What Do We Mean by “Morality”?

Last week’s entry explored two uses of the term goodness: utility and quality.

To my mind, the real importance of goodness issues concerns questions of morality, for all of our knowledge of truth only serves as the means to choose what we consider to be good. In that sense, moral goodness is the essential truth issue that governs all others. The great question is this: is moral goodness a correspondence or a coherence issue?

It is tempting to see this as a coherence problem. Cultures determine values. Or individuals do. We choose what we think good in a moral sense based on our experience, our family, or our culture. We freight it with pragmatic importance. After all, we must agree to rules of traffic or we will have chaos on the highway. Or we lay a social contract veneer over our mores and laws to see them as arbitrary choices rooted in cultural history or some dim historical past that produced some social covenant that now binds us to moral principles not of our own choosing. All of this is coherentist even if it wears the guise of universalism. No one thinks justifying moral rules this way has any fixed basis in reality. All agree these bases are essentially cultural conventions, no different from the agreements families invent, identical in essence to the kinds of protocols we all embrace to keep the peace, to get along, to avoid conflict. Should other moral codes function more efficiently, we should abandon our present moral stance and embrace new ones. Should other practices conduce greater happiness for greater numbers, we would surely adopt them. I should point out that this expedient view of our moral stance is seldom acknowledged by those who embrace it. Who wishes to lay her moral foundations on the squishy marsh of relativism?

Not exactly Thomas Paine, Martin Luther King, or Mohandas Gandhi, is it? The idea that morality is fixed and available to all persons is a correspondence notion rooted in one of two principles. Either morality is absolutist or universalist, meaning its principles are either justified by authority or by logical reasoning. I hope I have made clear in earlier posts about religion that I consider this a false choice, for all correspondence choices rooted in authority are subject to a prior logical analysis that prompts the commitment to authority; therefore, absolutist moral claims must always bow to universalist analysis. That is certainly not a consensualist view, and it must be admitted that far more support for correspondentist morality derives from religion than from other sources. Religionists go so far as to insist that without absolutist standards, morality would cease to exist, a position that shows a disturbing level of historical ignorance but perhaps explains the fear a secularized society instills in religionists. So any attempt to claim a correspondence basis for morality faces opposition from both flanks: relativists take the postmodern view that all morality is coherentist and religionists that all morality is absolutist. Both flanks suffer from the same problem: an inability to arbitrate dispute. I stand by the judgment that religiously based moral systems suffer from perils of justification by authority that render them helpless in the face of dissent—the greatest proof of which is the Protestant Reformation that produced the first crisis of justification in Western culture—which leaves universalist systems as the default correspondentist moral systems. Still, I might be accused by the other flank at this juncture of wishful thinking. Why should any correspondentist system hold sway in the face of powerful postmodern arguments that favor coherence or pragmatic moral systems? There is, unfortunately for the postmodernists who make this argument, the uncomfortable problem of disagreement. Simply put, the coherentist or pragmatist must exercise tolerance as a condition of his belief system. Championing personalized or cultural moral systems justified only by non-contradiction or logical entailment or convention provides no means of choosing one moral choice over any other, provided the choices are not hypocritical or contradictory. Therefore, the adherent of coherentist moral systems, which include utilitarian, social contractarian, and legal positivist systems, must exercise a consistent toleration for disagreement that utterly fails to resolve essential disagreements about the goods that societies must seek. At this juncture, it is also wise to remember that the entire purpose of morality is to direct free will in the face of contending choices, so we must assume that arbitrating competing claims is the entire reason to have a workable moral system in the first place. One doesn’t have to search hard to find competing claims. Examples permeate the news. To what extent should the general will trump individual choice? (In reference to both the social aggregate and the individual, I must refrain from using the word rights in this context because all coherentist systems invent the nature and number of rights rather than accept them as inviolable). By what moral justification can the state tax the wealth produced by its citizens? To what degree should justice be tempered by mercy in the law? When one nation’s interests clash with another nation’s, whose value system should arbitrate the dispute? The obligation of the state to arbitrate these kinds of conflicts inevitably lead to these kinds of questions and conflicts, and since political systems require a hierarchy or monopoly of power, coherentist systems must violate their sole means of determining truth, the principle of non-contradiction, if they are to exercise either a hierarchy or monopoly of power. The violation consists of making a universalist moral argument (“ order should trump tolerance”) to justify the monopoly and exercise of power. Of course, any support for human rights over cultural values or for any particular cultural value as a universal produces the same contradiction. Slice the exercise of power another way and you have the same issue in microcosm. If morality is based on pragmatism and convention, what privileges one culture’s mores over another? By culture here, I do not mean national borders. My locality has a culture. My family has another. Religion, ethnicity, age, gender: all the influences postmodernism celebrates as determinative of our identity are distinct cultures.  On what moral basis are conflicts resolved among these disparate inputs to a larger culture? In the absence of a means of determining moral superiority, what gives any culture the right to impose its values on any other? This is, of course, the root of the existentialist celebration of the anti-hero, a dissident culture of one so celebrated in film and fiction since World War I. One can embrace a social contract or utilitarian moral argument, but if I as a coherentist refuse to incorporate the moral argument implicit in such pragmatist systems, by what superior moral injunction can you force me to? Force in this case is not only the key word but the only recourse for the postmodernist, which is why power and its effective use is a cultural obsession today. It is curious, though, that its use is so often invested with moral gravity, considering postmodernists must operate in a moral vacuum. In previous posts, I have argued against the view that the exercise of power itself is proof of the postmodern point of view, for every preference polities exercise in disputes makes use of power simply as the means of settling conflict. Subtract any actual justification for that use of power and you are left only with power itself as indicative of moral preference, something postmodernist theory regards as arbitrary and self-seeking.

One might also observe that absolutist correspondence moral systems, most clearly exemplified by religious systems, face similar issues in the face of dispute. Authority, the means of correspondence justification for such moral systems, must collapse in the face of dissent, rendering such moral systems impotent. One need only examine European history during the era from 1517 through 1688 to see how this process operates. Or one can examine current sectarian violence for confirmation that absolute moral authority and what theorists call positivist legal justifications fail when they are most needed: as arbiters of dispute. I find it fascinating that the most inflexible and the most flaccid modes of justifying social order suffer from the same failing, one because it hands down infallible but conflicting judgments from above and the other because it bubbles up opinion from innumerable and equal virtual circles from below.

As we all seek what we consider good and political systems attempt that same effort in regard to the goods that polities seek to secure on behalf of their constituents, and since all pragmatic and coherentist systems fail to offer resolution of conflict within the parameters of their own value systems, it seems at least reasonable to seek resolution in correspondentist moral systems. And since systems rooted in authority also self-destruct in the face of dissent, the correspondentist moral systems that remain open are entirely universalist. Remember that this term relies on a prior acceptance of universal reasoning for its specification. When we say “this moral principal is good,” in this instance, we are appealing to the warrant of our common rationality, essentially saying that if you understand the exigency to which the principle is applied, you will agree that its application is good provided you are applying reasoning correctly. I apologize for teasing out this meaning of “reasoning.” I only do it because postmodern theories see reason as personalized rather than universalized. To a postmodern thinker, reasoning derives from experience and therefore is formed by it. I am using “universal reasoning” in a different sense, arguing for its use in a manner suggested by mathematical reasoning. In this sense a correct logical analysis would acknowledge circumstantial factors but argue that varied experiences, if taken into account, would produce similar conceptions of good choices because we share a common reasoning faculty. This is the same standard that legal systems employ to apportion culpability in criminal and civil cases.

Though three universalist moral systems—utilitarianism, duty ethics, and rights theory– open in this pursuit, it is not necessary to engage in deep analysis of their differences until next week.  For now, it suffices to argue that all universalist systems may be justified by logical analysis alone for the compelling reason that logic is the strongest correspondence justification available. Empirical arguments are impotent in all goodness questions other than utility, as science cannot argue for goodness with the arsenal of weaponry it uses to determine truth. Its methodology simply cannot address “should” as it does “is.” Neither its methods nor its language allows it to determine the good as it does the true. The next-most-powerful weapon available is logical analysis, and universalist moral systems must be successfully justified on these grounds if they are to be justified at all.

Ah, there is the rub. If the basis for claiming correspondence truth for concepts lies in the similarities of our thought processes, then it might be worthwhile asking why no correspondence moral system has achieved the same degree of success in determining the good as the empirical sciences have in determining the true. I would respond with two points. The first is that science’s success has been anything but linear, at least until the last century. Early attempts to define and apply scientific principles suffered from all of the confusions we currently see in moral thinking, and it was only by a rather ruthless pruning process in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that science was able to come into its own. This process continues to this day in the human sciences. Also, as the basis of the empirical process is perceptual, at least in the kind of idealized pyramidal process that places observation at the base and theorizing at the apex, the application of correspondence judgment is relatively straightforward. Remember that the problem of specification complicates the identification of the good and even if we then can appeal to common conceptualizations for correspondence, we still must resort to ordinary language for articulating them. Secondly, until relatively recently in our history, correspondence moral systems were justified by consensus through the authority of divine command, negating any need for other kinds of analysis. I have addressed the deficiencies of this kind of justification in earlier posts, and it is true that modern science emerged from its collapse. I’ll close out this discussion of correspondence moral goodness by mentioning that postmodernists are skeptical of its existence, so we are unlikely to see any systematic academic pursuit of moral philosophy in the current climate.

This has been a fairly painstaking attempt to explain why the only moral system that could function effectively would be a correspondence one, but the need for such system does not magically provide a solution. What would a consistent correspondence moral system look like? That will be the subject of a future post.

One cannot speak of truth issues without also considering goodness, for as choice-making machines, humans always act to choose the good based on their knowledge of the truth. That is the timeless quandary of human nature. But at this time in human history, we face the deep chasm dividing the coherence virtual circle and the correspondence proofs of judgment as we face our choices. We owe it to ourselves to derive the most workable  and reliable combination of truth and goodness claims and the justifications that support them. Rather than committing the very common error of having our coherence and correspondence claims frustrate each other, which seems to be the tenor of our times, I think it is possible to use their strengths to increase the reliability of our warrants.

Simply put, I propose modeling our virtual circle, the self-supporting complex of our truth and goodness claims, on the virtuous circle, the fundamental unity of all reality. We cannot, of course, achieve the virtuous circle in one lifetime, nor are we consistent enough to build the coherent virtual circle we all strive to build. We fail as correspondentists because our minds cannot process all the orders of magnitude reality offers. Our senses are fallible and pitifully limited. Yet we operate in correspondence reality, valuing fact and evaluating judgment against it. No mind can escape correspondence. But we also are presented with so much that is neither rational nor perceptual, and we must find a place in our schema for these also. Intuitions, emotions, imagination, beliefs: all must snuggle into the virtual circle in such a way as to fit seamlessly against the hard and metallic edges of fact and judgment that structure our correspondence knowledge. I propose that a perfect fit is possible in this ordering of the virtuous and the virtual. Just as the ideal of ecological theory is the perfect understanding of perfectly balanced yet dynamic environmental systems, just as a powerful proof of the truth of scientific inquiry is the harmonious interlocking of scientific disciplines, and just as the reality we strive to know must be non-contradictory as a condition of its existence, so too must the complete picture we form of the world and our place in it be justified by both the truths of correspondence and of coherence to form to whatever degree we are capable the virtuous circle that is a proper understanding. Easy enough, maybe, until one must decide what to do when our nice, complementary system flashes its warning sirens of anomaly and contradiction. How do we settle conflict between the correspondence truths we have discovered and the coherent ones we have invented? If we bear in mind that the human mind is inventive enough to produce innumerable consistent, if partial, reconstructions of the single virtuous circle that is reality itself, I would choose correspondence if available, giving the nod to truths hard-won by the five truth tests of correspondence in preference to the less rigorous coherence test of non-contradiction.  I would much prefer knowing the true and the good in some partial sense to choosing what gets me through the night.  My emotions and beliefs must accord with what is really true and really good. My tests of non-contradiction or logical entailment grow more powerful as they complement the hard-won truths about the world I have come to know through the five correspondence truth tests. By implication, I suppose, I am claiming that we are ultimately happier when our virtual circle approximates the virtuous one. Others may see it differently, weighing pragmatism or coherentism more heavily. Our preferential freedom makes such a choice unavoidable.

 Till next week.

S. Del



One thought on “What Do We Mean by “Morality”?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s