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Brink on Dialectical Equilibrium

February 5th, 2009 by Matt

In my last two posts, I have criticised David Brink’s appeal to scripture in order to argue against the appeal to divine commands in ethics. Brink anticpates the kind of argument I have offered and states,

A common theistic response to these interpretative puzzles is to endorse the interpretation of tradition and scripture that yields the morally more defensible conception of divine will. This moralized approach to interpretation makes good sense for the theist … God’s omnscience and perfect goodness ensure that his will perfectly tracks all morally relevant facts. But, on this conception of interpretation, so far from our knowledge of God’s will supplying evidence about the nature of morality, it is our beliefs about the nature of morality that are supplying evidence about God’s will. The moralized interpretation of religious scripture and tradition shows religion to be dependent on morality, rather than morality dependent on religion.1

Brink raises several issues here. First, he refers to a “moralized” interpretation of scripture. As I noted in my previous posts, however, it was not primarily moral concerns that motivated this interpretation of The Torah, it was also such things as understanding the Genre, the context, the cultural milleniu into which The Torah speaks. That said, I do agree with Brink that if one interpretation of divine commands coheres better with our moral intiutions than another then that fact constitutes evidence for the former interpretation. All else being equal, an interpretation that coheres with out pre-theoritical moral intuitions is always preferable.

Second, Brink assumes that his conception makes “religion to be dependent on morality, rather then morality to be dependent on religion.” By dependent here, Brink means epistemologically dependent, adopting it that “so far from our knowledge of God’s will supplying evidence about the nature of morality, it is our beliefs about the nature of morality that are supplying evidence about God’s will.” Brink’s contention is that if I rely on my antecedant moral beliefs to test purported interpretations of God’s will then religion is (epsitemically) dependent on morality. I think Brink is mistaken. in fact this claim contradicts the very method that he advocates in constructing a secular ethical theory.

In setting out his methodology, Brink draws a distinction between particular moral claims “as in the claim that it would be wrong for Ben to break his promise to Sam” and rules “as in the claim that one ought to keep one’s promises.”2 Brink distinguishes rules from principles which are more general still.3 Brink suggests that there may be “a plurality” of basic principles or “there might be only one master principle, such as the principle of utilitity-which demands that one ought to perform actions that promote human happiness-or Kant’s categorical imperative-which demands that one always treat rational agents as ends in themselves and never merely as means.”4 Brink goes on to note that there is an asymetrical dependence relationship between moral claims at these levels. Particular moral actions are made right or wrong in virtue of general rules, and general rules are made right and wrong in virtue of principles.

Brink goes on to note, correctly, that this does not entail that we always gain knowledge of what is wrong in the particular case from our knowledge of what is wrong in more general cases. Brink notes that “asymetrical metaphysical dependence does not imply asymetrical epsitemic dependence” this is of course entirely correct; I made the same point in my post, On a Common Equivocation. Brink states that in some instances he is more certain that “the holocaust was wicked” than he is “about the truth of utilitarianism or Kant’s categorical imperative.” One way to determine which principles are correct is to test them against particular cases.

Brink affirms that “this conclusion suggests a methodology for secular moral theory”5 which is that,

We can try to resolve uncertainty or disagreement at more particular levels of moral thought by trying to find plausible or common ground at a more general level. But we can also try and resolve uncertainty or disagreement at a more general level by testing the implications of a potential moral principle for particular case against our own independent assesment of those cases.6

Brink refers to this method as “dialectical equilibrium,”7

If a principle has counter intuitive implications, this counts against it. But if this counter intuitive implication is fairly isolated, and the principle explains our views better than alternative principles, then this is reason to revise the particular moral judgment or moral rule that conflicted with the principle. Ideally, we modify our principle, considered moral convictions, and other views in response to conflicts, as coherence seems to require, until our ethical views are in dialectical equilibrium…. As such, we have some reasonable expectation that any acceptable theory should accommodate many of our considered moral convictions. On the other hand, dialectical equilibrium is an ideal that none of us now meets and we can at most approximate. Therefore, we should expect dialectical equilibrium to force some revisions in our moral beliefs, and its hard to say in advance just how revisionary the moral principles with the best dialectical fit would be.8 [Emphasis added]

Note that dialectical equilibrium allows our antecedant moral judgements to test, revise and correct theoritical beliefs about the nature of morality. But it also allows theoritical beliefs to correct one’s moral judgements. Brink insists on this fact, a moral theory must accommodate many of our considered judgements but he also acknowledges that we would expect a moral theory to also force revisions of some of them. Moreover, one cannot say in advance “how revisionary the moral principles with the best dialectical fit would be.”

Now I think something like what Brink proposes here is probably correct and something like this method is widely accepted ethical methodology. What Brink seems to not notice, however, is that this methodology is inconsistent his contention of a “moralized interpretation of religious scripture and tradition shows religion to be dependent on morality, rather than morality to be dependent on religion.” Suppose, as Brink points out, people do rely on their antecedant moral beliefs to test and revise purported interpretations of what God commands. This is quite compatible with them also using beliefs about God’s commands to “force revision” of their antecedant moral beliefs. In fact, on Brink’s account, this is compatible with substantive revision of our antecedant moral beliefs on the basis of God’s commands. In many instances then, one’s knowledge of God’s commands will be prior to and the basis for one’s knowledge of right and wrong.

1 David O Brink “The Autonomy of Ethics” The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, ed Michael Martin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 159.
2 Ibid 155.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid 156.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid.

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Capital Punishment in the Old Testament: 1
Capital Punishment in the Old Testament: 2

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