Skip to comments.Moral Theory - The Machinery of Natural Rights
Posted on 10/28/2006 8:23:38 AM PDT by Jibaholic
This is an essential book for anyone who wishes to defend a political philosophy based upon the doctrine of natural rights. I frequently debate politics, abortion, the morality of war, and other ethical positions. Many of my "sparring partners" employ thought experiments to refute rights-based ethics. A common example is Ellen Goodman's thought experiment in which an IVF clinic is on fire. You can save either a a test tube with an embryo, or a small child. Who do you choose?
Moral Theory by David Oderberg is the perfect rebuttal. Study the mechanics of natural rights ethics, particularly the Acts/Omission distinction and the Principle of Double Effect. The Principle of Double Effect is particularly important. It resolves conflicts of rights while still upholding the moral worth, dignity, and rights-bearing status of the "losing" side. Utilitarianism cannot do this. Even though it starts from the premise that everyone's interests get equal consideration, the hard fact remains that a leading cancer researcher had a greater ability to benefit the interests of society than a homeless man.
Natural rights ethics avoid this problem because it takes into account more than your ability to benefit the rest of society. Natural rights ethics lead to the principle that "the ends do not justify means." Natural rights ethics also factor in the importance of intention - actions that are taken with selfish intent are not considered to be morally good even if the outcome is good. For example, giving money to charity to impress people is not a morally good act (it is not necessarily bad either - it may be indifferent).
The Principle of Double Effect is how these concepts are put into practice. It consists of four separate tests, each of which must be passed for an action to be morally good. I found the intended/forseen disctintion was the hardest to understand. Here is one tip to help appreciate the distinction: imagine a hypothetical scenario in which you could have the good effect (rescuing the small child) without the bad effect (letting the embryos burn). Would you do it? If you can *honestly* answer yes, then you pass the intended/foreseen check for the Principle of Double Effect.
I have been using abortion as a running example, but conservatives also have to abandon some positions to consistently apply natural rights to politics. This is particularly true on natural security issues such as torture and domestic spying when there is no immanent threat ("they might be up to something" is not sufficient), as well as warring against a nation outside the principles of a Just War.
There are many other books that I would recommend to interested readers. An Introduction to Logic by Harry Gensler is the most accessible introduction to logic that I've seen, and the Logicola software makes it doable to learn for self-study. But the best part is that it applies logical principles to ethics, and concludes with an a priori proof of the Golden Rule. Gensler's book is to the Golden Rule as Moral Theory is to natural rights. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview by JP Moreland is the best introduction to philosophy that I've seen. Finally, Oderberg's other book Applied Ethics, applies natural rights principles to various issues such as abortion and Just War, and refutes both common and cryptic arguments from the other side.
I have been trying to find a proof to my suspicion that the most pernicious aspect of the progressive world view is their rampant disregard (from ignorance) of the art or science of formal logic. There was news blurb on So Fla TV how a study found that males who use their cell phone in excess of 4 hours a day suffer from a reduced fertility rate. Although trivial and bordering on the comic this sort of news headline is typical of the pseudo-rational of mind set of the progressive community. Obviously there is a statistic: low fertility, mapped to the use of high cell phone use. I can accept it as dogma/truth because I heard it on the local news; or, more likely the study is logically flawed by some variation of putting the cart before the horse. Thereby, postulating a moral axiom that is gratifying to the progressive network viewer: Cellphones Bad. Using male sterility to press the point zings that most hated group: males; without ruffling feathers of any progressive interest group.
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