Basically, The Matrix Question

Alonzo Fyfe on Desire Utilitarianism

Here is a little thought experiment that should completely refute any residual notion that people are basically selfish, while it illustrates the case that desire fulfillment is what human action aims towards.

You, and somebody you care a great deal about (e.g., your child) have been captured by an evil extra-terrestrial mad scientist who is interested in conducting all sorts of experiments on humans. It offers you the following two options:

Option 1: “I will take this other person to another ship and perform all sorts of medical experiments on him. We have become well versed in the art of vivisection, I assure you, and the process will be painful and unending. However, you will be made to believe that your child has been set free and allowed to live a safe and happy life.”

Option 2: “I will let your child free with enough gold to live a healthy and happy life. However, you will be made to believe that I have taken your child to another ship and that I am performing all sorts of medical experiments on him. You will be made to believe that we have become well versed in the art of vivisection, and that the process will be painful and unending.”

Of course, I will also cause you to forget about this choice.

Which option do you choose?

The view that says that everyone is only after their own happiness would have to argue that everybody would select option 1. This is, after all, the option that provides the agent with the most happiness. However, this is contrary to fact. Most people go with option 2 — they sacrifice their own happiness for the sake of the child.

We have no actual experiments to point to that involve locking people in a cell and asking them to make this choice. So, maybe, they would all choose Option 1. But, most people at least report that they would not, and no reason can be provided to doubt them. The selfishness theory needs to at least explain why so few people think (incorrectly) that they would choose Option 2.

The widespread choice of Option 2 is easily explained if we hold that desires are dispositions to make or keep the proposition that is the object of the desire true. The parent with a desire that their child is healthy and happy is disposed to make or keep the proposition “my child is healthy and happy” true. Option 2 is the option in this case that makes or keeps the proposition true. It is desire fulfillment that we are after in life, not pleasure, nor happiness.

Interesting, right? I have no commentary to offer, except to say that if the experiment is to prove that “humans are basically unselfish”, as he claims, then it is most definitely incomplete.

Since I Can’t Write My Professional Ethics exam anyway…

A friend of mine asked for my opinion on this article, and since I ended up writing so much, I felt I ought to share. Essentially, it is a Christian response to the “How can there be a God if there is so much evil in the world!?” question. My own opinion is that the question is rather irrelevant to whether there is a God or not-if there isn’t, it doesn’t matter, and if there is, I can find explanations that are not constrained by the specific attributes of the christian God.

The “problem of evil” has a lot of problems of its own. It’s a favorite of atheists and other people who argue against the God of Christianity, and it generally runs something like “if God is all good, and all powerful, then why is there suffering (or evil; or, why do bad things happen to good people)?” The implication, of course, is that God is either not all good, or not all powerful — either of which would destroy the Christian God’s exclusive claim to deity.

Is it really a favourite of atheists? I’ve heard more apologetics trying to do their thing with this question than I’ve heard atheists seriously offering it up as a proof of their beliefs. But moving on…

There are quite a few interesting things about this idea. First, of course, is the obvious assumption on the part of our atheist, that suffering is evil and therefore wrong. Usually it’s a good idea to start by taking this apart. What is wrong with suffering? What is evil as opposed to good? This separates the men from the boys right away, because the atheist has to realize that he is mounting an internal critique of Christianity.

Er. Not really. Good and evil maybe predominantly christian concepts, but are neither uniquely nor originally (I think; not sure, though) christian concepts, and can in any case be phrased more appropriately in terms of a more comprehensive moral framework. Why not consider a simple “do no harm” utilitarianism? Events caused by unconscious or non-volitional(is there a better word?) systems (like natural disasters) are arguably outside the realm of good and evil. I don’t believe even most christians would argue otherwise.

An external critique on this basis is hard to justify, because in a naturalistic world of survival of the fittest and the pretensions of meat machines to higher function, “good” and “evil” are either meaningless, or to be defined in terms of what is best for (a) me, or (b) my offspring.

Or c) everyone. Which brings us back to utilitarianism*.

And nobody can deny that suffering and “evil” are powerful applications of nature to cull the weak and encourage the ongoing life and multiplication of the strong. Let’s not fight straw men, though; some atheists believe that they have a workable system of ethics without religion. Whether they actually do isn’t part of the scope of this post.

See above.

So, our atheist is trying to mount an internal critique of Christianity.

Why, if he admits that some atheists (believe they) have a workable non-religious system of ethics, is he going back to this “internal critique”? Why would one confine oneself to a single, not necessarily coherent, unproven set of postulates when the answers may quite possibly lie beyond them?
What happened to “let’s not fight straw men”???

Perhaps we should rephrase the problem for him: if God is good by His own (revealed) standards, and all powerful, then why is there evil in the world? If God really loved His creation, then would He allow crack-addicted babies to be born, or six million Jews to be brutally murdered in a space of a few short years, or people to go to eternal conscious torment? The obvious answer to the atheist is usually that He cannot be good and allow those things, and therefore Christianity is either a religion of horrors serving a God Who delights in misery, or an inconsistent system of beliefs.

Actually, I don’t think I know any atheists who say the former. Seems like something fundamentalists from another religion could try, though.

Bahnsen points out that the syllogism need not end like this. He recommends that we actually try to grasp this internally, like so: God is good. God is all powerful. There is evil in the world. Therefore God has a morally sufficient reason for the existence of evil. This is consistent with the Scriptures, and logical.

This might be rephrased without too much exaggeration: There’s a reason, but we’re not going to tell you until you’re old enough to know. If then. Hey, maybe never! (Do christian scriptures, in general, place the same emphasis on “enlightenment” as Buddhist or Hindu scriptures? Some emphasis is given, I think, so “maybe never” is probably unfair. This comment could be appreciated more if the reader understands that I’m trying to neutralize the sermon with an equal amount of snark.)

However, the atheist has a problem with that, because he does not see how there can be a morally sufficient reason for crack babies, holocausts, or hell. And generally speaking, the Bible does not provide direct answers for such things, beyond the glory of God (doubly repugnant to somebody who is already disinclined to glorify Him). So, the atheist judges God’s standard of goodness, and finds it wanting…

And at this point, the atheist’s attempt at an internal critique fails, because he had to step outside the critique to come to his conclusion (that God is not good).

Again. What is with this insistence on an “internal critique”? If a flat-earther came and demanded an “internal critique” of his arguments, how many would oblige?

How can I say this?

Consider: the internal critique begins with the premise that God is good. Everything that God does is good; one might say that good is defined by the character and action of God. Under the circumstances, the God of the Bible is in fact the only One capable of judging the goodness of a thing, but nobody is good except for Him. And anything He does, and anything He chooses, is good. When the atheist decides that something God has ordained or allowed is not good, he is effectively taking God’s place as the judge of what is good, and setting himself above God. The atheist is on the bench, and God is in the dock once again. That is usually where the atheist chooses to be, but we must point out that there can be no internal critique anymore, because internally, the system of Christian theology presupposes that God is good, and the atheist must declare that, no, he will be the judge of what is good, effectively switching places with God, and breaking any hope of consistency.

While some of us are still troubled and hoping for some sort of consistency (with christian doctrine, that is; consistency with the observable world is considered an absolute criterion), I think it should be clear from even a cursory examination of any New Atheist book that most atheists want nothing to do with it, so offering it as some sort of reward isn’t really going to accomplish much. The attempt to frighten the blasphemers with that last bit of rhetorical flourish-“effectively switching places with God”- is subject to the same argument. (Although more likely to succeed; fear is usually more effective.)

To put it simply, the atheist is not comparing himself to the Christian God if he thinks that he can judge God. The Christian God, and the revelation that He has delivered, exclude any possibility of that fact.

I would imagine that the atheist, by definition, is (if (s)he considers at all) considering the existence of some supernatural being with as-yet-unidentified attributes, not some “precisely imprecisely” drawn out picture of a “Christian God”.

Once the atheist is outside the paradigm of Christian ethics again, he has the same problem we outlined above; he must defend his concept of good and evil without God. Inside the paradigm, the atheist finds himself begging the question of God’s transcendental goodness.

A dilemma indeed, until one bothers to consider seriously everything philosophers have written for centuries about a non-theistic system of ethics. “Defending the concept of good and evil without God” is really not that hard! Such a moral framework might consider “good and evil” in a more clinical fashion than most believers, but it should still prove comprehensive. I think.

Truly, though, we have a point of contact with the atheist at this stage. He can’t get away from the idea that there is such a thing as good and evil. Now it is only a matter of proclaiming to him the truth of the God Whose ethical system he is borrowing in ignorance.

I wonder if the author would concede that it could possibly work the other way around?

Do check out the comments on the page, specifically this link, which has arguments that most of us will already have seen about altruism and morality in a non-theistic sense.

* I should probably explain that I prefer my utilitarianism garnished with some virtue ethics, and maybe a little deontology on the side, too. I haven’t worked out if this is merely because of an instinctive prejudice that pure utilitarianism/consequentialism is “meaninglessly” hedonistic, or what implications that has. There are refinements galore to all these theories which make them more acceptable to me than in their standard forms, but most are outside the scope of this post.