Revisiting my Compass Theory for Ethical Objectivists

Kierkegaard is remembered for his “leap of faith”. Pascal is remembered for his “wager”. Nietzsche is remembered for his poetic claim that society had killed God. They were all dead by the time they were my age. If I was to die this year and the world was to go on without me, would I be remembered for anything in particular? Obviously I’m not in a particularly good position to answer that, but one thing I’d like to think might be remembered is my idea of the border area between metaphysics and ethics, which I have dubbed “the Metaphysical Compass”. This week I’ve seen another place where it could be useful as a tool.

Some of my more interesting online discussion partners these days are promoters of an idea of non-theistic ethical realism or ethical objectivism. The basic question they are dealing with is, on the assumption that there is no God telling people what to do, what is it that makes particular things right or wrong? More specifically, is there some other moral foundation that makes certain things –– like rape, torturing children or murder –– always wrong, regardless of culture or era? To say no to this is a rather dangerous sounding position, because it effectively reinforces Dostoyevsky’s character’s claim that without God all things are permitted, and therefore we need God to maintain some sort of moral stability in the world. Some Christian’s have even gone so far as thumping themselves on the chest for creating the position of ethical objectivism by showing how truly unpalatable any purely subjectivist ethical position has to be.

Yet to make ethics an absolute without some stronger metaphysical foundation than evolutionary materialism seems a bit far fetched, to say at the least. We’re not just talking about the old “doesn’t every design have a designer” argument; we’re looking at the fact that in many cultures and at many points in history people have done things that western societies now see as irredeemably wicked, and in doing so these people never batted an eyelash about it. So if those things have always been wrong, why couldn’t those people see how wrong they were? And for that matter what foundation can we really claim that the moral absolutes which we now recognize are based on?

My goal in looking at this question over the years has not been to find a way to force people to accept my own religious or non-religious views, but to facilitate a dialog which allows for a greater level of mutual respect between parties that happen to fundamentally disagree on these matters. I believe that one can be a “real philosopher,” according to whatever definition you care to tack onto that term, regardless of what sort of God(s) or lack thereof one believes in. I believe that a lot of agreement in applied ethics can be reached and a lot of lives can even be saved through cooperation between believers and non-believers if we can find a way to address this issue without ignoring it and without dogmatically damning each other over it.

So my basic premise is this: there are basically four ultimate metaphysical/meta-ethical starting points that philosophers –– and sometimes even non-philosophers –– might appeal to. Depending on one’s convictions, they can be ordered in at least six different ways. The ultimate question is which, if any of them, do we feel safe in prioritizing as the basis for our moral reasoning? Trying to label them as neutrally as possible, these starting points would be the transcendental, the material, the individually existential, and the societal.

Playing this for the ethical realist crowd, let me go over to a rough summary of Karl Popper’s metaphysics, as filtered to me by way of Finland’s Ilkka Niiniluoto: We can talk about “reality” on at least three levels, in each of which we can meaningfully speak of correct and incorrect perspectives.

On the first level we have the external realities of the material world, including such statements as “My sofa is blue” or “This house was built over 50 years ago” or even “Giant hogweed can cause serious skin damage.” All of these statements remain true regardless of who is looking at the situation and how they feel about it. None of them depend on “how you see it.” Science, as we know it, tries to operate primarily on the level of discovering things that can properly be said to be true on this level: things about the basic structure of the material universe that we all live in. We all more or less naively assume that these things are somehow fundamentally real; that we’re not in some illusion orchestrated by “the matrix” or some Cartesian demon or the like. We also trust that the experts our societies have trained and appointed to look into these matters are giving us fundamentally accurate information about them.

Beyond that though we have the level of reality as each of us experiences it. This would include such statements as “Maple syrup tastes better than syrup made from sugar beets” or “My dog is an ideal companion for me” or “This floor needs washing.” All of those are true statements, but not things which can be scientifically proven. They are matters which first and foremost relate to my individual experience of life. They have been confirmed as accurate in the experience of others, and there may even be a popular consensus on all of them (eccentric tasteless fools who can’t appreciate good maple syrup aside), but that is ultimately beside the point. What makes these things true is that I consistently experience them in that way. Making sense of my individual experiences, and arranging them to flow in a more satisfying and sustainable manner is something I can get various forms of therapy to help with, but ultimately it is my own responsibility, my own project and something to be appreciated by me alone. The fact that others can relate to these experiences and have their own equivalents, and that they can be richer when shared with others, don’t take away from the fact that their reality is something that I speak about based on my individual experience of them.

And they further still we have a level of reality that is based on mutual understanding between individuals, which remains relatively constant regardless of any one individual’s perspective. Statements in this realm would include things such as “The price of gold is rising” or “It is illegal to use studded snow tires in the summer” or even “Hitler was a very effective motivational speaker.” All of those statements are true, and anyone who would attempt to deny them is fundamentally wrong. But the factuality of any of them is not based on issues of personal experience, nor is it based on the atomic structure of the physical universe –– at least not in any way that we can communicate with each other about such issues meaningfully on the basis of such a premise. These things are true because people collectively accept them as true. That doesn’t make them a matter of opinion, but it doesn’t reduce them to set of external physical realities either.

Popper was basically satisfied with those three levels of reality. Is that enough? I actually think not. (Poof, my Cartesian self disappears… Never mind stupid philosophers’ joke.) I think we need to speak as well of a realm of truths which are not culturally contingent, not matters of individual experience, and a priori to the structure of the physical universe as we know it. Many of the principles of mathematics would belong in such a category. To say that (in standard base-10 notation) 101 is a prime number is something we assume to be true regardless of culture, experience or physical context. If you have a pod of dolphins out feeding together and they come upon a school of 101 herrings, as long as they are eating these little fish whole and none of them get away, and there is more than one but less than 101 dolphins in the pod, it is impossible that they will all get to eat the same number of little fish. Near as we can tell that would be true in any universe, with any calculating system, and any type of distinct individual items being counted. I would refer to this “fourth level” as the transcendental.

What else besides mathematical principles might go into the category of things we can discover as universally true prior to their being manifest in particular physical forms? It is no accident, from my perspective, that most outstanding mathematical thinkers, all the way from Pythagoras to Whitehead, have also had a bit of a mystical bend to their thinking. They have instinctively felt that there must be other elements to this pre-material and yet post-social level of reality than just the mathematical. Searching for other eternal truths along these lines has been a life-long pursuit for many a young man (and not quite as many, but a fair number of young women as well) who started out becoming fascinated by the mysteries of numbers.  Demonstrating the eternal truth of their other ideas became more difficult, however, especially to those outside of their own religious or quasi-religious fellowship.

statue on New York's upper west side

So if we accept four metaphysical levels of reality, I propose that ethical systems can be grounded on a world view that starts with any of the four, and with some funky combinations of the four besides. When it comes to ethical foundations it is historically most natural to start with the transcendental: Somewhere out there is a personal or impersonal God or Force which sets particular standards as to how we should live, and through some combination of rational analysis and meditation and prayer for guidance we should seek to discover what that God wants for us. There are thousands of variations on this theme –– most of them mutually exclusive. But beyond the conflicts between different claims within this field, there are other problems which lead the non-theistic ethical realists to seek elsewhere for their foundation. In short, some really nasty stuff has been done in the name of God over the course of human history.

So if we chuck out the idea of God as a starting point, the next alternative would seem to be the material world as an ethical starting point. Ethics just evolved, like everything else. This theory is still being worked on quite actively by thinkers like Singer and Dawkins, with limited success thus far. Looking at the “sub-human” animal kingdom as the basis for a theoretical model of how humans should act just isn’t working that well yet. Meanwhile we have the older post-Darwinist materialist thinkers to consider: Marx on the one hand and the likes of Nietzsche and Spencer on the other. From a Marxist perspective, the evolution of societies as moral entities entails subsuming all individualistic drives into promoting the collective interest. Both Nietzsche and Spencer, on the other hand, would have espoused the perspective articulated by Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov at the beginning of “Crime and Punishment”: Some people are more evolved than others, and therefore they shouldn’t be ashamed to stomp out and push aside those inferior beings that get in their way.

Both of these classical materialist ethics programs then have the characteristic of disregarding the value of each individual as an individual. That might be sufficient reason to set aside that whole premise for ethics and move on to something that focuses on individual interests. In this regard we can look to some extent to Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky and company, but a more careful analysis reveals that they were in fact quite thoroughly theists or transcendentalists in their approaches to ethics. Perhaps the fellow who deserves credit for developing a purely individualistic basis for a world view that could work as an ethical foundation would be Jean-Paul Sartre. I still have a personal theory that Sartre’s approach is in part the product of his having been born ugly, but that’s rather beside the point. The main issue is that J-P believed that the only thing that any individual has to worry about is making the most out of his or her individuality, with no excuses and with no serious regard to what others happen to think of it. And that’s all well and good as long as you just want to smoke and drink and hang around with other Bohemian romantics –– being free to screw whoever and whatever is available to you in that regard –– but as a basis for building a family and contributing to the long-term stability of society, Sartre’s approach is rather “challenged”.

So the last of the basic levels of reality to appeal to as an ethical foundation then would be the societal. This can have at least two popular forms: Heideggerian “care” and all the variations on language-based philosophy. Heidegger basically thought that trying to build a strong society was the noblest and most fulfilling thing an individual could do, and thus contributing to the society and the world as a whole trumps the sort of Bohemian interests of a guy like Sartre. Whether that perspective made it inevitable that he would suck up to the Nazis is an open debate still. But besides this we have the French structuralists and post-structuralists who argue that one’s reality is to a great extent based on one’s language and language is essentially a social phenomenon. Therefore we must conclude that our most foundational reality is a social reality, and we must find our place within that social reality before we can move on to discover any other significant realities.

But one of the earliest premises of philosophy has been not to trust the herd instincts of societies to set moral standards. Socrates was democratically condemned to death, and Plato made it his mission in life to prove to the world how wrong that was. No moral foundation that leads to such a sacrilege can be trusted. Instead we need to look at our lives here on Earth as but a shadow of some greater form of reality that we must endeavor to get closer to. In other words he brings us back to the transcendental or theistic realm that some are working so hard to escape from.

There are at least a couple of other alternatives that I’m aware of, both promoted by Jewish boys who had strained relations with their religious traditions. We have Spinoza, who basically said that we really can’t draw any distinctions between the material and spiritual worlds, and we shouldn’t try to abstract ourselves from this force which envelops us and ultimately sweeps us along towards whatever we are destined for. And that’s cool, except it leaves us with no reason to give a crap about anything at all, because our efforts really don’t mean anything or make any difference if we thing that way. And then we have Heidegger’s French translator, Derrida, who says that life is pretty much random anyway, so the point is to avoid the mistake of assuming that there’s a point. Which brings us back to the point where…

We need to recognize that none of our ethical foundation systems are foolproof. Whenever someone comes up with a more foolproof ethical system, inevitably a greater fool comes along right after to foil it. In the end we’re probably not going to agree on which of these foundations our ethics should be based on, or on how completely objective our ethical systems can be; but we can agree that people should be entitled to a certain degree of respect and support, Good Samaritan style, just because they happen to be people, and through open and respectful dialog we can build from there. And if we can avoid abstract black or white dichotomies in the process, so much the better.

For what difference it makes, my own meta-ethical premise is a transcendental one, taken with a great deal of caution and reservation about how much of God’s mind those who claim to be his representatives actually know. But as all of my former students can testify, I’ve never based my grading or respect for others on how close to my own ideology they happened to be. As Einstein famously claimed, I want to know the mind of God (the rest being just details). I want to be able to take some of my understandings in that direction fairly seriously even, but I never want to make the mistake of assuming that I have fully arrived. And knowing how far I am from my goal, if you want to be a kind, empathetic, responsible and constructive participant the world we share on some other basis, I don’t consider it to be my responsibility to further “set you right” on these matters. I only hope that you can offer the same sort of respect to my fellow theists and me, even if respectful individuals are a minority on both sides.

And with the disclaimer that this was written rather off the cuff, with portraits painted in rather broad brush strokes, and apologies for any limitations this essay may have on that basis, I bid you farewell for this time. I’ll come back to plugging philosophy as a school subject next time around.


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Filed under Empathy, Ethics, Human Rights, Individualism, Materialism, Philosophy, Purpose, Religion, Respectability, Tolerance

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