Sunday, Oct 24, 2010: “Questions of Value: Session 6”

St. Mark’s Adult Education Meeting Summary
“Questions of Value, Session 6”
An In-Depth Discussion Led by Wayne Harper
Sunday, October 24, 2010


* NOTE:  The materials offered were borrowed and adapted for our use from two primary sources: ‘Questions of Value’ taught by Patrick Grim and ‘The Quest for Meaning: Value, Ethics, and the Modern Experience’ taught by Robert Kane. Both are courses produced by The Teaching Company.


                                                      Questions of Value*

Religion and Values

How can you talk about values without talking about religion? After all, many believers see values as grounded in religion. But does this view imply people who do not share your religious beliefs lack values or do not act ethically? Few support this claim.

Question: What values do you believe are grounded in religion? What values are not?

Some argue that values should be talked about independent of religion. They see a tension between ethics and religious belief. The argument goes something like this: For many religions, action in this life is rewarded or punished in the next life. But action toward reward or away from punishment – action based on self-interest – is not genuinely ethical. A religious believer may ‘do the right thing’ simply because it is the right thing to do. But if one believes in Heaven and Hell, how can one be certain that reward (Heaven) or punishment (Hell) is not one’s motivation?

This is not an altogether modern critique. Consider the ‘Book of Job’ in the Bible. One of the major themes in Job is about being good and being rewarded. According to the wisdom tradition in the Hebrew Bible, God keeps order in the world by rewarding the good and punishing the evil. Job is introduced as a prosperous man, blameless and upright, who fears God and avoids evil. But his accuser raises the question: Does Job fear God for nothing? His accuser concedes Job fears God – he follows all the rules – but that’s because God’s paying him off. Take away Job’s wealth, states his accuser, and Job will curse God to his face. How does Job respond? To find out, I recommend you read the Book of Job.

Question: So, do you fear God for nothing? And what’s so bad about self-interest? 

Plato argued whatever grounds ethics, it cannot be divine command. Is an action right because God commands it, or does God command us to do it because it is right? If the latter, then whether something is right is something beyond God – a standard that guides even Him.

Well, what to make of all this? It’s important to remember there are values and then there are religious values. Religious values arise because religious belief asks us to live up to a different, so-called ‘higher’ standard. The Greeks, for example, had little to say about faith, hope or charity. Of what value is piety to an atheist?

Question: It appears non-believers get off easy. True or False? 

Life’s Horrors

Life is filled with arbitrary and freakish horrors, natural and man-made (see list). Natural evils include natural disasters, famine, and disease – ‘acts of God’. Man-made evils are all too common and include war, crime, and pollution. When something bad happens to you, how often do you say to yourself: ‘why me?’ or ‘where’s the justice?’ Suffering, particularly our suffering, is more often than not viewed as unjustified.

We are misled by a picture of a ‘normal life’ that rarely exists. We picture a normal life as one of development in childhood, joys in marriage and child-rearing, a fulfilling career, reflection in retirement and, at a ripe old age, death in our sleep. We think this is how life is supposed to play out; if we get anything else, we tend to feel cheated.

Question: Were you to pick another person at random from the contemporary world, what are the chances his or her life would be as good as yours?

One conclusion drawn from life’s horrors appears in many religious traditions. And that is there are things of value that could not exist without certain evils. Charity requires those in need. Sympathy requires those in pain. Courage requires those in fear. 

It’s been said suffering builds character. Perhaps, but here’s the rub. Do these higher order values or ‘greater goods’ – those goods that could not exist without suffering – justify the horrors that make them possible? Consider a case in which one person is in pain and another acts out of sympathy. If a genuinely sympathetic person were given the option of extinguishing the pain and the possibility of sympathy for it, he or she would certainly take that option. Food banks are a blessing, but ending hunger is better.

Question: Does the sum total of greater goods (1) equal (2) compensate (3) justify the sum total of suffering in the world? 

Suffering does inspire many to act sympathetically, and that is a good thing. But how could the Holocaust possibly be justified? 

Enter the ‘Problem of Evil’. Some suggest it is a ‘problem’ only for religious traditions that believe in an omnipotent, omniscient, and beneficent God. The 18th century Scottish philosopher, David Hume, pulled no punches when he wrote: “Is he (God) willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?” 

Try as we might, we cannot dodge these questions. Yet, with all due respect for Hume, consider this. Let’s remove God from the debate – does that solve the problem of evil? Evil is a problem whether one believes in God or not. Moreover, Hume himself offers no solution to the problem of evil.

Question: How might we respond to the problem of evil? Try not to think about it? Leave it to God? Come up with some plausible ‘answer’?

Free Will

I wish I had the answer to the problem of evil, but I don’t. I’m confident God has the answer. But that raises yet another problem. Despite a great deal of progress in the philosophy of religion, life’s horrors challenge the notion that God is leading all things toward the good. The argument goes this way. God, who guides everything to the good, would have to manipulate our choices. A good that is ultimately inevitable is one that no one need strive for. If God is going to make everything come out right no matter what I do, it doesn’t matter what I do. Can this be so? 

The possibility that we lack free will violates our common sense. Moreover, morality is grounded in freedom – free choice. We judge some acts as moral thus worthy, and other acts as immoral thus unworthy, perhaps evil. But we must be free to willingly choose such actions; otherwise deliberation is pointless, moral responsibility evaporates, and justice is rendered moot. Equally, we must accept the fact that suffering is a product of our free will. But if God has seen fit to endow us with free will, there is value in our efforts to combat evil and make things better. 

Question: Would you relinquish your free will if, by doing so, evil would cease to be?

Life’s Horrors

Natural Evils:
Ash Borer, Gypsy Moth, Snakehead Fish
Killer Bees, Global Honey Bee die-off, Mad Cow disease
Bird Flu pandemic, AIDS, Global warming/cooling
Physical Disability, Mental Illness, Autism
Attention Deficit Disorder, Pestilence, Famine 
Mega-disasters: hurricanes, volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, forest fires, etc.
Runaway greenhouse effect, Earth ozone layer depletion, Climate change 
Earth magnetic field reversal, Asteroid/Comet collision, Quasar radiation burst 
Sun burns out, Expanding/collapsing universe

Man-made Evils:
War, Terrorism, Genocide
Torture, Ethnic Cleansing, Forced Migration
Weapons of Mass Destruction, Weapons trafficking, ‘Rogue Nations’
Nuclear waste, Nuclear winter, Space junk
Racism, Hate groups, Religious cults
Organized crime, Street Crime, Domestic violence
Slavery, Elicit Drugs, Energy crisis
Pollution, Crumbling infrastructure, Fresh water shortage
Over-population, Poverty, Homelessness 
Economic collapse, Government/Corporate spying, ‘Afluenza’
Traffic Congestion, Road Rage, Identity theft 
Government/Corporate corruption, Obesity, Human cloning
‘Pop Culture’, Suburban Sprawl, Self-replicating robots