Dialogue & Ethical Decision Making in a Pluralistic Society (Part 2)

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2This is the second part of a two part essay on issues related to dialogue and ethical decision making in a pluralistic society.  Part I made the point that in order for real dialogue to take place between parties, those parties must be able to communicate clearly, understand one another and at least agree on the existence of the first principles that ground their view of reality.  Dialogue between believers and nonbelievers in “god” is problematic because nonbelievers do not think that “god” is anything more than an idea that some people have and in that sense does not exist and cannot serve as a referent in an argument.  Part 1 concluded with the idea that, perhaps the use of a thought experiment, following the model of the philosopher John Rawls, could serve to circumvent the first principles problem between those who believe and those who do not and allow for a continuation of meaningful dialogue and ethical decision making in a pluralistic society.

A thought experiment is the use of  imagination to investigate the nature of things. In a thought experiment, a person visualizes a situation with specific conditions, carries out an operation within the visualization, notices what happens or is what most likely to happen and then draws a conclusion from which further extrapolations are possible. One of the most famous thought experiments of all time was performed by Einstein who used his imagination and  “pursued a beam of light” to the discovery of the theory of general relativity.  The History of Science is replete with examples of thought experiments.  Click here to see some amusing illustrations.

The late political philosopher John Rawls used the device of an extended thought experiment to develop a theory of the nature of justice that he thought could be assented to in a pluralistic society (or world) where differing languages, cultures, belief systems and values made consensus on first principles on which to ground social dialogue difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. 

Rawls proposed the following thought experiment:

Imagine a condition in which human beings were brought together under what he called a “veil of ignorance” and given the task of deciding what basic rules should govern human social interaction and institutions in order, following the thinking of John Locke, that as free agents we be able both to have liberty and live together in harmony.  The “veil of ignorance” he proposed was the hypothetical situation in which all parties knew that social and personal inequalities existed but not which individual people or groups were advantaged or disadvantaged; i.e., a state where we knew that some people would be smarter than others, have more money or other resources than others, be more attractive or stronger than others etc. etc. but NOT which one of us was the stronger or weaker, richer or poorer, healthier or unhealthier.  We would not even know if we were a believer or not.

Assuming our hypothetical group accepted the task of answering the question of how our life as human beings should be arranged, Rawls argues that the first thing the group would do is to decide how to deal with fact that the group knew some members were advantaged and some disadvantaged but not who was in which category.  He concludes that the first rule the group would establish is one that establishes that whatever rules they arrive at cannot disadvantage the least advantaged in the group. Rawls continues that the first rule this hypothetical group would establish was that any rule they created could not adversely impact the liberty of the least advantaged among them.  

Or as Rawls put it more formally:  

Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.

Rawls calls this the first principle of justice.  A first principle arrived at in this way would be one that would be agreed to by both the believer and nonbeliever.  Under the “veil of ignorance” both believer and nonbeliever (since they did not who was who) would have to agree on a first principle which left either option (belief or non-belief) open and unconstrained.

Rawls moves on from the formation of this first principle to extrapolate a more elaborate theory of social justice in which the disadvantaged are always protected to one degree or another from being disadvantaged further by laws and social regulations. Space does not permit a full examination of Rawls and  his contractarian theory of justice. ( Click here for a summary of this 1971 publication.)  Suffice to say, that it is the use of a thought experiment and the “veil of ignorance” device that enables Rawls to circumvent the actual variations within the human family in reaching a formulation of a first principle that would likely be agreed upon by all members of the human family under the conditions of the experiment.  It is an also an ingenious way to get at a philosophical version of the Golden Rule.

While thought experiments and veils of ignorance may not be the route to the solution of all complex ethical discussions in which the parties have incompatible first principles, they do offer one avenue that could be explored much more widely in order to preserve pluralism (an thus liberty) in our society.  Imagine the thought experiment/veil of ignorance technique applied to a hot button issues like gay/lesbian marriage or stem cell research.

All this is of importance only if we are interested in preserving pluralism and the liberty that it implies.  Some may feel that it is their duty to work against pluralism and that humankind would be better off were there no difference of opinion on a topic like “god.”  Believers and nonbelievers may feel that the only proper course is to eradicate the view of the other through conversion or other means.  The historical record is filled with failed attempts to achieve social harmony by eradicating difference.  Tolerance and the nurture of what might be called “positive pluralism” with devices like thought experiments hold more promise for harmonious existence than social stalemates or the use force–social, intellectual or military–to build consensus.  Enforced consensus is an oxymoron of the first order.

In the end, the maintenance of a positive pluralism requires all parties to step back from their own position, at least momentarily, to find a common first principle from which to begin any discussion.  Believers, nonbelievers and agnostics may not always need to be at loggerheads when it comes to debating ethical issues.  Thought experiments are just one among a variety of methods but they worked well for Galileo, Einstein and John Rawls and have it all over war, genocide and social disintegration. 

Getting Real Bang for the Buck?

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2Take a look at the graphic below for a sad commentary on National priorities. While we think about cutting early education programs, lunch programs, investments in research and infrastructure, retirement programs, medicare and the list goes on and on, we spend vast sums on what President Eisenhower called the “military industrial complex.”  Does anything seem “out of wack” to you?

bang for your buck

Attribution:  FaceBook page “I Love F…ing Science.”

What is Evolution? Several Great Short Videos

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2Here is a very nice little video that in less than nine minutes provides a wonderfully accessible introduction to the concept of evolution.  Young science students might find in particularly helpful.  It’s short, presents the consensus view and my be useful even for adults for whom the term “evolution” has unnecessarily sinister connotations.

Here are two others that go on to talk about “genes” & “DNA.”  Both are directly to the point and helpful for anyone new to either concept.

Thanks to a great site called Stated Clearly.  Hope they create a lot more of these.

Within the Bounds of Nature?

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2Are we human beings part of nature or separate from it in some unique way?  While this may sound a rather abstract question, the answer to it has significant implications for moral reasoning.  We have all heard acts decried and labeled as immoral because they were “unnatural.”  In the current debate on genetic engineering and biological manufacturing, opposition to forays into these areas are often protested on the grounds of inappropriate (unnatural) interference with the processes of nature. Opponents of everything from same-sex marriage, to stem cell research, to cloning and beyond,  are repelled by what they regard as the unnaturalness of it all.  They warn us aphoristically not to “mess with Mother Nature.”

For many, whether theists or secular humanists, any hint that an act is unnatural is synonymous with saying that it is immoral–or at least of highly questionable moral status.  Therefore, it makes a great deal of difference what we include in our conception of what is within and without the bounds of nature (or the natural).

Certainly, naturalness, or the lack thereof, is only one of the many ways to think about morality; but, it is a very common one and one often turned to in order arouse public sentiment either for or against a certain course of scientific inquiry or social practice.

My thesis is a simple but, I think, important one:  everything which exists on this planet or anywhere else in the cosmos is a part of nature.  Put another way, nature is that which is and what “goes on” in nature consists entirely of natural processes or occurrences.

The birth of a cell

The birth of a cell

Human beings are therefore part of nature and the things that human beings do and think are also part of that nature.  For example, the use of the human mind to address problems of life and human health is an entirely natural thing.  Thinking, creating, building, fixing, adapting etc. etc. are entirely natural things as are cell division, natural selection, mutation, volcanic eruptions and beavers building dams.

That said morality is still of the highest importance.  Human acts can still be judged moral and immoral, prudent and imprudent as well as beneficial or harmful but they can not and consequently should not be judged on the basis of whether they are natural or not:  there is nothing which is or happens which is not natural.

The question of needing to distinguish the natural from the unnatural arises from the supposition or belief that the natural is a product of a force outside of the natural known as the supernatural and particularly the work of a divine entity existing in a dimension outside of nature.  The supernatural, it is argued, designed and created nature and its processes.  The supernatural, in this conception, is interested in its creation conforming to the original design and set of processes.

The whole notion of something being unnatural presupposes a supernatural which has defined what falls within the bounds of nature.  Actions that violate the original supernatural design are unnatural because they violate the supernatural designer’s intent and are ipso facto immoral.

This view of supernatural intentional creation has, in the Western Tradition, normally also made the claim that human beings have a foot, so to speak, in both the supernatural and natural domains.  The Christian tradition even claims that the supernatural created human beings in its own “image and likeness” and that there is a component of a human being called the soul which is spiritual and in that sense supernatural–outside of nature and both immortal and incorporeal.

Further, in this view, the supernatural creator has retained certain prerogatives vis-a-vis the creation.  For example, the actual creation of life and maintaining the basic integrity of the original design are the prerogative of the supernatural alone. Human beings, although “ensouled,” are not to violate these fundamental rules without dire consequences for themselves and the creation as a whole.  They should not do anything “unnatural;” i.e., arrogate to themselves any supernatural prerogatives.  In this way, the unnatural and the immoral have become almost covalent terms in the popular mind.

Additionally, only humans seem to be capable of doing unnatural acts.  One never hears of cats, birds, gold fish, or bacteria performing unnatural acts.  We assume that since they are part of nature what they do is simply natural and neither moral or immoral–what ethicists sometimes call pre-moral.  Natural organisms are thought to follow their instincts and not really exercise any choice other than  pragmatic ones like which prey to attack.  We would never imagine a non-human animal doing or even intending to do anything like Victor in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein did— that would be unnatural.

At this point, it should be clear that the existence of the unnatural presupposes the existence of the supernatural.  Without the supernatural, all is natural including what we experience as freedom, curiosity, love, hope and creativity.  With the supernatural, freedom is curtailed, curiosity limited and creativity shackled.  With the supernatural, the “image and likeness” to the supernatural claimed for humans is no longer remotely perceptible as humans are reduced to rule keepers or rule breakers–left in a place of persistent delinquency.

Most dictionaries define the supernatural something like: a proposed force outside of nature and beyond scientific understanding.  In that sense, the existence of the supernatural is a matter of faith: i.e., a strong belief grounded in spiritual apprehension rather than proof.

Personally, I would prefer not to be left in a state of persistent delinquency grounded on an idea (the supernatural) for which there is not and cannot be any evidence.  I would rather embrace and be embraced by what is and can be known to be and like the crew of the Starship Enterprise “boldly (and I might add prudently) go where no person has gone before.”  That is what comes naturally to me.110706Enterprise01