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Practice and Theory of Morals

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Why be Good? That’s the title of an essay in the current edition of the New York Review of Books*, discussing a new book by the English philosopher, Derek Parfit, On What Matters. Samuel Freeman, author of the essay, is a Professor of Philosophy and Law at the University of Pennsylvania. Freeman explains that Parfit is trying to create a theory that “… explains the purposes of commonsense moral rules and provides principles enabling us to resolve the frequent moral dilemmas we encounter.” Parfit says that the only alternative to such a theory is nihilism. It’s a good question this Easter.

In ancient times, the problem of moral theory was for religion and its priests and thinkers. The old religions generated libraries full of commentary and direction on moral issues, and the priests of these religions still today enforce many of rules with varying degrees of severity. Not all of that discussion came from priests, though. There are plenty of secular, as opposed to clerical, writers on moral issues, and they generated important insights that we still study.

The urge to create an overarching system of everything is old too. On the religious side, we have the Summa Theologica from St. Thomas Aquinas, which still forms the basis of Roman Catholic theology. I was raised Catholic, so I was exposed to Aquinas at an early age. I don’t remember when I learned about his five proofs for the existence of God, but it must have been in grade school, because they seemed to be perfect. It wasn’t until later that I was able to examine them closely, and work my way through the underlying logic to the conclusion that they were flawed as proofs. Even today, they retain their majesty as powerful exercises of the mind reaching out into the infinite.

One of the reasons I studied math in college was a general belief that there are overarching systems that explain everything. That view was reinforced by the success of physics in explaining the nature of matter and the universe, but it hit a real wall when I took a class devoted to a close reading of the proof of Gödel’s Theorem. In short, it says that no simple formal system is both complete and correct. It means that either you can formulate statements that cannot be proven to be true within the system, or that some true statements cannot be formulated inside the system. The limits established by the theorem are obscure and perhaps not interesting, but it was a crack in the belief in systems.

It began the long process of moving from belief in overarching theories into a more pragmatic approach to big questions. Today I don’t think there are systems that explain everything, and I don’t think that there are objective facts about human behavior that everyone would accept. Parfit’s struggle to identify objective truths that act as both justification and explanation of human morality seems like a doomed project to me. Instead I think that people and societies can agree on principles and agree to act in accordance with them to the best of their ability.

The lack of a system doesn’t bother me any more. I didn’t learn a theory of morals from my parents, or the priests, nuns and brothers who were my school teachers, or any of the non-clerical people whose lives I observed, but I learned practical morality. I learned how to live a good life from people I knew personally and those I knew only in books, those who lived good lives and those who didn’t. Of course, theory is useful in getting things organized, and it can be very helpful in solving difficult questions. But I don’t need a theory to explain that to myself. I know how to be good, and I know that I want to be good, because the outcome of living the best life I can is good for me and those around me.

There are two azalea bushes out my window that are in glorious bloom this morning, a riot of pink flowers with only a few green leaves peeking through. It’s enough.
*Only available by subscription, and your public library probably has an on-line subscription for free.

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I read a lot of books.