Arguments About Transcendent Moral Principles, Free Will and the Power of Ideas, and Conceptions of Self
Prompt: Preparation for Final Exam, an open-notes essay test about these three questions.
1. (1) What is the good society? (2) How would we know if one society is better than another? (3) Is there a valid standard of “good” that involves a higher, universal moral principle, or is the only valid standard the subjective welfare of the people in that society? Using specific examples from the reading in the course, make two arguments for, and two arguments against, the existence of transcendant moral principles as standards of the good.
2. (1) How important are ideas, and specific individuals, in explaining long term historical change in human societies? (2) Do ideas matter at all, or are large-scale changes over time simply a consequence of combinations of material forces matched with accident and chance? (3) Is there any such thing as free will? Using specific examples of readings from the class, describe at least four perspectives on this question.
3. (1) Is the highest obligation of the person to him/herself? Or is the highest obligation to the society? If the answer is “it depends,” then on what does it depend? (2) What conception of the “self” is the right one? (3) Can someone be true to oneself, and at the same time be dedicated to serving others? Give at least four different conceptions of the self, and describe the origins of these ideas in the readings for this semester.
I. Transcendent Moral Principles
a. Argument #1 in Favor – Theistic
i. God has made a transcendent moral code. Because God is eternal and unchanging, morality is eternal and unchanging, as well. It transcends all times and cultures.
iv. St. Augustine
v. The Founding Fathers
b. Argument #2 in Favor – Self-Evident Rights
i. Ayn Rand – Infringing upon someone’s rights is always wrong.
iii. Founding Fathers – Unalienable rights endowed by creator.
iv. A law of Nature can be found using Reason. That which is good for human life is good. That which is bad for human life is bad.
c. Argument #1 Against – Materialist
i. Karl Marx. Religion is the opiate of the masses. Communism turns down all truths and all morality and constructs a new order in its place. What is good for a society varies from one stage to another.
ii. Thomas Hobbes. Truth is a social construction. We must agree on our definitions and our first principles and deduct from there on. We cannot derive first principles from nature or from God because we do not have the capacity. Also, the observation of nature is always affected by the character of the observer. Deliberation about good and evil is purely subjective. The kingdom of God is not on this earth and never will be; the sovereign must be the head of religion so that religion and the state will not disagree. Mold theology to fit natural science. Hobbes claims that we can discern God’s will through natural reason, but this contradicts with his claim earlier in Book I of Leviathan that individual perspectives make objective judgment impossible. He has much more evidence for subjective truth than for objective truth.
d. Argument #2 Against – Utilitarian
i. John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham. SATISFACTILES. The right thing to do is whatever procures the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
ii. What makes us happy now? What will make us happy later? Length, breadth, depth. Some pleasures
iii. Your happiness is as good as anyone else’s.
iv. What if God’s will is happiness for everyone?
v. Mankind has gone two thousand years without establishing a set of standards to determine right from wrong. There has been an implicit standard which men have always followed – and that standard is utility.
vi. People like to think that morality is objective fact, but they actually always act on subjective feeling.
vii. Machiavelli – There are objective standards of right and wrong, but the prince must ignore them for the good of the people, damning his own soul to hell. By separating morality and expediency, Machiavelli cripples morality. Your moral code is what you should do. If the prince should ignore transcendent morality for the subjective welfare of the people, isn’t Machiavelli constructing a new, subjective morality?
II. The Power of Ideas/Free Will
a. Argument #1 – Theological Perspective
i. The best ideas have been revealed to us by God. God has given us free will. He knows what we are going to do. He knows what we should do. We can choose to do his will or not. In doing God’s will, we flourish. These ideas do matter. They are life-changing. They are world-changing. Look at Christianity and the effect it has had on the world.
ii. The Second Foundation
v. Augustine – The excellence of the Christian empire.
b. Argument #2 – The Amazing Power of Mankind
i. The Mule and Hari Seldon.
ii. Ayn Rand – Individuals are really cool. An amazing man with amazing talents and amazing ideas can completely alter the course of history.
iii. Niccolo Machiavelli – Humans have robust free will. They can make or break their own destinies. God is not going to come down and save us – we must do the work ourselves.
c. Argument #3 – Materialist
i. Salvor Hardin waited for material forces to win the battle for him.
ii. Man is a billiard ball. It’s cause and effect – everything he does is the result of the things which happened to him before. Therefore, we should pity criminals and put them in hospitals so that they will get better. They say that free will is a total abstraction, and if it were true, chaos would reign. But chaos does not. Free will also causes us shame and guilt because we do wrong. We should not have these feelings. Therefore, ideas have no power. If it wasn’t you, it would have been someone else.
iii. Karl Marx – the dialectic. A thesis squares off with its antithesis, after which a new thesis is created. This new thesis then has to contend with its antithesis, on and on. The sum of appetites and aversions determines human behavior.
iv. Thomas Hobbes – Our ideas and thoughts and so forth are merely the result of the atoms bouncing around in our heads. There are no unmoved movers. Appetite for power, aversion for fear, you name it.
v. Thrasymachus – We cannot say whether any idea is better than any other idea. Justice is completely subjective. History is written by the winners. Justice is whatever is in the interest of the strongest.
d. Argument #4 – Ideas are Viral
i. Religion of Science
ii. Neal Stephenson – Ideas are like viruses. They move from one host to the next very quickly and can successfully disable a society. People have free will, but they do not like to use it. They prefer to do what everyone else is doing. There can only be real change, however, when people break free from their codes and show real personality. Oddly enough, some social institutions safeguard the individual and free will.
2. Hiro Protagonist
3. Y. T.
4. The Snow Crash Virus and Glossolalia
5. Interpretation of Christ’s Teachings
III. Conceptions of Self – Everyone agrees that man must fulfill his nature. But what IS his nature? Dualist perspective VS. Monist perspective.
a. Argument #1 – Ayn Rand
i. Rational Self-Interest
ii. Rejection of Dualism. Galt VS Stadler.
iii. What improves life is good. What is opposed to ife is bad.
iv. Man has no responsibility for others.
v. Man cannot give up his rights. Any infringement upon a person’s rights is morally wrong. In trying to take another person’s rights, you give up your own.
vi. Eudemonia – Every person is made for something.
vii. Mind, not labor, is most important.
viii. I would rather destroy something than let someone else steal it from me.
b. Argument #2 – Hobbes. Human nature is the sum total of appetites and aversions. Man will always do what is best for himself. People construct governments so that they will be able to survive – prudential self-interest. Because the citizens forged the chains, they still have absolute freedom. Same as Rousseau. (No death penalty.)
c. Argument #3 – Aristotle. Man is a rational animal. The right thing to do is the just mean between two extremes. Man should attain wisdom and do what is rational. The family is natural to man, and property is necessary for the family. The state must get the individual things he cannot procure for himself, but above all, it must educate. It can be any form.
d. Argument #4 – Rousseau and Lenin. Mankind would not be fully human without the social contract. Civic involvement is awesome, and people only fulfill their true natures in a state. An individual has NO rights that are above the state. But because everyone has the same status of rights, no one is giving up his freedom. The lawgiver. Monarchy/aristocracy/democracy for day-to-day concerns. Monthly meetings of the whole population. There are no property rights. Since you are a part of the sovereign, you are not giving up your rights. Our freedom in nature is the freedom of animals. Our freedom in the state is the freedom to think rationally. General will VS will of all. From each, to each.
i. Plato also says people need each other.
ii. Some people do not have the capacity for goodness
iii. Abolish private property and family for spiritual good – Plato
iv. Abolish private property and family for material good – Marx
e. Argument #5 – Theological. Man is made to serve the Good. No one is worthy of redemption – no, not one – but by the mercy of God, we can be redeemed. There is a selfish part of our nature, but we can overcome it. (Reason VS Appetite and Temperament). You can be true to yourself while serving others. The strong should carry the weak. The good state is the one in which people are morally virtuous.
f. Argument #6 – Happiness is the basis for man’s actions. People always act on subjective feeling, not objective fact. They try to do what will make them and others happiest. Man is a social being, so people will internalize this standard. This is the philosophy of JS Mill. Adam Smith’s moral philosophy is quite like it, also. He says that people have an impartial spectator which they do not want to disappoint. Mankind has gone two thousand years without establishing a set of standards to determine right from wrong. There has been an implicit standard which men have always followed – and that standard is utility. Human pleasure is much higher than animal pleasure. The function of government is to accomplish the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Therefore, social welfare programs are encouraged. Your duty is NOT to yourself – your duty is to society. It’s greatest-good for greatest-number, not greatest-good for you. Utilitarians disagree about the question of individual rights. Rights exist for the sake of utility.
g. Argument #7 – People sometimes follow the herd and sometimes think for themselves. They are much better off thinking for themselves. The function of government is to quarantine its people from viruses so that they can function normally. People can choose whichever society they like. Act for yourself, not for others.