Saturday, December 24, 2011

Francis Beckwith´╗┐ on Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens 2011
The Catholic Thing
Friday, December 23, 2011

The Catholic philosopher Francis J. Beckwith´╗┐, writing "The God-Haunted Atheism of Christopher Hitchens" for The Catholic Thing, inquires about the source of the ethical values affirmed by Hitchens:
Hitchens writes that he and other atheists "believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion," thus implying that he and others have direct and incorrigible acquaintance with a natural moral law that informs their judgments about what counts as an ethical life.

But to speak of a natural moral law -- a set of abstract, immaterial, unchanging principles of human conduct that apply to all persons in all times and in all places -- seems oddly out of place in the universe that Hitchens claimed we occupy, a universe that is at bottom a purposeless vortex of matter, energy, and scientific laws that eventually spit out human beings.

I wouldn't have chosen the image of nature spitting out human beings since that manner of speaking likely denigrates the way in which Hitchens would have referred to the process of nature by which human beings came into existence. No need to cast aspersions on the universe!

But Beckwith has a point. Note that he does not accuse Hitchens of being some sort of moral reprobate. What he argues, instead, is that Hitchens implicitly appeals to moral purpose:
[T]o speak of an ethical life is to say that morality is more than rule keeping, that it involves the shape and formation of one's character consistent with a human being's proper end. But proper ends require intrinsic purposes, just the sorts of things that a theistic philosophy of nature affirms and Hitchens' philosophical naturalism denies.

Taking as a given that Hitchens does appeal to philosophical naturalism -- and let's infer that he does, since Beckwith is a scholar who ought to know what he's talking about -- then Hitchens was inconsistent in arguing both for philosophical naturalism and the ethical life, if he meant that both affirmations are objectively true.

This is the sort of problem that I was getting at in yesterday's blog entry. For better musings than my own on this issue raised by Beckwith, see what my friend Bill Vallicella has to say about ethics and philosophical naturalism.

As for me, I now have a lot of editing to do . . .

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At 7:33 AM, Blogger whitney said...

I read this about a week ago. Same theme and very interesting.

At 8:18 AM, Blogger Least Obvious Answer said...

At 8:21 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Whitney, let me just link that properly . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:26 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

LOA, ditto the above . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:47 AM, Blogger The Sanity Inspector said...

Somewhere, Hitchens quotes Thomas Jefferson to the effect that it is silly to wonder if it is possible for atheists to be ethical, since of course many of them obviously are.

Hitchens did not admire H. L. Mencken, but I think he would have concurred with this:

"When I mount the scaffold at last these will be my farewell words to the sheriff: Say what you will against me when I am gone, but don't forget to add, in common justice, that I was never converted to anything."
-- H. L. Mencken, Baltimore Evening Sun, June 12, 1922

At 7:54 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Mencken had his moments.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:20 AM, Anonymous Sperwer said...

I think you give Beckwith too much credit when one considers these howlers of reasoning/argument:

1. "thus implying that he and others have direct and incorrigible acquaintance with a natural moral law..."

2. " [T]o speak of an ethical life is to say that morality is more than rule keeping, that it involves the shape and formation of one's character consistent with a human being's proper end."

As these passages show, the notion that Hitchens appeals to philosophical naturalism is nothing more than an assumption that Beckwith interpolates into Hitchens position with no evidentiary support from Hitchens' own work. This is the equivalent of asking when was the last time he beat his wfie instead of whether he did so or not.

At 1:49 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I don't think they're as bad as you find them, but I also wish that Beckwith had provided more evidence from the writings of Hitchens.

The basic point, as I see it, is that one cannot ground ethics upon the basis of naturalistic philosophy, which has no room for talk of real purpose. Whether that means that one has to appeal to God for grounding is an interesting question, and the views of Hitchens need not be "God-Haunted."

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:45 PM, Anonymous Sperwer said...

I would think that the real point of issue is whether ethics talk requires talk of purpose or if that is just a way of predetrmining the answer or range of possible answers.

At 7:17 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

That's certainly one of the central, interesting points, but that very question raises the issue of what is at stake -- namely, are ethics arbitrary? -- in which case, if they are arbitrary, then purposes are arbitrary as well, and merely predetermine values without any secure basis, or ethics are non-arbitrary, and purposes have a non-arbitrary ground.

Now, whether that arbitrary ground is non-theistic or theistic is an interesting question, and if theistic, then grounded in what sort of 'God'?

The questions never end, thank God, else what's a heaven for . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:17 PM, Anonymous Sperwer said...

How does it follow it follow from a denial of any external fixed standard of morailty that ethics is thus rendered "arbitrary"?

At 3:55 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Do you mean that there might be an internal fixed standard, a sort of species-specific, biologically grounded ethics?

At any rate, I'm not entirely comfortable with a term like "fixed," and I'd need to hear it defined first.

By "standard," I assume that you mean "ethical system."

My contention is that an "ethical system" is "arbitrary" if it is not more valid than any significantly different "ethical system." One might have reasons for choosing between them, of course, so one's choice might not be arbitrary, in that limited sense, but one's reasons have no bearing on the system's validity.

I'll have to stop here, due to limited time and intellect. Maybe this can continue over coffee . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:23 AM, Anonymous Sperwer said...

No, what is puzzling to me is the insistence that any "valid" normative standard, whether it is external (e.g., God, Platonic Ideas, etc.) or internal (e.g., human nature), must be more or less independent of human agency.

At 12:32 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, maybe we have to discuss over coffee. My typing isn't so good today.

Jeffery Hodges

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