Notes From Babel

That Infinite Moral Regress Is an Unlikely Topic in Polite Company Is No Answer to It

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Heather MacDonald gripes about the common objection to atheism that, without a transcendent moral order, no appeals to moral authority are possible and, ultimately, any atheistic moral system fails.  Heather’s rebuttal runs as follows:

Would someone please provide an actual example of such endless moral regress without the God trump card?  If I may borrow a phrase from my misspent youth, it seems to me that we are “always already” embedded in a moral environment far more complex and sophisticated than the blunt pronouncements of the Ten Commandments (i.e., those not commanding obsequiousness before God).   The question of some original source beyond human law and custom for our most basic principles, in my experience, never comes up.

. . . .

I have simply never witnessed the need to reference to God to establish the validity of our laws against extortion, say.  Real-world moral disputes are more complicated:  Is health care a right?  Who should pay for it and how much should one group pay for another’s health care?  Is economic regulation theft?  Is theft admissible to stave off starvation?  We answer these questions by drawing on our innate and developed moral intuitions and our society’s legal framework.

But this is to confuse public morality with formal morality. We do not subject our laws to the rigors of formal philosophy and morality and epistemology. We must accept certain fundamental truths as given in order to go on with political and legal life. But that is not to say that such formal inquiries are without value. Though we plod ahead from the place of our intellectual beginnings, from time to time it is important to have a look behind us. As Tocqueville put it:

Dogmatic beliefs are more or less numerous according to the times.  They are born in different manners and can change form and object; but one cannot make it so that there are no dogmatic beliefs, that is, opinions men receive on trust without discussing them.  If each undertook himself to form all his opinions and to pursue the truth in isolation down paths cleared by him alone, it is not probable that a great number of men would ever unite in any common belief.

Now it is easy to see that there is no society that can prosper without such beliefs, or rather there is none that could survive this way; for without common ideas there is no common action, and without common action men still exist, but a social body does not.  Thus in order that there be society, and all the more, that this society prosper, it is necessary that all the minds of the citizens always be brought and held together by some principal ideas; and that cannot happen unless each of them sometimes comes to draw his opinions from one and the same source unless each consents to receive a certain number of ready-made beliefs.

If I now consider man separately, I find that dogmatic beliefs are no less indispensable to him for living alone than foracting in common with those like him.

If man were forced to prove to himself all the truths he makes use of every day, he would never finish; he would exhaust himself in preliminary demonstrations without advancing; as he does not have the time because of the short span of life, nor the ability because of the limits of his mind, to act that way, he is reduced to accepting as given a host of facts and opinions that he has neither the leisure nor the power to examine and verify by himself, but that the more able have found or the crowd adopts. It is on this first foundation that he himself builds the edifice of his own thoughts. It is not his will that brings him to proceed in this manner; the inflexible law of his condition constrains him to do it.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Univ. Chicago Press, 2002  (Mansfield and Winthrop, eds.) at 407-08 (emphasis added).


Written by Tim Kowal

November 17, 2009 at 11:25 pm

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  1. […] sitting on my book shelf since my second year of law school.  Prompted a lot of blog posts: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and my favorite one […]

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