Rights - by function or by nature?" now kick into play, as it becomes clear that humans are valuable as humans, not as beings who function as humans. Therefore, the killing of prenatal children is morally wrong not as a breach of rights, but as a failure to comply with one's moral duties. This serves as my response to the "violinist analogy"[2] of Judith Jarvis Thomson, because on this view one does have the duty towards the violinist.

Once again I raise the issue as one I have acknowledged: where do these duties come from, particularly on my own utilitarian framework? I will turn to this issue, one I claim to be easily dealt with, on another occasion.

[1] Shestack, J., “The Philosophic Foundations of Human Rights”, Human Rights Quarterly 20 (1998) 201-234
[2] Thomson, J.J., “A Defence of Abortion”, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1 (1971): 47-66



1. It is clear that I must square all of what I have been saying in light of my theological understanding of humanity. For instance, is it not the case that the right to life is something inherent in all humans by virtue of their being bearers of the Imago Dei? I have set aside theological considerations, and, as with the note above, I will address the issue of understanding how these two (or three) points of view match up in another piece. 

2. What about natural law bases for human rights? I recognize that it has been the natural law which has historically given rise to the language of rights. I will address these concerns later on. This is a very important area however, because not only is natural law intrinsically secular (and so it can be easily brought into the public sphere), but since rights have their genesis historically in natural law theories, human rights as concepts are unlikely to be properly understood outside their context.

3. Since I have been reading a lot of academic papers recently, I feel the need to apologize for not researching for this blog-post. Although it may sound snobbish to say so, I do have a decent background in the idea of human rights, and so I have relied upon that to get a feeling for how the field stands today. I make no firm assertion that what I say is original or not rejected for some good reasons that are unknown to me.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Intrinsic Human Rights – by function or by nature?

Pervading a lot of popular level discussions of morality and social justice there is talk of “human rights”, often modified by adjectives such as “innate”, “intrinsic”, “inherent” or “unalienable.” The idea seems to be that, by virtue of being human, we are entitled to various things – for instance, education, free speech, life, private property, etc. When the issue comes to the right to life of the unborn, however, a different tactic seems to be taken quite frequently.
One move is to de-humanize the unborn child – “it is a clump of cells” – and hence to make out that it is not a human child. This tactic seems to be largely an emotional appeal, because all humans are clumps of cells. Certainly, adult humans are very complicated clumps of cells, but unless one wishes to invoke the idea of an immaterial soul (an idea which would complicate the issue even more), then the distinction between an unborn child and a newborn child must be made on grounds other than material constituency.

More sophisticated versions of the “clump of cells” argument turn on the much more real distinction between the clump of cells which is an adult human, and the clump of cells which is an embryo. Here, the right to life of the prenatal child is objected to on the grounds that the child is not functionally a human being.

Our intuition about who has a right to life, even for those who think that prenatal children are excluded from the category, is veritably pushed to difficult limits by assigning human rights (and consequently, the right to life) to only those who are functionally human. The difficulty is this: whatever attributes are said to be the ones that define a functional human, there can be found some post-natal human that lacks it and who we would still want to consider "fully human".

For some, particularly the consistent consequentialists, this is not a problem. Some people argue that yes, human rights must be given to people who are functionally human, and then go on to propose criteria for such a state: perhaps capacity for abstract thinking, or some loosely defined form of self-awareness. For pro-abortion activists, such definitions may seem appealing, and yet, they tend to leave the line in an unacceptable place - abstract thinking comes years after birth, and when self-awareness comes depends on the definition, but it is clear that such a definition would not discriminate between the mere location of the child (ie, inside or outside the mother's womb).

It seems clear that functional definitions of humanity will point to attributes that are not necessarily developed until definitively post-natal infancy, leaving as legitimate killing the immediately post-natal child, that is to say, infanticide. Still, such a view does not end at that side of life - it calls into question many elderly people, who by the end of their lives also lack various attributes common to adult humans. Put bluntly, there are elderly people who could very easily be denied their functional humanity, and so lose the right to live; perhaps it would be thought of as legitimate, even if sad, to kill our society's elderly. Maybe arguments could be made about the resources they would take up if they were not killed, or their diminished quality of life made grounds for their death.

Without attempting to be overly-precise, I suggest that human rights can either be had on the basis of the human nature of a being or the human function of  being, that is to say, based on what the being is or what the being does/can do. Since most people are not willing to strip elderly people or newborn children of their human right to life, it must follow that most people are compelled to grant the right to life on the basis of nature, that is, on the basis of the humanity of the subject.

This has important ramifications for the abortion debate, because if this is the case, then prenatal humans have human rights. This does not, in fact, settle the issue of abortion outright, because the language of rights is too malleable - for instance, some argue that one can have rights to do wrong, or that there is a hierarchy of rights such that, in some cases (war is suggested example), rights that seem fundamental (like the right to life) can be rejected for the sake of some other right. In short, the very concept of a right does not lead logically to its unalienable character, at least not without some more argumentation. This hierarchical view of rights seems to be the one given by a leading feminist in the third wave feminist movement, Naomi Wolf:

"War is legal: it is sometimes even necessary. Letting the dying die in peace is often legal and sometimes even necessary. Abortion should be legal; it is sometimes even necessary. Sometimes the mother must be able to decide that the fetus, in its full humanity, must die. But it is never right or necessary to minimize the value of the lives involved or the sacrifice incurred in letting them go. Only if we uphold abortion rights within a matrix of individual conscience, atonement and responsibility can we both correct the logical and ethical absurdity in our position and consolidate the support of the center." ("Our Bodies, Our Souls", October 16th, 1995, The New Republic)

Various people have rebutted Wolf by asserting the more fundamental nature of the right to life - it is, after all, a requirement of most other rights, since almost any other conceivable right assumes that the person is alive. That line of thought may be fruitful, and yet, I wish to suggest an alternative: that rights are misleading and incorrect concepts in the realm of ethics, that they should be relegated to the realms of legal and political philosophy and that instead, ethics should use another conceptual framework which sheds more light on these issues. Whilst what I have proposed in terms of rights seems to still be valid under the current legal framework, the new framework which I will propose will give the ethical dimension more clarity. 

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Why I am a Utilitarian and a Catholic

For a blogpost titled for what I am, it might be odd to start with what I am not. I am not an ethicist. The only reason I know anything about ethics is that ethics deals with how one ought to act, and I, like everyone else, have to act in some way or another. I would like to think that I have as much ethical expertise as business professionals have mathematical expertise: not that much, but enough to do their jobs. Some sort of ethical knowledge is necessary for humans, which are generally moral agents, and therefore I must be acquainted with ethical precepts to do “my job.” But I am not an ethicist.

I have often said that utilitarianism is the only potential candidate for a secular theory of ethics, a position I have held for many years, even when I was an atheist, even when I was willing to act in
Henry Sidgwick, often held
to be the greatest utilitarian.
accordance with my utilitarian values. Utilitarianism is, I think, the first and only truly empiricist theory of ethics, and I would defend it thus: I perceive self-evidently that pleasure is better than pain, indeed, that pleasure is good (hence pleasurable) and pain is bad. I infer that pleasure is better than pain for all sentient beings. I draw the conclusion, then, that what is right is that there be more pleasure and less pain, and finally, that an action is right when it maximises pleasure and minimises pain.

This reasoning solves what I will refer to as the “value problem” (how to jump from a set of empirical data to a value) by empiricist means: I know pleasure is valuable because I experience pleasure as good. It has a positive phenomenal quality. I should note that pleasure is being used in a pseudo-technical sense, because I do not necessarily mean simple pleasures (like eating a good piece of chocolate) but holistic pleasure (which might include reading a good book, or beating a personal best in the pool, or discovering some new fact about the universe). The reverse is true for justifying that pain is bad. This seems to be a solution to the value problem, and if one supposes that other beings are also capable of experiencing pleasure and pain, then I think an objective moral duty follows: ceteris paribus, one must increase pleasure and decrease pain.1

When I became a Christian, and more importantly, when I became (of all stripes of Christian) a Catholic, I had to re-evaluate my position. Nonetheless, the argument that I have proposed for utilitarianism does not become unsound (supposing it was sound in the first place) simply because of the large set of other justified beliefs I now had.2 None of these other beliefs negate the truth of the empirical premise (that pleasure has positive phenomenal qualities, and pain has bad) or the assumption that other sentient creatures are capable of experiencing pain and pleasure. Still, the Church believes in moral rights and wrongs that do not make sense on a utilitarian framework – in most of those cases, the Church is closer to our natural moral intuitions than utilitarian theory is. How was I to make sense of this?

Since I am not an ethicist, and because utilitarian theory and Christian ethics accord on plenty of points, it took me a while to even bother to try and solve this problem. I told everyone that I was a virtue ethicist, although I half meant that I held to the virtue of maximising the good, which is a very utilitarian way of thinking about virtue ethics.

The solution I propose to harmonise both positions seems to me to be remarkably simple, and maybe somebody came up with it before me, even though I did not take it consciously from anywhere else. Because I study mathematics, and because utilitarianism lends itself naturally to discussions of moral calculus, this solution might sound overly mathematical and complicated, but the principle is very simple: experience shows that pleasure is an intrinsic good. What being a Catholic adds is consideration of other intrinsic goods. Being Catholic does not so much negate the previous solution to the value problem that utilitarianism offers, it expands it, and in many cases, it may well overshadow the value given to pleasure.

Take the almost canonical example to illustrate the non-intuitive aspects of utilitarianism, the fat man on the bridge who could be pushed over to stop a train and save the lives of a group of five people working on the train rail tracks: utilitarian theory says that pushing over this “innocent” bystander is the morally obligatory act – not only justifiable, but morally obligatory. It is a simple calculation, ignoring for a moment variables such as capacity of happiness of each person: killing one saves five. Easy as that. I would have nodded my head at this morally non-intuitive result, all the more happy to be accepting the logical conclusion of an argument without reference to how I feel about it.

The difference being a Catholic changes is not to devalue pleasure (or utility, or happiness, etc.) but to value human life. Perhaps it might be objected “but that was the problem, one life for the sake of five”, except that sort of calculation only works for finite values on human life. Suppose human life were to be valued infinitely. Then the moral calculus makes no sense, the set of allowable transfinite calculations does not include operations like subtraction to yield a useful quantity for moral calculus.3

Were this a proper article, I would be obliged to discuss and work out how theoretical calculations could be computed in light of these difficulties. However, my purpose is more conservative: to explain both my utilitarianism, duly modified to incorporate newly found truths, with an ethical system that seems opposed to it. Unless unassailable difficulties arise which I cannot foresee, I will remain comfortable in this position as an orthodox Catholic who accepts the basic utilitarian argument.

1 I am aware that pleasure and pain are related, but not mere opposites, and so the moral calculus may need some more thought and refinement, that is, decreasing pain and increasing pleasure may, in some rare cases, pull in different directions, and in such cases the principle is inconclusive. I am also aware that situations where some pain leads to greater pleasure are not entirely clear on this basic principle. Ask me, if you want to know about my solutions to these problems.

2 One thing that did change is that, as beings who will have an eternal future, the moral calculation would have to include the afterlife. But that is readily understood in terms of utilitarian theory, and it still leaves (indeed, probably exasperates) the question of why some things were wrong in an of themselves.

3 If I were talking about a ratio, then I might be able to do the calculation, using l'Hôpital's rule, which some high school students and all first year mathematicians learn about. But that would complicate the otherwise simple point.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

The Loss of Popular Rational Discourse

Every so often, I commit the mistake of scrolling a bit too far down to the comments section on a YouTube video, and since I usually watch videos relating to something religious or anti-religious, the comments are without exception filled with some debate about the existence of God, or whether morality can exist without God, or whether God is good anyway.

Except it is not quite a debate. Debates are generally reasoned discussions of opposing views, and these "YouTube debates" tend not to be reasoned at all, on both sides. There are, of course, exceptions, yet they are a rarity. Mostly the comments form a mudslinging fight.

Why is this the case? Perhaps I am simply in the odd position of having been on both sides, and so am sympathetic to both views, but I think the reason is deeper than that. It seems that both the theists and atheists, on YouTube but also in many other forums and popular level discussions, have lost the ability to debate with reason.

I think part of the reason is a matter of how these opposing religious and irreligious sub-cultures have arisen. Historically speaking, both sides of the issue have had a very intelligent and thorough position, from the likes of St Thomas Aquinas and other scholastics (not forgetting earlier figures, which also abounded), through to modern philosophers of religion on the theist side, and the unforgettable likes of David Hume, John Stuart Mill, among others, on the atheist side. Throughout history, clearly humans have been able to argue reasonably about these matters.

Yet now, the popular level is not steeped in the vast intellectual tradition. The Christians (which I will now refer to instead of plain theists, although the sets of Christian and theist are not identical) seem to talk more like they use faith as an epistemological tool to know the truth of these matters, thus making knowledge an inward thing, and the atheists portray themselves as the bastions of reason, even whilst attacking caricatures, making ad hominems and generally not using reason at all. Statements like "You talk about faith in a god which there is not one logical reason to think exists" abound in the popular atheist discourse, and the problem is, that shows more ignorance of the person who states such an absurd statement than it sheds light on whether or not God exists. Whether some divine being exists or not, logical reasons have been put forth for centuries on either side.

However the two ways of knowing proposed, faith and reason, are never used. The Christians do not use faith to know, because faith is not a way one can get knowledge of any kind. Reason is not used by the atheists, to some degree because the popular atheist is not well versed enough in matters of reason to employ it properly, but also because the Christians never require it of them. One can comfortably proclaim oneself to hold the reasonable position, whatever that position may be, if the argument against it is not reasonable. One can talk about the logic of the atheists' position forever, if the argument against it is "you're going to hell" - which, if such a thing is merely asserted, does not challenge reason but only offends.

I have centred my observations thus far at the popular level, because at an academic level such foolishness is not so rampant. It is of no use, however, to suggest that people do a bit of research before they open their mouths on these issues, because it is impractical. It is my contention that the problem is this: the argument has gone for so long that it is no longer possible to throw together a few premises and come out with a conclusion. In essence, the arguments still are of that sort, but a much grander defence of hitherto unquestioned principles is required nowadays. Whereas in times past rational intuition held a much higher status, now seemingly obvious truisms are questioned, such that philosophy departments are full of people that do not hold common and intuitive beliefs at all.

The popular level is not full of detailed consideration of philosophical puzzle cases, unable or unwilling to think critically of one's own position as well as the opponents'. As I say, the intellectual tradition has gone beyond what most folk can comprehend readily - that is the problem, and it will not suffice to relegate the majority of people to "the ignorant box." If we as a society are going to progress, it is not because academics and intellectuals advance, but because everyone is brought up to some common and higher standing. The problem we face, in my opinion, is of how to equip people with the ability and desire to discern the truth, enter into rational discourse and, were somebody to be convinced of some proposition or set thereof, actually have it change them. The unspoken assumption that anything one does not already believe must either be false or relatively unimportant must also be challenged if the societal Zeitgeist is to be changed to re-involve critical thinking and reasoning.

The previous consideration applies to practically all areas of life, and now I will offer a few comments on the subject of theism and related debates:

To the Christians: it will not do to ignore reason in public, or indeed private, thought. Throughout the Christian era (CE, slightly adapted) we have had some marvellous minds tackle problems. Take an epistle of St Paul, and count how many times he uses the word "therefore" - such a word is a prime indicator that he is using reason to argue his case. We lose such depth to our religion if we ignore the argument and just focus on the conclusion. We believe that circumcision is not necessary - but can we argue why? Throughout Galatians, it is a heck of a lot more sophisticated than "Jesus finished with that kind of stuff." The use of reason in theology, in philosophy and in other areas enriches, it does not destroy.

We also caricature humans if we forget that we are rational animals when we speak of the gospel. It is true that sin is a problem of the heart, and that the working of the Holy Spirit is fundamental to conversion, but if we then go from that and forget to engage the minds of others, we shoot ourselves in the knee and wonder why we cannot walk. As people and not machines, humans need more than just cerebral content - yet neglecting the cerebral content is something done to our own loss.

To the atheists: it is plainly ignorant to merely assert that there is not and has never been a good reason for believing in some divine being. You may not be convinced, but it does not show any intelligence to regard the rational case for such a being as never opened. The burden of proof is certainly on the theists, but that does not mean that theists have never advanced some case. If you are to be defenders of reason, then what is required of you is that you practice what you preach - so you can do your research, figure out what is wrong with our arguments, and then rebuke us in our fallacies or falsehood. Or maybe (God willing) be convinced!

Furthermore, and this case bothers me in particular, it is not true that "one can obviously have ethics without God." I think one can have ethics without God, but it is not obvious, and the sooner one realizes that it is going to take some argumentation, the better. What is the basis of this morality? How can one know what the right course of action is? Is it universal, and what makes others obliged to follow moral precepts? These are all questions that cannot be answered by asserting that atheists have an answer. Like I said, I think atheists do have an answer - but it is not the case merely because I have asserted it. I used to be a utilitarian (which is the only system I can think of which does not require God - Humean ethics, the most common sense one, fails, in my opinion, but that's another discussion), and I can guarantee that some of the answers I had to give to these questions were not in the slightest the most intuitive. It seems to be the case that the truth of these matters, whatever it may be, is a lot more complicated than most believe. This has been known by the intellectual elite for a long time - it is now time for that elitism to be lessened and the doors to be opened to all.

Monday, 18 February 2013

The Immoral Argument against the Old Testament

The core question of ethics, "what ought one do?" is one of the foundational questions of philosophy. Christianity seems to get ethics from the Bible, but is it really a good source? If one looks at the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, then it may seem very plausible. Yet the earliest gentile Christians realized that it was not quite so simple - they were going to have to contend with the seemingly abhorrent actions committed by Israel, codified into Mosaic Law and commanded by God. Can an argument from the immorality of the Hebrew Bible suffice to reject the Bible as authoritative on matters of morality?

Allow me first to bring up some of this "evidence". From things Israel committed, see Numbers 31
where Moses commands the Israelites (it can be reasonably argued from verse 7 that God was the one who really commanded, but it is possible that the brutality was not God's - in this instance) to destroy the Midianites, and then Moses complains further when the Israelites have not killed every woman. These Midianite women and the men (referred to as boys in the passage) are to be put to death. The virgins, however, are kept as plunder "for themselves".

If the ownership of women seems unlawful to you, then this only complicates matters, as the law of Moses clearly speaks of women as property[1], for instance, in Exodus 22:16-17. Christians can speak of Jesus abolishing this law all they like, but the gospel according to St Matthew is insistent on the fact that Jesus' role was fulfilment, not abolishment - and if the sinless man fulfils it, then the Mosaic law must be the standard of morality to judge sin by. Furthermore, if Christians are adamant that Jesus actions mean we can ignore the law of Moses, why does St Paul refer to it as good and holy? (see: Romans 7:12)

One final piece of evidence: God's own explicit commands. Where better than the genocide of Joshua, commanded in Deuteronomy 7? I take this last instance to be common enough knowledge, and if not, then Deuteronomy is clear enough.

Now comes the logic part. It seems to be the case that these have nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus, about compassion on loving on another - but they do, for Jesus claims to be the son of the God of Israel and no other. The modus ponens argument I suggest is as follows:

1. To commit or command the actions listed above is immoral. (P implies Q - commanding these actions implies that the commander is immoral)
2. God commands the actions listed above. (P: God does indeed command these actions)
3. Therefore, God is immoral. (Q: therefore, by modus ponens, God is immoral)

The logic of this statement is valid, but one may also attack the truth of the premises. Some Christians reject the first premise, saying that it is not in all times, cultures and places immoral to kill others or enslave them. Some say that it may be for most, but not for God, because God can do whatever he likes. Phrased in a more sophisticated manner, God has no moral obligations, as nothing is above God to impose them.

Very well, but that neither seems biblical nor does it seem to bode well in philosophy, either. If God does not, by his very own righteous nature, impose standards on his own actions, then how does he impose standards on ours? Where does this standard come from in the Christian view, if not from God's own essence? Either we propose an authority above God from which morality emanates, thereby constraining God, or we reject this and propose that the standard is, in fact, from within God and then he must have moral obligations; to himself.

But the second premise can also be challenged. Is biblical infallibility a terribly out-dated doctrine that ought to be left aside? It would certainly be helpful to reject it at times like these! Or at least, do we really need to take things so literally, word-for-word true, leaving aside the human element inherent in it?

In fact, I would opt for something along the lines of the latter. There are however, problems with this view, and there exist tensions which I am not wise enough to solve. Succinctly, the most crucial is that the New Testament writers all valued the Old Testament very highly, if not as inerrant. For some more discussion on this topic, see Why the Old Testament Cannot be Waved Away.

[1] It has come to my attention that the Roman Catholic Church actually (quite prudently in my opinion) has the decalogue (10 Commandments) arranged in a different way. These commandments are numbered 10, but there are in fact 13 "you shall not"s, and so it falls upon the translators to combine them to make 10. Catholics combine the "first two" and separate wives from property, avoiding this problem.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The Truth, The Way, and The Life - a striking claim

As a student of both the natural sciences and philosophy (the latter of which I hope everyone is), I had to figure out what exactly I wanted to find out with my studies. Was it the right arguments to defend my position? Did I want to justify myself? Or did I want to be cool, learn the jargon of physics and philosophy, and impress my friends?

The difficult thing with both of these, is that if done properly, all of these desires are dispelled. One cannot honestly consider issues in science, ethics, epistemology, ontology or indeed theology, and expect to quickly learn how to defend a previously held position. Philosophy, when done right, renews one's mind. Examination of philosophy is the grandest cure for naïvety that the human race has come up with - nothing is left unchallenged. Physics goes even futher. At least it is conceivable that a philosopher remain dogmatic, but the natural world does not care what we think. It simply is. Our notions cannot be left unchallenged.

So what can a truth seeker think when reading the gospel according to St John, the fourteenth chapter? Well, one thing is certain. Such a claim is quite unparalleled in history. Yet it is also rather odd. Scientists vary in exactly how they interpret their work, but one way of thinking of physics is by saying that the equations and concepts developed are our way of understanding what exists.* Here is a man, however, declaring that he himself is the truth. Not something exterior - the fullness of truth in a person. Completely unlike anything I can grasp! The big question of epistemology, "what is true, and what can we, or do we, know?", embodied in a person.

Very well then, if we believe this man (which by now, it should be clear is Jesus of Nazareth), how are we to respond? I can barely grasp what it means for this bloke to be the Truth, but to take a line from the Scottish philosopher David Hume, one cannot deduce an ought from an is. The truth, what exists and is, does not necessarily tell you how things should be, the ought. However, Jesus does not stop there. He claims also to be "the way". The big question of ethics, "how should one live?", answered again by saying that he is the manner one should live. Ridiculous...isn't it?

For some reason, Christians have a tendency to latch on to the last bit - Jesus as a life-giver. This is, of course, crucial, because without this the first two are pointless - but without the first two, the last one is pointless too. Life finds its meaning in truth and the way it ought to be. Jesus says he offers all three.

The Christian response is belief. But everyone has to try and figure out why this man says the things he does. If he is wrong, then who cares? Yet such a striking claim merits consideration. And if he is right, if he speaks the truth, then who could possibly remain unchanged?

* I am an instrumentalist, which essentially means that I think that science discovers the best way of modelling and thinking of phenomena, without necessarily being an objective portrayal of reality as is. Hence, this is not quite my view, but it certainly seems to be the lay-person view and of many of my peers.