Monday, May 30, 2011

Reading Ethics Without God: Keeping the Wolf at Bay

I just finished reading the first chapter of Ethics Without God by Kai Nielsen.  This chapter discusses the idea that we need religion and God to keep us from tearing each other apart, hence the "wolf."  Nielsen takes on some pretty easy arguments in first chapter, but I think he had to take them on because people continue to make them.  I think he does a good job of taking these arguments down although I can't give him too much credit for doing so, since they aren't very convincing arguments.

In this first chapter, he tackles arguments like the seeming decline of Christianity after World War I and the rise of Bolshevism and Nazism (which these arguments call godless ideologies) are the reason we find ourselves in such a horrible world now.  Another argument is simply that we need religion to keep it all together.  I think his demolition of the arguments is pretty complete.  For the first, he thinks that this is a misreading of history which I do agree with, but he also talks about how there are happy and moral secular nations.  The examples of nations that fit this description are the Scandinavian nations.  He also uses the case of the Scandinavian nations to argument against the second argument.  I'm not going to repeat every detail of his arguments here, but those details are some of the ones I remember.

In this chapter he also discusses the natural moral law tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas and the neo-Thomists.  natural law theory is a religious moral argument that is a little different from the typical divine command theory.  I'm not going to go into detail about it here, but I will say that Nielsen does a good job of arguing against it.  He also talks about another variety of natural law theory that doesn't involve God at all.  He argues at length that this reformulation of natural law theory isn't really a natural law theory at all because it would not include natural law theorists like Aquinas but would include people who argument against natural law theory like J.S. Mill and Jeremy Bentham.  I thought that it was an interesting argument, and he made a good case.  That argument in particular made me think about some conclusions that I had come to about some different things.  We'll see where that leads.

Overall this was a good and interesting chapter, and I'm sorry that this entry didn't go into more detail.  It said some things that I think needed to be said.  This book isn't as accessible as other philosophy I've read.  Nielsen is a pretty good writer, but I think sometimes he can get bogged down a little too much in philosophical jargon.  I think that non-philosophy people would have a much harder time getting into the book.  And that's not a criticism of them either.  It's a common problem with philosophy texts.  But, nonetheless, I thought he did a pretty good job, and I'm looking forward to reading the next chapter.

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