Racists as Portrayed in the Media

The Equalizer

As a teenager I remember watching an episode of the TV show called The Equalizer. In this particular episode there were a number of racist skinheads that were causing problems and using violence and intimidation. But then, in a later scene, a black gang in a van road into a white part of town and while shouting “black power!” opened fired and killed innocent victims.

I remember being shocked by it because it was portraying African Americans in a negative light. But I did a quick internal check. I asked myself this: Is it’s okay for us to portray white racists using violence against African Americans – so that we can see that this is wrong? Yes. Then why is it not also acceptable to also portray African American racists using violence against Caucasians to equally condemn that sort of violence and racism as well?

With my new found openness I, rather then being appalled at the show, thought they were gutsy for portraying both sides of racism like this.

A moment later, the scene changed and the blacks who had shot and killed people took off their makeup and we saw it was actually the skinheads after all. Apparently they were killing whites (while disguised as blacks) so that whites would fear blacks. I threw my new found openness out the window and sighed with relief.

A little later, I did some soul searching over this. For that brief moment where I thought the media has portrayed blacks being racist against whites, I had been troubled by it. Why? What in particular makes me troubled about a portrayal of one sort of racism and not another when I know plain well both exist? Though modern prison or drug shows (particularly on cable) have made such depictions, they were unheard of on primetime television at the time and are still rare.

What I decided was that I was worried about a negative portrayal of a minority more so then an (for lack of a better term) “empowered” group. A minority that is not well liked (including Mormons by the way) has a lot less ability to counteract negative portrayals about them then a majority group who can. The minority is often quite helpless against false views amongst a majority. So I felt that this justified my sigh of relief over realizing that the black people killing white people were really racist white people. 

(Side Note: That is why I worry about people who make a career out of giving their views to the media on what Believing Mormons are really like. Even if they manage to portray Mormons fairly — a difficult feat in and of itself given their own biases –  there is still a huge concern with how even a fair portrayl might not lead to a fair view in the population and how it might negatively effect the lives of the minority who simply lack the power to give their own point of view with equal distribution).

Family Ties

Not too long later I saw an episode of Family Ties where Mr. Keaton convinced his African American boss to move into his suburban neighborhood. This was, of course, a well to do African American since he was Mr. Keaton’s boss. When he moved in, people’s home values started to plummet and people started moving out of the neighborhood. This lead to threats of violence against Mr. Keaton’s boss including people doing things like breaking into their home and grafting it in the inside with threats saying “go away or else” and the like.

It was only later when I lived in Detroit did I realize how farcical this was as a portrayal of things like white flight as happens in real life. While White Flight is truly a concerning thing, it just isn’t anything like how it was portrayed on Family Ties.

However, I had a second thought about this gross misrepresentation of white flight that I feel justifies the simplified portrayal even if it’s not really very accurate to real life.

I think entertainment wants to portray morality. Entertainment is usually story, and story is conflict. And the best conflicts are ones that invoke our moral sense which is also our sense of purpose in life.

But there tends to be much disagreement over what really is right and wrong. So the media usually sticks with issues that are ‘safe’ by simplifying real life issues to the point where there is no moral dilemma any more at all. Someone is good and someone is bad and that is that. We are to cheer for the good and hate the bad.

Of course there are exceptions. The media tends towards a liberal bias so they often have little concern with portraying the good guys as liberals and the bad guys as closed minded conservatives. And lest we think the media is all one way or the other, one can’t overlook the ‘moral’ situations that the show 24 liked to bring up – often with a strong conservative bent.

Over my life I’ve swung back and forth on how I feel about entertainments over simplification of morality. At times it really bugs me. One can’t really learn about how to deal with the moral problems of white flight by watching Family Ties. Nor can you get a serious picture of racism by watching the media where all racists are not only always white but always openly violent.

And yet it’s hard to deny that these simplifications do have value. For one, programs like this do help form our feelings that racism is wrong. Without them, it’s unlikely we’d be as sensitive to the issues of racism. And, to be frank, it’s still primarily entertainment. I don’t get up and walk out of Lord of the Rings either just because no one is really as bad as Sauron (or is that even true?) In truth all entertainment is a ‘simplification’ of real life. Even the dialog in entertainment is fake beyond reason. No one in movies ever talks over each other or cuts each other off as is normal in real life. And no one ever does a poor job of explaining themselves — except in screwball comedies where they are meant to; and even then it’s fake beyond reason how far they go to avoid explaining themselves to keep the joke running . But if it weren’t this way, it just wouldn’t work well as entertainment.

With these thoughts in mind, I could accept the oversimplification of white flight in Family Ties.

Early Edition

But it was when I was watching an episode of Early Edition called “March in Time” that I finally asked myself if there might also be a negative to the oversimplification of racists.

In this episode of Early Edition (a show about a man who receives tomorrows newspaper today) our villain is a militant style racist that loves to go around from town to town and get people to march with him in favor of racial segregation and white supremacy.

The thing that made this episode so interesting was that it was probably the single most realistic portrayal of racists I’ve ever seen on prime time television by the late 1990s.

One things that they added to make it more “real” was that only the main villain was truly a bad person. The people that marched with him – though also racists – were just normal — but confused – people that were letting their emotions get away with them. The very fact that we saw a portrayal of what we might call ‘normal people as racists’ (if only as non-speaking extras) was a landmark in and of itself.

Making things even more complicated was the fact that the militant racist villain was intentionally avoiding any sort of violence in public. Now to be sure, the moment he was not in public and no police were around we were shown he was secretly a violent racist. This went without saying. But plot-wise no one opposing the villain (save only our hero) knew he was actually a violent person. Everyone else in the show believed he was just just someone with nasty words that was inflaming racism in others.

When our villain (named Darryl Foster) came to town he first went and got a permit to march. Seeing as we live in America – you know, that place with freedom of speech — this is of course entirely legal. But the people of the town were outraged by it, as well they should be. So the townsfolk showed up and picketed him as he got his permit. Again, as it should be.

But then, as anger rose, things turned a bit ugly. Credible threats of violence were made at him if he didn’t leave town. The credibility of the threats was important to the plot because Foster keeps showing up dead in tomorrow’s paper and there is a ‘who’s-going-to-do-it’ sort of mystery going on.

Now in Early Edition, there were three ‘main characters.’ Gary is the man that receives tomorrow’s newspaper today. He’s our hero. Chuck is a white man that is a bit goofy and emotional and plays our comic relief. Marissa is a blind black woman that is the peace maker and voice of conscience.

So naturally Chuck, being a hot head, vocally tells Gary to not save the racist because he deserves to die and openly agrees with those wanting to use violence on him to stop him from doing his peaceful but racist march. To this rant Marissa steps in and reminds him of a little thing called freedom of speech and the constitution. So this was the second landmark of racism on national television: they actually bothered to remind us that racist speech is constitutionally protected speech. We might wish it was otherwise, but it’s necessary if we are going to protect our own freedom of speech.

As the course of the story unfolded, Foster continually finds that many people are willing to threaten him with violence. He is, of course, too smooth an operator to let this worry him. (He doesn’t realize, of course, that tomorrow’s newspaper shows him dead.) This is what makes him such a good villain. It looks like he is unstoppable because he never loses his cool. Perhaps violence will be necessary to stop him?

Because so many people are threatening violence against him, our future seeing hero can’t figure out who it is that is going to kill him. So he keeps showing up trying to stop the murder of this racist and nabs the wrong person. But why does our hero protect the racist? We are specifically told it is not to protect the racist’s life, but to protect the person who is going to commit the murder from doing something they will regret.

At the climax of the story, the villain finally marches on the town. Boldly, the town people refuse to let him do it by standing in his way. A confrontation takes place – a show down between what is right (anti-racism) and the law. While this is happening, our future seeing hero (Gary) finally finds the murderer. The would-be-murderer has a sniper rifle aimed at the racist and is about ready to shoot when Gary-the-hero catches him and convinces him that if he (the would-be-murderer) does this, he’ll be as bad as the racist. This, of course, finally causes him to not commit the murder.

At the same moment, the racist’s own young son switches sides in the confrontation over whether or not the tows people will let the racists hold their march – thereby defying his father for the first time. By joining those that are not going to let him march this causes the other people in the racist march to realize what a schmuck the racists is. They are disperse and the racists is finally defeated – all without using violence. The Moral™

I confess, it was a really good episode. And it was striking for the fact that it actually went out of its way to include issues you don’t normally find in a prime time TV show on racism, like addressing the constitutional freedom of speech and that not all racist are violent or even bad people.

Is There a Down Side to Simplification?

And yet I realized that maybe we’ve gone to far. At some level I couldn’t help but note that the show reflects how we honestly feel about racists and racism. That is to say, the show mirrors our public value system, reflecting ourselves back at ourselves. (As television is wont to do.) We honestly do feel that freedom of speech has lesser moral claim on us than opposing racism. That the townsfolk were about to deny someone their constitutional rights via use of violence was not seen as morally problematic. Instead it was portrayed as a heroic act that the law just hadn’t really caught up to yet.

And perhaps even worse, we apparently honestly feel that racism is morally equivalent to murder.

I can’t accept either of these positions. The fact is that non-violent racist speech is not equivalent to murder. Had the murderer gone through with shooting the villain, he wouldn’t be ‘as bad’ as the racist, he’d be considerably worse. When did non-violent racism (as the murderer believed) become grounds for forfeiting a right to life? And when did we as an audience come to accept that this is true?

We are all just people. And our laws are often wiser than we are. This is because the laws (when made correctly anyhow) represent a fair process rather than a fair outcome. The problem with seeking a fair outcome is that we are so easily self-deceived. So a fair process should be a real goal.

I think this principle has far reaching consequences. I consider, for example, the issue of judicial restraint vs. judicial legislation. The principle at risk is fair outcome vs. fair process. Do judges have a moral duty to make sure the outcome is what they know in their hearts is right? Or do they have a moral duty to try to bury what they believe is right and interpret the laws honestly?

I think the vast majority of people I know – liberal or conservative – fall (often unknowingly) into the “fair outcome” camp. Both sides have a strong temptation to ‘do what is right’ in their hearts regardless of the law. (For liberals Roe vs. Wade. For conservatives Lochner.) This is not a liberal vs. conservative issue, it’s a human one.

I confess, I cheered right along with the rest of the television audience when I first saw the show back in 1998 when the racist was finally stopped. It wasn’t until a much later viewing that it first occured to me that maybe the right thing for the good townsfolk to have done was not to threaten violence at the racist march but to go home and let the racist march happen without a single spectator. To me, that would have been the best of all possible heroic endings.

In any case, the show was — on both viewings — extremely thought provoking.

29 thoughts on “Racists as Portrayed in the Media

  1. Interesting analysis. Seems to tie into the moral concept of tolerance. We’ve become very tolerant as a society, but we are still intolerant of intolerance. To truly embrace tolerance, we have to divorce ourselves from our moral gut reactions and emotional sense of right and wrong, and look at things dispassionately and intellectually, like those who are able to let the racist exercise his free speech unmolested.

    But is this kind of dispassionate tolerance a positive thing to foster in society? While it might be good to have laws protecting the racist, should we try to squash the passionate hatred we feel towards “bad guys,” our frothing at the mouth to condemn and assault him, and held back only by the law?

    Entertainment stirs up our irrational emotions more than it does our intellect. But emotion plays a role in fostering a good society. Emotions are the basis of our moral compass. Laws protect us from these sometimes violent emotions from going out of control, but having these emotions is perhaps natural and positive. Entertainment gives us a safe outlet to exercise our passionate self-righteousness.

  2. “But is this kind of dispassionate tolerance a positive thing to foster in society? While it might be good to have laws protecting the racist, should we try to squash the passionate hatred we feel towards “bad guys,” our frothing at the mouth to condemn and assault him, and held back only by the law?”

    Nate, I agree that this is the question worth asking. And I have my doubts it has an easy answer. If you really undid that sort of passion in favor of tolerance, what sort of negative (or positive?) unforseen impacts would it have? I just don’t know.

  3. Agellius,

    You’ll have to elaborate. I don’t really understand why that’s a problem. It seems pretty obvious to me that our moral sense includes a ‘reaction’ that is clearly ‘emotional’ that drives us to action. In short, right or wrong, it’s a fact. And I believe there is nothing ‘wrong’ with that personally.

    I think it’s a myth that emotion and rationality are opposites. The truth is that we reason through our emotions most of the time.

    This all reminds me of the story of the donkey that starved to death equa-distant between two piles of hay because he couldn’t rationally determine which one to eat. ;)

  4. I don’t deny that we sometimes react emotionally when we perceive immorality (or morality for that matter). What I said “yikes” about, was the idea that emotions are the *basis* of our “moral compass”. That statement seems to mean that our feelings are what tell us right from wrong. It seems to say that, rather than experiencing a certain emotion as a result of witnessing an act which we know to be immoral, instead we classify something as immoral as a result of our experiencing a certain emotion. I think this puts the cart before the horse.

    By the way, I enjoyed the post. It was long, and I’m not a patient guy, so the fact that I read it all the way through says something. : )

    Oh, and I used to enjoy The Equalizer. I thought it was the coolest thing on TV. However I recently borrowed it on DVD from Netflix and was disappointed. I guess tastes evolve as we age. : )

  5. For the record, I don’t really know if emotions are the basis of our moral compass. In a way, they seem to. Where do our morals come from? Some seem to be instinctual and physically based, with a kind of gag reflex. For example, we all seem to feel in a visceral, repulsive way, that having sex with a dead body would be wrong, even though no actual physical harm is done from a rational perspective.

    Other morals seem to come from culture, like the moral of hating racists. Then again, I don’t know if the physical feeling of repulsiveness we experience comes from emotion, or from some kind of subconscious wiring that our culture and conscience put into us.

    As far as the Holy Ghost, Joseph Smith said that it was “pure intelligence” and often asked, regarding a spiritual manifestation, “was any intelligence communicated?” If not, he said it was not from God. So if we imagine that the Holy Ghost informs us about correct morals, then this would not be emotionally based, but intelligence based. But perhaps it works through emotion to communicate that intelligence.

  6. I think the word “emotion” is a single word that covers many related and semi-related subjects. So I assumed Nate was being broad.

    But perhaps he should have said something more like “Emotions are the basis of the biological portion of our moral sense” and thereby leave open a number of possibilities beyond the biological portion.

    But we do know for sure there is a biological moral sense. And we do know is is rooted in what most people would probably define as gut level or emotional reactions. So I think the statement is fine as far as it goes and I felt like I understood what he meant.

    But I also agree with Agellius that ‘it’s complicated.’ (My poor summary of Agellius.)

  7. I think that our gut-level reactions don’t tell us that a thing is wrong, per se. I think they were designed by God to be sort of a pointer that certain things are to be avoided, for whatever reason — for reasons of hygiene or health, for example, in addition to immorality. But I doubt whether these kinds of reactions are capable of enabling us to *know* whether or not an action is immoral.

    I think knowledge by definition is intellectual, and I don’t think we can form a syllogism from which we can draw the conclusion that something is immoral, using a gut reaction as a premise, e.g., “A. When my gut feels a certain way, that’s a reliable indicator that something is immoral; B. My gut feels that way when I contemplate such-and-such action; therefore C. Such-and-such action is immoral.”

    But that’s just my opinion.

  8. Agellius,

    I’m sort of threadjacking now, but something you said seemed like a worthy discussion in its own right (if perhaps maybe for a future day.)

    Because you are interested in such things, I thought I’d point it out. This really isn’t meant to argue with you:


    lI doubt whether these kinds of reactions are capable of enabling us to *know* whether or not an action is immoral.

    I agree with this statement. But trying to come up with a rationally consistent way to make sense of it proves *very difficult* due to something called “the problem of morality.” (Or at least that is what I call it.) You sort of hit on it in your next statement.

    I think knowledge by definition is intellectual, and I don’t think we can form a syllogism from which we can draw the conclusion that something is immoral, using a gut reaction as a premise, e.g., “A. When my gut feels a certain way, that’s a reliable indicator that something is immoral; B. My gut feels that way when I contemplate such-and-such action; therefore C. Such-and-such action is immoral.”

    The issue here is that we experience morality as facts about the world and we do so via our moral sense. (i.e. that is biologically how we experience morality.)

    But is that moral sense connected to something real and rational? Or is it just a delusion? Obviously we all believe it’s something rational. But try to explain it rationally and it proves difficult. Maybe even impossible without first making a leap of faith that comes across as somewhat subjective.

    Try to come up with a way to connect morality to facts about reality and then try to shoot holes in your own theory. It turns out that morality as an intellectual syllogism proves daunting.

    Now we can get around this by making a leap of faith. That leap of faith can be God or something else. In short, by making a leap of faith that reality is different from what it appears right now (say, having faith in an afterlife) the problem of morality diminishes. But for the sake of argument, prtend like you are going to try to prove the existence of morality to a Lovecraftian and you are going to limit yourself only to accepted scientific and / or logical principles. And — this is the difficult part — you aren’t allowed to be subjective.

    I, for one, could not come up with a single view of morality that could meet that criteria. Perhaps you’ll have better luck then I do. In short, I had to assume there was a God and an afterlife or I had to admit that morality was really *just* a gut reaction built into our biology. (Albeit a very useful one.)

  9. I think I get what you’re saying. I agree that the “gut-level reaction” method introduces subjectivity into the process.

    I would suggest that Aristotelian/Thomistic natural law is another avenue one could take to try to give morality an objective basis without requiring faith in divine revelation. Based on my current understanding, it is given short shrift nowadays on the assumption that it’s been debunked or some such thing, but I don’t believe it has. I recommend “The Last Superstition” by Edward Feser [http://www.amazon.com/Last-Superstition-Refutation-New-Atheism/dp/1587314517] in this regard.

  10. Agellius,

    I am adding this book to my back log of reading lists unless you have a better one.

    I confess — honest confession here — if I am assuming the absence of God for the sake of argument, I just can’t see how ‘natural law’ could possibly survive any sort of rational scrutiny. In short, I guess I do believe it’s been rationally debunked (again, only if we assume the absence of God first.)

    If you’d ever be interested in doing a post here on summarizing the Thomist (or whatever) arguments in favor of natural law, I suspect there are many here that would be very interested. Me because I’m curious what the best arguments are in favor of morality as a rational and objective non-faith based basis.. But I know Geoff (just to use an example) and many others here are politically very interested in the concept of ‘natural rights’ (which frankly I’m skeptical even exist absence the existence of God) and things like property rights that stem from that idea. In short, I think if you wanted to do such a guest post, there would be a lot of people interested. (I’d post it for you as a guest post.)

    Believe me when I say I’d love to know of an argument in favor of non-faith based morality. But I have gone around on this a billion times now and I honestly can’t find a single non-faith based argument in favor of the existence of morality.

    Well – let me clarify. I can’t find a non-faith based argument in favor of *how we humans experience morality as objective fact.*

    Obviously morality exists in the sense that people are moral and do have a moral sense and that moral sense is the basis for the existence of society and it clearly works. I’m not arguing that at all. But the idea that morality arises from natural and physicals laws and is fact based (non-subjective) is not an argument I could possibly make without first accepting the existence of God. Since I do believe in God, I do accept the objective nature of morality. But I see the two ideas as so entirely related that you can’t have one without the other. So I’m curious about the argument in favor of natural law from Thomas and others.

    Note: I don’t believe in libertarian free will either. Though I do believe in free will. I guess I’m a rogue on some of these points.

  11. Bruce:

    Actually, I didn’t say that Aristotelianism/Thomism (which I will abbreviate A/T) provides for morality without God. Rather, it provides for morality without requiring faith in divine revelation. What I meant, more specifically, was that Aristotelian philosophy, as expanded upon by Thomas Aquinas, provides a rational basis for morality without requiring faith in explicit divine revelation concerning morality.

    A/T does this by basing morality on the natures of things. Very basically, a thing that is a good thing of its kind, is one that fulfills its nature. Thus (to borrow an analogy from Feser), a good squirrel is one that has a nice, bushy tail, gathers nuts, and can scamper up trees. A squirrel that eats toothpaste instead of nuts, and has a habit of lying down spread-eagle in the middle of the highway instead of scampering up trees, would be a squirrel that is not so good, since it doesn’t act in accord with its nature.

    The same basic principle applies to human beings: A human being who acts in accord with his human nature, is a good human being. A good singer is one who sings well; a good firefighter is one who fights fires well; and a good human being is one who “human-beings” well.

    But A/T does not exclude God from the picture. In fact it concludes that God must exist using reason alone, and proceeds to deduce that God must be all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, etc., and that the soul is immortal, all without recourse to explicit divine revelation.

    While I really appreciate the invitation to post on the subject, I don’t think I should. To do a blog post saying, “Here’s what natural law is according to A/T, and here’s how it supports morality”, would be to present myself as someone who knows what he’s talking about.

    But I would be happy to discuss it with you, and see what we can discover together. Maybe you could read the Feser book, and then do a post about why you disagree with him (as I KNOW you will). Then I will come by and say why I disagree with you (as you KNOW I will). : )

  12. “Actually, I didn’t say that Aristotelianism/Thomism (which I will abbreviate A/T) provides for morality without God. Rather, it provides for morality without requiring faith in divine revelation. What I meant, more specifically, was that Aristotelian philosophy, as expanded upon by Thomas Aquinas, provides a rational basis for morality without requiring faith in explicit divine revelation concerning morality.”

    Hmm.. you’re right that I was confused on this distinction.

    Now you’ve got me really curious. Forgive my skepticism here, however. I patently doubt that A/T (or anything) can provide a rational basis for morality without requiring faith.

    And I’m very doubtful that basing things on the nature of things works here as a rational argument. What if my nature is to be immoral? And how do we decide what is or isn’t the nature of humanity? And who gets to decide if it’s objectively ‘good’ or ‘bad’? (Well, other than God — but that requires divine revelation!)

    And if there was a squirrel that had a habit of laying down spread-egale in the middle of the highway, in what sense is that not its nature? And who even gets to decide if this is a “good” nature or “bad” nature?

    Now if you were to change that to an evolutionary argument — i.e. it’s not good for the squirrel’s reproductive fitness — then I would understand the argument better because now we have an objective basis on which to judge the squirrel’s nature that requires no subjective judgments. But then we’ve undermined the idea that morality is part of human nature as a whole — for there is overwhelming evidence that in some cases being immoral is better for reproductive fitness then being moral. And do we really want to use reproductive fitness as the basis for moral reasoning? (And what would happen if we tried to? Where does that lead? To anything even remotely like what humans call morality?)

    Oh, and what if it just so happened that a squirrel laying spread-eagle in the highway *did* increase its reproductive fitness? Say, because it made the female squirrel’s want to mate with such a dare devil that can escape harm in the risk of danger. (Before you laugh at this, I would point out that this is a passing explanation for Peacock tails.)

    I think your idea for me to read Feser’s book and then do a post on it is a good idea as it gives everyone a fair shot at open criticism of all views. (I am the Popperian!)

    But, as you know, reading books takes time. So stay tuned for a year or two and I’ll get back to you.

    And consider the offer to do a post open. My suggestion would be that you *do not* present the post as “this is A/t” but instead “this is my personal understanding.”

  13. Bruce writes, “… I’m very doubtful that basing things on the nature of things works here as a rational argument. What if my nature is to be immoral? And how do we decide what is or isn’t the nature of humanity? And who gets to decide if it’s objectively ‘good’ or ‘bad’?”

    “Good” is simply defined as “acting in accord with its nature”. Another example might work better than the squirrel one. It’s the nature or essence of a triangle to be a closed plane figure with three stright sides. Actual triangles might vary from the essence of a triangle. For example, if you drew a triangle while riding in a moving car, it might have crooked sides or there might be breaks in the lines. Whereas if you drew it very carefully at a drafting table, using a ruler, it might appear nearly perfect (though as a practical matter, no actual triangle would be perfect).

    The first triangle we might call a “bad” triangle, and the second a good one, or at least better than the first, because it more nearly conforms to the essence of triangularity, particularly with respect to being closed and having straight sides. Moral good and bad are analogous to this. Once you know the nature of a thing, you can evaluate what is and isn’t in accord with that nature.

    When you say, “What if my nature is to be immoral”, there are a couple of problems with that statement from the A/T perspective. First, “nature” doesn’t refer to the characteristics of individuals, but to that by virtue of which you are the kind of thing you are. Thus if you drew a crooked triangle, A/T would not say that it’s the nature of that particular triangle to be crooked. Insofar as it’s a triangle, it partakes of that by virtue of which it is a triangle — in other words, triangularity; and is good or bad insofar as it conforms to the essence of triangularity; which is an objective standard outside the individual triangle.

    Second, being “immoral by nature” would be nonsensical under A/T, since to act in accord with one’s nature is to be moral by definition.

    The more I go on, the more I realize that it’s too big a subject for a blog post. A/T is an integral system, of which natural law is only one component. To understand what natural law means, you need some understanding of A/T metaphysics. This is where I think the Feser book will serve as a good introduction. It’s a good because he doesn’t merely explain what A/T is, but also shows how it differs from the predominant modern philosophical notions. (It’s written as a rebuttal to the “New Atheists”, Hitchens, Dawkins, et al., who attack A/T precisely because based on its premises, it is possible to deduce God’s existence and the immortality of the soul.)

  14. Agellius,

    I’m enjoying this. It’s been a while since we had a long discussion. Alas, I fear you are right that this is too big a subject for comments on a blog or maybe even a single blog post.

    I wish I had infinite time to read the suggested book and then make my discussion more specific.

    The problem is that I already think it’s fairly obvious that reading Feser’s book is going to confirm what I already suspect: that A/T is faith based and is not possible to demonstrate via rationality.

    I think I even — just from the little that has been said — already know specifically what is wrong with it. (It’s not like I’m hearing these things in a vacuum, of course. I’m making connections to other things you or others have told me about Thomism or what I’m read about it previously.)

    I can even summarize it fairly specifically. Take these as examples:
    “Good” is simply defined as “acting in accord with its nature”.
    “Second, being “immoral by nature” would be nonsensical under A/T, since to act in accord with one’s nature is to be moral by definition.”

    I do not doubt that ‘being immoral by nature’ *would be nonsensical under A/T and that under A/T to be “Good” is simply defined as “acting in accord with one’s nature as defined by A/T.

    But you’ve missed the point here. Your job isn’t to describe A/T to me, it’s to establish that it’s a rationally coercive argument even if I don’t really believe in A/T. All you are doing here is describe how – if I on faith already believed in A/T – how I’d choose to look at it. And I get it. I do. I agree that A/T is perfectly rational once you already make the leap of faith to believe in it.

    Also, do you see that these are circular arguments? The reason we should be moral by nature is because we are moral by nature. Therefore to be a “good” human we must act “moral” because that is the nature of being human. All explanations here self-reference.

    I object to switching between ‘the nature of a squirrel” to “the nature of a triangle” as if those weren’t two very different uses of the word “nature.”

    There are something’s we tautologically describe by a feature specific to them. Bachelors and triangles are such cases. But squirrel’s and humankind are not that type of concept. They are far looser and in fact have fuzzy borders.

    Since squirrel’s all evolved from something that we wouldn’t call a squirrel and will eventually evolve into something that we wouldn’t call a squirrel (or at least that is what an atheist would believe and that is the position you’d have to argue from to establish A/T as a rationally coercive argument to an open minded atheist. (Note: I’m a theist and also believe in evolution)

    Given that as an assumption, we can easily see that there simply is no platonic concept called ‘squirrel’ or ‘human’ in the same sense that there is for ‘bachelor’ and ‘triangle.’ Therefore I feel this is where A/T fails rationally: it is equivocating between two things we call ‘nature’ that are actually not precisely the same thing and thus not interchangeable.

    In fact, if I wanted to take the time to domesticate squirrels into something called ‘squigs’ that I specifically evolve into wanting to spread-eagle in the road so that I could eat them easier, I undoubted could. (Given infinite time and resources.) But we would not recognize them as squirrels any more, most likely.

    This is the other rational failure of A/T. It’s subjective what makes a nature ‘good.” In the case of a squirrel – which humans don’t eat – we can probably come to some level of agreement that it’s ‘good’ if it doesn’t lay spread-eagle in the road. But in the case of pigs and cows – which are species that human’s created for food – a “good nature” is if they are good to be killed and eaten and so are docile when taken to the slaughter. What ‘good nature’ means here is subjective and only exist in reference to whether or not we happen to eat them. (Which probably differs by culture.) I don’t doubt that it’s always possible to define a specie’s nature in such a way – subjectively – so that it fits well with A/T. But it would always be a non-objective (and therefore non-rational) argument.

    I guess this is my problem across the board with the idea that A/T establishes anything through rationality. It doesn’t. It starts with faith. Then, given certain faith-based assumptions — it then uses rationality to come to conclusions.

    So it is “rational” in that sense. But its certainly not purely rational.

  15. Agellius,

    The thought occurs to me that I am interpreting this statement — “one could take to try to give morality an objective basis without requiring faith in divine revelation” to mean “rationally coercive” (i.e. there are no other rational options available.)

    But if you just mean that A/T is a rationally possible option or not rationally disprove (which is nearly impossible), that is a much much lower bar.

    Plus it switches who has the burden of proof.

    You later then said: “that Aristotelian philosophy, as expanded upon by Thomas Aquinas, provides a rational basis for morality without requiring faith in *explicit* divine revelation concerning morality.”

    My arguments are all that A/T requires *implicit* faith. I just meant you can’t derive morality rationally from the laws of nature (i.e. physic, chemistry, biology, etc.) So even here, I suppose you are technically right that there is no *explicit* faith in divine revelation in A/T. If someone buys the argument that humans have a specific nature, then I suppose I do agree A/T naturally follows from there.

    In short, if you aren’t talking about A/T being rationally coercive, and only rationally possible, then I suppose you are technically right. But I personally find that sort of argument unsatisfying and that is pretty much tautologically what I mean when I say morality requires an initial leap of faith. I just mean there are no rationally coercive arguments for it. You have to make assumptions that don’t follow from the laws of nature because they ‘feel right.’

    So our positions might not be mutually exclusive.

  16. I’m enjoying it too, bro.  I don’t want to have to say that further discussion is pointless until a year or two goes by and you’ve read the book.  I’d rather wrangle about it now.  It’s good mental exercise and it’s fun.

    But in all honesty, it would just be pointless because we’re talking waaaay past each other.

    If you are convinced that you understand A/T, from my point of view that’s bad, because it may prevent you from making an effort to understand it as it really is (as opposed to my feeble and quite brief attempts to explain it).  Which in turn will prevent us from having a long, rip-roaring discussion about it.

    Several things you said make it clear to me that you don’t understand it.  That’s not a judgment against you.  Why should you understand it?  I’m someone who has been actively interested in it for years, and am only just now beginning to think I’m “getting” it – though still only at a beginner level.

    Not because it’s terribly difficult to grasp, but just because it’s so different from the philosophical paradigm I grew up in.  And also, because it’s so vast.  After all, it seeks to explain pretty much all of reality.  It would be naïve to expect it to be short, simple and easily understood. Sort of like you trying to explain quantum mechanics in a blog post. : ) You can make a good start, but you admit that it only provides the very beginning of a framework from which to grasp the whole system. My mistake in this thread, maybe, is that I didn’t even start at the beginning. I thought I could give a basic idea of what natural law is about, but the more we progress, the more I realize that you lack the framework in which it fits, therefore you have no choice but to evaluate it from a different framework, in which it was never intended to fit.

    Frankly, you seem to approach it with the condescending attitude which is typical of modern people.  As if, for example, Thomas Aquinas could not spot a circular argument; or alternatively, that he did spot it, but chose to ignore it and move on, assuming no one would notice.  And no one caught it, either in his own time, or over the next several centuries as his fame grew and his work stood the test of time.  People back then may have been ignorant of many of the facts that have since been discovered.  But reason is not a new invention. They knew how to do it back then.  They weren’t as dumb as you seem to think.

    You write, “Your job isn’t to describe A/T to me, it’s to establish that it’s a rationally coercive argument even if I don’t really believe in A/T.”

    Granted that my job is to show that A/T is rationally compelling.  But not granted that I’m capable of doing so in a comment thread.  Which is why I recommend the book.  I think a book is the minimum length necessary to lay the groundwork for a meaningful discussion of the system.  And this particular book does a better job of it than I could hope to.

    I would just ask you to try to trust me when I say there’s more to it than you think.  If you study it and still find it absurd and fallacious, so be it.

  17. Agellius,

    Fair enough on your answer above.

    I would say one thing, though.

    It’s VERY common for people to make arguments that are circular and not realize they are. And its VERY common for no one to spot it for ages afterwards.

    So the idea that Thomas Aquinas was making circular arguments it not something that should be overlooked as a possiblity. (Though I’m not insisting on that at all having not read the book and gotten the details.)

    The reason it can happen — even with a genius like Aquias — is because of something call homonculi. Essentially — even today and even with brilliant modern men and women — we sometimes just can’t help ourselves but to explain things in such a way as to hide the fact that there is really a homonculi hiding at the bottom. (Literally “little man” used to suggest that the brain works because there is a little man running your body.)

    Therefore we think we’ve explain the thing when really all we’ve done is explain it terms of itself.

    Even modern science is chocked full of such problems. (Especially in things like Neroscience where we’re making good progess but still dealing with a lot of the unknown.)

    So whether or not Aquinas was making circular arguments, I don’t know. I’ll have to read the book and make my own assessment.

    But the idea that he was doing so is not condescending at all in my opinion. Really smart ancient person — who lacked the correct frameworks at the time in his scientific knowledge to recognize his own homonculis — have been known to make circular or illogical argument by accident and not realize it and it was only realized ages later. (Zeno being one very obvious example. But really I think probably ever philospher from ancient times and probably most from modern times have committed such errors at one time or another. As I said, it’s quite common even amongst geniuses.)

    And if the circular argument in question then became a religious tenant, then I’d expect it to take on a life of it’s own even if people did eventually realize it’s circular. So perhaps there have already been several people that have found A/T to be circular at points but they are not Catholic, or whatever, and so you don’t recognize that their arguments are sound. (This is obviously hypothetical at this point.)

    So I guess I will acknowledge that you are totally right that I can’t judge the book by a blog comment.

    But I’d ask you to consider the fact that assuming Aquinas could not have made such a mistake effectively serves to cut off any serious discussion about such potential problems with A/T by responding to any such charge with “No, that’s impossible. If you *had* found a homoculus in A/T someone would have noticed it by now.” It’s a sort of pre-emptive strike against any such future argument and is no more fair then me judging A/T by a blog comment.

  18. Of course it’s possible that St. Thomas was wrong about some things, and Aristotle as well. What seemed condescending to me, was your belief that you could declare that Aristotelianism/Thomism is faith-based and that it establishes nothing by rationality, with only a surface understanding of it.

    But you have already admitted that you can’t judge it by my blog comments, so we don’t have to argue about it.

  19. I also admitted that it depended on what you meant by ‘rationaliy.’ If you meant ‘rationally coercive’ then I think I’m pretty safe in my assessment. If you just mean ‘a rational case is made that is plausible’ then you are on safe ground, I’d imagine.

  20. You define “rationally coercive” as meaning “there are no other rational options available.” Under this definition, a system of morality that is rationally coercive is one which renders all other systems of morality irrational.

    You then say, “If you meant ‘rationally coercive’ then I think I’m pretty safe in my assessment.” But your assessment of A/T was not merely that it’s not rationally coercive, but also that it’s faith-based and that it “establishes nothing by rationality”.

    Further, you asserted that A/T natural law reasoning is circular, which basically means that it’s not only not rationally coercive, but that it’s not rational at all.

    My point being, I’m not sure which assessment you’re referring to when you say that you’re “pretty safe in [your] assessment”.

    If all you’re saying is that you’re probably safe in asserting that A/T natural law does not render all other moral systems irrational, then I agree. There is hardly any risk in saying that at all.

  21. This is a wording problem. I originally took “rational” to mean “rationally coercive.” I think this is what we generally mean when someone say “such-and-such can be rationally established.” Or rather they *think* they mean ‘rationally coercive.”

    But in reality, most of our arguments on almost all subjects are not rationally coerceive at all. The person just believes they are because they are too bias to see outside a narrow set of assumptions.

    So I felt you intended ‘rationa;’ to mean ‘rational coercive’, which would mean that all other moral systems must then be rendered irrational. For obvious reasons, I found that hard to believe.

    But if we are just talking about something being rationally plausible (given the right assumptions) that seems pretty reasonable to me. But I would consider such a system ‘faith-based’ because you have to make a leap of faith on some assumption.

    Actually think your last paragraph is correct. All I’m saying is that I’m probably safe in asserting that A.T natura law does ont render all other moral systems irrational.

    You know I’m not a fan of ancient philosophers, Agellius. So you (rightly) expect me to be cynical of any such system.

    You’re luck though. There are several comments on M* that love A/T. So you can round up the troops and get them all to counter fire if I ever managed to read the book and then do posts on where I feel A/T is problematic. (I would be truly shocked if I found no problems at all that I felt were worth discussing.)

    because contextually I thought you were saying “I can establish A/T as correct using only rational arguments and no assumption are required (or at lease none that I wouldn’t agree with. Now, of course, I knew that was impossible for anyh philophical or religious view point. None of them can be estblished through reason alone. There are always the hidden humonculi hiding a circle argument here or religious charged but meaningless word there to contend to. That’s the nature of religion, I think.

    Only later did it occur to me that maybe you just meant “rationally plausible.” That’s a much lower bar and A/T could probaly pass such a bar even to my skeptical satisfaction.

  22. The term “rationally coercive” is new to me. For me “rational” simply means that something is reasonable, or to be more specific, does not violate the rules of logic. I would use “rationally compelling” if I meant that something compels your assent at the risk of being irrational; but I suppose that’s a personal preference.

    I didn’t say that about A/T. At first, I only said that A/T natural law is “another avenue one could take to give morality an objective [as opposed to subjective] basis without requiring faith in divine revelation.” Later I said that it “provides a rational basis for morality without requiring faith in explicit divine revelation concerning morality.”

    Again I didn’t mean that it compels belief, only that it provides a ground upon which one may argue that certain behaviors are right while others are wrong. Also it does not cover all points of morality that are covered by Christian revelation.

    However I don’t mean merely that it’s plausible, but something a bit stronger than that. I mean that absent Christian revelation, T/A would still provide a basis for moral behavior which I would find compelling in the sense that the “preponderance of the evidence” would be in its favor, versus the position that said there was no rational ground for morality at all.

    I would deny that A/T natural law requires a leap of faith.

  23. Agellius,

    I do not consider the idea that a religion (or philosophy-religion) is faith-based to be any sort of insult. I think that is what religion is: faith in something more than we see.

  24. Bruce:

    In the case of religion, certainly not. Faith in an authority is of the essence of revealed religion.

    But we need to distinguish between theology and philosophy. St. Thomas said that in theology, the argument from authority is the strongest type of argument, since you argue from an authoritative source as your premiss; whereas in philosophy it’s the weakest, since philosophy is based on reason alone.

    So saying that a philosophical argument requires faith is, in a sense, an insult to that argument.

  25. There isn’t as much difference between religion and philosophy as St. Thomas apparently believes.

    The humor I find in philosphy is that philosphers often aren’t even aware that they are making unproven assumptions that their whole philosphy is built on. So they really do think they are just using reason when in fact the initial set of postulates they built themselves on were faith-based leaps that they failed to even consider were unprove assumptions. (Because it just seemed so *right* to them!)

    But, if Popper is right, this might not be such a bad thing. For competing explanations (philosophies in this case) then come into conflict with each other and are forced to modify themselves based on the criticism they receive from each. If there is something ‘real’ underlying the discussion, they will converge with enough time as either one wins out over the other or they they modify themselves to match testable facts until the two merge into one. In the end, we find real truth by homing in on it approximately rather than verifying we found it — which is impossible because infalibility is impossible (when it comes to philosophy at least.)

  26. Bruce:

    You write, “There isn’t as much difference between religion and philosophy as St. Thomas apparently believes.”

    I would say there is exactly as much difference between them as St. Thomas believes. : ) They are certainly not the same thing, and I think he’s pretty clear on where one ends and the other begins.

    You write, “… philosphers . . . really do think they are just using reason when in fact the initial set of postulates they built themselves on were faith-based leaps that they failed to even consider were unprove assumptions. (Because it just seemed so *right* to them!)”

    Maybe one of these days you’ll give specific examples that we can discuss.

  27. Agellius,

    The irony is that I’m giving you a specific example via this discussion right now.

    And there is something delicious about the fact that the end result of our unshared assumptions is that you find my views an ‘insult’ to philosphy when I intend it as no insult at all.

  28. Bruce:

    I apologize, that didn’t come out the way I intended. What I meant was that I look forward to the time when you have had the time and opportunity to read the book I suggested, and we can proceed to discuss these issues on somewhat of a common footing.

    I totally don’t get the “delicious” part, but that’s OK. : )

    By the way, I didn’t say you were insulting philosophy per se. What I said was that, saying that a philosophical argument requires a leap of faith, would be an “insult” to that argument, in a manner of speaking, because that would mean that it’s a weak argument. In reality, of course, an argument would not feel insulted, and neither do I.

Comments are closed.