Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Divine Ethical Fallacy

A central vex of justice is by which authority is judgement due, and whether justice is a natural property or a states of affairs. Western Christian traditions have attempted to resolve this by appealing to Providence. Usually deontological in character, acts of justice are organized into obligation, permissions, and prohibitions categories. But such appeals themselves bring up theodicy, which to truncate the debate, appeals thereunto are uniquely unsatisfactory.1 For example, Gary McCarron characterizes divine Christian justice as promissory before suffering, appreciatory in suffering, and compensatory after suffering. In this conception, justice is the end by which we make the bad and unfortunate events in our life meaningfully intelligible. It gives them a narrative arc. But if one adopts this pose, “justice is never actually present, but is always looming on the horizon,” McCarron writes. Instead “we wait on justice because its appearance is consonant with its annihilation.”2 And, one might add, our annihilation. What justice there can be is incomplete at best, and at worse impossible in this realm.3
The belief in divine justice is because people seek comfort in arbitrary injustice, hoping that there is purpose to the suffering. The deep insecurity is this: what if injustice is without divine reason. If arbitrary, then the very status of God is brought into question. But given that injustice is prevalent, and modern tastes tend not to put stock into divine purpose, then the concept tends to slip from modern minds. As McCarron writes, to those of use with more secular leanings, divine justice appears to be “self-deception, a way of undoing grief.” It is one thing to be unable to do justice for grief; it is another to be indifferent and unresponsive. He continues,
it is a refusal to face the contingencies of life; it is simultaneously a way of facing those contingencies confident that one’s vision is inadequate to the task of revealing the truth. It is a technique for making suffering a sort of proof for God`s omnipotence.
By this line of reasoning, divine justice seems manifestly unworkable for contemporary governance regimes as it does not charge the state to remedy injustice where possible, and to extend where, when, and what is possible. This makes moral actions unacceptably arbitrary. Proponents reply by appealing to the necessity and essential goodness of Providence. Therefore divine deontology cannot be arbitrary. I am not persuaded.
For the sake of argument, let us pretend, for a moment, that divine justice is possible. This raises the paradox of demonstrable commitment. The obligation of belief in divine justice requires an authentic commitment to the logic of suffering as serving a transcendental and unknown purpose. It is proverbially Abraham leading Isaac to the top of Mount Moriah. The paradox arises as how to demonstrate and assess this conviction, as opposed to a person simply performing the behaviors of this conviction. Few methods exist to distinguish between conviction and the simple performance of conviction, particularly if conviction is held within the spirit or the intent of the person.4 This is a good example of the neo-sentimentalist fallacy.5 The religiously inclined tend to suggest that God knows the spirit. For the sake of argument let us grant this qualification; it nevertheless leaves us few means to convince others by some demonstration. Justice therefore has no chance of assuring it’s enact. We can only trust and have faith that justice is being enacted. Unfortunately, trust and faith cannot alone carry weight of justice.
There is a reason why a person cannot demonstrate justice. If we hark back to G. E. Moore, morality is analytically an open question. This means that justice is not to be found in a state of affairs, but rather it is our judgement over a state of affairs.6
Without the faith in divine will, it appears that divine justice and its associated fiats are not even remotely a viable option for modern systems of justice. Moreover, due to value pluralism, the requirement that religious subjection be an act of volition, and given that the state is a human construction, there is no place for divine justice in the state. For these reasons it is better to shy away from divine justice, natural justice, and other kinds of ethical naturalism altogether.
This is certainly the conclusion that John Rawls came to during his years as an infantry solider in the Pacific theater. In his essay On My Religion, Rawls discusses three incidents that caused him to shift away from orthodox institutional religion. The first is the misappropriation of religion for human ends; the second, the death close friend that could have been Rawls otherwise; the third was learning about the Holocaust. “These incidents” he wrote
affected me in the same way. This took the form of questioning whether prayer was possible. How could I pray and ask God to help me, or my family, or my country, or any other cherished thing I cared about, when God would not save millions of Jews from Hitler?7
For these reasons he “reject[s] the idea of the supremacy of the divine will as also hideous and evil.”8 For the reasons outlined above, discovering justice by ascending Mount Carmel would be to commit the ethical naturalism fallacy.
This does not mean that I exclude its value for a person, their conduct, and everyday lay thought. But this is something entirely different from accepting it as a contender in contemporary designs of justice in institutional settings.

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1 See Susan Neiman’s analytical discussion of early modern western philosophical positions on theodicy. Neiman, S., (2002) Evil on Modern Thought: an alternative history of philosophy, Princeton: Princeton University Press

2 Gary McCarron, Justice, Queens Quarterly

3  McCarron also writes that “Justice can also transcend the immateriality of anticipation to take up residence in the here-and-now facticity of material existence” and that although “`There is justice in this world” it lacks the “perfection promised in heaven. But some element of justice persists in the corporeality of human suffering; otherwise, what sense can we make of our pain?

4 Gary McCarron, Penance, Queens Quarterly

5 The neo-sentimentalist fallacy: a logical mistake whereby assertions to be valid must exhibit particular emotive, formulaic or expressive characteristics. Expressions are not sentiments.

6 To clarify, one should not take this as licence for metaethical antiobjectivism of the sort Mackie proposes. Mackie’s basic claim is that to speak of the good is to construe it as satisfying “intrinsic requirements” which are simply there “in the nature of things.” (59) Instead Mackie proposes we adopt what we would perhaps now describe as a constructivist approach to morality. He posits that “the function of morality is primarily to counteract (the) limitation of men’s sympathies” (108), which often happens to be self-interest. There are two primary problems with this view. The first is that plurality of values, the subjective experience thereof, and the variableness of beliefs are insufficient reasons do not justify metaethical antiobjectivism: people could quite easily be mistaken in their beliefs. The second is that even if we consent to constructionism, one still needs to have a discussion over which values can have the desired purpose Mackie describes. Constructivism does not forestall the reasonable selection of values, so on this count Mackie’s charge is benign. See Mackie, J. L. (1977) Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, New York: Penguin

7 Rawls, R., (1997[2009]) On My Religion, collected in Rawls, J., (2009) A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith, Cambridge: Havard University Press, p 263

8 Rawls, On My Religion, p 263