Thursday, November 19, 2009

Olasky's Obfuscation

Marvin Olasky predictibly asks, is there morality without God? He claims to find his answer from an "unlikely source," one Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (hereafter called WSA), "an Ivy League savant who says it's wrong to depend on the Bible."

WSA complains his Dartmouth students often use Dostoevsky's memorable line, "If God is dead, everything is permitted." Apparently WSA disagrees. So Olasky put WSA to the test. The test consisted of one written question: Is abortion wrong?

Now let's remember we have only Olasky's side of this story and he's not the most credible source. Anyone who implies a moral foundation reduces to that one question is not serious about getting at truth. But let's play anyway.

It turns out WSA didn't understand this was a true-false test, so he replied there is no "simple solution to this complex problem, .. the moral problem of abortion cannot be solved by citing religious texts or religious leaders." He went into needless elaboration: "What matters is the present and future harm to the fetus and others. This does not solve the problem, but it tells us where to focus our discussions."

That's a freshman mistake. The student obviously didn't understand the nature of a true or false test. Even if a check box is not provided the student always needs to supply what the professor expects. Conservative professors like Olasky want simplistic answers. That means true or false, sometimes multiple choice. For obvious reasons essays are forbidden. There's no point in confusing the professor.

Olasky pressed the issue. He practically gave WSA the answer by asking for clarification on how "harm to the fetus" related to other, non-fatal harms. WSA still didn't get it. He responded, "The bottom line is that I think some moral problems are insoluble.... They are just too difficult for us to figure out.... The answer, 'I do not know,' should become common."

That's a refusal to circle T or F. As a last resort Olasky asked him if people could really live with "I don't know." WSA responded, "Why not? People get used to having a belief about everything, but they do not have to. Life can be lived like an experiment where you guess but do not believe until you see how it turns out."

Olasky comes across as a patient man but this had him seeing red, as in "Stalin, Mao, Castro, and other Communists." It strikes me that these were not 'I don't know' fellows. They were certain they knew. Olasky hedges a bit by claiming we should have known "the preaching of class conflict, envy, and resentment will have ... real-life effects." The implication is clear. He blames "I don't know" for millions of deaths but clearly "I do know" was the true culprit. It wasn't shades of gray that lead to 20th century horrors. It was good old-fashioned black and white certainty. So Olasky's certainty condemns the innocent.

He justifies his bad verdict with the following: "In theory, a person might say he doesn't know what's ethical in regard to abortion. In practice, he or she has to choose. Should a college cover abortion in its health plan or not? Gotta choose. A young man calls up and says his girlfriend is pregnant. Gotta choose. A professor claims to ride the fence. Gotta choose."

Gotta set Olasky straight: I don't have to choose if my neighbor's health plan covers abortion. My neighbor gets to choose. A boyfriend doesn't have to choose childbirth for his girlfriend. It's her body, not his. She chooses. The moment he deposited his sperm into her body he gave her that right. The professor, be he liberal or conservative, has no right to use the State to make these personal choices for us. But a statist like 'compassionate' conservative Olasky demands a "moral" government that imposes itself into our most private affairs. He quotes Proverbs, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding."

Translation: "Trust in the State with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding." That's ultimately where "I know" leads.

Olasky ends by returning to Dostoevsky. But everyone who has studied history should know Dostoevsky was 180 degrees wrong. A supposed knowledge of God does not limit moral behavior. In fact, with God, everything is permitted. No crime has proven to be beyond biblical justification. Not even laws of nature are safe. A capricious God might stand the sun still or raise the dead for his own amusement.

Deep in our hearts we know, whether we admit it or not, that morality does not come from holy books. It's usually an instantaneous and overwhelming reaction. Olasky may not like it but there is no way around it. "We don't know" is a perfectly valid answer to a question which waits for no answer.

Antelope don't know why they travel in herds. Geese don't know why they mate for life. Why should we be expected to know why human cultures universally agree murder is wrong? Why is morality such a sacred question?

I don't need to know why my hand hurts when I stick it into a flame. The Bible doesn't answer the question. My body provides all the information I need and it reaches a decision fairly quickly. I yank my hand out of the flame to stop the pain. My body reaches a good decision without introspection and without God's help.

Let's say I need some sleep but my neighbor insists playing loud rap music at 2am is good for his soul. Do I consult my Bible to see if I'm being wronged? Do I look for a godly definition of "too loud?" Do I search for the proper chapter and verse which will fill my neighbor with the fear of God? No. But that's Olasky's pretension. The other, equally silly pretension is that I should consider my sleep deprivation in relativistic terms. My neighbor doesn't have the same point of view on the need for my sleep. He suggests my sleep requirements are a cultural construct. I proceed to reconstruct his nose.

I say both the certainty of an Olasky and the moral relativism he fears are wrong.

Olasky asserts God is the alternative to "I don't know." But he merely masks his own ignorance. God is an evasion. It's no answer. It finalizes nothing. God is a one-word rephrasing of WSA's answer. When Moses asked God his name, he answered, "I am that I am." More simply, "I just am." God just is, like morality just is. To base morality on God is to base it on "just is." So Olasky's answer is no more of an answer than the atheistic Dartmouth professor. God ultimately means accept this because, "I don't know."

-- Don Jindra

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