Thursday, November 21, 2019

Moral Fundamentals Part 3: The Most Debated Concept

     I hope those Gentle Readers who’ve been waiting for this essay have not lost patience with me. It’s been simmering for a while now. I didn’t want to serve it before it was cooked all the way through.

     The previous two segments in this little series have laid groundwork upon which I intend to build a case for the most debated proposition in all of human thought: specifically, that there are laws of morality / ethics built into the very fabric of reality. This, at a time when the premise of the existence of an objective reality is itself under attack! From Part 1:

     The gospel of our era is relativism in all things: cultural, moral, logical, even scientific. Claims of absolute truth are sneered aside as conclusively refuted without trial. Feminist author Sandra Harding referred to Isaac Newton's three laws of mechanics as "Newton's Rape Manual," nor is there any reason to believe she was being facetious. Physicist Alan Sokal revealed the extent to which relativists will descend with a facetious article our cultural glitterati took quite literally.

     So those of us who, with Samuel Johnson, kick a stone and proclaim "I refute it thus" are in a distinct minority. In consequence, a debate that requires that one's interlocutor accept the existence of evil, a concept relativists categorically reject, is problematic from the start.

     But I intend to immunize my contentions against the frequent objection that “it’s all just about cultural customs.” From Part 2:

     The root of moral is the Latin word mores, which means customs. When Cicero exclaimed “O tempora, o mores!” he was bemoaning what he saw as a deterioration in the customs of the Roman people, not their moral choices as we English speakers might have imagined. To English speakers, moral pertains to the rightness or wrongness of a given decision.

     To compound the damage, the societies from which America was germinated often confused matters of right and wrong with considerations of what “simply isn’t done.” The notion of behavior that’s morally neutral but “simply isn’t done” conjures up images of Victorian England and the straitlaced customs to which the upper classes were expected – and “compelled” by the prospect of social disapprobation – to conform. But here context matters; Victorian customs about what “simply isn’t done” involved the setting and the persons who would witness the deed in question. Many a thing about which the Victorians would say “That simply isn’t done” most certainly was done, by many persons and quite often, in other circumstances and with other participants.

     As you can imagine, I have my work cut out for me. But then, I don’t do the easy stuff.

1. The Nature Of The Beast We Hunt.

     As I stated in Part 1, a moral fundamental – i.e., a principle of right versus wrong in human action – must perforce be a premise. Therefore it cannot be reached by deduction, for all deduction proceeds by implication from previously agreed premises. While we do need certain premises to attain our goal, deduction isn’t the mechanism by which we employ them.

     A useful premise must be tightly tied to observable facts. If observable facts contradict the premise, it’s flatly false. This is the uber-premise of an objective, metaphysically given reality, which cannot be changed merely by the exercise of opinion or willful disbelief. The Berkelian idealist, whose metaphysics is indistinguishable from solipsism de facto, must therefore be excluded from this investigation, no matter how furiously he pounds on the door.

2. The Danger Of “Why?”

     Many years ago, a professor of philosophy assigned as in-class reading material the Biblical story of Cain’s murder of Abel. When the students had had a few minutes to read the tale, he asked them, “Why was it wrong for Cain to kill Abel?”

     Let’s leave aside the virtually guaranteed allegorical nature of the Old Testament Book of Genesis. It was intended from the first to teach certain moral lessons, rather than as factual history. What was the moral lesson in that story about the murder of one brother by the other?

     The professor fielded several answers from his students, and showed the fault in each one. At last, an exasperated student said, “Well why, then?” The professor smiled and said “Because it was.”

     “Why,” when applied to a moral premise, is an attempt to justify it through its consequences. That’s not entirely invalid, but it’s open to counterfire. For example, the consequence of Cain’s act was exile. He didn’t suffer a penalty comparable to his crime. Indeed, many present-day murderers are never caught or punished. Therefore, we cannot soundly “argue” that one “shouldn’t” commit a murder because of the inevitable negative consequences to oneself. A moral premise must have a firmer foundation than that.

3. Rejections.

     It’s always possible to reject a premise, if one is willing to accept the consequences. The Berkelian, the relativist, the social-constructionist, and the solipsist cannot be “compelled” in any sense to accept moral premises that clash with their metaphysics. However, such persons almost all live as if they accept the moral premises on which Christian-Enlightenment society is founded. The consequences of doing otherwise are repugnant to them, regardless of the philosophical problem that causes them. Occasional exceptions, such as were once found among the Oneidans and the Doukhobors, have generally suffered for their willfulness...but not always.

     It’s permissible to draw conclusions from this...but only for one’s personal use!

4. Useful Data.

     One implication of an objective reality is the availability of useful data that can be gleaned from observation and accumulated over time. This, of course, is essential to the sciences, which operate on a combination of observation, inductive inference, hypothecation, deduction, and experimentation. While it’s also useful in probing for the existence of moral fundamentals, it has a weakness best illustrated by the tale of Plato and the “plucked chicken.”

     In Plato’s effort to define the human being, at one point he proposed that Man is best defined as “the featherless biped.” According to the accounts available today, that spurred Diogenes the Cynic, who considered himself a Socratic, to present Plato with a plucked chicken and exclaim “Here is the Platonic man!” We may take it that Plato resumed his quest for a workable definition immediately afterward.

     Plato’s error was a focus on nonessential aspects of Mankind. Diogenes could have presented him with a kangaroo to the same effect, were any to hand in classical Greece. Despite that, he was engaged in a worthwhile effort: an attempt to summarize human nature in a useful fashion. Reality does provide enough data to distinguish Man from other creatures, though “featherless biped” fails to capture our essence.

     My point here is simple: As it is Man who inquires into such things, then if there are moral fundamentals, they would apply to Man, but not to any lesser order of creature. Thus to settle on moral fundamentals, we must know ourselves – Man as a species of creature – rather than the entire order of Nature.

5. Essence, Accident, And Exceptions.

     Definitions apply to categories: groups of real items that share:

  • A genus, or base category of which they are all members, and:
  • A differentia, a characteristic that applies only to members of the newly defined category and not to other members of the genus.

     This presents a problem to those who seek an intensive definition of Man, for there are exceptional members of the human species that challenge any definition that has yet been proposed. In some ways the problem is a lot stiffer than posed by Diogenes’s chicken.

     Consider Ayn Rand’s attempt to define Man as “the rational animal.” Rand had an agenda, into which her proposed definition fits nicely. However, it omits persons of defective mind, including imbeciles and small children. That leads to unpleasant possibilities, for example that the omitted persons’ lives may be sacrificed without moral weight. We recoil from this notion from visceral repugnance, even though Rand’s thrust comes closer to capturing human nature than most others that have been proposed.

     It is the essence of Man that matters to moral fundamentals. This must include the presumed destiny of his children as moral agents. Neither should it exclude those whom accidents of genetics, gestation, or post-natal experience have deprived of one or more qualifications for inclusion.

6. Today’s Breakpoint.

     Whether human nature is “real” is indeed “the most debated concept.” We must settle on a widely applicable concept of human nature as it pertains to human behavior before we can sensibly discuss moral fundamentals. To be of any importance, moral precepts would apply to human action, though not necessarily to all human action. We would be willing to judge the actions of a man “in his right mind,” but would shy back from similarly judging the actions of a man who was deeply asleep, or who was in the grip of a hallucinogen. (We might question the moral validity of his decision to take such a hallucinogen, but that’s an exploration for another time.)

     Thus, we cannot avoid considerations of perception, volition, and context. However, these things don’t muddy the picture. Rather, they compel us to be precise in the application of any moral standard we might propose.

     More anon.

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