"Rationally" deciding ethical conflicts

In the comments, Alex asks how one might respond to a liberal who says that argumentation is the only way to rationally adjudicate an ethical conflict. Let me answer by outlining another way of adjudicating such a conflict, one that was actually used in Europe at times. (I am not advocating this method of proceeding, just demonstrating that it is not less rational than argumentation, on liberals' own terms.)

Our premises:

1) The human intellect is the servant of the human will. Unless the will is pure, the intellect will be following the sinful dictates of the will, and therefore will reach false conclusions on moral issues. (This is the position of Augustine, and to some extent of Aquinas.)

2) There is a Supreme Being who is actively involved in the events of humans' lives, and will intervene to see that good triumphs, at least when He is asked to do so. (This roughly describes the way many people in the Middle Ages seemed to understand this sort of thing, although I must caution that I am no Medieval historian!)

Now, it is a foundational principle of the liberal view of rationality (and that of modern formal logic) that premises cannot be judged irrational: the basic appeal of liberalism is that, hey, whatever your premises happen to be, we are going to treat them all as equally respectable, and adjudicate conflicts not based on the parties' premises, but based on some neutral, premise-free concept of justice. Thus, while either 1) or 2) might be factually wrong, by liberalism's own standard of rationality (and by those of modern, formal logic), neither can be declared irrational.

But from 1), we can conclude that argumentation is not a good method of adjudicating ethical conflicts, since it relies on the corrupted intellect of fallen sinners, which, per 1), cannot be relied upon.

Then, by 2), we can conclude that trial by ordeal is, in fact, a more rational method of adjudicating these matters than is argumentation.

Now, I don't ask you to accept that it is a better way of proceeding than is argumentation. I don't believe that myself, because, with Aquinas, I believe that 1) is only somewhat true, and I reject 2) as a hubristic attempt to "read God's mind."

I just am pointing out that there is nothing irrational about trial by ordeal, at least under the liberal conception of rationality.


  1. This is argumentation of course in favor of a rational basis for trial by ordeal. Rationalization is human and we have and will argue about anything but could we believe in trial by ordeal or anything else without argumentation? Do we have any instincts so powerful, training so engrained, or premises so basic we accept them without argument? Is there any way of finding them without argumentation, or are they even discoverable, being so basic we don't even notice them or consider they might be different?

    1. "This is argumentation of course in favor of a rational basis for trial by ordeal."

      Sure. It is hard to hold trials by ordeal on a blog.

    2. Also, see my response to Silas below.

  2. But you justified that by argumentation ... ?

    1. True, Silas, I would have preferred dunking everyone who disagrees in an icy river and seeing if they survived, but the police frown on that sort of thing these days.

      And if trial by ordeal was common today, someone might try employing a trial to show that argumentation is best!

      In short, I am not denying that it is POSSIBLE to argue for things. I'm not even saying it is... sometimes?... often? a good way to go.

      I am just questioning its assumed exclusive authority to decide moral issues.

    2. Should have read: " I'm not even saying it is not... sometimes?... often? a good way to go."

  3. Liberalism is premise-free? I see no reason for why a liberal should accept #1.

    1. So what? I didn't ask you to accept it. I showed that, GIVEN these premises, the conclusion is rational.

  4. "Now, it is a foundational principle of the liberal view of rationality (and that of modern formal logic) that premises cannot be judged irrational…"

    Can you back this up?

    1. It is a fairly standard point. It is the basis of the American government's claim to be neutral between all religious points of view.

      Or you could see:


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