Overview of Epistemology

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Our post-Christian, Western society challenges faith, strips life of meaning, and leaves us to sort what we know for ourselves, an epistemological problem. Much like the Great Recession created a need to learn more about personal finance, the postmodern crisis of faith has created a need to learn more about epistemology, the study of how we know what we know.

Faith Not Optional

The need for confidence that what we know is true also arises because life is too short to test every assumption for ourselves. Imagine a world in which we argued about the definitions of red, yellow, and green every time we pulled up to a stoplight? In this ad hoc information age, it is important to examine basic assumptions in our thinking much like it is important to build a house on a solid foundation. Faith is not optional; neither is the epistemological task.

Anthropology and Epistemology

The need to have confidence in our assumptions about what we know is contingent on who we are as human beings. The New Testament teaches that the heart and mind are inseparable. Confidence is not a mind-game; it also depends on our emotional response.  Our epistemology accordingly depends on our interpretation of anthropology.

Anxiety due to Uncertainty

Anxiety arises when we depend on knowledge that we cannot evaluate for ourselves. Our emotions reflect our assessment of threats to our being, social position, and livelihood. Who could concentrate on studying Einstein’s theory of relatively if you worried about the roof collapsing? Living in a complex, technological world where the consensus on basic values has broken down is an anxiety-generating event because we can no longer trust that the experts we rely on to share our values and to value our lives more than their own economic interests. The risk of loss increases our interest in the  epistemological task.

Meta-Narrative is Participatory

Being part of a cause greater than ourselves provides security and meaning to life that cannot be obtained as individuals, a source of comfort that what we believe to be true is also in our best interests in view of our human vulnerability. By contrast, opportunities garner attention mostly when we feel secure. We care about the grand story of humanity, the meta-narrative, which we have no choice in participating in. Because, as postmoderns, we no longer believe in objective truth, which can be distilled easily into simple concepts, we want to know: who tells the best story of who we really are?

Overview

Also see:

Preface to Living in Christ 

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter:http://bit.ly/Give_Thanks_2018

Continue Reading

Vaughn Argues a Clear Case for Writers

Lewis Vaughn, Writing PhilosophyLewis Vaughn. 2018. Writing Philosophy: A Student’s Guide to Reading and Writing Philosophy Essays. New York: Oxford University Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

As an author, my eyes are always open for good writing books, especial those addressing the needs of nonfiction writers. I am not alone in this interest in writing books. The single, most popular post on this blog in 2013 and 2014 featured a writing book, How to Write Short by Roy Peter Clark, of special interest to bloggers.

Introduction

On the back cover of his book, Writing Philosophy, Lewis Vaughn out lines his objectives:

“[This book] is a concise, self-guided manual that covers how to read philosophy and the basics of argumentative essay writing.”

Never having taken a philosophy course, other than philosophy of science as a PhD candidate, I found both objectives instructive. If a philosophy essay is all about the quality of the premises and the conclusions that follow from them, then other departments ought to send their students over to the philosophy department to learn how to write because understanding good argument structure can improve most essays.

Organization

According to Google Books,[1]Lewis Vaughn is an independent author living in Amherst, New York. He writes in eight chapters divided into two parts:

PART 1: READING AND WRITING

  1. How to Read Philosophy
  2. How to Read an Argument
  3. Rules of Style and Content for Philosophical Writing
  4. Defending a Thesis in an Argumentative Essay
  5. Avoiding Fallacious Reasoning
  6. Using, Quoting, and Citing Sources

PART 2: REFERENCE GUIDE

  1. Writing Effective Sentences
  2. Choosing the Right Words (v-vii)

These chapters are preceded by a preface and followed by four appendices.

Three aspects of this book proved most helpful to me: reading philosophy, how to read an argument, and avoiding fallacies. Let me focus on each in turn.

Reading Philosophy

Philosophy means the love of knowledge. Vaughn writes:

“[Philosophy] is concerned with the examination of beliefs of the most fundamental kind—beliefs that structure our lives, shape our worldviews, and underpin all academic disciplines.”(3)

This focus on argumentation is important so Vaughn offers some key definitions:

“In philosophy, an argument is a statement, or claim, coupled with other statements that are meant to support that statement. The statement being supported is the conclusion, and the statements support the conclusions are the premises.”(5)

He goes on to define the divisions of philosophy (6) as: metaphysics (the study of reality), axiology (the study of value, including ethics, which is moral value), epistemology (the study of knowledge), and logic (the study of correct reasoning).

A fundamental skill for philosophers is the ability to summarize or paraphrase an argument, outlining its premises and conclusions. He writes: “A summary must accurately capture a text’s main ideas in just a few words.”(15) This advice may sound trivial, but summarizing my own books often proves to be an anxiety-producing event.

How to Read an Argument

Vaughn notes that a good premise is either true or false, while a conclusion is a belief that you are trying to support (21-22). He notes that certain “indicator words” flag which is which in an argument. Indications of a conclusion are words like: “consequently, thus, therefore, it follows that, as a result, hence, so, which means that.” Indicators of a premise might be: “in view of the fact, because, due to the fact that, the reason being, assuming that, since, for, given that.”(26)

Vaughn offers interesting definitions of deductive and inductive reasoning, two typically confusing ideas. A dedicative argument offers logically conclusive for conclusions, while inductive arguments offer only probable support for conclusions. Because of the difference in the veracity of these arguments, good deductive arguments are considered valid while good inductive arguments are strong. (27-29) True premises make a deductive argument sound while true premises make an inductive argument cogent. (30)

Worth the price of admission is Vaughn’s treatment of valid and invalid argument forms, what we might describe as logical syllogisms. He outlines four valid forms and two invalid forms. (32-33)

VALID FORMS

 Affirming the Antecedents (modus ponens)

 If p, then q     (premise 1)

p                    (premise 2)

Therefore, q. (conclusion)

Denying the Consequent (modus tollens)

If p, then q           (premise 1)

Not q                   (premise 2)

Therefore, not p. (conclusion)

Hypothetical Syllogism

If p, then q                  (premise 1)

If q, then r                   (premise 2)

Therefore, if p, then r. (conclusion)

Reductio Ad Absurdum

 p                         (premise 1)

If p, then q          (premise 2)

Not q                   (premise 3)

Therefore, not p. (conclusion)

 INVALID FORMS

 Denying the Antecedent

If p, then q          (premise 1)

Not p                   (premise 2)

Therefore, not q. (conclusion)

Affirming the Consequent

If p, then q     (premise 1)

q                    (premise 2)

Therefore, p. (conclusion)

For valid premises, these forms lead to logical conclusions. Consequently, Vaughn advises students to memorize these forms so as to recognize them as they arise in arguments.

Avoiding Fallacies

Vaughn cites two common fallacies that bear repeating: the straw man argument and the ad hominem attack (appeal to the person). The straw man argument is an unfair characterization of an opponent’s argument designed to facilitate criticism while the ad hominem attack is to defeat an argument not by criticizing its weaknesses, but by attacking the person advancing the argument. (89) These fallacies are weak arguments that we hear daily in political discourse and in uncivil discussions.

Other weak arguments that Vaughn (90-98) cites are: appeal to popularity, appeal to tradition, the generic fallacy (attacking the source, not the premises), equivocation (unfair comparisons), appeal to ignorance, false dilemma (comparing two non-exclusive outcomes), begging the question (using a conclusion as a premise to support it), hasty generalizations (generalizing from too small a sample), slippery slope arguments, composition (generalizing from a part of a composite), division (taking a composite to generalize about a part)

Assessment

Lewis Vaughn’s Writing Philosophy is a wonderful writing book that I wish that I had been given years ago. It is concise, helpful, and interesting. Writers in many fields and at many points in their career could benefit from his insights.

Footnotes

[1]https://books.google.com/books/about/Doing_Ethics.html?id=x3P1ugEACAAJ&source=kp_author_description.

References

Clark, Roy Peter. 2013. How To Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times.  New York:  Little, Brown, and Company.

Vaughn Argues a Clear Case for Writers

Also see:

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter:http://bit.ly/Give_Thanks_2018

Continue Reading

Church Authority, Monday Monologues, December 10, 2018 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

In today’s podcast, I offer a Prayer for Favorable Results and talk about Church Authority.

After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

To listen, click on the link below.

Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Church Authority, Monday Monologues, December 10, 2018 (podcast)

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter:http://bit.ly/Give_Thanks_2018

Continue Reading

Prayer for Positive Results

Red RosesBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Almighty Father, Great Physician, Sustaining Spirit,

All praise and honor be to you

for you know our wishes before we do

and yet

desire that we share them with you,

like a caring parent.

Forgive us for hiding our fears and

thinking that we can live without you.

We thank you for your presence and

health and family that care for us–

for it is a fearful thing to be alone in pain and affliction.

Be especially present as we undergo medical tests and keep our doctors busy.

Guard our hearts and minds when our energy flags and

the tempter comes to visit.

For we know that our only hope is in you.

In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

Prayer for Positive Results

Also see:

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter:http://bit.ly/Give_Thanks_2018

Continue Reading

The Church as an Authority

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Earlier I wrote about the importance of authorities in our own decisions. Each Christian has Christ as a mentor, but we also have human mentors within our families, church, and community. Because I have talked already about the transition from a modern to a postmodern culture, let me turn to discuss the church context. Again, I will speak about authorities in personal terms because I am not a church historian able to address the wider experience within alternative Christian traditions.

Upbringing in the Church

The Hiemstra family has over the past hundred years been associated with the Reformed Church in America (RCA), a church strongly associated with the Dutch immigrant communities in New England and the Midwest. I was baptized in an RCA church and my uncle, John, is a retired RCA pastor who has been a lifelong mentor. When my family moved to Washington DC in 1960, no RCA churches could be found within driving distance and we attended a number of Presbyterian Churches in the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUSA), where my dad and I both have been ordained as elders. My mother grew up in the Baptist tradition associated with Scotch-Irish communities, but in marriage she became a Presbyterian.

Denominational Identities

Both the RCA and the PCUSA arise out of the reformed tradition which has historically focused theologically on confessional faith. Both denominations affirm these confessions:

  • The Apostles’ Creed
  • The Nicene Creed
  • The Heidelberg Catechism

The RCA uniquely affirms these confessions:

  • The Athanasian Creed
  • The Belgic Confession
  • The Canons of Dort
  • The Confession of Belhar⁠1

The PCUSA uniquely affirms these confessions:

  • The Scots Confession
  • The Second Helvetic Confession
  • The Westminster Confession of Faith
  • The Shorter Catechism
  • The Larger Catechism
  • The Theological Declaration of Barmen
  • The Confession of 1967
  • A Brief Statement of Faith– Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)⁠2

Theologically, the RCA is the more conservative denomination having little or no change to their confessional statements or polity in the last hundred years, adding only the Confession of Belhar, while the PCUSA has amended its polity (the Book of Order) almost routinely every two years and affirmed three confessions written in the twentieth century (the last three on the list).Coming into the twentieth century, the primary confession of churches now affiliated with the PCUSA was the Westminster Confession.

Confessional Wunderlust

It is widely recognized that the RCA takes its identity primarily in its reformed confessions while the PCUSA’s identity is vested in its polity. This observation is, however, a twentieth century development.

For about three hundred years,  the Westminster Confession united Presbyterians in the Americas.  It was written in 1640 and was adopted early on as the primarily confessional document among Presbyterians  and remains in use today. However, the attitude about the confession changed dramatically in the 20th century. Serving first as a bulwark against liberalism in the early part of the century, but the 1930s the General Assembly passed a resolution forbidding any part of the denomination from offering an authoritative interpretation of the Westminster Confession. Later, a Book of Confessions (cited above) aggregated a number of confessional statements leaving the Westminster Confession simply one of many by the 1970s (Longfield 2013, 15, 126, 142-143, 196).

The Scot’s Confession of 1560, which is included in the Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (PCUSA), outlines three conditions for a true church.⁠3  A true church is one where the word of God is rightly preached, the sacraments rightly administered, and church discipline rightly administered. 

When the PCUSA removed its ordination requirements centered on the five fundamentals of the faith in 1925 and then moved away from the Westminster Confession in the next decade, it effectively lost the ability to practice church discipline on the basis of common doctrine and to distinguish itself as a true church as defined in the Scot  Confession. The boundaries between church and society were fuzzed because of doctrinal diversity and with the passage of time the fuzz grew as elders were elected and pastors ordained that held increasingly diverse views.  In effect, Presbyterians began a transition from being a reformed, confessional church to being a church united primarily by a common polity.

Ecclesiastical Authority

The authority of the church is vested in scripture and the witness of the Holy Spirit, given on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). The confessions of the church likewise derive their authority from these two sources. When scripture is clear on a subject, the church’s role is to teach scripture, When scripture is silent on a subject, the church’s role is to interpret scripture under the mentorship of the Holy Spirit. At no point should the church’s teaching violate the clear direction of scripture, which is why church discipline is critical to retaining the vitality of the church.

The focus on the authority of scripture has been a distinctive of Protestant churches since the Reformation period of the 1500s while the Catholic Church affirms the authority of tradition in addition to scripture (Sproul 1997, 42-43). The admission of authorities other than scripture, such as new cultural insights, tradition, and philosophy, into Protestant churches represents a return to controversies that led to the first Reformation schism.

In denominations unable or unwilling to maintain church discipline, individual churches are left to themselves in navigating a faithful witness. In churches unconcerned about faithful witness, the members themselves must navigate on their own, placing a burden on families to discern for themselves what to believe and how to act on their belief. Consequently, the absence of church discipline has facilitated the rise of individualism within the church.

While God can sovereignly use unfaithful denominations and unfaithful pastors to prosecute his will, we all strive to remain among the faithful at a time the church is less helpful than it could be in its mentoring role.

Footnotes

1 https://www.rca.org (as of 16 November 2018).

2 https://www.pcusa.org (as of 16 November 2018).

3 “The notes of the true Kirk, therefore, we believe, confess, and avow to be: first, the true preaching of the Word of God, in which God has revealed himself to us, as the writings of the prophets and apostles declare; secondly, the right administration of the sacraments of Christ Jesus, with which must be associated the Word and promise of God to seal and confirm them in our hearts; and lastly, ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered, as God’s Word prescribes, whereby vice is repressed and virtue nourished.” (PCUSA 1999, 3.18)

References

Longfield, Bradley J.  2013.  Presbyterians and American Culture: A History.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press. 

Longfield, Bradley J.  1991. The Presbyterian Controversy:  Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates. New York:  Oxford University Press.

Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PC USA). 1999. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—Part I: Book of Confession. Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly.

Sproul, R.C. 1997. What is Reformed Theology? Understanding the Basics. Grand Rapids: BakerBooks.

The Church as an Authority

Also see:

Preface to Living in Christ 

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter:http://bit.ly/Give_Thanks_2018

 

Continue Reading

RSL Surveys and Argues Ethics, Part 3

Russ Shafer-Landau's The Fundamentals of EthicsRuss Shafer-Landau.[1]2018. The Fundamentals of Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One observation that I find myself repeating since seminary is the importance of finding the right words to talk about a given subject. Coming from a Dutch background, the words to express emotion that I learned in seminary were new to me. Although I did not immediately become a spontaneous and chatty person, the new vocabulary opened me up to grow my faith along an unexplored path, like I had been given the first map of an uncharted territory.

 Introduction

In his book, The Fundamentals of Ethics, Russ Shafer-Landau (hereafter RSL) writes in three parts: The Good Life, Normative Ethics (doing the right thing), and Metaethics (the status of morality). In part one of this review, I have outlined the basic arguments that RSL presents. In part two of my review, I commented on arguments in part 1 and began part 2. In Part three of this review, I finish RSL’s parts two and three.

Normative Ethics—Doing the Right Thing—Continued

Doctrine of Doing and Allowing

RSL presents an interesting dilemma that makes a distinction between sins of commission and sins of omission. He calls it the doctrine of doing and allowing: “It is always morally worse to do harm than to allow the same harm to occur.”(233)

For example, he tells the story of a soldier whose colleague is wounded—is it better to put him out of his pain, knowing he will die, or to leave him to die on the battlefield? This doctrine suggests just leaving him to die is morally superior (235) I am not sure that I would agree.

Virtue Ethics

RSL writes:

“According to virtue ethicists, actions aren’t right because of their results [e.g. consequentialism] or because they follow from some hard-and-fast rule [e.g. utilitarianism]. Rather, they are right because they would be done by someone of true virtue. This person is a moral exemplar.”(257)

Virtue ethics has a long history that is attributed to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. The focus here is on practical wisdom, emotional maturity, and sound judgment rather than hard and fast rules. As such, moral training, experience, and practice are required (258-261).

Virtue ethics has long been considered a Christian approach to raising children and developing leadership skills.

Feminist Ethics

RSL sees two ways that:

“philosophers have shortchanged the lives of women. The first is to make false and damaging claims about them. The second is to ignore female experiences and perspectives.”(277)

RSL sees feminists making four central claims:

  1. Women are the moral equals of men; views that justify the subordination of women or downplay their interests are thus mistaken on that account.
  2. The experiences of women deserve our respect and are vital to a full and accurate understanding of morality…
  3. Traits that have been traditionally been associated with women—empathy, sympathy, caring, altruism, mercy, compassion—are at least as morally important as traditionally masculine traits, such as competitiveness, independence, demanding one’s fair share, a readiness to resort to violence, and the insistence on personal honor.
  4. Traditionally feminine ways of moral reasoning, nes that emphasize cooperation, flexibility, openness to competing ideas, and a connectedness to family and friends, are often superior to traditionally masculine ways of reasoning that emphasize impartiality, abstraction, and strict adherence to rules.“ (277)

 These observations suggest that what is unique about the female perspective is tied to their particular role in society. Does what is unique about their perspective disappear when women take on roles traditionally associated with men?

 Metaethics—The Status of Morality

Are moral truths objectively true? If this is true, then some truths are better than others and not all cultures are equally good. Moral progress is accordingly possible.

Assessment

In this textbook, The Fundamentals of Ethics, Russ Shafer-Landau offers a taxonomy of ethical arguments covering a wide range of ethical philosophies. His writing is clear, concise, and interesting in the topics used as examples.

Footnotes

[1]http://philosophy.wisc.edu/people.

RSL Surveys and Argues Ethics, Part 3

Also see:

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter:http://bit.ly/Give_Thanks_2018

Continue Reading

Ethics, Monday Monologues, December 3, 2018 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

In today’s podcast, I offer an Advent Prayer and talk about Ethics.

After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

To listen, click on the link below.

Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Ethics, Monday Monologues, December 3, 2018 (podcast)

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter:http://bit.ly/Give_Thanks_2018

Continue Reading

Advent Prayer 2018

Red CandleBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Merciful Father, Lover of My Soul, Gracious Spirit,

All praise and honor be to you,

for you have honored us above all things–

above all roses and vineyards,

above the puppies and kitties,

above the birds of the air and the fish of the sea,

and you have loved us enough

to send your Son to die on a cross for our salvation.

Even as we have not returned your love,

obeyed your law, or

lived within your grace.

We give thanks for your presence among us–

coming to us as a baby

to grow up and suffer for our sins,

grievous and endless and heinous

in every way.

Open our eyes and unstop our ears

that we might learn to love as you do,

beginning in this holiday season.

In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

Advent Prayer 2018

Also see:

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter:http://bit.ly/Give_Thanks_2018

Continue Reading

Ethics Defined

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ“He has told you, O man, what is good; and 

what does the LORD require of you 

but to do justice, and to love kindness, and 

to walk humbly with your God?”

(Mic 6:8)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

What is Christian ethics?

If ethics is the study of moral action, then Christian ethics is the study of moral action starting from faith in God. 

Bonhoeffer’s Ethics

Because only God can ultimately determine what is good and evil, Bonhoeffer sees ethics as originating in original sin:

“The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection. The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge.” (Bonhoeffer 1976, 17)

If only God knows good and evil, then ethical knowledge shows separation from God and is the source of human shame. Our conscience originates in learned morality and offers no help, being more a measure of the ethical gap among people than closeness to God (Bonhoeffer 1976, 17-25).

Bonhoeffer sees the  Pharisees of the New Testament as archetypes of human conscience, judging good and evil from a religious perspective, not from God’s perspective. In reconciling us with God, Jesus allows us to return to God and know God. Jesus’ problem with judging (and with Pharisees) arises from the apostasy of original sin—knowledge of good and evil (Bonhoeffer 1976, 30-33).

Context for Christian Ethics

In looking to Jesus Christ as our divine role model, Christian ethics is often classified as a branch of  virtue ethics. One author writes:

“According to virtue ethicists, actions aren’t right because of their results [e.g. consequentialism] or because they follow from some hard-and-fast rule [e.g. utilitarianism].⁠1 Rather, they are right because they would be done by someone of true virtue. This person is a moral exemplar.” (Shafer-Landau 2018, 257)

Virtue ethics has a long history that is attributed to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. The focus here is on practical wisdom, emotional maturity, and sound judgment rather than hard and fast rules.  As King Solomon observes: 

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Prov 1:7)

As such, in virtue ethics the belief is that moral training, experience, and practice are required both for life and leadership (Shafer-Landau 2018, 258-261).

The Ethical Dilemma

The need to study ethics arises and is unavoidable because principles often come in tension with one another. Bonhoeffer (1976, 367) cites this example:

“…a teacher asks a child in front of the class whether it is true that his father often comes home drunk. It is true, but the child denies it. The teacher’s question has placed him in a situation for which is is not yet prepared. He feels only that what is taking place is an unjustified interference in the order of the family and that he must oppose it.”

In Bonhoeffer’s example, the student is presented with an ethical dilemma and must choose between the Commandments to tell the truth (Exod 20:16) and to honor your parents (Exod 20:12). Which Commandment is more important?⁠2 How do you decide? The split in the church today over how to respond to homosexual behavior poses an ethical dilemma that is not easily resolved.

The Ten Commandments provide theological principles outlining good and bad behavior. It is helpful to distinguish good and bad principles from right and wrong actions (Johnson and Zerbi 1973, 12). In Bonhoeffer’s example, it is good for the student to tell the truth and to honor parents, but it is wrong for the teacher to pose the question about the father’s drunken behavior (and embarrass the student publicly) and wrong for the student to verify it in public. 

Distinguishing principles from actions helps preclude dogmatic responses to ethical dilemmas when dialogue is the preferred response.

Principal Agent Problem

A principal agent problem arises when a leader makes organizational decisions based on personal benefits rather than organizational benefits. In the Bonhoeffer example, suppose that the teacher is a sadist who derives pleasure from tormenting students. By putting the student on the spot to verify the father’s drunkenness in public, the teacher derives sadistic pleasure at the risk of opening the school up to a potential lawsuit from the student’s family. In doing so, the teacher’s interests and the school interests deviate demonstrating a principal agent problem, a special kind of ethical dilemma facing leaders.

Sexual harassment, pedophilia, taking bribes, and narcissistic leadership are all potential manifestations of the principal agent problem.

Moral Training Not Optional

Behavioral learning starts with a simple idea: do more of activities that bring pleasure and do less of activities that bring pain. By contrast, rational learning starts with making comparisons: activity A brought more pleasure than activity B so let’s do more of activity A. Such comparison require pattern recognition and memory not required in behavioral learning. Success in implementing rational learning also requires patience that many people lack.

This simple distinction between behavioral and rational learning lies at the heart of many ethical controversies, because behavioral learning can lead to logical traps. For example, the fish that grabs every tasty worm is likely to end up the fisherman’s dinner.  In a study of such traps, Cross and Guyer (1980, 3-4) write:

“The central thesis of this book is that a wide variety of recognized social problems can be regarded from a third view [Not stupidity; not corruption]. Drug use, air pollution, and international conflict are all instances of what we have called ‘social traps’. Put simply, a social trap is a situation characterized by multiple but conflicting rewards. Just as an ordinary trap entices its prey with the offer of an attractive bait and then punishes it by capture…’social traps’ draw their victims into certain patterns of behavior with promises of immediate rewards and then confront them with [longer term] consequences that the victim would rather avoid.”

In both smoking and education, conflicts in patterns of short-term and long-term costs and benefits lead those specialized in behavioral learning into ethical dilemmas that cannot be avoided without considering the entire sequence of costs and benefits. The need to study and learn patterns of costs and benefits involving ethical dilemmas provide the inherent motivation for most ethical teaching and for avoiding an exclusive reliance on behavioral learning. 

Part of the task of Christian leadership is to anticipate ethical dilemmas and take steps to avoid them.

Footnotes

1 Consequentialism is “an action is morally required just because it produces the best overall results.” Utilitarianism, which stands behind many economic theories, is a form of consequentialism. This theory is attributed to John Wesley and Methodist social activism owe much to this theory. (Shafer-Landau 2018, 120-123) Potential problems with consequentialism arise because of measurement problem and because maximizing benefits sometimes leads to cases of injustice, such as cases of vicarious and exemplary punishment. (Shafer-Landau 2018, 151)

2 From the context of Bonhoeffer’s life, we can infer that the unethical teacher is a stand-in for the German secret police, the Gestapo, who did not immediately know after his arrest that had participated in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler (Metaxas 2010, 423-431).

References

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1976. Ethics (Orig pub 1955) Edited by Eberhard Bethge. Translated by Neville Horton Smith. New York: MacMillan Publishers Company, Inc.

Cross, John G. and Melvin J. Guyer. 1980. Social Traps.  Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press.

Johnson, Glenn L. And Lewis K. Zerby. 1973. What Economists Do About Values: Case Studies of Their Answers to Questions They Don’t Dare Ask. East Lansing: Michigan State University.

Metaxas, Eric. 2010.  Bonhoeffer:  Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy—A Righteous Gentile versus the Third Reich.  Nashville:  Thomas Nelson.

Shafer-Landau, Russ. 2018. The Fundamentals of Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ethics Defined

Also see:

Preface to Living in Christ 

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter:http://bit.ly/Give_Thanks_2018

Continue Reading

RSL Surveys and Argues Ethics, Part 2

Russ Shafer-Landau's The Fundamentals of EthicsRuss Shafer-Landau.[1]2018. The Fundamentals of Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

During my career as an economist I frequently borrowed analysis and conclusions from other fields, such psychology, sociology, and history. The more widely I read, the more obvious it became that different fields approach similar questions differently, use different terminology for the same issues, and not necessarily aware of findings outside their specialty. Problem is especially prevalent among practitioners not familiar to scholarly research techniques.

Introduction

In his book, The Fundamentals of Ethics, Russ Shafer-Landau (hereafter RSL) writes in three parts: The Good Life, Normative Ethics (doing the right thing), and Metaethics (the status of morality). In part one of this review, I have outlined the basic arguments that RSL presents. Here In part two of my review, I will organize my comments about his more important arguments in parts one and two. In Part three of this review, I will finish RSL’s parts two and three.

The Good Life

RSL begins his discussion of the good life by talking about welfare and what improves. He defines “instrumental goods”that are“valuable because of the good things they bring about.” Those things are“intrinsically valuable” or“valuable in their own right.” Instrumental goods help us acquire things that are intrinsically valuable. (23)

RSL goes on to define hedonism, which is a philosophy focused almost exclusively on what makes us happy—the only thing that is intrinsically good. Hedonists distinguish physical pleasure from attitudinal pleasure. Hedonism in the West began with the Greek philosopher, Epicurus (341-270 BC; 24-25).

RSL offers a wide range of criticism of hedonism in the form of arguments why pursuing happiness is not logical.  An example is the “Paradox of Hedonism Argument:

  1. If happiness is the only that directly makes us better off, then it is rational to single-mindedly pursue it.
  2. It isn’t ration to do that.
  3. Therefore, happiness isn’t the only thing that directly make us better off.”(33)

RSL sees both premises (1, 2) are true, therefore the conclusion (3) must be true. He gives the example of a professional golfer who wants to improve her swing, but focusing on it makes it harder to do so. (33)

Other arguments against hedonism include the problem of people who enjoy doing evil things to other people and of people are equally happy but one person’s happiness is based on false beliefs (I will win the lottery tomorrow) while another is based on true beliefs (I just got my paycheck; 36-37). In like manner, RSL handicaps self-interest as a goal and other desires.

Normative Ethics—Doing the Right Thing

 Part two of the books is by far the longest involving 13 chapters and roughly 260 pages. Several arguments are worth highlighting.

Morality and Morality

In chapter 5, RSL highlights divine command theory citing a dialogue between Plato and a fellow by the name of Euthyphro who says that “piety is whatever the gods love.” To this, Plato asks:“Do the gods love actions because they are pious, or are actions pious because the gods love them?” (67) If the former, then the pious reasons are sufficient; if the latter, then the gods are acting arbitrarily.

As Christians, we believe that God is a god of truth, not arbitrary fiat, so we mostly argue the reasons rather than divine command. Still, we normally believe that the Bible summarizes truth making the search for reasons a secondary concern.

Natural Law

In chapter 6, RSL introduces natural law theory which:

“tells us that actions are right just because they are natural, and wrong just because they are unnatural. And people are good or bad to the extent that they fulfill their true nature—the more they fulfill their true nature, the better they are.”(77)

This argument is frequently cited to oppose suicide, contraception, and homosexual activity as immoral. (86) RSL finds this argument unconvincing in the case of abortion (a fetus is a human being, killing humans is immoral, therefore abortion is immoral) and homosexuality (marriage is for procreation, procreation requires a man and woman, therefore other sex is immoral) because the morality argument is primarily based on an arbitrary definition (86-89).

Consequentialism

In Chapter 9, RSL describes consequentialism as “an action is morally required just because it produces the best overall results.” (122) Utilitarianism, which stands behind many economic theories, is a form of consequentialism. (123) This theory is attributed to John Wesley and Methodist social activism owe much to this theory. (120) Potential problems with consequentialism arise because of measurement problem and because maximizing benefits sometimes leads to cases of injustice—RSL cites the cases of vicarious and exemplary punishment. (151)

Social Contract Theory

In chapter 13, RSL outlines social contract theory that argues that moral rules are objective and based on the benefits of cooperation, given free choice and rational behavior. The alternative is a state of nature where everyone is at war with everyone else (199). Given the horrors of war, cooperation enforced by an impartial, professional police force is worth the limits placed on individual freedom.

What rules would evolve from such a social contract? RSL writes:

“prohibitions of killing, rape, battery, theft, and fraud, and rules require keeping one’s word, returning what one owes, and being respectful of others.”(201)

The laws would reflect the rules that a free and equal people would accept. (205) Protests against particular unfair laws would be accepted provided that protestors could demonstrate that they tried to change the law and worked primarily within in the system (206).

Problems with social contract theory arise when some people refuse to pay their fair share (free rider problem; 209) or when fundamental values are in conflict, such as in decisions of war and peace and the care to be given to the poor (215). The scope of the moral community—who has rights?—is also a hot button issue. (216) The current discussion over allowing felony criminals the right to vote is such a hot button issue.

 Assessment

In this textbook, The Fundamentals of Ethics, Russ Shafer-Landau offers a taxonomy of ethical arguments covering a wide range of ethical philosophies. His writing is clear, concise, and interesting in the topics used as examples.

Footnotes

[1]http://philosophy.wisc.edu/people.

RSL Surveys and Argues Ethics, Part 2

Also see:

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter:http://bit.ly/Give_Thanks_2018

Continue Reading
1 2 3 114