Monday, December 31, 2007

Are Bad Thoughts Good?

A list of the top ten new organisms of 2007 got me wondering whether our intuitions about our responsibilities for our creations might help us to think about the ethics of Creation. My intuition is that just because we create lifeforms, rather than being responsible for them in other ways (maybe just by coexisting with them), our moral obligations towards them (rather than our social or legal obligations) aare not at all reduced—whence I wonder whether Swinburne (The Existence of God, 2nd ed. 2004: 257-8) made too much of creators’ rights:
I may let the younger son suffer somewhat for the good of his and his brother’s soul. I have this right because in small part I am responsible for the younger son’s existence, its beginning, and continuance; I feed him and educate him. I have the right to demand something in return, that he is open to the possibility of his elder brother inflicting (limited) harm on him. If this is correct, then, a fortiori, a God who is, ex hypothesi, so much more the author of our being than are our parents, has rights so much greater in this respect.
Surely our need to inflict suffering upon our children derives from our lack of control over our environment, our right being the right to choose the lesser of two evils; whereas God would be perfectly (purely and infinitely) good to begin with, whence I doubt that S/he would allow an innocent creature to suffer involuntarily for the greater good of another. Furthermore, for Swinburne such a greater good is our being able to refrain from doing evils that we’re tempted to do; but were that really so much better than not even being tempted to sin (cf. Luke.15.vii?) so that it could justify the immense sufferings of this world, then surely this world would’ve been a much better place had we all wanted to do more disgusting things!
......How seriously an agnostic should take the hypothesis that this world was deliberately created for a good reason (which, stripped of such baggage as such talk inevitably collects, is an intrinsically hopeful hypothesis) depends upon how well the prima facie problem of evil is addressed; and I’m not sure that much progress has been made on this since Socrates.
......Bravery, for example (or compassion), presupposes hardships to be brave in the face of (respectively the suffering of others), but need they be actual hardships (others suffering)? Surely we are brave, if we are, before we display it. And while thick skins can be grown, can we learn to be brave—or do we learn to love, from which bravery (rather than rage, foolhardiness or blind obedience), amongst other virtues, flows? (And how great a virtue is bravery anyway? Prima facie it’s on a par with intelligence—it’s not a matter of how valuable such virtues are for us here, as we grow from our selfish infancies towards God, but of whether they’re valuable enough in themselves—with God—to justify the evils here.)
......Do we love lovely things because they are lovely, or are they lovely because they are loved? Prima facie it’s the former on the Monotheistic (as opposed to the Naturalistic) account, but then a perfectly good God (who would be intrinsically lovely) would not need others to love He/r; and whilst being perfectly able to self-sacrifice, S/he would not (as we might) be any better for doing so—but there are a lot more questions, of course; so first, to see why we need realistic answers, consider Swinburne’s (Is there a God? 1996: 112) defence of his theodicy:

Suppose that you exist in another world before your birth in this one, and are given a choice as to the sort of life you are to have in this one. You are told that you are to have only a short life, maybe of only a few minutes, although it will be an adult life in the sense that you will have the richness of sensation and belief characteristic of adults. You have a choice as to the sort of life you will have. You can have either a few minutes of very considerable pleasure, of the kind produced by some drug such as heroin, which you will experience by yourself and which will have no effects at all in the world (for example, no one else will know about it); or you can have a few minutes of considerable pain, such as the pain of childbirth, which will have (unknown to you at the time of the pain) considerable good effects on others over a few years. You are told that, if you do not make the second choice, those others will never exist—and so you are under no moral obligation to make the second choice. But you seek to make the choice which will make your own life the best life for you to have led. How will you choose? The choice is, I hope, obvious. You should choose the second alternative.
Maybe—but were the making of such a choice such a great good, in itself, those “considerable good effects” could simply be repeats of this very scenario; whereas no good God would allow such an endless succession of agonies, just because each should have been chosen (by people ignorant of that bigger picture). And although we should choose the second alternative (as it would be the more heroic), why do we admire such heroism?
......Partly, I think, because it’s voluntary (and not hopeless), so this thought-experiment sits uneasily with the previous quote, with God having the moral right to choose for us to be born (into this world), whence I find Swinburne’s initial supposition (that you exist somewhere else before your birth here) plausible—why would a good God not first make our souls (somewhere safer), tell them the truth there, and then ask us if we wanted to volunteer? That presupposes some meaningful enterprise for us to volunteer for, of course, and traditionally God has nothing to do; but also, God’s goodness is not traditionally of a lesser kind than that of a depraved person (who would surely, even when choosing good, be more likely to choose it for worse reasons)...

1 comment:

Enigman said...

PS, re the issue of creating people, see this post from Talking Philosophy. (My comment on it was: "you say that first implanting wants for self-serving reasons and then filling them is the very opposite of respectful, but I disagree... Before the creatures are created there is (?) nothing to respect; and having already the power to implant wants in one's created beings, would it be better (more respectful) to do so randomly? One cannot ask them what they want to want when they exist; so I think it might be best to give them wants that, as well as being fillable, and good for the creatures, also served their creator's purposes.")