Friday, May 23, 2003

Well, that's just your opinion

Thanks to Disputations, I have just subscribed to the online Thomist (only 20$), and in the finest Dominican tradition (even though I'm becoming Byzantine), I thought I would contemplate and pass along the fruits to you.

I teach ethics courses, and find the most common objection is phrase something like this: "Well, that's just your opinion." This is a sentence meant to end an argument about issues such as abortion, contraception, non-marital sex, lying, stealing (many have a blind spot about Napster), love, friendship, or the shape of the human good in general. Moral issues are matters of taste, and can't be argued. Even though Budweiser tastes like the run-off from a dumpster on a hot day to me, I can't argue and convince you that it tastes bad. Such arguments would be silly, and moral arguments are just as silly.

I think many of the students aren't really relativists, but rather have no faith in the power of reason to get to the truth. There is a great deal of misology in the world today. Arguments in any arena are to be avoided, and especially arguments about God, morality, and politics. Of course, the three most important things about which we need truth are God, morality, and politics. What one needs to do as a teacher of philosophy, as JP II reminds us in Fides et Ratio, is to recover the sapiential dimension of philosophy: it is not a matter of analytic word games or Heideggerian humbuggery, but is about truth. We are not just capax Dei, but capax veritatis, capable of the truth.

One way to do this is to show that values themselves are not mere feelings or matters of taste, but are instead statements about facts in the real world. Take the value "I like to have sex with as many women as possible." What does one mean by this? The word "like" means "to have a disposition towards." If one asked why he liked to have sex, the person holding that value would probably say "Because it is fun." Note that there are now several factual statements hidden in this statement of value: 1) Sex is fun, and 2) Fun things ought to be pursued in place of fidelity. Or, in other words, fun is a goal of proper human action. Now, if this statement is true, it is based on the premise that fun is more important than fidelity, that fun is more properly the end of human action. This is a factual statement, not a statement of taste, and we can use reason to argue about facts! As John Cahalan writes (in the Thomist 66, 106-7), But for a truth about values to be false, things would have not to be what they are; for truths about human ends and means are just a subset of truths about what things are. So for a morally bad choice to be morally good, or vice versa, things would have to not be what they are in certain ways (ways to be described in what follows). If reason-based choices, then, have the goal of conforming to what reason knows about values, what makes a choice morally good is that it consciously relates to things as if they are what they are, as inculpably believed by reason, while a bad choice relates to things as if they are not what they are.

Once we have shown that value statements are not like statements of taste, but are rather factual statements about the world, we can go to work to determine which values are good and which are bad. This will of course require an integrated notion of the human good, but that is a topic for another day.

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