I Usually Don’t Ask Open-Ended Questions, Because I Usually Have All the Answers

Kant opens the first section of his Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals with the statement: “Nothing in the world — indeed nothing even beyond the world — can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification except a GOOD WILL“. Kant says that there are qualities that may be good and desirable (intelligence, courage, resoluteness, etc.), but these qualities can be bad if they are not accompanied by a good will. A good will, according to Kant, corrects the influences on the mind. Kant states that the will is good, not because of what effects follow from having a good will, but because the good is intrinsically good or good in itself. For Kant, all moral decisions are emanate from a sense of duty, and our sense of duty contains good will. I know that this question might seem like it has an obvious answer, and I used to think so myself, but what is a bad will? I know that what I just asked is one of those questions that scream out “duh”, like asking someone who steps into the room soaking wet, shaking off an umbrella if it’s raining outside. Or hearing the dude next to you stomach growl, and asking him,”hungry, eh?”. It’s pretty easy when someone’s intent is fairly obvious, like when some dude carrying a pike, covered in blood, wearing an “I H8 Philosophy Professors” T-shirt asks where the philosophy department is. It dosen’t take a stroke of genius to figure out the the guy’s intent is to do some harm — especially when it’s nowhere near April Fool’s Day and it’s not Halloween. There is the bad will that we can see — the murderer, the thief, the starlet intent on launching a music career. But some will is what we might call ambiguous. What do we do when the intent of the will is not so clear? I thought of sticking a personal situation in right here about something that I did that I’m still not sure as to whether my will in this situation was good or bad. (Take your guesses everybody) But since I’ve thought it over, I decided that I would save myself the embarassment ( not to mention any possible bridge burning) and grab an example from my collection of DVDs. About a year ago, I was made familiar with a website called selectsmart. The point of this website is to spend hours taking surveys to figure out what kind of whatever you are. They should call this website hours from your life. So, instead of studying philosophy, I was taking this survey on which horror movie protagonist I’m most like. Much to my delight, I’m like the character Dr. Herbert West from the movie Re-Animator, which just happens to be my favorite horror movie. Talk about serendipity. To those who are not familiar with the Stuart Gordon classic Re-Animator, here’s the plot in a nutshell: a couple of med students at Miskatonic University discover the secret for re-animating dead people. They decide to see if it works by testing it on a cat named Rufus and then on the cadavers in the pathology ward. All hell breaks loose when one of the students beheads a professor, reanimates the professor’s head and body, and eventually lands himself in a fantastic battle royale with the professor’s intestines. Now that I’m done with the plot. In the film, Herbert West discovers the key to reanimation, which, in and of itself, isn’t bad. You might say that someone who makes such a discovery is motivated by good will. If we can cheat death, think of all that land we’d be saving from becoming cemetaries. We could put WalMarts up everywhere! Ok, and a few Trader Joes. And it seems that, at first, Herbert is intent on making genuine medical progress. But, somewhere that same intent loses it’s good-willish patina and takes a turn for the bad. We know that when Herbert kills Dr. Hill, he is motivated by a bad will. He wants to kill Hill because Dr. Hill is in his way. That’s easy. And when the bodies start piling up, including the dean of the university and Dan’s girlfriend Meg, we need not consult the utlitarian calculus to figure out that Herbert’s quest to revive the dead was bad. But there it goes again. We can say that what Herbert West did was inherently bad, but how was it so? At what point did West’s intent turn from good to bad? Since Kant tells us we cannot rely on consequences, we cannot point to the pile of dead bodies as evidence of Herbert’s bad will. But we know that, perhaps on some intuitive level, Herbert’s intent had changed — although it stayed the same. I realize that what I’m saying might sound like a little bit of goobledygook here. And there’s a reason for that. It’s because there are times when someone’s intent may be the same, but somehow the intent may seem to be aimed at doing more harm than good. What makes things worse, is the fact that, in addition to not being able to pin down how a good intent can become bad, we may not be aware that our own will is bad. We may be operating under the supposition (delusion) that our own intentions are good. But how do we know what a bad will is, or when our own will is bad? The question is not so much what constitutes a bad will than how do we know what a bad will is? Perhaps the issue of whether a person’s will is good or bad is as much an epistemic question than an ethical consideration. And that’s where I land my open-ended question. I’d like to know what the answer is, because honestly I have no idea.

Scottish People Scare Me: On A Good Reason Why I Ain’t Ever Goin’ To Scotland Or, A Problem Of Conflicting Moralities In "The Wicker Man"

POLICE SERGEANT HOWIE ¬†flies off to a remote Scottish isle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. During his investigation, he finds that the natives of the quiet Scottish hamlet are a bit more than odd — they’re pagans! What follows during the next 90 minutes is public group sex, people spontaneously breaking out into song, nude women crying in grave yards, schoolchildren singing odes to phallic symbols, naked flashdancing, foreskins in jars — ultimately culminating in Sgt. Howie being roasted alive in a giant rattan action figure (so the crops will grow).

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is The Wicker Man.

This gem from 1973, starring Edward Woodward, bears the rare distinction of being the only movie in film history that Rod Stewart tried to get banned — and not because it’s a bad movie. It all has to do with Britt Ekland and some dancing….



Anyway, Sgt. Howie, played by Woodward, is sent to investigate the disappearance of a young girl named Rowan Morrison. When Sgt. Howie arrives, he is met by several locals who, besides being confoundedly stupid, insist that the girl is not a resident of the island. They’ve never heard of her, they say. But Howie is as nosy as he is persistent, and he continues to search for young Rowan, despite the fact that everyone on the island, including the woman who is Rowan’s alleged mother, claims that they do not know the girl.



As Howie searches for the missing girl, he finds that the residents of Summerisle are pagans who worship the old gods and reject Christianity (this fact offends Howie, who is a Christian). Howie begins to suspect that the island’s May Day ritual may be more than mere re-enactment, but a full-scale human sacrifice made to appease the gods. Howie suspects that Rowan is not missing, but intended to be the isle’s offering.

After a game of cat and mouse (I really hate that cliche), Howie finds that it is he who is the intended sacrifice, and he is given up to the gods — burned alive inside the Wicker Man.



The Film’s protagonist, Sgt. Howie, is a Christian. Howie, as a modern man thrown into the strange world of paganism, is intended to represent the audience. The audience, meaning us, and Howie are products of Christendom. We’ve been raised with, whether we’ve accepted Christianity or not, Christian morality. Our collective Christian sensibilities tell us that paganism, in particular, pagan practices that call for blood sacrifices, is not only a useless practice, but morally reprehensible as well.



The audience, as well as Sgt. Howie would regard the practices on Summerisle as heathen and blasphemous according to our Christian perspective. Our God, the Christian God, as Howie proclaims, is the “true God”. Howie calls the religion of Summerisle “fake”, and demands to know why the children have “never heard of Jesus”. As people raised with (or at least in the presence of ) the Christian faith, we can understand Howie’s outrage. And we also share Howie’s disgust when he discovers that the Summerislanders intend to perform ritual human sacrifice.



But, the residents of Summerisle have a different point of view. When Sgt. Howie meets Lord Summerisle, played by Christopher Lee ( the first man I usually think of when I think of a Scotsman), Summerisle explains to Howie that his grandfather, in an attempt to rekindle the spirit of the people living on the island and cure them of their apathy, brought back the old gods.

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The people, along with the local flora, flourished. The ethic, Lord Summerisle tells Howie, is to love and fear nature, to rely on it, and to “please it when necessary”. Summerisle tells Howie that the Christian God is not worshipped on his island because the Christian God failed to help the people. “He’s dead,” Summerisle says. He had his chance and blew it. When Howie, furious at Summerisle’s unrepentant paganism proclaims that Summerisle is a pagan, Summerisle responds, ” A heathen conceivably, but not I hope an unenlightened one”.

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But Howie sees Summerisle and his people as just that — unenlightened.

Unenlightened people do stuff like this:

And things like this:

The people of Summerisle, Howie thinks, are backwards, savage, and barbaric.



I guess it’s a lot like spending a night in any city in Nevada outside of Las Vegas.



Howie knows that Summerisle knows that bringing back the old gods did not make his island prosperous, but correctly using the island’s volcanic soil to raise crops that would grow in that environment saved the island and its people. If Summerisle is not an unenlightened pagan, Howie knows, then certainly the people of Summerisle are, as they believe that sacrifice will please the gods and renew their harvests.



As he is being led off to his date with the Wicker Man, Howie tells the islanders that burning him will not bring back their failed crops. He says that, if the crops fail again, that no sacrifice other than the Lord Summerisle himself will appease their gods. As Howie burns in the Wicker Man, he sings the Psalm of David ( Psalm 23), while the people of Summerisle, led by Summerisle, sing a triumphant pagan ‘let’s roast a cop in the fire’ song.

This song in particular:

By the way, there really is a Summerisle located off the coast of Scotland. I’m not sure if the events depicted in the film are representative of events that actually go on there, but rest assured I’m not going there any time soon to find out.*

This brings us to a very important question: what are we to do when we are confronted with competing moral theories? In particular, how do we decide moral rightness when each side claims that their side is morally correct? What do we do if we have, as in this case, competing religious claims?

Ok, let’s take out the fact that Lord Summerisle knows that paganism is wacked. Let’s say that he, and the people of the island, truly believe that performing human sacrifices will bring back their failed crops. Their gods, they believe, demand that they do. If they do not obey, they believe, the gods will get angry with them and kill their crops, causing the deaths of hundreds of people. So, let’s stick Sgt. Howie in the mix. And, like the people of Summerisle, Howie believes that his religion prohibits human sacrifice. His religion, he believes, will punish those who unlawfully shed the blood of an innocent.



Each claims that their religion is morally correct. Each operates from a mandate from God or their gods — including potential punishment if each does not obey. How are we to solve the ethical dilemma? How are we to determine which side is morally correct? Is doing so possible? If there is, which ethical system can/should we appeal to to settle the difference?


Usually, when we are faced with ethical dilemmas, even when we pull out the old thought experiment, we consider ethical dilemmas one theory at a time. So, for instance, if everyone in this situation were Kantians, we could easily draw some conclusion as to which side is morally correct. we might say that ritual human sacrifice is murder and that the pagans have no right, morally speaking, to perform their evil deed. Moreover, Sgt. Howie is an unwilling participant, and to sacrifice him is using him as a mere means to their end.

Problem solved. We wipe off our hands, and pat ourselves on the back after winning the ethics bowl round.

But we can make such an easy decision here. Each side says that it is their moral imperative to act as they do. So now what do we do? Let’s look at another theory. Let’s say that this time, everyone is a utilitarian. The utilitarian says that we must only act in such a way that will bring the greatest good for the greatest number.

Ok. We’ve got Sgt. Howie on one side saying that the sacrifice won’t work. The crops are going to fail, no matter what, and if they fail next year, no sacrifice other than Lord Summerisle himself will do. So, according to Howie, performing the sacrifice will be pretty bad for everyone. So, let’s give benefits a plus five, and the negatives a minus twenty.



So, after hearing Howie trying to worm out of doing something beneficial for his island, Lord Summerisle says that, if they commit the sacrifice the crops will grow, and the people will prosper. And, Summerisle explains, Howie will benefit as well.



Summerisle tells Howie that he will join with the forces of the universe and sit at the right hand of the gods. And even from Howie’s Christian perspective, Summerisle says, Howie benefits from having a martyr’s death. So Summerisle says the benefits are all plusses — plus twenty, plus twenty, and plus fifty for Howie.

Fear not, Sgt. Howie. Pain is only temporary. Heaven is forever.

Well, this isn’t working. Somehow it seems that Summerisle beats Howie. In fact, Summerisle claims that, if Howie participates, he benefits more than everyone else. Now, the obvious problem here, is these claims, like any utilitarian claim, remain speculative (at best). We don’t know whose god (or God or gods) is/are right. There’s a chance that Summerisle’s gods are the “real” gods. In that case, if we follow Howie’s advice, we’ve done more harm than good. So, is there anything out there that can help us?



We might want to abandon, at least for now, any ethical system that takes a definitive stand on rightness or wrongness. So let’s try moral relativism.

According to the relativist, different cultures have different standards of right and wrong (cultural relativism). From that fact we conclude — since every culture has a different standard for right and wrong, there exists no universal standard of right and wrong. Therefore, we cannot objectively measure the rightness or wrongness of a given act. Or something like that.

Sorry. Nicholas Cage popped up again.

Man, he’s everywhere, isn’t he?

Well, this gets us absolutely nowhere. All a relativist can say is that Sgt. Howie has one set of morals and the people of Summerisle have another. They’re both right. But unfortunately for Howie, he can’t both be burned in the Wicker Man and as far away from that damned island as possible at the same time. So we’re back at square one. The natives are lighting their torches and we’ve got to make a decision, quick. How do we decide which is morally right?

Luckily for us in this case, there actually is a way to solve the dilemma. I mentioned before that we should forget that Summerisle knew that paganism is a load of poo. Well, that’s our cheat. And even though we are secretly rooting for the pagans, (let’s face it, Howie was rude and nosy and he deserved to die) but we know that Howie is dying for nothing. What makes matters worse is the fact that Howie himself knows this as well.

This happens.

And then this happens…..

We know what the people of Summerisle do not know. We know that Summerisle knows the real reason why his grandfather brought back the old gods. And because of this, we know that sacrificing Howie is wrong. It’s wrong because Summerisle is not only using Howie to further his own ends, but he is also using the people of Summerisle for his own benefit. He is relying on their ignorance ot maintain control over them. Although Summerisle claims that he loves his people, we can see that this may not be the case. He loves ruling over them. He enjoys manipulating Sgt. Howie into falling prey to his plan to use him as a sacrifice ( notice that he did not use one of the island’s natives but a mainlander). In this case, unlike so many we see in the real world, it is easy to tell. The sacrifice is wrong. Thankfully the pagan gods of Sumerisle and screenwriters make it all so easy to figure it out.

If only real philosophy were that easy……

It Ain’t Just A Song, Baby (more thoughts on God)

There’s this song that came out some time ago by this guy named Rich Mullins. In the years since its release, his song has become a non-denominational church staple. It’s called “Awesome God”. The song is basically a litany of what makes God well, awesome (and if I were Michael Palin I might add that we’re all pretty impressed down here). His list, set to sweeping strings and full chorus, is accompanied by one of the catchiest choruses in the history of contemporary Christian music. (I know that those of you who know the song are humming it right now). But this is all besides the point. The song’s list of God’s deeds brings up the perennial question asked by laymen, theologians, and (heaven knows why) philosophers — exactly how awesome is God? Of course at the heart of the question is the question of God’s omnipotence. I thought that I’d look up what “omnipotence” means before I’d venture any opinion on the subject. This is what I found: omnipotence is defined as “infinite in power” and “having very great or unlimited authority or power”. What really struck in my mind was the word “unlimited” (I’ll get back to why it did later). Ok, there’s already a problem here and it’s obvious. Why on earth would an atheist be so interested in the power of a God that, according to them, does not exist? Good question. The real deal is that, try as an atheist might, there’s just no escaping God talk. And if one takes up philosophy, then God talk is inevitable. What’s worse is that, as an ordained philosopher, I feel that it is my imperative to have an opinion about everything — even about things I claim do not exist. Aquinas wrote that God’s omnipotence meant that God can do all things that are possible. But then, what does “what is possible” mean? What is possible is certainly different from something that is unlimited. Saying that I have a possible power is not the same as saying that I have an unlimited power ( at least at first glance it appears to be the case). So I read on: According to Aquinas, God being able to do what is possible means that, so long as there is no contradiction, God can perform an act. For example, God, after watching a little PBS, may decide that he wants to create a creature that is simultaneously dead and alive. Well, we know that a thing cannot be both alive and dead — that’s a contradiction. Once God has given the being life, he cannot make it dead at the same time. He’s perfectly free to give the thing life, and then kill it, but he cannot do both simultaneously. Ok, so far it’s making sense, but there’s something that still is bugging me. Let’s get back to definitions. Omnipotence is defined as “unlimited power”. So, I ask, if one definition of omnipotence contains the idea of unlimitedness, then how does that jive with Aquinas’ notion that God can do all things that are possible?When we say “possible”, what are was actually saying? Are we implying, when we use the word possible, that God’s powers are not complete? Are we saying that there are things that God cannot do? This question, whether God’s powers are limited, started me thinking about the paradox of the stone. Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: Someone, obviously begging for a slap or two, decides to throw out “Can God create a rock so heavy that he cannot lift it?”. This question, of course, is a question of God’s omnipotence. The gist of the thing is that we are to ask if there is some quality of God that dispermits him from creating such a rock. If we answer yes, we are saying that God is somehow lacking in (total) omnipotence. If there is one thing that God cannot do, then God is not all-powerful. Stranger than that, a yes means that, if God possesses the ability to limit his own powers. But somehow this seems counterintuitive. God is all-powerful, yet he is able to will himself the inability to lift a rock. When we talk about God’s omnipotence, we are talking about God’s qualities, that is, what makes God GOD. God, we’re told, is omnipotent, omnipresent, and really good (Only God and Mary Poppins are practically perfect in every way). God’s perfections are all or nothing. If his qualities are deficient in any way, he is not God ( well, not a perfect God. He may still be “god”). This was all starting to sound strangely familiar. It began to remind me of —The Problem Of Evil. The Problem of evil, if you haven’t heard of it, goes a little like this: there exists an all-powerful, perfectly good being (God). An all-powerful, perfectly good being would prevent evil (assuming that it would do so if it could). But, there is evil. Therefore, no all-powerful, perfectly good being exists, or at least we have reason to be skeptical that one does exist. This power of God quandary is of the sort similar to the paradox of the rock. The question once again is are there acts that God cannot do? (The situation is worse with the problem of evil. Not only are we asking if God permits evil, we might find ourselves asking if God performs evil). And once again, if we answer yes, we are not only left to question God’s omnipotence, but we question God’s all-goodness as well. Barring some reason that we do not know (e.g. God permits evil in order to accomplish some greater good), why would God permit or commit evil? The sunny side of this one is that no matter how many times we ask, no matter how many arguments we construct, we’ll never answer the question! But, unlike the paradox of the rock, the problem of evil is considered a real pantybuncher of a philosophical question. It shakes the soul of man. This seems to be the view that everyone believes. And that’s fine, if it works for you. But these “problems” don’t work me up to the hurl-myself-out-of-a-window-because-my-world-is-crashing level that they seem to do to everyone else. The God, if I believed in one, that I’d want to believe in is indeed AWESOME, which means that he would inspire awe. I don’t know about most people, but when I think awesome, I want to see something that completely floors me, somethng that I won’t ( and won’t want to) see everyday. The God that I’d like to believe in literally can do anything. But, wait a minute. What do I mean by “anything”? I mean just that. Not just what is possible, but what is conceivable. And since God’s knowledge is infinite, he can conceive of a great deal more than my puny brain can ever manage to cook up. My God can do what is impossible. Now, this is just my opinion (like none of what else I wrote hasn’t been?!?) but, I feel totally at ease with a God that creates rocks that he cannot lift, and performs the occasional evil deed or two. Not because he has to ( I totally reject the idea that God has to obey the laws of physics and such. The question there, then, is if God has rules that he must abide by, then who imposes those rules on God? Are we to assume that there is a Supreme Supreme Being that is even more omnicompetent than God that rules over God’s rule over us?), but because he wants to. I know that every philosopher out there will object. They’ll say that there is no way that God can create round squares and reverse the laws of physics! But I ask, why can’t he? I’d like to think that he can. He can because he is God. I had once, or several times — I really can’t remember — asked if God is bound by the same laws that we are bound by. A good ten out of ten times, the answer is yes. The answer usually has to do with some explanation involving irregular worlds or worlds that aren’t actualizable. It’s all supposed to make some kind of intuitive sense that there are things that God can’t do. But for me it doesn’t. I understand that I, the human, cannot create four-sided triangles and be 5 feet tall and 6 feet tall at the same time. But that’s because I live in a physical universe that is governed by natural or physical laws that are constructed by God. But God, so far as I know, does not exist in the same world as I do ( that’s the heart of the problem of interaction, isn’t it?). There’s really no other reason to believe that, other than that it makes sense for me to think so, God has to adhere to the same laws of physics and such as humans. I think that God chooses to “obey” the laws of nature, not because he has to, but because God, like us, has the free will to keep to the rules (he created, by the way) or not. God can just as easily and arbitrarily create a world where ingesting Clorox won’t kill you and where flowerpots fall out of windows and rise up towards the heavens. But God doesn’t. And if anyone asks me why I think this is so I will tell them this: God chooses to keep the world constant because he loves us. He knows, having designed us so, that humans would be disturbed ( putting it mildly) if he created a chaotic or “massively irregular” world. It’s not that God cannot do certain things or that there are worlds that God cannot actualize. Just like I choose to write this particular blog posting, God (totally knowing that he could do otherwise) decided that this world was the best for his creation. Thank God he’s consistent. *And may I add this personal note: I do not have a problem with possible worlds scenerios concerning everyday metaphysical of epistemological claims or quetions. For instance, I’m not put off to imagining or thinking about Matrix -like scenerios or the brain in a vat as a means of learning about the extent of our knowledge or the nature of our existence. However, I am adverse to speculation about the powers and/or intentions of a being that possesses a nature that I cannot comprehend. In short, I usually don’t mind talk of possible worlds. Hell, I’m a Star Trek fan — but I question the usefulness of such inquiries when it comes to God.