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Gordon Clark’s ethical considerations

November 24, 2008
I did not find Dr. Clark’s chapter, “Ethics,” in A Christian View of Men and Things awfully quotable; this is because his logical sequences are very tight and nothing is very readily able to stand alone without its context. And so, I prefer to encourage readers to buy and read this entire, important book, to retyping vast portions of it.

Dr. Clark takes the reader to the proper beginning of any consideration of ethics: he logically deconstructs the irrational ethical systems of the Utilitarians (what about the people not made happy by what makes you happy), and of Kant (how can selfless duty and self-interest co-exist?), and then simply presents his case: the clear remainder that survives dismissal of competing systems. He concludes that only Biblical theism can provide an ethical system that escapes the pitfalls of the others. The discerning reader is then left panting, “why argue?” I love this about Gordon Clark.

Very basically, Dr. Clark asserts that ethics must necessarily address self-interest, and that Bible clearly does. Much of his discussion of various ethical systems distinguishes between the teleological and ateleological approaches; in other words, ethics emphasizing outcome versus intent.

This brief section stood out for its stand-alone representation of a straightforward summary of Dr. Clark’s argument:

“A man cannot be held responsible for anything over which he has no control. The consequences of our acts are obviously not under our control. Even the more immediate consequences such as the health and reputation we shall enjoy tomorrow are not under our control; and the more remote consequences of next year and next decade cannot possibly be guaranteed. Such matters are therefore external to us. There are, however, internal actions directly under the control of our will. We may not be able to control our health or our reputation, but we can control our thinking, our choosing and refusing; we cannot control circumstances but we can control our reaction to circumstances. The sphere of morality therefore lies within; it has to do with the will and not the consequences.” (pp. 116-117)

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4 Comments
  1. Dimdem permalink
    November 25, 2008 1:55 pm

    I’m sorry, can you expand on why the utilitarians and Kantians are “irrational”? Why does it pose a problem for utilitarians that different people are made happy by different things? Even if you aren’t a utilitarian, surely you think that we sometimes ought to make other people happy, for instance when we give gifts to our friends? And surely we manage to cope in this case with the fact that our friend’s tastes may not be the same as our own? Now of course there are practical difficulties that arise when we don’t know what will make someone else happy. This might mean that, from a utilitarian perspective, we aren’t sure what it is right to do. But is that a problem for the theory or just part of the human predicament? And even if it is the former, can’t the utilitarian cope with it by saying that it is right for us to do what we can reasonably expect would create the most happiness, even if we turn out to be wrong?

    Very briefly, Utilitarianism isn’t about making other people happy; it’s a social gospel with the usual paraphrased goal of “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Consider the atrocities against a minority that a majority might consider the greatest good for the greatest number. Beyond that, I’d recommend reading the book or any other on the subject.–Lauren

  2. Dimdem permalink
    November 25, 2008 5:17 pm

    While people who misunderstand utilitarianism might certainly use its language to justify atrocities, the same could just as easily be said about Christianity. You might find it useful and interesting to read something about these “secular” moral philosophies written by someone who is more sympathetic to them. (I put “secular” in scare quotes because there have been many religious–even Christian—utilitarians, and Kant believed that religious faith was itself a moral obligation.) John Stuart Mill’s essay Utilitarianism is available online. A good and very accessible survey text that covers both utilitarianism and Kantianism, among other topics, is Rachel’s The Elements of Moral Philosophy.

  3. November 25, 2008 7:07 pm

    Heh, the tu quoque fallacy sort of misses the point. Just because there are Christian utilitarians doesn’t mean that utilitarianism is OK.

    On the original point, Clark uses the term “irrational” in a very precise way. It includes those who base their philosophy ultimately upon sensation.

    So, it is quite consistent to call Kant irrational (he did say that pain at making the wrong moral choice is a way to recognize what is right).

    BTW, Nozick’s “Utility Monster” was a pretty good refutation of Utilitarinism too.

    Right: How rational is the notion that if you love your duty, it isn’t really duty (viz. Kant)?–Lauren

  4. Dimdem permalink
    November 26, 2008 3:36 am

    Pointing out that there are Christian utilitarians isn’t tu quoque. Pointing out that Christianity can be misapplied as easily as utilitarianism is, I suppose, but my point is that neither view ought to be judged by cases where someone who doesn’t understand it misapplies it.

    Your statement about Kant is inaccurate, if you mean that he thought that painful feelings are a reliable guide to right and wrong. Kant thought that sensation belonged to the phenomenal self, whereas to be moral is to be guided by your true noumenal self, which possesses reason. Oh, he might have said somewhere that pangs of guilt are a sign that you ought to think harder about what you’re doing, but the true foundation and test of the morality of our actions is the Categorical Imperative, and we can know and apply it without feeling anything.

    Kant doesn’t say that if you love your duty than it i isn’t your duty, either. In fact, what he says is in effect that if you do your duty because of feelings rather than because of reason then your action lacks a certain kind of value that actions have when they are done from a sense of duty. It is still your duty either way, though. And the fact that you enjoy doing something doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have moral worth; it all hinges on what your true motive was: pleasure or a sense of duty. I’m not a big fan of Kant, but if you read him then you may find him closer to Clark than you realize.

    Amazing coincidence you mention Nozick, as I reread parts of it last week. The utility monster actually isn’t much of a threat. It does to show that utilitarianism would reach very peculiar conclusions if the world itself were very peculiar, i.e., different than it is. Not a very damning objection. Nozick’s experience machine is a much more telling argument against hedonism, I think, but not many utilitarians are hedonists these days.

    Sorry to appear out of the blue and harass you, by the way. I landed on an old blog post when I Googled something completely innocuous. I don’t even remember what I was searching for, but I hit an old entry having to do with exercise. Not at all what I was searching for, but I thought it was amusing so I read the most recent post. And lo and behold, it happened to be on a subject that I know something about…. Best wishes.

    Thoughtful discussion is always welcome. I had intended this post, and the others from this book, to be notes from the book for the sake of my reference and to whet other appetites; I don’t represent what is here as definitive expositions of Clark’s discussions of other philosophers. The out-takes I’ve quoted don’t include the discussions and the quotes from other people he uses to exposit his argument–so we have kind of a context problem relying on external information. I stand by my recommendation of Clark’s work–he can be testy, but his logic is impeccable. Thanks for making the agora of ideas a little less stuffy.–Lauren

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