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    Saturday, April 18, 2009

    Medical Ethics

    The late Richard John Neuhaus, like the Catholic Convert he was, tied morality to natural law. In his “American Babylon” says Charles R. Morris [NYT 4/12/09] he also states his case for a natural-law approach to politics. Neuhaus insisted that politics and morals were inextricably linked. Neuhaus’s argument according to Morris proceeded as follows:

    • Political entities come with a narrative and, usually, a sense of purpose.

    • Neuhaus’s brand of natural law came from the Greeks, especially Aristotle, which was imported into Christian Europe in the 12th century and still the mainstay of Catholic moral teaching ala Pope Benedict.

    • The common thread of natural-law models is that the “oughts” come not from inside the individual but from “out there.”

    • Political dialogue is shot through with shared notions of right and wrong.
    Others, however, like the “ironists” hold as did Gertrude Stein in California that there is no there “out there.” Things are relative. The ironist believes that we know nothing except our own vocabularies; and that “nothing has an intrinsic nature, a real essence.” The ionist believes that:

    • Concepts like “just” and “rational” are simply “the language games of one’s time.”

    • An ironist may worry “that he has been . . . taught the wrong language game,” but “he cannot give a criterion of wrongness.”

    • The cultural assumptions we share with great philosophers are less likely to be “a tip-off to the way the world is in reality rather “than just a “mark of the discourse of people inhabiting a certain chunk of space-time.”

    • Schools of philosophy or science are thus just different vocabularies.

    • When an ironist works on developing a vocabulary, he is constructing himself.

    • He is not getting in closer touch with some underlying reality — for even if there is one, it isn’t knowable..

    But the danger is that politics without an anchor in an absolute morality from “out there” can quickly slip away in dark directions as was seen in Nazi Germany, Communist Russia and innumerable other polities.

    Now comes political analyist David Brooks who also challenges the new atheists, who see themselves involved in a war of reason against faith. He attacks them as having an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning. He quotes [4/7/09 NYT] Michael Gazzaniga in his 2008 book, “Human,” “it has been hard to find any correlation between moral [rational] reasoning and proactive moral behavior, such as helping other people. In fact, in most studies, no correlation has been found.”

    But does that mean Brooks looks to God or an outside absolute as the source of morality? No.

    “Today, he says, “many psychologists, cognitive scientists, and even philosophers embrace a different view of morality.” Brooks agrees that today “moral thinking is more like aesthetics.” Brooks also quotes Jonathan Haid of the University of Virginia “The emotions are, in fact, in charge of the temple of morality, and ... moral reasoning is really just a servant masquerading as a high priest.” “The rise and now dominance of this emotional approach to morality,”
    Brooks also acknowledges “an epochal change which challenges all sorts of traditions. It challenges Talmudic law [based on a morality from “out there.” Is this what Nietzsche had in mind?

    Not so English philosopher Thomas Hobbs who had another understanding of moral law. Hobbes’s pointed out that if one gets to prefer one’s own internal judgments to the judgments of authorized external bodies the result will be the substitution of personal whim for general decorum.”

    The Supreme Court appears to agree with Hobbs. In a series of cases stretching from Reynolds v. United States (1878) to Employment Division v. Smith (1990), the Supreme Court has ruled that when the personal imperatives of one’s own… morality” lead to actions in violation of generally applicable laws the violations will not be allowed. For, says the court in Reynolds, “To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of [personal] religious belief superior….and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”

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