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Moral Realism Without Obligation
Is there objective morality and if so, do we have to follow it?
What is called moral realism in philosophy is often seen as the idea that certain statements about morality are true, analogous to certain statements about facts, or the objective world. Statements such as “you ought to…” or “this action was virtuous” fall into that category.
It seems to me that there is a lot of baggage from modern approaches in philosophy that needs to be cleared before we can come to terms with whether moral realism is true, and if so, in what sense. So let us begin there.
First, the very terms “objective morality” and “moral realism” seem to carry a somewhat misleading meaning: they suggest an analogy between facts about the physical world and facts about morality. It should be clear, however, that even should “moral facts” exist, they will be quite distinct from facts about the physical world. Further, this false analogy between the physical and the moral realms also might lead one towards a reductionist approach, trying to emulate the method of physics in moral reasoning, whether consciously or not.
The analytic approach especially has led to an explicit and somewhat exclusive embracing of reductionist thinking: the idea is to seek the simplest statements that supposedly make up talk about morality, and then generalize the insights generated to formulate a theory. Analogous to how science often operates, in other words, it is about looking at “moral quanta” and how they behave, and then “quantize” them in the hope that you can reconstruct the organic whole, achieving a correspondence between your theory and higher level reality.
The problem is that it is far from obvious that such moral particles, or quanta, even exist, and if they do, that they can be isolated, and if they do, that they can be translated back into the whole, revealing some sort of moral principle. In fact, it seems fairly obvious that this is not the case: what we call ethical behavior is not a system of points in the cosmos that follows a set of rules, which then generates Ethics. Rather, ethical behavior, whatever else it is and whatever its truth, is an irreducible organic whole, each aspect being connected to the entirety of the Cosmos: take a seemingly simple moral judgement, drill deep enough, and you end up facing all philosophical, scientific, and spiritual questions known to man, at once.
A consequence of the reductionist approach is modern philosophy’s somewhat unhealthy obsession with propositions and truth values. A statement such as “grass is green,” “killing people is bad,” and “I have a cold” are thought of as having a corresponding value: true or false. There are, of course, many problems here that are discussed in philosophy, but they are often discussed and thought of within this very framework.
Talk about truth values, however, seems to confuse a limit case of our use of language corresponding almost precisely with some aspects of external reality (“the grass here is green”) with the normal expression of more or less complex ideas, some of which touch the very core of human existence and its relationship with ultimate being, or the ground of reality. This is the case for statements about morality, or judgements.
One consequence of this confusion is that moral philosophy loves to invoke fictious moral scenarios and dilemmas (like the trolley problem). And no wonder: if you think about morality in terms of propositions as particles, assuming the objective existence of higher principles analogous to physical laws, this creates an infinite set of discrete possible scenarios in which such principles should apply (or not), and therefore a guarantee that you can come up with scenarios where these apply (or not).
Further, since discrete situations with finite attributes are already an abstraction, this creates for intuition and reasoning a sort of freewheeling state where the void of the examples, created by dislodging something organic from its all-important context, are unconsciously filled with details, temperamental preferences, personal experiences, and so on. The fact is, morality does never operate in a vacuum, and abstract examples and dilemmas devoid of context are thus not only very limited in their usefulness, but positively misleading.
In addition to wrong analogies with physics, reductionism, obsession with propositions and truth values and the corresponding abstraction from reality, another problem seems to be that truth about morality is often seen as implying obligation.
The Problem With Obligation
No doubt, a major motivation in moral philosophy is to establish objective criteria for obligations, that is, for what we should do, what rules should govern human societies, and so on. And no wonder: otherwise, it is difficult to justify the use of force, from subtle social pressure to severe punishment by the law, against transgressors. It would appear that without a sound foundation for obligation, all we’re left with are functionalist arguments: wouldn’t it be better for society or the individual if we had this or that rule, and so on.
This leads to a kind of circular reasoning, which bounces back and forth between talk about values and talk about self-interest: we should have values because this is in the interest of people, individually or collectively. People and society have interests, because of some fundamental and undisputable values. We should have fundamental values because they serve our interests… round and round it goes. Put another way, values can be expressed in terms of interests, and vice-versa. So, why would there be any obligation for anybody if it depends on the definition of self-interest, which is a choice of values?
There have been other attempts to establish obligation that go beyond functionalist accounts, but I haven’t been convinced so far by those.
Behind the drive to justify obligation, it seems to me, lurks the somewhat naive idea that if we had a rational argument for our values, we could somehow convince people with different values that ours are superior, and that we could justify enforcing them against those others.
This may be a consequence of Enlightenment universalism and equalitarianism: if we think that, at least in principle, everybody’s take on moral issues should count, while at the same time giving up the idea of an objective moral order dictated by God, then we need a justification for why everybody should be obliged to follow our values.
The alternative would be to acknowledge that there is no ultimate reason for adhering to certain values, and that it’s just that our group does value certain things, and that this should be reason enough to defend those values. And that’s that.
Indeed, acknowledging the impossibility of universally justifying moral obligations seems a more truthful approach to me. But maybe we can at least give reasons for why certain values form a coherent whole and explain why we are upholding them. While this would not constitute an obligation to follow them, it would give those of us who do uphold these values a justification for defending them that goes beyond the usual circular reasoning around self-interest and group coherence, while also avoiding the trap of universalism.
An Argument from the Intelligibility of the Cosmos
The intelligibility of the cosmos seems to be an uncontroversial fact: wherever we look, we can discover patterns, laws, gain insights, and so on. The universe presents itself to us as a well-ordered realm. But the cosmos is not just the physical world. A more general formulation would therefore be that our experience is intelligible.
To give a few examples, this includes an experience of life not going well for us, and discovering what we need to change for it to go well again. Or finding out what state of mind, what kind of thoughts, lead to a balanced and fulfilled life. Expressions such as “life taught me a lesson,” “I bump into the same problem all the time,” “there is no free lunch,” and so on, imply that the intelligibility of the cosmos is, indeed, not confined to physics.
To put it more generally, there is information in the cosmos that goes beyond the information we have conscious access to, but which we can become conscious of by the process of experience.
This state of affairs establishes a fundamental choice: we can either move towards that information, that is, towards understanding, knowledge, and wisdom. Or we can ignore it, that is, refusing to understand and know, for whatever reason. Mind you, the intelligibility of the cosmos does not entail an obligation to understand it. It just offers the possibility, the choice.
However, we might be able to say more about what this choice, once taken, means, and how it compares to the choice against it. While this would not universally justify certain values and ethical standards, it could at least show that from the perspective of the pro-understanding choice, moral realism is true, at least to an extent.
Motivations for Understanding
The choice to take the intelligibility of the cosmos seriously and embark on a journey towards ever deeper understanding and knowledge sets off a process of integration and correspondence between the order of the All and the internal order. On the other hand, to ignore the intelligibility of the cosmos and to move away from understanding and knowledge leads to fragmentation and disintegration: to a state of tension and disconnectedness, an increasing erraticness, disorder, and randomness in thought and action: unreason, irrationality, to the point of a fundamental incapacity to engage meaningfully with the sea of information that goes beyond the current individual consciousness. One might say: consciousness decreases.
This path of ignorance might be a choice people make, and there are good reasons for it: this is the path of least resistance, which does not require painful realizations and self-chosen obligations derived from such realizations. It is the equivalent of the urge to hide under the blanket and sleep it all out.
Now, the path towards understanding and knowledge might initially be driven by purely selfish reasons (in the narrow sense), that is, to gain a direct advantage. After all, if you understand how the world and the people in it work, for example, you will be more successful in exploiting them, manipulating them, and advance your agenda. On the other hand, you could be driven more by a desire to help others, enlighten others, be a better person, and so on. This suggests that knowledge and understanding are ethically neutral, so to speak.
However, it seems to me that the path towards knowledge and understanding ultimately must collapse into a form of true morality, and vice-versa. The reason is that to seek knowledge for selfish purposes ultimately limits this pursuit to directly actionable knowledge and understanding to further one’s agenda. It excludes those dimensions of understanding that go beyond that horizon.
Seeking knowledge and understanding as an end in itself, and especially with the goal of helping others, on the other hand, opens the door to all knowledge: to love someone, for example, and to sincerely wish to help him or her in a crisis, requires an understanding of all that is important in that situation, for that person. Love also means a desire to know that person very well, without projection—whereas the desire to selfishly use a person just means knowing the tricks that work.
Love, understanding, knowledge, and the intelligibility of the cosmos are thus closely related: to understand all, you must love, and to love, you must understand all. The path towards integration by its very nature is painful, because truth about ourselves, our fellow humans, and the world, hurts. There is a limit to our integration with the cosmos, to the parts of it we have access to, without certain moral values.
Again, there is no obligation to choose integration over fragmentation. And even on the path towards integration, there is no obligation to choose love, virtue, and goodness over ruthless selfishness, at least at first. But if you wish to go further, to integrate further, to develop an understanding that reaches farther, then this wish, at one point or another, forces you on the straight and narrow, with all moral consequences.
In other words, while the selfish pursuit of integration with the cosmos is possible to a degree, it is ultimately limited. Going beyond that limit means adopting certain values, a certain ethic. This ethic isn’t a set of rules or propositions, but rather analogous to a guiding star: “here I am, now figure out how to get closer.” It is nevertheless real.
In that sense, moral realism is true: accepting the intelligibility of the cosmos, and choosing the path towards integration and understanding by every means available, ultimately leads to a form of objective morality, broadly speaking. (The details are anything but trivial, though, and the manifestations of the moral reality may vary depending on context.) However, if we take moral realism to mean that everybody is obliged to take that path, such as by force of the logic of certain philosophical arguments, it is false: there is no reason why anybody should take that path.
But those of us who did choose it, and begin to grasp its implications, our wish to further advance on that path is all we need to justify defending our values against those who have chosen otherwise.
This might be disappointing to some who hope that we are somehow obliged, or even forced, to choose a certain path. Which strikes me as somewhat selfish: it just means to wish for the comfort of knowing that everybody is the same, or at least should be the same, and conflict shouldn’t arise. But why can’t our path be a free choice for something that we know is right, if difficult—even though we are under no obligation to do so?
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