Law at the Jesus Creed: David Opderbeck

Lawbook.jpgDavid Opderbeck, a professor of law, weighs in on a crucial theological topic that affects our understanding of law. Are you Roman Catholic or Reformed — or where are you on this issue?

Law:  Can We Be Good?

Law is an effort to respond to one of the most basic human questions:  “what does it mean for people to be ‘just’ and ‘good'”?  Any understanding of “law” therefore will presuppose an anthropology (a theory of what it means to be human) as well as an ethical framework constructed around that anthropology.

All Christian theories of law share at least two basic anthropological assumptions:   (1) human beings are created in God’s image, and therefore are created “good”; but (2) human beings are fallen.  Within the Christian tradition, however, there is significant disagreement about the implications of the claim that human beings are “fallen.” 

What do you think the doctrine of the fall implies about human nature?  How do these implications relate to theories of law?  Can we consider acts of civil society that seem to be “good” – for example, efforts by non-Christians and Christians alike to care for victims of the Haitian earthquake – to be genuinely “good?”

There is a subtle but substantial divide between Catholic and
Reformed anthropology that can significantly impact theories of law.  According to the great Medieval
Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas, the fall marred the “likeness” of God in
humanity but did not obliterate the “image” of God.  Aquinas based this conclusion on a (probably incorrect)
exegesis of Gen.  1:26, which uses
different terms translated “image” and “likeness” (“Then God said, let us make
man in our image [tselem], according to our likeness [demut]. . . .”). 

For Aquinas, this meant that human reason survived the fall more or less intact.  Human beings, therefore, remain capable
of understanding what is right and good according to “natural reason” even
after the fall.  All human beings,
according to Aquinas, “possess a natural aptitude for understanding and loving
God; and this aptitude consists in the very nature of the mind, which is common
to all men”  (Summa Theologica, I.93.4.).  The “likeness” of God, however, is a
resemblance to God’s glory, which can only be recovered by those who are
regenerated by God.  (Ibid.) 
A person can only “habitually” know and love God through grace.  (Ibid.)  People therefore are capable of
knowing and doing good, but can only habitually do good through divine grace,
and can only become perfect and thereby have the “likeness” of God restored
through ultimate divine salvation.

Aquinas’ view that all people possess the spark of reason
underwrites the possibility of “natural law” reasoning.  Christians might know God’s law more fully
than non-Christians, but Christians and non-Christians can find common ground
in the shared “image” of God through the exercise of reason.  This facilitates a system of civil law

and governance that is not necessarily drawn directly from special divine

The Reformers understood the fall’s effects more
extensively.  The Heidelberg
states the orthodox Reformed view with dour Puritanical

Question 8.  Are we then so corrupt that we are wholly incapable of doing
any good, and inclined to all wickedness?

Indeed we are; except we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.

This view of the fall’s effects leaves no space for any
concept of “natural reason” or “natural law.” In fact, it leaves no room for
the notion that a non-Christian who cares for Haitian earthquake victims is
doing something genuinely “good.” 
At best, the unregenerate person can accomplish “civic good” – things
that are generally good for society – but these are never truly “good” works
because the unregenerate will remains bent only towards the self and away from

Nevertheless, the Reformers and their theological heirs
wrestled extensively with the problem of “apparent good” being done by
non-Christians.  As described in a
delightful book by Stephen Grabill (Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics (Emory University Studies in Law and Religion)
), a number of early Reformed jurisprudes
developed natural law theories based on the notion that God graciously allows
even unregenerate people to discern something of what is necessary to maintain
social order.  These ideas
eventually fed into a detailed theology of “common grace,” most notably in the
Dutch Reformed tradition exemplified by Abraham Kuyper and Hermann Dooyeweerd,
and echoed today by writers such as Charles Colson and Richard Mouw.

The “common grace” tradition seems to exist in severe
tension with the Heidelberg Catechism’s absolutism about human ability to do
good.  Indeed, many branches of the
Reformed tradition today – both in its conservative-fundamentalist forms and in
its more “mainline” Barthian varieties – reject the notion of “common grace” as
essentially heretical.   Under
these approaches to the Reformed tradition, “law” generally can be grounded
only in revealed divine commands. 
More “conservative” versions of divine command theory tend to result in
reconstructionist and/or separationist views of positive law; more “mainline”
versions tend to give up on the idea of meaningful engagement with secular
positive law. 

I have always liked the idea of “common grace.”  Nevertheless, I have to confess that it
seems exceedingly hard to justify by scripture or by the Magesterial /
confessional Reformed tradition.  I
also quite like the Catholic Social Teaching tradition’s appealing to the
integrity and beauty of reason. 
Nevertheless, I have to confess that it at some point it offends my
Reformed-ish sensibilities, as well as my “postmodern” skepticism of “neutral”
accounts of “reason.” I’m also very hesitant about Aquinas’ anthropology, which
seems to be based in a key exegetical mistake in distinguishing the divine
“image” and “likeness.”

What’s a Christian to
do when it comes to thinking about anthropology, law, and the “good?”  How should we characterize acts by

non-Christians, such as helping earthquake victims, that seem to be “good?”  Is “natural law” theory a viable
Christian option?

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  • JoanieD

    Put me down as agreeing with Aquinas. Even if he had some “(probably incorrect) exegesis” which led to his understanding, somehow I think his understanding came out correctly.
    There is no way in my mind that we could characterize feeding the hungry, healing the sick, clothing the naked as anything but “good.” Otherwise, I fear we make the major mistake Jesus warned us about in seeing good as evil and evil as good. When we make that mistake, all can go very, very wrong in the world.

  • David,
    How about these verses as a theological basis for common grace:
    • Romans 2:14-15 Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, 1since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.
    • Matthew 5:44-45 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

  • Ann

    Having studied both Aquinas and the Reformed tradition, I end up looking more like Richard Mouw, without the Reformed connections. Neither solution “solves” Scripture — both solutions are static, and fail to account for the living Spirit within our world, moving the hearts and minds of living beings toward God’s good. If we would quit trying to systematize Scripture into an absolute legal brick to through at one another (predestination! NO, double predestination! NO, flickers of God’s image survived the fall!), Christians would be the wiser. I think we’d better embrace others made in God’s image as capable of doing things reflective of God’s love and justice. Live today, live as if we are the living law of love, reaching out in love toward one another, imitating Christ, and trusting the Spirit to act within that world and touch those people through us.

  • Ann

    make that brick something you “throw” at one another…although it could, I suppose, go “through” others with the force some folks throw with… (sigh) early, and not a good rest!

  • Andy W.

    Both RCC and protestantism take a very juridical view of scripture/theology and while helpful it also causes all kinds of challenges. This juridical approach tries to define, systematize and codify everything and leaves no room for mystery and paradox.
    I think this simple quote about the EO view matches up to what each of us experience in our interaction with others, both Christian and non-Christian.
    “The Eastern Orthodox Church teaches that in addition to their conscience and tendency to do good, men and women are born with a tendency to sin due to the fallen condition of the world”.
    The vast majority of people I work with want to do good and like me are a jumble of contradictions and duplicity.
    The reformed view I find deeply troubling. Jesus seemed to tell a story that tore down this us-verse- -them narrative that would have been prevalent among the jews.

  • dopderbeck

    Andy W (#5) — where is that quote from?

  • Folks,
    Per Luke “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
    And “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. 44Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. 45The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.
    Good fruit is good. I can’t see it any other way.

  • Ann,
    Although I tend to be Reformed, I too have reservations about some of their formulations. Here’s one verse that supports your contention that we still retain that “image” to some extent:
    • James 3:9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness.
    If we are no longer in God’s likeness, James’ case would have been without basis.
    However, these disagreements aren’t the product of systematic theology, but of our poor attempts to scale the mountain of God’s truth.

  • Andy W.

    I just pulled it from Wikipedia – Fall of Man – Eastern Orthodox. They certainly have a much more broad and nuanced view than that simple quote but it’s a summary.

  • rscovolo

    It seems odd that an appeal to tension is considered a solution to the (so-called) tension that the Dutch Reformed view offers. To its credit at least the Dutch tradition attempts to answer a metaphysical question with a metaphysical answer. The EO quote given here offers a phenomenalist answer to a metaphysical question. If it was “tension” and “mystery” we wanted, would there need to be a development off of the tensions implicit in Calvin and the early Reformed Grabill explores?

  • EricG

    David — do you see the two approaches as having a different practical effect on law? My gut reaction is that, although the distinction is perhaps theolgically significant, it doesn’t necessarily affect how laws should be written. Whichever view is correct, we should write laws that assume that people often sin. It strikes me that even a secular person would make a similar assumption (without using the word “sin”).

  • T

    With several of the above comments, I tend agree that we need to keep a bit of realism about us in these conversations (which I think the quoted catechism lacks). Clearly, the pull toward prioritizing ourselves is nigh universal to humanity, and this routinely results in less than ideal dealings at best and raw evil at worst. But also, thank God that he helps even those that don’t know his name do what is right to some extent on some occasions, even if much (good) is done with less than perfect motives. Thank God he has written some of his law on so many hearts, even if they fail to live up to it a lot of the time.
    I don’t know anyone who looks at the world and can honestly say that man is morally good, and just end the sentence. At the same time, I think it takes a certain degree of denial, usually facilitated by a systematic theology, to say that people never do good, or nevery “do by nature things required by the law.” Mothers do occasionally love their children, even mothers who have never heard of Jesus. This is good, helpful, and right, and we should thank God for it. But most mothers will be the first to tell you that they fall short routinely.

  • May I interject a secular observation on this?

    If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

    – James Madison, Federalist Papers Number 51

  • I think the EO view articulated by Andy #5 with the important addition of the work of the Spirit in the world added by Ann #3 probably come closest to my views.
    I think Christopher Wright has it right that God is at work in the world apart from the church. The church is God’s visible witness to who God is in the world and God’s intentions for all creation, calling all who will come into community. Thus, whether through some residual expression of the image of God among those who are not Christ followers or the work of the Spirit in the lives of the same, there is goodness and justice which the church can embrace and strengthen, even as the church must at times stand lovingly in opposition. Furthermore, I believe God also uses those outside the church to humble the church toward more godly living.

  • T #12
    “…I think it takes a certain degree of denial, usually facilitated by a systematic theology …”

  • How does this relate to the law, anyway? I mean, are you saying that, theologically, it’s a good thing that atheists are routinely discriminated against in things like child custody?
    I guess what I’m asking is, how does this theological dispute connect to the law, that people with all different kinds of theologies must live under?

  • Ray,
    Bravo! Your quote highlights the reality of our human depravity.
    Here’s one place where I think that this issue of depravity intersects with our legal system. If we are Radically depraved to the point that we have no freewill, then punishment is undeserved (and God is the author of sin.) It also tends to diminish that respect that we show to one another if we’re no more than robots, pre-programmed to invariably sin. (This is coming from someone who is quite Reformed – just to make the point that there is much variety within each circle of belief!)

  • JoanieD

    Michael Kruse: I like what you have written in message #14 very much about God working in the world, even apart from the Church, and about the role that the Church plays.

  • MattR

    I think there is more of a ‘third way’ between the Reformed/total depravity view & the RC/Natural Law view…
    Wesley, for instance…integrating both his Anglican tradition & Eastern Orthodoxy…talked about ‘Prevenient Grace;’ That the Holy Spirit is always at work in the world, and that because humans are made in the Image of God, whether Christian or not, anyone can respond to the Spirit for good.
    Thus we are at the same time both Image Bearers, yet still fallen… capable of good and bad… but good only by the grace of God, even if we have yet to acknowledge that grace!

  • dopderbeck

    Ray (#16) — one way in which the question of theological anthropology relates to law is in the sort of concept you introduced in comment #13, which Madison almost certainly borrowed directly from John Calivn:

    If we were like angels, blameless and freely able to exercise perfect self-control, we would not need rules or regulations. Why, then, do we have so many laws and statutes? Because of man’s wickedness, for he is constantly overflowing with evil; this is why a remedy is required. — John Calvin, Sermon on Galatians 3:19-20, “The Many Functions of God’s Law” (1558)

    MattR (#19) — I like the idea of prevenient grace as well, but I’m not sure it’s a “third way” — what it represents is a stark alternative to Calvinism. For Wesley, prevenient grace operates in every person, enabling anyone to choose the good and ultimately to choose to follow Christ. For the Calvinists who opposed Wesley, this was heretical and violated the principle of God’s sovereign election. This doesn’t necessarily mean Wesley was wrong, but it highlights that this question occupies a place where middle ground is hard to find.
    Here’s another, somewhat related notion: “common grace” is really a way of talking about the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in creation. Although the fall marred human nature, God did not totally withdraw his Spirit from creation, and the Spirit remains active even outside the bounds of the Church. Vincent Bacote of Wheaton college has written on this idea (though I haven’t yet read his book). Amos Yong has developed similar ideas from a Pentecostal perspective.
    I think I like this approach to “public theology”: it’s not that human beings are still “good” in themselves, or that there is “grace in the air,” but that God continues to act in creation through the Holy Spirit to maintain and construct the ethical framework necessary for civil society. But still, I’d need to think more carefully about how, if at all, this is different than prevenient grace or common grace.

  • MattR

    dopderbeck (#20),
    They are usually considered ‘opposite sides’ for sure.
    And I do like the reformed idea of ‘Common Grace.’
    I guess I would point out that Wesley always held on to the fallenness of humanity along with our ability to respond… coming from Anglicanism, which often describes itself as ‘The Middle Way’ between Protestant & Catholic.

  • I think another thing that Wesleyans bring to the party is the Quadrilateral of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. I think that is a more healthy approach to discernment than purely natural law or divine decree while still including both in the mix.

  • dopderbeck

    BTW, here is how Zacharias Ursinus, the primary drafter of the Heidelberg Catechism, comments on Question 8 (this is in the form of an objection followed by an answer, in the mold of Aquinas’ Summa):

    Objection: . . . Socrates, Aristides, and many others, performed many excellent things, and were adorned with many virtues; therefore there was in them, before regeneration, a power of choice that was free to do that which was good.
    Ans[wer]: This is an imperfect definition of free power of choice, and of what constitutes a good work; or of liberty to do that which is good, which is the power of rendering such obedience as is acceptable to God. This the unregenerate have not. . . . And not only so, but this external propriety itself, of which so much account is made, is to be attributed to god, who by his providence controls the hearts even of the wicked, and restrains them from those outbreaks of sin to which they are naturally inclined.

    It’s tempting to write this reasoning off as just high scholastic Puritanism. It has, however, more than a ring of truth when we consider that Biblical ethics overwhelmingly are oriented around the direction of human desire. I think it’s hard for us sometimes to think about “the good” in this sense of desires that are rightly oriented towards a proper transcendent goal (namely, God). We in the secular West are conditioned to think of the “good” in purely consequentialist terms. If we define “the good” in ultimate terms as complete, consistent, desire to honor God and to dwell in God’s shalom, then I think it’s absolutely true that no one does this or seeks to do it without regenerating grace, or what scripture calls being “united with Christ.”
    This continues to raise questions for “law”: can “law” impel people towards “good,” or can law, at best, only serve as an external restraint on the tendency towards evil? If the latter, then what should we make of contemporary arguments that certain legal rules serve as moral teachers and/or support social institutions (such as marriage) that inculcate virtue?

  • #23
    Interesting question. I see the building of human society as strongly implicit in the creation mandate … a cultural mandate to exercise dominion as we fill the earth. I don’t think that mandate has ever “expired.”
    I think we participate in the governance of society with those who are not Christ followers, seeking the greatest shalom possible. If something is truly beneficial than we must make the case on grounds other than “God said so.”
    God did not create as automatons. He created a world where have the freedom to choose what is good … which means we also have the freedom to choose what is bad. God tolerates a level evil and rebellion so there can be opportunity for us to choose what is good … but that toleration is not limitless.
    Similarly, I think government should give considerable freedom for people to choose what is good. We want citizenry choosing to do good rather than regulating them into it. But if we allow this freedom we have to accept the presence of what would be unrighteousness from our Christian perspective. But the toleration can’t be limitless. Not all unrighteousness is created equal so discernment about where to set boundaries concerning what should be tolerated vs. what should be defied is not an easy task.
    Depending on which unrighteous behavior emerges our response may simply be to call the world to a new vision from alternative communities. In other cases, the harm done to society may be so great that we will feel we need to become oppositional. Yet hopefully the normative role would be constructive engagement by Christ followers in the societal institutions, infusing values that would strengthen what is good and discourage what is bad.
    Those are my thoughts.

  • Travis Greene

    In answer to your last question, I think civil law is mainly a restraint on evil, rather than a positive good. That is, Jesus is sovereign over the nation-states and uses them to restrain evil, making space for the church to do its work, although the states themselves are in rebellion. But that is, I think, an Anabaptist rather than Reformed or Catholic understanding.

  • #25 Travis
    “That is, Jesus is sovereign over the nation-states and uses them to restrain evil, making space for the church to do its work, although the states themselves are in rebellion.”
    But this is where I find it confusing. I think you would advocate the provision of health care and other safety net legislation. That isn’t just restraining evil.
    I’m not being snarky here. It confuses me to hear Anabaptists/Hauerwasians talk about this limited role (nearly sounding like libertarians) while simultaneously backing legislation for massive involvement in providing services to the populace. The conservative Mennos I knew would never have welcomed such efforts. The whole thing seems contradictory.

  • dopderbeck – I’d have to go with what Michael W. Kruse wrote: If something is truly beneficial than we must make the case on grounds other than “God said so.”
    I’m sure theology affects your view of the law. But if you want to argue for a law… I figure it had better be on secular grounds.

  • Travis Greene

    It is contradictory, to some extent. I never said I had everything figured out 🙂
    If I wanted to argue about it, I might say that providing healthcare and other services are a restraint on evil, since poverty is a major indicator of crime, and people starving in the streets is evil. I agree with you, Stackhouse, and the other Christian realists that we are in somewhat uncharted territory in terms of Scripture, living as we do in a pluralistic democracy. But I still think the basic role of church and state are the same as in the New Testament, and that Jesus’ example is still normative for us.

  • dopderbeck

    Ray (#27) — but it’s ok when you quote Madison who is manifestly not making a “secular” argument but rather is cribbing from John Calvin? The myth of neutral secularity is, in fact, a myth.

  • dopderbeck – You think that pointing out that people are capable of doing bad things is making a theological argument?
    Madison certainly alluded to Calvin’s words – but only his first sentence echoes Calvin’s point (which had been made by, y’know, nearly every other observer of human nature in history), which does not need a theological basis to see its truth.
    Madison then went on to make a very practical, secular point – that a working government must not only be designed to restrain the governed, but also the governors. Even Plato addressed this in The Republic; not very effectively, but hardly in a theological way.

  • dopderbeck

    Ray (#30) — yes, it is a theological argument if you are trying to explain why something is “bad.” “Bad” is a value judgment. C’mon, Ray, Madison and the founders were steeped up to their eyeballs in theology — Calvinism, Deism, and a variety of synergistic mixes thereof, but nevertheless theology. So was Plato and so were the Roman jurisprudes, though obviously not Christian theology. So were the Bishops, Popes and Princes who developed the Western legal tradition from Constantine to the Reformation to the democratic revolutions of the 18th C. Even the French Revolution was theological in that it was a reaction to theological perspectives on law and government. The idea of the “separation of Church and state” itself has theological foundations.
    You simply cannot neatly divide the “secular” and the “theological.” All claims about law and government ultimately are claims about the nature of human beings, which requires an inquiry into human origins and human ends, which in turn requires evaluation of the theological narratives of these themes that have dominated the Western tradition. This evaluation, even if it rejects the idea of God, is necessarily “theological”.

  • …yes, it is a theological argument if you are trying to explain why something is “bad.” “Bad” is a value judgment.

    I’m sure this won’t come as a surprise, but I disagree.

  • dopderbeck

    Ray (#32) — let’s say there’s an evolutionary explanation for altruism. That still doesn’t tell us why it’s “good” for us to perpetuate altruism. There is, after all, equally an evolutionary explanation for violence, genocide, and so on.
    In the article you cite, the author goes on about game theoretic explanations for rule-based behaviors, but then concludes as follows:
    “Harming innocent life is wrong, for example. Unnecessary restrictions on liberty are wrong as well.”
    This conclusion obviously is a non-sequitur. Harming innocent life and restricting liberty are not “wrong” if this author’s reductionist account of morality is correct (and, morever, the terms “innocent” and “liberty” are simply meaningless). Rather, a person’s action in harming or restraining another person is simply and only a game theoretic outcome of one iteration in a broader iterative game. Over many, many iterations of the game, an equilibrium solution has emerged such that most players will choose to “cooperate” in order to pass on their genes. But there is no basis at all for judging as “wrong” the choice of a given player in a given iteration to choose to “harm” rather than to “cooperate.”
    Further, under this reductionistic approach there is no basis at all for the conscious adoption of rules, whether of law or morality, that would seek to influence the game in any particular direction. If in some circumstances the equilibrium solution to the game is for a dominant group to oppress or exterminate a subservient group, then there is no basis for condemning the resulting “genocide” or “holocaust.” It is just an instance of the game being played out. Indeed, the notion of “conscious” adoption of rules would simply be nonsense.
    On a less dramatic note, there would be no basis at all for your statement in comment #27 that religious people “had better” advance legal and policy arguments only on “secular” grounds. All of this would be only the playing out of a particular game, and the very concepts of “religious” and “secular” would be meaningless. If this really is how you view the “ought,” why not be honest and just say we have some sort of deep genetic differences that drive us to a naked power struggle over the coconuts and bananas of public policy? Why use the wooly language of what anyone “had better” do — unless that is a threat of violence (which I’m sure it’s not). Perhaps you’re right about all this at the end of the day, but if you’re really convinced of that, be consistent.
    I also note that the the article you link refers to the old chestnut of the Euthyphro Dilemma, which, in brief, is not a dilemma at all for Christian theists, who understand ethics ultimately to derive from God’s inherent character, not from either an arbitrary command or a source external to God.

  • dopderbeck –

    Harming innocent life and restricting liberty are not “wrong” if this author’s reductionist account of morality is correct (and, morever, the terms “innocent” and “liberty” are simply meaningless).

    You appear not to have read this part:

    It’s illegal to move your king to a threatened square, but it’s perfectly acceptable by the rules to stick your queen in front of a pawn at the start of the game. However, if you want to win the game, you shouldn’t do that… It’s usually a bad move.

    Note words like ‘shouldn’t’ and ‘bad.’ They are value judgments. They prescribe ‘oughts.’ But they are not part of the ‘rules’ of chess. From where do they come? They arise from the combinations of two things – first, the rules and structure of chess, and second, from the player’s desire to win the game. They are strategic rules.

    As humans, we have desires and goals as well. Some are very basic and inborn and apparently universal (air, water, food, sleep, shelter, etc.) and some are so common that only extremely rare individuals seem not to need them (e.g. the company of other people), and some are deeply personal and not common at all (a desire to write a novel, say). But like chess, might there be strategic rules that arise in the real world from physical laws and conditions, combined with our desires?

    If one assumes that humans are similar enough in their desires to have common interests at all… then some strategic rules (morals) work better than others. Note: the basic rules of chess haven’t changed in centuries, but chess strategy has developed quite far. The laws of physics haven’t changed in at least the last few centuries, too, but (as Dawkins points out) the “moral zeitgeist” has developed quite far, too. (Contrast modern and Biblical attitudes toward slavery, for example.)
    I recognize that this is a rather different way of looking at things that you’re used to, but I ask that you at least try to understand it before dismissing it.

  • dopderbeck

    Ray (#34) — I understand it perfectly well, and it makes no sense, unless you’re willing to admit that neither “harming innocent life” nor “restricting liberty” are “wrong.” That would be like saying “putting the other player in check is ‘wrong'”. The fact is that “harming innocent life” and “restricting” liberty often are excellent strategies for perpetuating your genes, just as it’s often an excellent strategy to put your opponent in check. Just ask Genghis Khan, who according to a number of genetic studies is a common ancestor of an enormous number of people living today.
    The notion that the “moral zeitgeist” has “developed quite far” likewise must be a nonsensical category mistake if a reductionist evolutionary game theoretic account of morality is true. “Develop” implies teleology, which is a meaningless concept in an materialistic evolutionary sense. At most, in the reductionist account, social strategies have “adapted” to different environmental conditions, which adaptations cannot imply any purposeful “development.” If environmental conditions change again, slavery, the oppression of women and children, and so on might once again prove to be good strategies. Indeed, slavery and the oppression of women and children apparently remain very good strategies in much of the world today, as evidenced by the thriving black market in human trafficking.
    Moreover, “moral zeitgeist” is a meaningless term in the reductionist account, as there would be neither any category of the “moral” nor any “zeitgeist” — there would be only be various sets of strategies that reflect genetically and socially conditioned responses to the environmental circumstances of the moment. So, some groups of people today argue for the enforcement of laws against human trafficking, sex slavery, and child pornography, but why should those groups who benefit from such activities listen? Insofar as I can tell, there would be only one reason for them to listen: the threat of violence. As Chairman Mao once said, “all power comes from the end of a gun.” I don’t see how a reductionistic game-theoretic account of “morality” gets us beyond Mao’s dictum. Again, perhaps that’s just the way of things, but I think if this is your view you should just admit it.

  • dopderbeck – You still miss the point. The universe doesn’t have purposes, but people do, which leads to teleology. In the same way that a chess board doesn’t have purposes, but when players come with their purposes, suddenly there’s a teleology to talk about.

    Indeed, slavery and the oppression of women and children apparently remain very good strategies in much of the world today, as evidenced by the thriving black market in human trafficking.

    Societies that restrict freedom for big chunks of their population do badly in competition with those that prize liberty. This was shown most recently in the Cold War, but the Civil War provides an even more salient example. The Confederate generals were far more competent than the Union for at least the first half of the war… but the south had become dependent on slavery instead of industry, and couldn’t hope to match the productivity of the Union. (To a large extent, this applied to WWII as well, comparing the Facist, Nazi, and Imperial systems to the Allies…)
    I’d have to argue that yes, we do see a lot of progress – measured from a human perspective – over history. E.g. as Churchill put it, “Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Then there’s the documented reduction in war and violence over the last thousand years. (Wars themselves have gotten more destructive in some ways… but they’ve also gotten fewer in number and more focused in their destruction.)
    And yes, the human perspective is what I care about. I’m human, and I’m willing to bet quite a bit that you are too.

  • dopderbeck – Then, the second point. You write,

    …why should those groups who benefit from such activities listen? Insofar as I can tell, there would be only one reason for them to listen: the threat of violence.

    Well, there’s the observation – made by many people throughout history – that material benefits don’t bring true happiness. That real happiness comes from loving relationships with others. This can be true regardless of religion. And then there’s the downsides to the kind of life such people lead, as was noted in that essay:

    When one of the most secure and luxurious of his palace-and-bunker complexes was completed in 1984, at a cost of $70 million, Saddam Hussein moved in right away. But even protected by enormous layers of concrete, sand and steel, behind zigzag corridors and blast doors made to withstand a Hiroshima-size explosion, and guarded by men who knew they’d have to be ready to die for him, or be killed by him, Saddam apparently could not sleep.

    “All night long he heard a sound like the cocking of a pistol,” remembers Wolfgang Wendler, the German engineer who supervised the project. Wendler was summoned by angry officials to find out what was wrong. He discovered a faulty thermostat.

    Saddam, of course, deserves no pity. But this is the kind of life he led – literally jumping at shadows, because there was no one he could fully trust. Stalin became so suspicious of doctors that later in life he refused their treatment and consulted with veterinarians instead. These dictators had plenty of purely material comforts, but in the process of acquiring them they’d given up any chance of enjoying them untroubled by fears of assassination, let alone the pleasures of sharing them with loved ones. They could literally never afford to fully relax.

  • dopderbeck

    Ray (#36) — but there are no purposes if materialism is true. People do not have purposes, they only think they have purposes, but in reality they are doing what they are programmed by genes and nuerochemistry and circumstances to do. This is the view of all consistently materialistic neurobiologists, Dennett’s speculations to the contrary notwithstanding. If you have to posit a “ghost in the machine” of human “purposes” or of some kind of “emergent” agency, you’re not consistent in your views. That all gets into the realm of metaphysics.
    You said: Societies that restrict freedom for big chunks of their population do badly in competition with those that prize liberty.
    I respond: I don’t know that this is empirically true. It certainly has not been true for most of human history. History’s great empires (Assyria, Babylon, Rome, etc.), except the U.S., have all been totalitarian. Prior to recorded history, humans probably lived in tribal groups with decidedly non-libertarian social structures. It the human species has a biological history of about 4 million years, this means only a very tiny sample of our history involves social structures that can even begin to be called libertarian (this is assuming you think the U.S. at present really is a “free” society). For all we know, a hundred years from now this experiment in non-totalitarian governance will have failed and most of humanity will have returned to its longstanding equilibrium strategy of authoritarian social structures.
    You said: I’d have to argue that yes, we do see a lot of progress – measured from a human perspective – over history.
    I respond: Sure, there has been lots of progress in technology, the sciences, philosophy, ethics, and even theology. I agree. But OTOH this is easy for you and I to say, I suppose. We’re wealthy enough to afford computers and we have enough flexibility in our lifestyles and education to enjoy spending time debating each other on “big” ideas. But let’s be honest: the vast majority of the world’s population still lives in dire poverty. And humanity has just been through probably its most violent century: World Wars I and II, the Holocaust, the atomic bombing of civilian cities, 100 million dead resulting from the cold war and communism, gross disparities between rich and poor. Whatever we might want to say about progress, there is hardly evidence here that strategies of altruism are overtaking strategies of violence.
    Aren’t you really saying that, the empirical evidence notwithstanding, you “believe” that human beings exercise some real agency and that you have “faith” in human beings to use that agency to ensure progress towards goals that you have determined a priori would be good rather than accepting whatever results come ex post from the evolutionary game?

  • People do not have purposes, they only think they have purposes… This is the view of all consistently materialistic neurobiologists, Dennett’s speculations to the contrary notwithstanding.

    Assuming for the moment I were willing to let you dismiss Dennett et al. with just a handwave, I’m afraid that’s silly. However drives and wants arise (determinism, ‘sin nature’, what have you) they are there. (As Lawrence of Arabia said in the movie, “A man can do whatever he wants, but he cannot want whatever he wants”.)
    And, no matter how those wants and desires arise, once present they impose a teleology.

    And humanity has just been through probably its most violent century…

    I realize this is the common, even intuitive, view… but the actual numbers say otherwise. We’ve gotten dramatically, measurably better at living together without violence.

  • One other point:

    History’s great empires (Assyria, Babylon, Rome, etc.), except the U.S., have all been totalitarian.

    Democracy’s a relatively new invention. The first culture to put anything even vaguely resembling it into practice – ancient Greece – was able to fight the vast Persian empire to a standstill.
    It’s a bit like saying that “all the great chess players of the 1800s used these strategies and won,” ignoring the development of chess strategy that’s come since then.