- Nearly all of our preferences are judgments of immediate utility.
- When made in experience, competent judgments are governed by an act of severance in which the truth of a moment is judged before being processed by reason to provide options for preference for immediate use.
- The act of severance requires rational self-discipline.
- Historical circumstance has made that self-discipline very difficult to employ; when it is unavoidable, it is often resented as infringement on liberty, as in the case of obedience to law.
- Most persons see no alternative to enlarging whatever private system of preference they employ to the public sphere, but that attempt faces crippling obstacles.
- Until World War I, private belief was often subsumed to public institutional authority, but no such obeisance is possible today because of a collapse of trust in institutions resulting in a postmodern interpretation of the uses of power.
- While a premodernist public orientation is unlikely to return, a modernist one appealing to universal reasoning in diverse experience may be revived simply because private schemas provide no means to resolve conflict short of coercion or surrender.
- No appeal to cultural consensus can succeed because such concurrences are invariably hypothetical means to enlarged self-interest dictated by majority will.
- Laws establish a minimal utility of furthest ends and may be used as models for further efforts.
- A utility of furthest ends will extend the consequential horizon of pragmatism and reject the interjection of belief as a source of public comity.
- “Furthest ends” means those that intentionality can be judged in advance as public goods germane to present experience; their consequential horizon must be consistent with the public importance of the experience.
- Universal reason may grow competent in such efforts through employing prudence, temperance, and courage in pursuit of consensual public ends.
Every preference, from when to turn on the bedside lamp to when to turn it off, means choosing something we value, so we are hip deep in those calculations. Nearly all of our manifold choices are properly called determinations of utility. Each involves assessing context for the goods it offers us and then choosing what we think will serve our present interests best (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Good’?“). But deciding upon the meaning of “best” is the problem. We nearly always mine our immediate context for its possible goods. In this particular moment, what do we desire? This kind of preference is all about what we find useful to present goals. Such judgments are categorized as hypothetical ones. If we take the trouble to parse them, they are always structured as an if/then sentence. “If I want to impress my boss, then I will get to work early.” So common are these experiences that we can be pardoned if we think them the only kind of preference we might engage. We will have to slow those way down to understand how they work and why they are not enough.
Hypothetical reason always concerns present experience, for we cannot choose what is useful to our interests until we know the reality we are facing. We are gifted with that mimesis of reality automatically by the preconscious assembly of sense data our reasoning gives us, which we intuitively think to be reality itself (see “The Tyranny of Rationality“). Unless we perceive something that clashes with that autonomic construction of the data of perception — say a magician’s trick or an echo —we aren’t even aware of all the work our preconscious brain is doing before we ever see the reality our mind assembles. But knowing reality’s truth is not the mind’s only job. It gives us yet another gift because while it is still compositing that picture, it abstracts options to preference in the situation it has pictured. It is usually only at this late juncture that we are aware that we may choose whatever we want this experience to achieve. If we pay attention to any one moment, we can see how efficiently this all operates, say in the choice of whether to read on past the period in this sentence. It is only when we stand at a fork in the road and figuratively scratch our head about which way to go that our conscious mind goes to work to rank order the possible goods an experience offers us so as to choose whatever we most desire. This step in the process also can be automated, but not effortlessly: we have to habituate our conscious mind to the task, which can be real work as every child trying to tie her shoelaces soon learns. But as every adult knows, we can often habituate these repetitive choices to allow the entire act to go on entirely beneath our conscious radar. And for some experiences, say deciding which shoelace to tie first, we may even automate the final act of preference: doing what we have chosen. We rarely look at our lace-ups and wonder if we really don’t want to tie them today. We could, though.
Since we engage in so many repetitive tasks each day, it is good that the entire process of trivial satisfactions can be undertaken while our mind dwells on things we think more important. As we fumble with our aglets, our minds pondering what we’ll have for breakfast or the meaning of the dream we had last night, we take for granted what is quite a phenomenal stream of mental activity. First, our mind has edited a voluminous rush of sense data to get to this moment: filtering the constant flow of information coming through all five senses into a fit subject for our consideration. The result is our phenomenal reality, the word “phenomenal” inserted to remind us that it has already been preconsciously processed for our use (for instance, we don’t have to think about the cell signals buzzing around our ears until we choose to look at our phones). Utility requires that our reality is prearranged by our minds to offer options for us to exploit. This natural freedom is the unique gift of being human. Having been presented with reality and choice as gifts, the next step is all on us. At some point in childhood, we seem to have decided that which shoelace to tie first is not worth our attention, but what is worth it is the power of choice itself.
This capacity not only to choose but to prefer the best among choices is also a kind of freedom, a preferential freedom whose surrender, even to our own habits, ought not to be ignored (see “Our Freedom Fetish“). We tie our shoes thoughtlessly, it is true, but even while our fingers move with dexterity, our mind moves nimbly to the thousands of other choices we will face before we untie our shoes this evening, perhaps never marveling at the human operating system that so adeptly manages so many of the necessary responsibilities of the human person.
There is a dangerous temptation here. Carried too far, this automation poses a danger to our autonomy: human life on autopilot is not human at all. What separates the higher animals like mammals from the lower organisms like sea slugs is the complexity of their operating systems. The higher order of animals is functionally more capable of a variety of responses to environment, making the complex ones more adaptive. The human animal is empirically the most complex and adaptive of all, so to fail to use our functional means of intentional adaptation is an abasement of our functionality (see “The Essential Transcendental Argument”). Given the tsunami of choices we face every day, we need to automate some of them. And even when we recognize that fork in the road, we know for certain that not all such forks merit an equal attention. But there is the rub. Any such consideration of merit, any slotting of preferences into what ought to be automated and what ought not, places our focus right back on that list of options that preferential freedom has to decide upon.
The conscious articulation of taking what natural freedom provides in experience and using it as the tool with which to construct a unique self is the common hinge of our humanity, the central processing unit of the human person. It is worth paying attention to. And like the humming black box that operates the computer, its operations are complex. The less we understand its workings, the more inclined we are to automate choosing to simplify and make less exhausting the awesome responsibility of choosing well. And that is bad.
If we examine the steps in exercising our freedom, we find each relies upon the accuracy of the preceding step. If we misunderstand our phenomenal reality, the options the mind infers will be inaccurate and so will the preferences and the actions based on that inference. In the process of choosing, particularly in choosing what matters, it really is garbage in, garbage out.
Capable judgments of goods call for prioritizing our understanding of an experience before processing it, and that means bringing a thoughtless process into awareness. This is the act of severance (see “The Act of Severance“). We reliably determine truth in context before considering the goods it might offer. It does us little good to build a phenomenal reality in terms of what we desire in the instant, for we cannot see that instant’s possible goods before seeing what the instant contains, and desire being so potent an influence, we are likely to distort what is before our eyes, seeing it in terms of scratching that itch of desire before even seeing what is going on.
If we capably grasp the situation, we can cross over from that truth to the hypothetical fun of deciding what we might derive from it. It may not be that much fun if the end we seek is not satisfied simultaneously with the experience itself, something so common for adults as to be the rule. We say that we have to set the alarm to get ready for work and we have to dress professionally to hold that job. But unless we have so automated our lives that we have forgotten the truth about such choices, we know that “having to” is actually “wanting to.” It is just that the desire we really want to satisfy lies beyond this choice, which is simply a means to that end. We are so busy lining these “duties” up that we treat them like tying our shoes, just one more thing to scratch off the list.
Stop and ask what the last thing on that chain of choosing is. We choose A as the means to choosing B, which leads to something else, but what will the last choice yield that will make all those intermediate ones worth all the effort? What desire do we wish for all those future choices to serve? What provides sufficient incentive to have us override all those temptations in each moment to prefer something more desirable? What terminal end backstops all those momentary ends, bends them to its will? What goal is momentous enough to satiate all of our desires or replace them with something better than any of them? If we don’t want life to be an endless line of shoelaces, we owe it to ourselves to ask what is the truly final end of preferential freedom in terms of our hypothetical desire. What do we really want most, not in this moment but in all?
Time for some discrimination here, and the means to do it coincidentally requires a closer look at time itself. Utility in hypothetical choosing must be understood in temporal terms. Judgments of utility are bound to particular goals. When they are conceptualized in present experience and its foreseeable outcomes they tend to be short-term and expedient. They are time-bound to this experience with all its particularity and unique circumstance, and so they must be prepared to be met in a near future. I don’t consider tying my shoelaces until I put on my shoes. I concede that hypotheticality is timebound on both sides of the act of severance. We derive desires from the truths of situations we face now or have faced in the past, and we frame them in terms of hypothetical goods we hope to achieve in the immediate future. But not all choices have to be made that way. Hypotheticality can define a future outcome without regard for any particular experience and in advance of any one moment that might lead to its eventual satisfaction. It can conceptualize a distant goal that will prove useful to many experiences, perhaps even all of them, and it can then seek out experiences that will allow achieving that goal.
This temporal delay offers three advantages over more immediate choosing in the moment. First, it is difficult to automate and requires judgment both before experience and after it to determine what has been gained in terms of the long-term end we desire. Second, by providing a long-term end, we may find purpose in those means-to-an-end chains of infinite regress that seem to characterize so many contemporary pursuits. Only by pinning our desired ends to a more distant horizon of satisfaction can our choices accumulate to some greater good than short-term satisfaction. The third advantage is the self-correcting quality of aiming at longer-term ends, for having a clear goal puts the spotlight on mistakes and missed chances, not as disasters to our immediate ends but as correctives to our more distant ones. Once we commit to a utility of furthest ends, we have reason to see experience as our testing ground and means of refinement. The cumulative effect is to make choosing more focused and meaningful by seeing it become more systematic. A utility of furthest ends refines preference. If done well, it also highlights the act of severance, for seeing options in experience is predictable and correctable if we are not distracted by momentary desires.
Having chosen this ambition, we find that choices assume a new vitality that unifies and relates all those moments in experience, coordinating them to an end that we intend to satisfy not in any one experience but in all. A more immediate satisfaction of this level of focus is to begin to gain true moral agency, to sense that one is now directing his own life rather than simply responding to stimuli. It is a relief to live toward a distant goal rather than to allow our preferences to bounce and ricochet like lottery balls through the tempests of our own desires. That thought is a blow to freedom these days, though why it is might not survive even a moment’s thought. Following some systematic mode of choosing honors the uniquely human capacity for preference that marks our days like the ticking of a clock.
I do not mean to imply that all choosing must pursue longest-term utility, for many, even most, of our choices concern trivial and immediate ends that barely merit conscious attention. I do mean to say that not all of them should, that a utility of furthest ends not only should be conceived by every moral agent but also kept firmly planted at center stage, ready to be engaged in every act of severance and to be further satisfied whenever experience offers the opportunity.
You may have noticed I have slipped into the discussion an undefined term that we often use in discussing goodness choices. I mentioned that human functionality entitles persons to moral agency but without explaining either word. Agency simply references our capacity to choose whatever goods we value. It is synonymous with preferential freedom. Morality is much more difficult to define and it introduces some unique but important challenges to judgments of utility because they challenge the validity of hypotheticality itself (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Morality’?“).
If hypothetical choices are phrased as if/then declarative sentences, truly moral choices must be eliminated entirely, for they are framed in a different grammatical structure. Judgments of utility are necessarily contingent upon what the rational agent desires in some moment of experience, and even a utility of furthest ends requires a time-bound hypotheticality focused on a more distant event horizon that favors satisfaction of future desires over immediate ones. Moral judgments are temporally free-floating: they make no concessions to present desire or future satisfactions regardless of when they might be found. They are cut off from experience entirely. No conditions bind their moral force. Rather than being hypothetical, they are categorical. This implies that the rational agent regards them as goods in themselves, not as a means to some other end. Even their grammatical structure recognizes this self-sufficiency. Categorical judgments are phrased as imperatives and so they give no quarter to the exigencies of this moment or of any other.
The distinction between categorical and hypothetical choosing is fundamental and clear-cut and can neither be bridged by compromise nor combined by some third point of view that subsumes both. For most of human history, categorical preference was thought the only truly moral kind of choosing for the very simple reason that most persons were immersed in a web of trust in authorities who invariably communicated their will as commands, or in the case of the ultimate Authority, as commandments. Agency, whether moral or rational, was willingly surrendered in trust (see Authority, Trust, and Knowledge“). That time has passed, and with it the allure of surrendering moral agency in trust to some authority with the power to direct our functional preferences (see “Modernism’s Midwives“). One of the underappreciated consequences of acknowledging person’s moral agency is that categorical morality is taken off of the table. Whether moved by religious nostalgia for divine guidance or by a secular conception of a common and categorical imperative, skepticism reigns and self-agency dominates both public and private life. We choose for ourselves now and hold that capability as a prized human possession unlikely to be surrendered to categoricality in either sphere of ordinary experience. Traditional conceptions of morality have yielded to the individualism that makes hypotheticality most persons’ only option.
Even without bringing morality into the picture, we don’t have to live too long to realize how difficult long-term commitment is. Choosing and following a utility of furthest ends cannot guarantee our happiness. Life is too capricious to think so. But not choosing or not following it guarantees frustration and confusion that tend to dissatisfaction with what we have chosen.
While I have to this point framed a utility of furthest ends as valuable to individuals to avoid the infinite regress of pragmatic choosing and to encourage the act of severance, these advantages might seem trivial when compared to its greatest advantage. To explain that, I must refocus our attention to a larger scale.
I have treated hypothetical choosing as a private enterprise to this point, but one source of our frustration is that others persons don’t share our values but seek to gratify their own hypothetical ends, which often clash with our own. We are sure to notice this of course, though perhaps we are less forgiving of these kinds of conflicts than we are of those we make for ourselves by pursuing conflicting desires or by ignoring the act of severance and thereby distorting the goodness options our natural freedom reveals. Rather than dashing about breathlessly, seeking one thing and then some other and disconnected thing, all the while dodging and weaving others in the same wild traffic, can we at least pose the question about whether some kind of more broadly consensual method might produce a simpler and more satisfying kind of gratification of desire? Since forming preference seems to be the universal human condition, might we seek a universal system of preference that honors it?
That will prove challenging, though many have tried. History is littered with brilliant efforts to yoke preference to some universal rule, their very existence testifying to the difficulty of the task. For if any single method of public value could succeed, it seems natural to think it already would have. It is obvious that we need it. Our skepticism might be somewhat mollified by recognizing the roadblocks that history has thrown in our way, and these have little to do with the possibility of consistency. Because of peculiar historical developments, we face a culture of diverse and often contending public assumptions that clash rancorously, and it is these unexamined axioms of commitment that more than any other factor have foreclosed any consistent implementation of a utility of furthest ends in contemporary public life (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems”). Even on that most fundamental requirement for social consensus, the role of positive law, we face impossible obstacles not only for justifying individual laws, but even for warranting the theoretical existence of law itself (see “Foundations of the Law: An Appetizer”). Most persons presume their public moral outlook should reflect their private values, though that presumption has entirely broken down as private moral choice founders upon our reluctance to cede trust even to those whom we love, this reluctance also a product of historical failures (see “Authority, Trust, and Knowledge). Even if forming a private moral code were not hobbled by current confusions inimical to intimacy and we were somehow able to find one to guide our private lives, we would still bang against the iron curtain that divides public from private life as we attempt to employ it in the public square.
Because no personalized moral system has achieved public consensus, persons find themselves thrown upon their own resources for direction. Because preferential self-agency is difficult to navigate in the best of times and even more difficult in our own, we take cues from the cultures that we happen to be a part of. This was once an aid to institutional authority in forming public trust, which so heavily relied upon a hierarchy of power whose major function was to discourage the doubts prompted by conflicting claims. Cultural consensus has fallen into disarray and diversified nodes of power whose assumptions are in fundamental conflict today. Western citizens alternate their commitments to voluntary associations that have themselves have fractured into shards, so that even if persons set out to discover some more inclusive and consistent guidance, they are unlikely to find it (see “Cultural Consensus“).
But our public disarray makes a private morality even more necessary, and persons respond to the various tidal forces appealing for their commitment with either easy agreement or active resistance depending on their level of awareness (see “Freedom, Antihero, and Zeitgeist“). Though social media allows at least the illusion of living in a community of like minds, the reality of private moral choice today holds personal freedom as sacrosanct and the beliefs it professes as prized personal possessions (see “Knowledge, Trust, and Belief”). This may be a sustainable choice in private life, depending on the quality of the beliefs, but it must fail in public life unless it can be transformed into an authoritarian trust and thereby surrendered. But that ship sailed out of view over the course of the miserable twentieth century (see “Tao and the Myth of Religious Return“). Contemporary authoritarianism is as transitory as most contemporary forms of public consensus (see “Recent Authoritarianism“).
Most persons today will ask their private beliefs to validate whatever values they pursue. But beliefs are not up to the task. When belief attempts to profess an absolutist morality, generally taken to mean a religious faith, it finds its moral guidance in private choosing from among hypothetical options it derives from sacred texts. They are hypothetical because they require the believer to pick and choose among possible goods that are all framed as categorical divine commands. This freedom to choose the intent and duty of faith is both inconsistent for the believer and impossible to reconcile with the values chosen by other believers (see “A Problem with Sacred Texts“). These potential conflicts can only be reconciled by tolerance, which, of course, is far from what believers’ religious texts admonish them to practice. A private morality cannot resolve conflicts with other persons who operate from other beliefs or faiths or from other axioms of morality that do not privilege belief (see “My Argument in Brief“). For that reason, private religious belief was until World War I almost invariably transmuted into a trust in institutional authority as a public warrant. Trust offers the advantage of being publicly binding and the authority to whom trust is granted may be univocal in its moral pronouncements. The adherent surrenders her moral agency, her capacity to arbitrate her own preferences, to the authority who conveys moral duties as a categorical certainty not open to question or dispute (see “Religion and Truth”). Or at least that is the traditional view of authority, though today the desire inherent in belief resists the surrender of agency that authority requires. When successful, the effort has proved a very strong means of resolving moral conflict in trusting cultures wherein the authority is fully embraced. But as it relies only on trust, what appears strong is easily broken once competing authority or individual moral agency is considered as alternative (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority”). So the act of moral transference that gives authority its power in homogeneous religious cultures is only half-heartedly granted in diverse ones such as we now see in Western polities. And there are very good reasons to withhold it altogether as great swathes of the public do today. Since moral agency cannot be split, today’s rational agent typically views allegiance to authority as an entirely provisional sanction always subject to revocation. She is likely to engage in a cycle of surrender and mistrust so that she can inspect her authority for bad faith, but she likely will not fully engage the total trust so common in the past, a level of submission that makes medieval societies seem so foreign to our experience. She grants authority grudgingly and retracts it easily in favor of her own interpretations of divine will: her private religious beliefs. So authority of any stripe is unlikely to provide cultural unanimity or more than hypothetical utility to persons in our culture who claim to accept it, and the only means of consensus among religious believers is to minimize the very features that once made religious authority so powerful. Its failures in public life has liberated private life to profess private belief in public contexts.
Most persons navigate their various cultures without too much attention, absorbing values by osmosis or contagion in a fairly random process depending on which cultures they find themselves exposed to. But so variable are cultures — defined as influences on identity — that no consistency is open to the moral agent beyond choosing some and rejecting others by some private, often shifting, standard of value. For most of us, the navigation is on autopilot and we are hardly aware either of the many cultures we are exposed to or of the values they happen to impart and we to ingest. Because morality definitionally must backstop not one but a train of preferences accumulating to some end goal, personal variance and cultural variety both conspire to assault our moral health.
A community in the modernist view establishes a symbiotic relationship with its members: they strengthen it as it strengthens them by mutually constructive behaviors. In that kind of a community, interactions with institutional authorities are informative, meaning persons bring their own rational agency and common sanction to activities that mutually strengthen institutions and their members. Trust is not necessary because agency is not surrendered but even so, constructive interactions are sanctioned. Why is that so difficult today? It can only happen when community members’ reasoning is replicable, meaning when community members think they are thinking alike even if drawing a differing conclusion. No one at a New England town meeting, a corporate conference, or a graduate seminar is riding on the relaxing cushion of trust and surrender. All participants in each community are mentally leaning in, concurring or questioning or disputing. Universal reason is the core axiom of modernity. It is the energizer of constructive communities. With rare exceptions today, its operation is no longer assumed. Modernism is now only one more option, along with a premodern effort at surrender to institutional authority and a postmodern disengagement and suspicion of the same. The underlying axioms of such interactions question the replicability of reason in favor of the formative power of private experience. In generalized communities of any kind, we are likely to see all three positions represented, and in this common scenario, interactions are likely to be tainted by a suspicion of bad faith if only because all three axioms of moral commitment are rarely examined or expressed as they shape all considerations of preference. This suspicion now characterizes and further atomizes the possibility of consensus in our public interactions, causing downstream effects as complex as the historical events that inspired it.
A dysfunctional community necessarily nourishes a moral chaos. Its viral influence is not irresistible — it is still theoretically possible to engage in informative relationships with institutions — but the effort faces formidable obstacles, not least of which is its subterranean nature. The absolute collapse of institutional authority upon which all complex societies rely has spawned a reactionary response that favors a return to the pre-Reformation mode of formative interactions best seen in traditional societies. In this schema, persons are molded by their institutions in a largely one-way process wherein the trust they grant forecloses on their capacity to judge. Their moral lives are directed by the authority they have surrendered their agency to, or at least they wish to see it that way. Because institutional authority has failed so spectacularly over the last century, most persons reflexively reject both the informative and formative possibilities of interaction for the postmodern one modeled on the pervasive exemplar of the antihero. Their relations with institutions take on a performative role: they view interactions as an opportunity to demonstrate their independence from — and implicitly their superiority to — the institutions with which they interact. They seek to show themselves as literal free agents.
This splintering of axioms of commitment directly affects public morality. The world view most popular in Western societies today is the postmodernist virtual circle, a web of highly personalized claims to truth, goodness, and beauty stimulated by a desire for unrestricted free agency and warranted only by the principle of non-contradiction (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?”). Since even the nature of reason itself is thought to be imparted by environment or open to choice, non-contradiction becomes a private standard to the postmodernist. This one truth test available to the postmodernist is as malleable as the preferences it directs (though hypocrisy is the single thought crime everyone thinks to be worthy of condemnation since it is by definition an intentional contradiction). Candidates for inclusion into the virtual circle are not limited to the products of thought, however. These are merely one possible choice among many that include an entire range of beliefs: about oneself, the world, its goods, and its beauties. Authority in the abstract may be venerated in this schema, but moral power is kept fiercely in the grip of the agent who regards her recognition of authority as a conditional and critical endowment rather than a moral indenture. Traditional authority seeking a true surrender of rational and moral agency is fiercely resisted as coercive. It is invariably seen as bad faith. The postmodernist is obsessed with power as the only means to resolve social conflict. Given the radical equality of all moral outlooks, dispute can be settled in no other way. Any application of power, especially by institutions, is likely to be regarded as inherently abusive and restrictive of the total freedom persons think their due (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents“). And since the application of power is essential for any accomplishment whatsoever, postmodernists are sure to see the bad faith they expect to find. Besides that obstacle to collaboration, it is in the nature of the virtual circle to overvalue its own making and maker, and so it will prove resistant to compromise on grounds of creativity and ego alone. Even believers who pay lip service to cultural power as formative manage to think themselves selective in accepting or resisting its blandishments, though they rarely grant others the same exemption. Their case is necessarily weak since the pragmatic accommodations adherents make with themselves and others seem drearily similar, though still held as self-produced (see “The Problem of Moral Pragmatism”).
Less doubt attends the clear enticements of a consumerist, materialistic, secular, capitalist culture that permeates most persons’ value systems. Even calling this stab at morality a “value system” is a neutralizing and conformist effort both inaccurate and dishonest. Persons today wish to “make a difference” and “tell their own story.” They critique others’ choices as “inappropriate.” Everything about such expressions is an effort at wriggling away from actually claiming any particular end as admirable or contemptible. It would be erroneous to call this vague and stunted thinking either “moral” or “systematic” since its essence is an agile negotiation with day-to-day demands rather than a reasoning effort at disciplined self-direction guided by some end value. Its means of resolving conflict is by an appeal to what is appropriate, meaning what the culture approves, though “culture” can be sliced and diced in so many ways that “speaking truth to power” requires preemptive surrenders or triumphs in what all sides see as undeclared war of each against all .
To put it bluntly, this approach to morality insults human dignity, treating persons as consumers or interest groups or competitors picking brands, lifestyles, and products rather than as moral agents shaping their own life by the consistency of their systematic self-construction. While a pragmatic morality does nothing constructive to shape private choosing, it does even less to smooth our choppy civil waters. At the other extreme, the failure of absolutist and universalist moral systems has not given us much to work with since they produce contention as clouds do shade. But so comprehensive has been the pragmatic conquest that even devout believers feel entirely free to flout the authority that in theory forms their moral nature in favor of their own private interpretations and hypothetical interests.
This moral vacuum can be filled. A broad pragmatism must be our starting point in any analysis because it is most persons’ default position, and therefore it must form the consensual basis for any effort at moral repair. It respects persons’ natural right to exercise preference in experience. The issue to begin with involves the consequential horizon: the temporal element of our consideration of value. Will it be immediate and tied to present context? If so, it cannot support a public morality, for experience is lived privately as our perceptions and reflections are filtered through our understandings. Psychology has fully legitimized the view that our values resemble icebergs, with nine-tenths of their real nature hiding below the surface of consciousness (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences“). In consequence and in league with the absolute freedom they value, most persons opt for maximal room to maneuver in their hypothetical choices. This pragmatism is a simplification of an older and slightly more rigorous moral effort popularized in Britain the nineteenth century, utilitarianism. It is worthwhile to see their differences.
Utilitarianism was a modernist effort to prescribe a universalist moral system built upon the axioms of modernism: universal reason and closely examined experience. Unfortunately, because it was developed in an era deeply affected by an ongoing crisis of authority that begin with the religious nightmare of the Reformation, its founders thought that the natural condition of individuals in cultures is one of constant contention that could only be settled by the will of the majority (see “Why Invent a Social Contract?“). This view is reflected in the development of constitutional democracies. But this level of freedom never sat well upon the brows of utilitarianism’s founders, who could in theory bow to the notion that pushpins were as good as poetry but could never quite accept it in ordinary practice. Their deep respect for universal reasoning remained their only hope for consensus in the face of differing experience, but the moral outlook of Western democracies was so tainted by the hypocrisy of institutional authority demanding that citizens surrender their autonomy that trust faded completely away as the nineteenth century withered into the twentieth (see “The Victorian Rift”). The postmodern outlook that replaced it assumed that reasoning must be formed by experience and therefore be relative to culture or personal life, and so a theory whose only demand had been the application of universal reasoning to experience was replaced by one whose frank appraisal was that each forms her own experiential universe (“See Postmodernism’s Unsettling Disagreements“). The virtual circle was born and pragmatism became the default moral outlook of Western cultures. The twentieth century has shown that not to have gone so well either.
As they say, mistakes were made. First, utilitarianism was a frankly consequentialist system, judging the goodness of moral choices strictly by their outcomes. But this judgment is impossible to implement, for one cannot be held morally culpable for consequences she could not anticipated and one certainly cannot anticipate them all (see Three Moral Systems”). One way to solve the problem of unintended consequences is to shorten the horizon of expectations, which is the solution pragmatism offers. If we only concern ourselves with immediate outcomes, we cannot consider ourselves responsible for longer-term ones. But that is like driving at night with the lights off to better see the dashboard. Consequences lurk out in the darkness, and their effects cannot be avoided any more than predicted. What is not my fault may still be my responsibility to face and cannot be foisted off indefinitely. So over the course of the twentieth century pragmatism also required some amendments in the light of new theories of the unconscious in psychology and the other human sciences. These specifically called human preferential freedom into doubt. Certainly, World War I and the spectacular success of empirical science combined to cause a similar doubt the existence of some universal common sense, producing a pessimism about ordinary reasoning and an elevation of all the mechanisms of belief that came to inform the virtuous circle. If reason is formed by experience instead of forming it, then we cannot depend on our reasoning either to organize our own moral existence or resolve conflicts with others who organize theirs differently. The twentieth century produced its continuing obsession with power in all of its manifestations and with will as the author of value. And as night follows day, the century saw the full flowering of theories of moral identity rooted in class, culture, race, gender, or some other determinant, culminating in the collapse of pragmatism into a simple emotivism: an ethic of pure desire divorced from rational calculus. It was the perfect partner to capitalist materialism.
But clearly in our public relationships, we need to reconcile reason with public morality, not the private reasoning of the virtual circle but the universal reasoning now emerging from neuroscience and genetics as the species-specific and mutual functionality of the human person. The issue of “whose reason” and “whose order” is dying, for it is increasingly clear that no formative power is as directive of human experience as the felt preferential freedom that is the universal property of our species. Empirical science is forging this path as it forces the human sciences into the same twilight existence that religious authority has suffered for over a century. Indeed, it is preferential freedom that makes us persons, gives us moral responsibility, and endows us with natural rights (see “Natural and Political Rights“).
To steer private preference by universal reason need not plunge us into hopeless disagreement. The most devout believer in either absolutist or pragmatic morality must temper her rush to preference with some restraint when facing those of a differing moral standard. That happens today. But the culture tells us that such forbearance is a surrender to arbitrary power: an inevitable outcome of a zero-sum game in which competing wills contend, where abusive authority challenges sincere belief. These are inevitable results of belief wrongly applied, of belief elevated above reason.
It is the essence of belief to be a truth claim tinged with desire. I believe what I want to believe. Put another way, I believe because I want to believe. Preference enters the ring before truth can be determined rather than after the situation is known, so prejudice, literally judging prematurely, bends judgment toward some preference before we understand it. These are the prejudices that characterize all beliefs in which reality itself is distorted so as to make desires simpler to pursue, if not to satisfy. This is gravely injurious to private morality but fatal to public comity. Our natural freedom is a human inheritance that interprets reality in terms of options presented to preference. To comprehend an experience is also to open it to preference that then decides upon one above other options presented to reason (see “Truth and Goodness Do a Dance“). Imagine the chaos of a culture that fails to discourage a premature or inaccurate employment of belief over judgment! But imagination isn’t really necessary.
Restoring morality requires a raised threshold of patience in our moral thinking appropriate to choosing systematic ends. To imagine others not imposing their values but pursuing their interests in ways equitable with our own is to instill greater commonality to not just one culture but to all (see “Two Senses of the Common Good”). In the parlance of political theory, we share the pursuit of contributive laws that benefit all of us, that have always sanctioned the common interests of citizens. A second corrective involves extending our consequential horizon beyond the “cash value” of immediate choice and assuming responsibility for consequences that do not align with our intentions even when we also acknowledge them to be not our fault. This is also a requirement of a longer consequential horizon, for we may not be at fault for outcomes we could not foresee and did not intend, but we are nonetheless responsible for repairing them. Rather than view each act as yoked to intention and trailing consequence, we might find it more useful to see them as chains of intentionality and consequence and to see our own moral system as bending to our critical inspection not one-by-one in an endless range of individual options but as points on a line stretching back as far as memory carries and forward to whatever moral horizon reason can discern. Our choices are made individually but should be intentioned cumulatively, and only a longer focus than pragmatism offers will make that clear while also giving us a sense of agency rather than urgency.
It is necessary to clarify when intentionality ought to be employed. A simple pragmatism views every experience as being open to the “cash value” of our desires. We structure the experience so as to procure what we desire it to produce. This makes every preference hypothetical and forces it to bow as much to the desires of the moment as to its exigencies. But when this hypotheticality dominates all the goods I seek and even distorts the situation I face by simplifying the accompanying choices that natural freedom presents to preference, everything is reshuffled as I align the reality with my desires in the moment. But then there are those pesky unforeseen consequences to repair. To find the possible goods an experience might offer, my first duty is to know what I want, not just from this experience but from all of them. This entails having a systematic moral goal in advance of the experiences that provide options to choice. The second duty is to have the experience, to see it clearly, and to allow the truths I find in it to determine how and whether the goods it offers will further my moral ends (see “Our Freedom Fetish”).
Two questions remain. First, are all preferences morally charged? And second, what horizon of consequences is best suited to moral ends?
The question of whether every preference has a moral component can only be answered within the context of a particular moral system. Religious absolutism does not think so, for it recognizes neutral options that are neither blessed nor sinful. This is a boon to premodernists who wish to structure their entire moral life around the commands of a deity. They see a strict demarcation between moral choices, which must always be categorically commanded, and those judgments of utility that are amoral. This simplifies their moral existence at the expense of those operating from a less religious standpoint, for congregants naturally think everyone to be subject to these same commands even if others do not acknowledge their authority. Religionists are likely to be intransigent on those moral rules their dogma decrees and dismissive of those it does not decree. They think only their own divine commands moral. Others’ value systems are likely to be dismissed as immoral or amoral. Non-religious categorical systems do think all commands moral, though they differ on the reasons why. Utilitarianism considers the “greatest good for the greatest number” the essential moral question to which every preference must reply. Duty ethics advises moral agents to try to universalize every preference by a categorical imperative that asks whether the world would be improved or degraded if everyone made the same decision. Virtue ethics regards every preference as the opportunity to nourish good or bad habits that accrue to simplifying moral choices in total. As mentioned, the virtual circle regards every preference as a private one moved by private values, limited only by libertarian considerations of others’ freedom. So in sum we may say that premodernists and postmodernists agree that not every preference is a moral one, though their different perspectives on authority ensure that they will not agree on much else. And modernists do regard every preference as moral, though they differ on the reasons why.
The answer to the second question concerning the consequential horizon of preference in a utility of furthest ends is, however, situation-dependent. “Furthest ends” is not to argue for an infinitely deferred preferential freedom in the style of the post-structuralists who saw language and experience to be so fluid as to compel indecision. It is rather to argue for a deferral appropriate to the end being sought. It would be foolish to take a tape measure as I measure out my three-mile running route, and equally mistaken to attempt to measure it on a globe. The deferral of judgment must match the quality of our knowledge of the experience to the importance of the consequences under consideration. “Furthest ends” means those that intentionality can judge in advance as public moral goals that are germane to the situation. These kinds of judgments are independent of particular experiences and should be clarified prior to engaging them in particular experience. But once involved, as we parse out context and contingency, we apply our morality to the moment. And that requires that our reasoning be neither unduly protracted nor impulsive. The proper term for the reasoning that finds that median point is prudence.
Prudence as a concept has a curious kind of hypotheticality and categoricality about it. It relies on considerations that are conceptual and abstract but that must be then applied to experience that can only be contextual and concrete. For instance, the files of “love” and “justice” are the categorical contexts by which judgments about friendships and civic duty are decided (See “The Moral Bullseye“). They limit the range of considerations in advance of the undistilled experiences that must be unique. Significantly, they are preferred to any single experience’s hypothetical considerations, narrowing the possible preferences. The archetype of this kind of judgment takes place in courtrooms, wherein categories of transgression are first clarified and through which all the vagaries of human experience that might involve them are examined. Civil and criminal law, contracts and torts, misdemeanors and felonies: each file contains a seeming infinity of private circumstance. This circus is only organized into intelligible rings of activity by the categorical divisions that allow a near infinity of private experiences to be examined. This kind of thinking systematizes and end-stops the vagaries of undistilled experience into something reason can deal with and is the very definition of a utility of furthest ends.
I have defined what that looks like in other efforts (see “Toward a Public Morality”). I think virtue ethics and functional natural law perfectly capture its essence (see “Functional Natural Law and the Legality of Human Rights”). Of course, the end that distinguishes a truly moral system from one founded on utility must ultimately pass a final systems check: it must prove an end worthy in itself that allows no further regress and answers all questions of “why.” A valid utility of furthest ends by that measure ought to produce a single goal: human flourishing.