Archive for April, 2008

On Particularism

April 29, 2008

One of the most basic problems of epistemology is called “the problem of the criterion.” The problem reveals itself when one tries to figure out how to separate their beliefs into the categories of knowledge and of mere belief. How does one begin? There are two options: one could proceed by formulating a criteria for what qualifies as knowledge and seeing which beliefs meet the criteria; or one could start with instances of knowledge and try to come up with a criteria for knowledge based on features of these instances. If one picks the first option, then one is a “methodist” (obviously not of the religious variety), and if one picks the second option, one is a particularist.

Why are people often skeptical of particularism? Well, it seems to some people to be “cheating” to simply assert that we do know things and to work from there. This move is especially aggravating to the skeptic who demands proof that we know anything at all. However, it is important to recognize the importance that phenomenology and intuitions play in epistemology. Many arguments are nothing more than appeals to intuition about whether people would consider person X justified in situation Y. Although it might seem illegitimate, it really does seem to be the case that we do indeed know certain things, and it is unclear how the skeptic can simply dismiss this appeal to intuition. Much of what goes on in epistemology consists of philosophers attempting to figure out what we mean when we use the words “knowledge” and “justification.” It seems that there is a real phenomenon that people are referencing when they use the word knowledge, namely, the experience they have of knowing. In fact, if it is the case that one does not have an experience of being a knower, then they must mean absolutely nothing by the term knowledge when they use it. In order for discourse in epistemology to be meaningful, there ultimately needs to be some pre-theoretic grasp of what it means to know something, and I would argue that this can only come from experience. Thus, it seems to fairly clear that methodism is the wrong way to proceed out of the problem of the criterion.

Furthermore, I would argue that historically, methodism has led to skepticism. The methodology of Descartes and Locke ultimately led to the skepticism of Hume and others. It seems unclear how one could come up with criteria for what would qualify as knowledge if one had no instances of knowledge from which to base the criteria off of. A person might wonder how anyone could be justified in using a method for discerning knowledge, if that method itself was not rooted in any sort of knowledge. The method would seem to always be arbitrary. This seems to be a valid concern.

Definitions of Responsibility and the Elusiveness of Moral Properties: A Critique of R. Jay Wallace's Metaethics of Responsibility

April 16, 2008

This is a paper I wrote for my class about free will and hell. The primary text for the course is R. Jay Wallace’s Responsibility and the Moral Sentiments, a defense of compatiblism in the Strawsonian tradition. My paper is a critique of Wallace’s metaethics of responsibility: (more…)

Libertarianism, Introspection, Skepticism, and Freud

April 12, 2008

Over at the Secular Web, the Great Debate about theism and naturalism has been updated recently. Instead of posting something about the exchange between Collins and Smith on science and the cosmos, or between Schellenberg and Jordan on faith and doubt, I want to reflect on the discussion about consciousness and free will that was between Melnyk and Goetz and Taliaffero. I will do this with the intent of answering a Freudian objection to their argument for libertarian freewill. (more…)

Narrative and Normativity (1): Outlining a Particularist Approach

April 11, 2008

Much of Scripture is narrative. It is an account of events that happened in history to real people. But it is not just an historical report. It is supposed to carry meaning. In fact, some of it is meant to produce a kind of normativeness. There are some things we ought to do because stories tell us to. Some stories of the New Testament, for instance, are meant to tell us “do this” or “live this way” by providing an example that we should follow. So, for instance, when Jesus forgives and fellowships with sinners, this has a meaning behind it: “Do this. Fellowship with sinners and those that society considers unclean, because God accepts and loves all”.

But how are we to decide when something is supposed to be normative in a narrative, and when it is just any ole’ event? Admittedly, this isn’t going to be immediately obvious. But perhaps we can start with some *PARTICULAR* examples of places in a story where an event generates some kind of “oughtness”. In this post I will begin to outline a particularist approach to narrative and normativity. (more…)

Supererogatory Actions?

April 11, 2008

For those that don’t know, supererogatory actions are basically actions that go “above and beyond the call of duty,” actions that are good, but are not required deontologically.  A paradigm case for a supererogatory action would be self sacrifice.  Think of a soldier jumping on a grenade to save his comrade. 

Well, this is all well and good for most systems of ethics, but does this category fit within the Christian paradigm?  I may be controversial in my position, but I think there is good reason to think that there are no supererogatory actions for the Christian.  Here are a few simple arguments to try to motivate my intuitions on this:

1) In James 4:7 we are told that “to him who knows to do good, and does not do it, to him it is sin.”  This seems to me to be saying that anytime there’s a good thing that could be done, you ought to do it.  To not do it is sin.  Thus, if self-sacrifice is good, you ought to do it. 

2) Ethics by example:  The primary way ethics is taught in Scripture is by pointing to examples.  Philippians is a paradigm case of this.   Paul presents the Philippian believers with the example of Christ’s completely self-sacrificial/self-empting life and says that they ought to think and act this way as well.  The dialogue form would be something like:  Paul:  Be humble.  Philippian:  What’s humility?  Paul:  Look at Jesus.  That’s humility.  Be that.  In the same letter, Paul also provides the Godly examples of humility and self-sacrificial love in Epaphroditus and Timothy to teach them as well.  He tells the Philippians to honor men like Epaphroditus because he suffered for the sake of the gospel.  Finally, Paul describes his own journey to salvation, his own self-emptying; acknowledges that he’s not perfect yet, but must keep striving; and tells the Philippians to imitate him. 

If our paradigm cases for what constitutes proper Christian behavior are Christ and the saints (who are all martyrs in one way or another), what actions could possibly be considered supererogatory? 

3) Think about the deontological commands that are given in Scripture.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  We’re to love God with complete and total abandon; we’re to give everything of ourselves to him.  We’re also to love our neighbor as our very self because we are all members of one another.  So again, what would qualify as supererogatory actions under this deontological system?

4) In another place, Christ says that if anyone is to be His disciple, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Him.  This is not some weak acknowledgment the troubles we’ll all face in life or some pithy nonsense like that.  Christ is calling us to recapitulate all His suffering unto death, even death on a cross, and nothing less.  We’re called to total and complete self-denial.  So, again, what could be a supererogatory action in this system of ethics?


These are only a couple of arguments running through my head right now.  I’m going to be writing a paper on this topic for my ethics class so I would appreciate any thoughts or feedback.  I will be posting more of my thoughts on this topic in the weeks to come.  Specifically, I will post some thoughts on virtue ethics, deification, ontological views of salvation vs. legal views, etc., and the effect these things have on the possibility of supererogatory actions.