Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Quest for Meaning by Robert H. Kane (Book Review #98 of 2015)


Quest for Meaning: Values, Ethics, and the Modern Experience

I checked out this course because we're at a time when ISIL is beheading people who don't share their view of the truth and using rape and torture as a form of prayer while at the same time, biologist/atheist Richard Dawkins and others are writing that we can be certain that there is no God-- also a clear and exclusive truth claim. Both ISIL and Dawkins believe wholeheartedly that they are correct and all others are wrong, either infidels or idiots. As someone with a Christian worldview, I can respect others' rights ultimately because the Bible, on which I place great authority, says that all men are created in God's image. But to make the case that everyone should respect life like I do would require appeal to some sort of universally-held views. 

Over the past few years I've read some books by the New Atheists like Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens along with several other professing atheist physicists and biochemists who are searching for the beginning of the universe or life. I have yet to hear any of them respond with logical consistency to the question of on what basis they make their moral judgments about life if there is no such thing as universal truth, a soul, consequences, etc? If we are just a random collection of molecules who will be spread across the universe, and morality and human rights simply stories we tell ourselves to help us survive in the evolutionary process, then why is my choosing to scatter your (or anyone else's) atoms before you would choose to do so considered any worse than me burning firewood? Tim Keller (The Reason for God) writes that he's never met a moral relativist who is logically consistent.

Dr. Kane's series is his attempt to get at the question given our modern postmodern context. (Dr. Kane's own work, The Significance of Free Will, apparently utilizes physical science and philosophy to defend the incompatibility of free will and determinism.) His walk through the history of philosophy lowers my estimation of Durant's The History of Philosophy, which I recently reviewed. He does a much better job than Durant of showing the practical implications of each philosopher's work (admitting there are differences in the philosophers covered by the two authors). I highly recommend this series as informative and thought-provoking, but with a caveat-- it is deeply unsatisfying in its conclusion. Spoiler alert: His basic conclusion is that we need to keep an open mind and be less confident about what each of us sees as Truth while all striving to find common ground in the hope that we can all agree on at least a few things. Dr. Kane seems to say that if everyone approaches things with an "open mind" it will be enough to eliminate the problem of everyone arguing for his particular truth view. But what happens if we reach a conclusion about the Bible being valid through open-minded investigation? There are certainly some life-long Christian apologists with PhDs in philosophy and other fields who argue they reached their conclusion through open-minded investigation. So, I find the author's comments of "quest" ultimately unsatisfying. 4.5 stars out of 5. If interested in the full review, read below.

The first lecture asks the question: Where do values come from? Can we agree on "values" universally, and if so, why? Values must be defended with evidence if there are actually truths and absolutes. Kane is "concerned" by the rise of relativism and the even more radical subjectivism that seems to be winning the day. Can we make progress in philosophy without coming to a "final truth?" That's the challenge of philosophers through the ages.

Kane begins with the Axial Period of 800-300 BC when Confucious, Socrates, Aristotle, Zoroaster, the authors of the Uphanishads, Hebrew philosophers, and others roamed the earth. He returns to this period repeatedly to show the importance of ideas. He points to some commonality of values espoused by axial philosophers as coming close to universally-accepted truths, but a later lecture will point out that there are almost always a small culture somewhere who deviated in certain attitudes toward life.

Lecture 2 moves on to Aristotle and logic. Aristotle demanded causes and reasons. Teleology and the logos - meaning, purpose, and cause. Kane complains that the social sciences today present us with "too many values." There are three modern conditions that threaten the search for wisdom:
pluralism, uncertainty, and the "sunderings of modernity" (meaning the separation of fact from value).

In Lecture 3 he jumps ahead to 1600 AD where Leibniz draws on Aristotle's ideas of first principles and the application of reason. Philosophers seem to be developing theoretical explanations about how to live. In examining the Enlightenment, Charles-Michel de l'Épée is highlighted. l'Épée is (perhaps erroneously) credited by Ames as inventing or popularizing sign language for the deaf, who hitherto had been considered invalids who were not worth the trouble. The Enlightenment was primarily about "liberation through education," as espoused by many philosophers of the era. So, the Enlightment helped expand the idea of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in the West.

Lecture 4 examines the postmodern sundering of fact from value through Jean Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell. Both philosophers were of different schools yet argued that values were subjective. Both admitted there was no basis for telling someone "right" or "wrong" other than their own personal choice or preference. Russell was a positivist who came from the logical world of science and math, but he rejected logical positivism. Russell wrote that science could say nothing about ethics. Sartre, meanwhile, argued that values come from feelings. Our own personal experiences shape how we feel about things and therefore our values.

Kane then moves back in Lecture 5 to the excommunicated Jewish philosopher Spinoza's thoughts on value experiences. Spinoza wrote that values are a mix of both fact and personal experience, they are therefore both objective and subjective. From here we are challenged with the idea of being able to rise above subjectivity to see if there is a "fourth dimensional value" of life that everyone can agree upon-- a "God's eye view." The third dimensional values may tell us that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are universally important to people-- but your happiness might be less important to me, and I might therefore exploit you in order to make me happier. So, how do we rise above to determine, objectively, the rights of all? Modern relativism rejects that a fourth dimension of absolute universal truth can be found. (Which of course leads some to say "there are no absolutes," a statement which refutes itself.) The relativist's problem is that by saying there are no absolute values he has made an absolute judgement from the God's-eye view. The vulgar relativist is therefore confused-- he is doing what he claims cannot be done.

Lecture 6 unpacks David Hume, Adam Smith and their intellectual peers, the utilitarians. The challenge of modern ethical thinkers is to figure out how to get to the fourth dimension of universal absolutes for all without appealing to some religious authority or written text. David Hume and Adam Smith pursued a "sentimentalist" route-- beginning with the premise that all humans share common feelings and emotions. Kane rightly cites Smith's Treatise on Moral Sentiments. Smith recognized that the prosperity we enjoy collectively is a result of individuals pursuing their own self-interests and thus trading and cooperating, creating more wealth for all. But he relied on moral sentiments-- consciences -- to "curb market excess" as Kane puts it. This relies on a universal understanding that indulging in excess, violation of property rights, exploitation of others, etc.  Kane says that Mencius, a Chinese Confucian philosopher from the axial period wrote similarly, that man was inherently good and had a conscience; bad company is what corrupts good character.

The second route is the rationalist one put forth by Immanuel Kant, Leibniz, and Spinoza. Hume argued against the rationalists, arguing that reason alone cannot determine moral values. Interestingly, Hume is considered a relativist but takes axiomatically that there are certain virtues and vices. Hume's problem is with religious authorities determining what those are. But that makes Hume the arbiter of right and wrong in determining behavior, which leads us back to the same problem-- who decides? Utilitarians like John Stuart Mill, Thomas Malthus, and Jeremy Bentham believed that "right" was whatever created the greatest happiness for the greatest number. But Kane rightly points out the silliness of trying to quantify everyone's utility, which is highly subjective. And one group or country might get a greater amount of utility exploiting another than both groups would have if they cooperated-- who's to say otherwise? 

The third option is the social contract espoused by Locke and Rousseau. Locke's philosophies obviously influenced the ideas behind and the language found in Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence and in the formation of the constitutional government found today. Locke's view was similar to Mencius', that man was not born depraved but environment and circumstances made him so. There are certain unalienable rights that all men have, and these are not surrendered to the state but rather need to be protected universally by the state.

Lecture 7 begins with the question- are these rights, virtues, and sentiments constant or might they have changed across eras and societies? Hume judged the virtues espoused by the clergy of his day as "monkish," and harmful. He had his own preferred values. As mentioned before, the Enlightenment looked to "liberation through education;" Hume and others above looked to "moral education" as a solution-- teaching virtues over vice. Again, who decides whether something is virtue or vice?  Hume seemed to believe in more sexual liberation than the Bible would, but what makes one right and the other wrong?

Kane examines the 20th century "explosion" in the study of anthropology, which in the early part of the century emphasized diversity and relativism-- the lack of universals constant through all societies and history. This created problems of logic for prosecuters at Nuremberg, who were prosecuting Nazi war criminals for violating apparently universal human rights-- but what if there is no such thing? Kane cites research showing some cultural universals both biologically and culturally:
- Helpless young
- division of labor and social roles between genders.
- taboos related to sex.
- rituals
- Courage and bravery valued
- self-control
- the idea of justice

The relativist response to these has pointed out that examples of how societies treated the universals above differ. They divide labor differently, some with slavery. Maybe some had matriarchal societies. Some rituals involved human sacrifice. Are any of these right just because they're universal?

George Pugh (1977) wrote The Biological Origin of Human Values. Pugh seems to argue that humans biologically respond to stimuli and have developed "social motives" for encouraging more pleasurable emotions and the survival of the species-- getting back to the universality of "sentiments." Pugh purported that there are universal social motives among which are:
- Need for admiration, love, sympathy.
- Need for community, and a sense of belonging.

But societies obviously can do the above with their own tribe but exploit others conversely; sentiment for your own tribe, while denying the other tribe's right to pursue its own. This leads to Lecture 8 and Immanuel Kant, who rejected the idea of universal sentiment. Kant illustrates the juxtoposition of theoretical inquisition as to what is moral with the practical application of choosing how we should now live. Kant appealed to reason, and argued that only rationalism can get us to that fourth dimension (Kane's term) of universal law-- only rationalism and reason can get us to rise above and see what is universally applicable. The philosopher Hegel was a critic of this idea. Kant wants there to be a universal right and wrong but doesn't acknowledge that some committing "wrongs" may be making a rational choice. Criminals may be evil but are not irrational (fast forward to economist Gary Becker), they have made a cost/benefit analysis of their choice in committing wrong.  Kane does deal with Kantian responses to his early critiques and he comes back to Kant's second idea in the next lexture.

Lecture 9 continues Kant whose "second idea" was to use humanity as a means and an end to moral law. That we all are universally autonomous humans means we should respect the autonomy of others. But why should we respect anyone else's autonomy? Kane returns to the utilitarians Bentham and Mill to critique Kant. Kant argued that the dealth penalty is right morally whether or not it deters crime. Whereas utilitarians argue that if it is not a deterrent (and studies show it perhaps isn't) then it should be abolished as immoral. But, as the same as the earlier lecture dealing with utility-- how do we measure utility or pleasure, and how do we compare one person's utility to another?

In Lecture 10, Kane looks more closely at the social contract theory of Hobbes and Locke in light of evolutionary biology. Biologists and philosophers argue about the idea of social altruism and reciprocal altruism. Kane cites evidence that Darwin himself was concerned about the implications of the theory of natural selection on ethics. In a world where we are simply a sum of the survival of random mutations, what gives the final results any value? Darwin's theory, of course, was a reason behind many social Darwinists from the Rockefellers on down, along with a justification of many interested in eugenics. Kane presents John Rawls' (1971) "veil of ignorance." Rawls' first principle is that everyone is entitled to a certain basic set of rights, his second principle is that differences in income inequality should be limited so that everybody benefits. He examines various critiques of Rawls and how Rawls refined his philosophies.

In Lecture 11, we analyze Robert Nozick's (1974) libertarian critique of Rawls. Rawls' veil of ignorance assumes people are naturally risk-averse (which of course studies by behavioral economists have shown they actually are). Perhaps we might dare to take the chance of outrageous fortune knowing that the downside is incredible loss. Rawls (and Socialists) tend to assume any income inequality leads to an undermining of the freedoms that Rawls himself embraces. This is the critique of the state from Hobbes, Locke, etc.-- the more state you have to enforce equality, the more bureaucracy, the more inefficiency, and the more resources are needed which eventually can only come from coercion.  Rawls says that rights need to be "what reasonable people would agree upon," but this is also highly problematic-- who determines what or whom is reasonable? The majority? Postmodernists argue that there is no such thing as a worldwide true metanarrative as espoused by Lyotard. History is relative to the one who experiences it and there is no arching "theory that tries to give a totalizing, comprehensive account to various historical events, experiences, and social, cultural phenomena based upon the appeal to universal truth or universal values." Therefore, there can be no definition of "reasonable" that is necessary to agree with Rawls' conclusions.
This lecture illustrates the tension between shared values, individual freedom, and pluralism.


Dr. Kane is apparently a fan of Alasdair MacIntyre, and Kane's viewpoint is influenced heavily by MacIntyre's 1981 work After Virtue. The wikipedia entry on After Virtue is worth reading, wouldn't surprise me if Kane wrote bits himself:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/After_Virtue
"MacIntyre provides a bleak view of the state of modern moral discourse, regarding it as failing to be rational, and failing to admit to being irrational. He claims that older forms of moral discourse were in better shape, particularly singling out Aristotle's moral philosophy as an exemplar. After Virtue is among the most important texts in the recent revival of virtue ethics...MacIntyre seeks to find an alternative to Nietzsche's philosophy and eventually concludes that only classic Aristotelian thought can hope to save Western humanity.

Lecture 12 examines MacIntyre's points and promotes a return to Aristotle and the axial period. MacIntyre wrote that society was in trouble because external motivations were trumping internal ones-- people do things not for the sake of doing them, but for the fame of having the next video to go "viral." As a Christian, I would say that people are devoid of a proper theology of work. As such, modern society has lost its sense of virtue, things are no longer seen as inherently good or worth doing, they're worth doing only for the external/fringe benefits. Again, but who determines what values are right and which deeds are worth doing?

Dr. Kane then turns to his own work (The Significance of Free Will) to preview his own personal conclusions; maybe he could have ended the course here, probably should have. He reminds the audience that this is a quest for meaning, a quest for ethics. Is Bloom wrong about openness leading to relativism? Kane believes openness leads to a "quest" which leads to "some universals," he thinks openness is not relativism, and all points of view are not equally valid. I wish he had talked about Aristotelian logic here and not all premises are valid nor do they all have valid conclusions. Dr. Kane seems to say that if everyone approaches things with an "open mind" it will be enough to eliminate the problem of everyone arguing for his particular truth view. But what happens if we reach a conclusion about the Bible being valid through open-minded investigation? There are certainly some life-long Christian apologists with PhDs in philosophy and other fields who argue they reached their conclusion through open-minded investigation. So, I find the author's comments of "quest" ultimately unsatisfying.

Lecture 14 returns to the Axial Period and "ancient ethics," like the "Golden Rule" found in Eastern, Greek, and Jewish philosophy. The Mosaic commandments that seem to be held similarly in most cultures universally. Kane seems to be comfortable with these as universals, and claims to have reached this conclusion from openness and pursuing truth about universals a la J.S. Mill. But it does not help the question as to why some ways of life are not acceptable or are even reprehensible. There are moral exceptions to each of the Ten Commandments, says Kane; it's necessary to lie sometimes, and even biblical characters do so on occassion without any condemnation from the author.

In Lecture 15, Dr. Kane seems to be out of his league as an amateur historian at some points. He cites Gandhi, for example, as the example of "lessons found in "non-violent movements." He makes a rule of using minimum force and argues for just warfare. Dr. Kane is apparently ignorant that Gandhi wrote Churchill a letter encouraging him to submit to Hitler's occupation and exploitation rather than fight. Gandhi was both naive and logically inconsistent on many things, so he's a problematic example. 

Tim Keller has a chapter in The Reason for God where he deals with the false dichotomy of private and public morality, particularly as it relates to judging politicans. Lecture 16 reminded me of this. Private morality are the rules and values that you argue for yourself and public morality is what you do with someone whose world view is different than yours. (Keller argues that a major appeal of the Christian worldview is that it allows one to have a high standard for one's self while also respecting those with different world views as being worthy of respect because of being made in God's image.) But whose private morality will be public?

Locke wrote that the role of state is to execute judgments so that there would not be ongoing vendettas in Shakespearean fashion. John Stuart Mill argued that all must simply avoid harming others in their actions to the extent possible. But who determines "reasonable avoidability?" Should the median voter determine morality, that seems to be how we argue it in the U.S. these days. Devlin (1959) argued that law without morality  “… destroys freedom of conscience and is the paved road to tyranny.” He appealed to the idea of a society's moral fabric (and this seems to jive with John Adams comments that our Constitution was written to govern a Christian people and could not work otherwise)-- morals matter. Devlin argued that the criminal law must respect and reinforce the moral norms of society in order to keep social order from unravelling. Hence, there is a "legal morality," norms and morals that are codified. It strikes me that this is precisely the argument many Christians were making about the Supreme Court's decision to legalize the recognition of same-sex marriages.

Dr. Kane then returns to the problem of children and education in Lecture 17. How do we teach values? He brings up the Columbine tragedy to drive home the importance of answering this question. The Josephson Institute's Six Pillars of Character are an example of one putting forth some virtues as uncontroversially universal: Trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, citizenship. But it strikes me that "fairness" is used by some to justify behavior others find reprehensible.
Kane's lectures ignore any implication about beliefs in an afterlife or eternity. If an ISIS martyr believes he is more likely to go to heaven by raping a captive non-Islamic slave, then he will do so whether or not the rest of the world finds his act reprehensible. And then you have the dilemma of abortion, which Kane mentions. What is life and where does it begin? Drawing the line in the wrong place results in legally-defined murder being committed. (I will note that I heard atheist Sam Harris wrestle with the "when does life begin" issue recently, he squirms a bit at the thought that we might actually be taking viable life.)

Continuing on the theme of private/public morality, Kane returns to Plato in Lectures 18 and 19 to illustrate that politics cannot be isolated from ethics and standards of living. Plato's ideal Republic is made up of philosopher kings, not democratic vote. (We in the US forget that our Founders had similar ideas of governing "Gentlemen" who set aside self-interest for the good of the nation's posterity. Senators were not elected by popular vote in many states until the 20th century, and we still have an Electoral College). Kane is well aware of the principle-agent problem of democracy and lists other relevant critiques. Plato himself argued that democracy would cause a "loss of shared values," would lead to fads as officials sought after what was popular to get elected. Relevant to today, obviously. Socrates was put to death in a democracy (that point is more debatable).

From here, Kane invites the student to return to his "quest" for ethics and values by postulating a hypothetical "ecumenical retreat." Imagine if you could have representatives of all possible political and philosophical viewpoints locked together at a weekend in a cabin determined to hammer out common ground. That seems similar to Rawls' veil of ignorance. I'm not sure what the point of the exercise is other than acknowledging the "nobility" of the quest for universal principles we can all agree upon. Lecture 21 takes us to the post-modernists again. Does studying objective reality help us understand objective worth? Dignity and human rights are based on the idea of objective worth, so this is crucial. Postmodernists argue that we cannot know objective reality because we see everything through our own lens. 

Dr. Kane assembles a response to the postmodernists. Other people may have different perspectives on reality, but when you put them together you get a more complete picture of something that actually exists or happened. Police interrogate multiple witnesses with different versions, some facts may differ. But putting all perspectives together paints an event that actually happened. Dr. Kane then discusses the idea of love and value. Augustine said "to love me is to want me to be." If we want something to be, it must have objective worth. We agape love things we want to continue even though it doesn't provide any immediate benefits just for us.

How do we aspire to know if something has objective worth is the question of Lecture 23. What is truly praiseworthy? We need objective reality as the sum of all observations-- the mosaic of truth-- to determine worth. Can all beings praise the same things? No. But we must be able to appreciate the objective value of others and their ability to appreciate those things we cannot. I may not like art, but I can appreciate the objective value of another God-made person who can.

The final lecture is on religious belief in a pluralist age. The Renaissance saw the search for objective truth without appealing to religious authority because the religious views conflicted. "Religion is a theory of value, not just a theory of reality." What is sacred is related to objective worth. (But we humans obviously differ on what is "sacred," hence the need for these lectures.) Dr. Kane closes with the unfulfilling challenge to his audience to "Dare to aspire to know."

While his book(s) apparently include thoughts on evolutionary biology and synaptic responses to stimuli and what they mean for psychology, these lectures seem to be void of those. The lectures are engaging, his speaking is clear, and he seems sincerely passionate about this topic. I highly recommend them as an overview of philosophy and the logical conclusion that we cannot have human rights without objective truth. He downplays or ignores any role of afterlife belief on our behavior and on what objects we consider worthy. Such things are necessary to bring up in a world where the Islamic State holds sacred that which we consider profane, and vice-versa. 4 stars out of 5.

No comments: