Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Murderer in the Forest: An Exercise in Moral Philosophy

A Murderer in the Forest: An Exercise in Moral Philosophy

     When the world seems to be completely upside down, when shootings and mass murders are becoming more and more common, ethical and theological questions hit the spotlight. As someone who is a devout Christian, I find that the theological questions fascinate me the most, such as the problem of evil. However, instead of giving a direct answer to a very important theological difficulty, I wanted to focus on the presuppositions of those questions by posing certain philosophical problems that we all need to answer before such accusations are hurled at God. Using a hypothetical situation, I wish to reveal these difficulties and show that ultimately God is the best, most coherent, answer to the problem of evil as well as the proper foundation for morality.

     The hypothetical situation I wish to present is pulled directly from that familiar metaphysical question: If a tree falls in the woods and nobody is around to hear it, then does it still make a sound? This of course pulls in the topic of subjective priority and its influence on the objective world outside of us. Instead of a metaphysical question, my hypothetical question offers a moral twist. It goes as such:

If someone is murdered in the woods, and nobody was around to witness it, then has the murderer done anything wrong?

It might be argued, before I even begin to delve into this issue, that this hypothetical question is question begging.  It could be argued that ‘murder’ is a moral term presupposing ‘wrongness’, and asking whether what the murderer did was wrong is simply to state an unhelpful tautology.  However, since the question is asking whether a wrong act was committed, then one should assume that the term ‘murder’ is treated slightly differently here. Only the observable act itself should be taken into consideration, that is, one human actively killing another. This question isn’t attached to some other argument, such that it could serve as a question begging premise, but rather is to solely frame the issue. Even accepting the tautology won’t rid us of the deeper question within the hypothetical, for one could always ask, “Why is murder wrong?” And that precisely leads us to the real topic at hand.

     So how might one begin to answer this hypothetical? One might begin by seeking as much clarity as can be given. There are obviously two people involved in a murder: the murderer and the victim. Does it make sense to suggest that there are no witnesses? This inevitably points us to the issue of the relation between two or more subjective experiences. First, after the murder is complete, there is only one witness remaining: the murderer himself. Yet moments prior to the murder, the victim was alive and had opinions on the matter. So in a metaphysical sense, we know that two subjective experiences do not cancel each other out, for the truth of a subjective statement is contingent on the subject (person). But this presents us with a difficulty. To explain, consider two people, A and B, discussing the properties of an apple. Imagine if A states, “This apple tastes amazing! It’s so sweet!” and imagine that B says, “No, no, this apple is mediocre, it tastes bitter!” The difficulty is that the apple cannot be both amazing and mediocre, as well as sweet and bitter, at the same time. Rather, the apple doesn’t possess the property of ‘amazing’, ‘mediocre’, ‘sweet’, or ‘bitter’ intrinsically. Neither does the subject, the person, have these properties. What occurs is a relational, emergent, property existing ‘in-between’ the subject and the object. So the subjective experience, then, is an experience where a certain state of affairs comes about by virtue of the presence of the subject. So the truth of a subjective experience is contingent upon the subject’s preference and faculty.

    The difficulty in relation to this moral hypothetical situation becomes evident when one considers the fact that each subject, or person involved, can have their own take on the situation. What if the murderer is operating under the principle, “Killing other people is ok if they are X type of person” and the soon-to-be victim is in fact a member of X? What if the soon-to-be victim operates under the principle, “It is wrong to murder any person?” In this situation, the subjects serve as each other’s object. However, now you have two sets of relational properties between each subject, and conflicting properties at that. So who is correct here? Or can there even be a ‘correct’ here?

     One way to answer this is to suggest that morality is purely a subjective preference. It follows, then, that the statement “murder is wrong” is not objectively true, and is not true independent of a human agent. [It holds as much value as saying, “Strawberry ice cream is the best there is!”]  It follows that when the murderer is finished with his victim, it is his morality that remains in the picture. To agree with this conclusion is, I suggest, conceding the whole case. The answer to the hypothetical is simply that the murderer did nothing wrong because his subjective preference ‘won out’ over the victim. But even while the victim is alive, one would be hard-pressed to suggest that one’s morality was superior over the other. Would the criteria for the more correct morality then fall on who is more physically fit?

     Instead of conceding that morality is subjective, and despite the fact that I claimed that one would be hard pressed to maintain that either morality was superior in this case, one might wish to argue that there is a way to get around this. Perhaps, it might be argued, that it is society, with all of its intelligentsia, that serves as the true relational property between the murderer and victim.  In this case one can respond to the hypothetical in the affirmative; yes, the murder still did something wrong despite being alone in the woods. However, and this is a big ‘however’, this is to evade the central issue by presenting a slightly puffed up defense, which inevitably brings us back to the beginning. First off, this explanation is vague for it assumes, and leaves unaccounted for, why society deemed the victim’s morality superior rather than the murderer’s; it merely assumes that which is under investigation (“Why is murder wrong?”) and becomes a circular response. The Nazi society thought that wiping out the Jews was a good thing, so should we say that Nazi morality was ok ‘for them’? Further, if the difficulty between two subjective preferences remains problematic, then why think adding ‘society’, which is simply a collective of persons, changes anything? Moreover, even with the appeal to majority aside, there is also another problem: Society wasn’t present in the woods. This is a fatal blow to such a concept, for although there are many in a society, even if it can be said to own the land the murder took place in, there is still no physical presence of society during the moment of the crime. The only way to avoid this is to appeal to some sort of ‘omnipresent’ obligation. However, this is to apply qualities that don’t exist in a society. The truth is, a ‘member’ of society would have to be present in order for ‘society as a whole’ to be present. But this gets us into a deeper issue.

     Can obligation fix this problem? No, for there was already an internal conflict with the problem of society to start with. However, answering this will actually set up another defeater to a potential escape route one might wish to use. Perhaps it will be conceded that society can’t determine morality without a hint of arbitrariness. However, they can still make it in the best interest of individuals to follow it. Punishments can serve as a motivating force that leads to obedience. Maybe the murderer would be found and punished accordingly by his societies’ law enforcers. But already we have strayed into territories almost irrelevant to the hypothetical question--- “then did he do anything wrong?” What happens is that ‘wrong’ is being understood as ‘failing to adhere to obligation’. This is a totally different issue, however. For example, I could be ‘obligated’ by my peers to murder a Jewish person. However, if it is wrong to murder a Jewish person, but my society obligates me to kill Jews, then there is a direct conflict between wrongness and obligation. Several more examples are available that would defeat this ‘obligation’ notion. Although obligation plays a huge role in a sound moral theory, it isn’t sufficient enough to use as the solution to the hypothetical. Moreover, the internal problem existing in the previous issue supersedes this section. If society cannot declare what is right and wrong without being completely arbitrary, then neither will obligation help to define that which is right or wrong. Further, society isn’t always present, so if it is even possible that the murderer get away, then does talk of obligation even matter in the end?

     If society and obligation fail to answer this question, then is there another route one can take? What if humans are equipped with a moral faculty, such that we share an inherent love for one another? And to not love your neighbor is to go against some natural inclination? “The murderer was wrong to murder because he went against his human nature.” The problem with this account is that it actually stands in favor of the murderer. If consistent behavior of the human race, the norm, is considered ‘right’ and to go against ‘wrong’, then we have a huge problem! Bad behavior is actually more observable than ‘good’ behavior, as is lying, cheating, greed, etc. This type of behavior goes on all the time in the animal kingdom; perhaps ‘murder’ is just something species-specific to humans. Moreover, the worst thing one can do at this point is to appeal to some neo-Darwinian ethics of ‘survival’. There are many instances of unethical behavior yielding higher survivability for both the individual and the collective. Perhaps the murderer was fending off a competing male in order to have dominance over his tribe and his women. Farfetched? One only needs to look to nature to see how cruel it can be. Appealing to nature makes the hypothetical situation morally indifferent.

     But what if we are simply over complicating this issue? What if our subjective experiences are more aligned than not? Is it not the case that the majority, if they are in the right state of mind, value themselves enough to have sympathy for others? Aren’t concepts like, love, intelligence, and other feelings and emotions simply valuable? One might say, as I’ve often heard, “I wouldn’t kill another human being because as I reflect on the matter, I value my sense of love and wisdom, and understand that my neighbor possesses these same attributes. To kill someone else is to hate oneself, and that certainly is wrong.” Although this is filled with poeticism and appeals to common experience, it still doesn’t answer the question. Without a point of reference, this is merely a rehash of the problem of subjective preference in ethics. Obviously the murderer didn’t feel the same as the proponent of such morality. And the fact that the murderer killed off the victim doesn’t therefore mean the murderer hated himself. Simply because humans possess the ability to exhibit emotion and to practice reason says nothing about why these attributes are in fact valuable such that they become ‘facts of value’ about the world. Even if one could theoretically point to some fact about the world and state that it is intrinsically valuable, then this would say nothing about why we have an obligation to that fact or why failing to perform such duties makes a difference.

The Theme Brought to Life

    So far we’ve only been able to prove that morality is at best purely subjective. The answer to the hypothetical question thus far becomes, “No, the murderer technically didn’t do anything wrong, for his subjective preference is all that remains in relation to the victim.” This doesn’t mean that our investigation was a waste a time. Far from it! It actually revealed a theme of what is necessary for a sound morality. First, in order to say that murder is in fact wrong, there has to be something more than the subjective preferences of the two parties involved. The mere fact that I believe that the Earth is flat doesn’t therefore change the fact that it is spherical. Likewise, there needs to be an objective nature to such moral truths, such that they stand true irrespective of the opinions or subjective preferences of individuals. Second, there needs to be an obligation to perform these moral truths. Without obligation, moral objectivism becomes a mere fact about the world that one can wave at distantly. Without obligation, murdering an individual is ‘wrong’ on the same level as answering 1+1= 5; it becomes a distant, almost existentially indifferent, truth. Finally, third, there must be some sort of reparation, or punishment, for failing to perform one’s duties and obligations. It has to matter on some deep human level whether we follow that which is moral. So we can safely say that without all of the following three criteria present, there can be no sound morality:

(1)    Moral objectivism- moral truths that exist independent of human opinion.
(2)    Moral obligation- what one ought to do; makes moral truths existentially relevant.
(3)     Moral reparation- punishments for failing to perform one’s duties and obligations, emphasizes existential relevancy.

Enter God

     I argue that it is God who can satisfy these three criteria. Although I haven’t made an argument for his existence, I can at least assume that He exists in a “Given-that-He-exists” kind of way, not unlike the problem of evil espoused by atheists by assuming that God exists to further their problem with Him. There is a moral argument that can be offered, and there are ways to derive his existence from what has been discussed here, but my main objective is to show why God is necessary for a sound moral theory, not necessarily reasons why He exists.

     In Plato’s dialogue The Euthyphro Socrates asks Euthyphro whether something was pious because the gods said so, or the gods said so because it was pious. Making the dialogue relevant to God, one can say, “Is it right because God says so, or does God say so because it is right?” The former portion of the dilemma makes morality almost arbitrary as if the simple fact that this being utters a word makes something right or wrong. Although this isn’t a horrible explanation, it doesn’t serve the theistic framework properly, for it ignores God’s inner attributes. The latter portion places morality as something higher than God Himself, which destroys the concept of God being the greatest conceivable being, while making God subservient and morality a mindless brute fact. Yet we tend to ignore a third alternative, which would destroy this false dilemma. If the ‘Good’ existed as an essential property of God, was a part of His very nature, then any divine command would be a necessary reflection of God’s character. The proper answer to the dilemma would be, “It is right because God is wholly good by nature.”

     God is necessary for the existence of moral objectivism because He is a necessary being. At no point could God have ever failed to exist. Although it’s conceivable that the Good exists as an abstract object independent of a mind, it leads into more difficulties. If the Good existed outside of a mind, then the two remaining criteria would not hold, for how can a mindless force issue decrees and make us obligated to it? Moreover, moral terms seem inherently conceptual. Stating it’s a mere abstract object robs morality of its main content.

     If God created us for a specific purpose, then it seems completely coherent that we have a real obligation to fulfill our duties. Moreover, we would then be equipped with a certain moral faculty to recognize whether we have fulfilled or failed to fulfill our moral duties and obligations. There would be no sense of having obligations if we lacked some sort of inner awareness of a general right and wrong. And moral reparation seems more in line with the concept of justice, but serves as a motivating factor for human obedience. Although the first two criteria are sufficient for humans to perform acts of righteousness for its own sake, having a very real consequence for failing to adhere to the moral law only emphasizes the existential relevancy of the moral life. It has to matter that you and I are moral. Obligation without the reality of punishment turns obligation into a softball coach’s kind words despite the fact that his team lost. “Well, it didn’t really matter either way” is not something obligation should tip its hat to.

    Some of this can be derived through pure philosophical investigation, and even by using what is given in this very work. However, a lot of this is simply information that comes from revelation. Merely stating what would make morality coherent doesn’t exactly prove that it is so. It does matter what god we are talking about here. But instead of making a case for Christianity, I’ll simply leave this open. But not all is lost in a sea of revelation, for our moral experiences point to this being more of a reality than not. The fact that we feel guilt, are compelled to have a sense of compassion, and are in general ‘morally aware’ individuals points more so to a transcendent anchor than a mere ‘Darwinian survival ethic’.

The Long Awaited Answer

     So in relation to my hypothetical question, we are left with two possible answers. If we say that the murderer did in fact do something wrong, then there was a Witness the entire time who stands in absolute relation to him. If, however, we maintain that no witnesses of any kind were around, then there is no way to maintain that the murderer did anything wrong. The hypothetical question hinges on the emphasis of the subjective experience or the objectivication of wrongness; emphasize one, and the other suffers. Either one maintains that it is impossible for there to be no witness, or the murderer's subjective experience is the dominant remainder.

The Problem of Evil

     What is left for the atheist to covet is the so-called problem of evil. Although I fully concede that this is a very powerful emotional problem, intellectually it holds no weight. To ask, “How could God allow 20 children to die by an evil gunman” is to presuppose that God exists in order for the question to say anything at all. Given that God exists, it would seem that He would permit evil events only if that particular evil event would yield a greater good in the long run. The atheist would have to say that it is impossible for God to have such morally sufficient reasons. But the atheist can never be epistemically justified in sustaining such a charge. Does the atheist know all the variables in question? Can the atheist know the consequences of a present evil event 20 years into the future? The atheist is stuck in a pit of ignorance and only succeeds in complaining that he doesn’t know ‘why’ an evil event happened.

      Perhaps it’s his humanism that is complaining about why human reason cannot comprehend divine things. Perhaps it’s the atheist’s assumptions about the supremacy and ability of human cognition to grasp these things. Yet the Christian remains humble, not presuming to know precisely how a particular evil event will yield a greater good, but only that the possibility that a greater good can come about leaves him warranted in his conclusion that his faith in God is completely justified. It’s the atheist, however, that stands on a foundation not epistemically available to him in order to hurl such complaints at God in the first place. Terms like ‘necessary evil’, ‘unnecessary evil’ or even ‘evil’ in general aren’t terms available to the atheist’s worldview (naturalism or otherwise). Ironic, then, that he possesses these concepts regardless? It’s faith that God knows the future, knows the effects of every cause, real and possible, in order to stand above the world to make those judgment calls. It’s this faith that humbles; it’s this faith that comforts.