How do you apply acid to a moral system or teacher of morality? How do you work out whether this or that particular claimant to moral insight really has guidance for us all?
I wonder if it has something to do with moral prioritisation.
Here’s the thought:
1. Ultimately all ethical systems are systems of prioritisation
[The debates in ethics are over what is being structured. Are we dealing with an ontological hierarchy or an epistemological one? Does the system of priorities exist external to ourselves, or is it generated from within (whatever either of those concepts might mean)?]
2. We can detect this feature when we note that mature ethical reflection cannot avoid the conclusion that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are terms in binary opposition, inter-defined, such that ‘bad’ only functions when there are things higher in the ethical hierarchy, ‘good’ only functions when there are things relatively lower. Everything prioritised in any ethical system is capable of being viewed as either more or less ‘good’ or ‘bad’ other than absolute being and absolute negation.
3. An interesting question arises as to whether there is a point that divides the hierarchy between greater and lesser degrees of ‘good’ and greater and lesser degrees of ‘bad’. I.e., is there a point at which the totality of priorities above can be viewed as ‘good’ in relation to the totality of priorities below.
Well, no, surely any point can be viewed that way.
But if so, there must exist another ‘total’, i.e., non-relative conception of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to which differing parts of the ethical hierarchy correspond.
4. Interestingly, we do speak of certain types of things as ‘greater and lesser goods’ and ‘greater and lesser bads/evils’. In doing so we seem to assume an absolute point within the hierarchy.
5. If we accept (4) as a valid intuition then in Ethics we have to deal with two types of reasoning: first, a system of prioritisation; second, a system of recognition. An ‘Ethics’ needs to deal adequately with both types of reasoning.
6. The above thought leads to something far more interesting: two ‘goods’ (two things that belong within the totality of the ‘Good’) still may require prioritisation with regard to each other. I.e., there may be situations in which both ‘goods’ are mutually exclusive. This is the essence of the ‘hard case’ in ethics.
Now we flip everything on its head:
Assuming that (6) is a feature of any mature ethical system, then prima facie, there may be cases where the ‘love of god’ and the ‘love of neighbour’ are mutually exclusive.
The ultimate test of a conception of god (i.e., a theology broadly defined so that it may even include non-religious ‘gods’) is whether these two cases are, in fact, mutually exclusive.
Idolatry always leads these two ‘goods’ being placed in tension or competition.
[NB, we have taken formal features of moral reasoning, and are now using them assess theological reasoning.
Wild, dangerous, irresponsible, unworkable?]
When the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they came together in the same place. And one of them, an expert in the law, asked a question to test Him: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
He said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important commandment. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:34-40 HCSB)