Saturday, March 28, 2009

Natural Law, Conservatism, Moral Theory, and Divine Command Theory. Also, Verificationism and Moral Theory

Before returning to Berlin on liberty, let's tie together some loose ends. Many people are confused about the concepts listed in the title of this post. Over the last few months I have posted on them. Now it's time to lay some confusions to rest. I've also owed you my post on verificationism and moral theory for two years now.

As I said before, natural law does not entail that God exists. If God does not exists, it remains the case that this world exists and that humans have a nature such that good lives are to be had by behaving in certain ways but not in others and right acts are to be done only if one does certain things but not others. It is, for instance, right to repay a debt when promised and wrong to kill people for fun. Self-reliance is good, while sloth is not. These things are so because of the way human beings are and because of the meanings of moral terms. Anyone who understands human nature and knows the English words "right" and "good" can see that these things are so.

If God created human beings to be so, that's all well and good. But to contemplate this creation confuses the natural law theorist who has faith in God. He thinks that human nature is so because God made it so and that this explanation is the more fundamental one underlying the explanation that moral facts are what they are because human nature is the way it is. However, this is a confusion of causal explanation with essential explanation. The fact that Joe baked the bread isn't more fundamental to the explanation that the bread is nutritious because it is made of wheat. Nor is the fact, if it is a fact, that God made the wheat. It is informative to know who made something, but it doesn't tell us why the bread is nutritious. We have known for 2500 years now that right and wrong aren't so because God says so. We shouldn't confusedly think that the natural law theory of morality entails that God exists. It can be combined with divine command theory but it needn't be.

Conservatism takes human nature and moral language seriously. It doesn't try to ignore or change the former or pervert the latter, as leftism and other assorted statisms and totalitarianisms do. The moral term "right" has to do with judgments about the competing interests of multiple people. To say that an action is "right" is to say that it strikes a proper balance of these interests, that is, it distributes fulfillment of them in accordance with the most coherent set of shared preferences in the society of the speaker and the agents about whom he is speaking and assuming that these preferences are informed by the relevant facts of the case and of human nature.

Think of it in this way. No one would be able to interpret a speaker who said, "I know that this action goes is highly antithetical to our society's most coherent set of preferences and that these are informed by all the relevant facts about human nature and the case in question, but it is the right thing to do." (To see how this works in deliberation, go here.) No one would know what to take as evidence that what he was saying was correct. Now, these preferences are just the balances struck between altruistic and self-interested desires. So, to say that an action X is "right", then, is just to say that "X is consistent with the relevant non-moral facts of the case and of human nature and X best coheres with the largest and most coherent set of altruistic and self-interested desires shared in our society." No one has any idea what would count as evidence that X was wrong if X did indeed fit with the facts and this coherent set of desires. This is just a fact about moral language. A similar analysis may be made of "good" but we'll leave that aside for the moment, as it is relatively trivial extension of this analysis.

This is why leftism and the rest of the ideological fetishes are non-starters. They distort moral language. They do not aim at correct reflection of the facts of human nature. The loose ends I'm tying together here form a very powerful explanation, then, of truths we know must be true: that right is what it is partly because of human nature and independently of God's existence, and that conservatism is the only non-fetishistic political philosophy, while the others are perverse.