Let us begin with a truth not universally acknowledged: we know least what we are saying when we use the most common conceptual terms. The relationship between two such words is my subject here: truth and goodness. Can you give a plain definition for either word? When you use them in context, or more likely assume them as the foundation of other declarations you make, can you know what you are saying if you don’t know the meaning of the key terms you are saying it with? Can you establish a truthful relationship between them? There it is!
So we begin with clarity about the most essential term. Truth may be defined as “an understanding of what is.” We can substitute any number of synonyms for “understanding,” such as comprehension or grasp. All of them indicate a mental operation that views truth as a reflection of reality.And such a comparison cannot fail to be rational. If we grasp at such a definition, we have already chosen sides, for any mimetic view of truth requires a dualism in which our minds mirror something outside of them. This traditional understanding of truth is called the correspondence theory of truth for obvious reasons: our understanding corresponds to something outside of it. But it is possible to think of “what is” in an entirely different way: our minds construct rather than discover truths out of some creative alloy of imagination, will, and perception, testing their reliability by examining them in light of a complex of other truths previously accepted. Such a construction occurs within what might be called the perceptual wall of each person’s mind. This meaning of truth requires no dualism between mind and world. Its rational comparison gauges the truth or goodness claim against an interlocking matrix of others that have already cleared the bar for acceptance, though the height of that bar — meaning the level of rational rigor — is personalized and therefore unavailable to anyone else’s purview. This arrangement cleverly disposes of any suspicions about the reliability of our perceptions of reality by seeking confirmation only among perceptions and reflections themselves. For such a vision of truth, private experience is king. Contradiction becomes the only challenge to any truth claim under consideration. This view is called the coherence theory of truth and the web of truths thus embraced may be termed the virtual circle (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?”).
It is clear that truth is chronologically prior to goodness. We must, after all, know a situation before we can assess the choices it presents to us. Yet this same relationship reveals that goodness is the end for which truth is the means, for all of our determinations of what is true serve the goal of choosing whatever we deem good.
Now this intimate relationship between truth and goodness gets more interesting as we delve into the implications of embracing a coherence sense of either term. If one adopts a coherence approach to truth, any declaration that builds a coherent world view becomes a buttress, regardless of its nature. Dreams, visions, beliefs, emotions, intuitions, revelations, imaginations, inspirations: any mental construct that can be phrased as a declarative sentence is eligible for the status of justified truth claim: if it does not contradict others already accepted, it is true. What is more, the logical rigor applied to the notion of “contradiction” is also as elastic as the knower desires it to be, so long as it is consistently applied. Obviously, what makes a truth or even a fact to a coherentist thinker is of her own construction. Her appraisal of the good may be made of notions equally gossamer. We certainly see enough instances of persons who regard quality as an entirely subjective appraisal, who apply a utilitarian calculus to determine situational ethics (see “The Problem of Moral Pragmatism”). The virtual circle that values beliefs as having the force of facts faces an additional issue of ends and means, for to believe something as true is also to desire it to be so. Belief lacks the ratiocinative distance or the evidentiary sufficiency required for judgment. To call something true based on our belief in it tilts the playing field to favor its preference above other considerations, and to do that is also to distort any goodness claims that inevitably follow (see “Knowledge, Trust, and Belief”). A coherentist might respond that any employment of preference subsequent to even the most dispassionate judgment of truth will produce just such a desire, for to prefer one thing over another is also to desire it. This is a mistake, for goodness choices may qualify as judgments rather than desires so long as they are justified as all judgments are: by a preponderance of the evidence rationally considered. The premature closure that characterizes belief is likely to occur before the evidence can be fully collected, much less rationally weighed for preference. Such flexibility exacts its inevitable price, though, for the coherentist using only the principle of non-contradiction for her tests of truth and goodness must exercise toleration as a precondition of all of her understandings: the contextualized constructions of the virtual circle that comprise her knowledge of the true and the good must acknowledge the legitimacy of all other such constructions and the impossibility of challenging them, however constructed. So my truths and my morality based on them cannot without contradiction argue against yours.
The correspondentist faces an altogether different problem. Her difficulties emerge in the challenge of verification. Her mental constructions should, of course, also cohere without contradiction. After all, the reality against which she pits the totality of her knowledge is a single unity. But in her schema, such a simple congruence is not enough. Her truth claims must each be tested against an external reality she can have no assurance of having adequately grasped because of the limits of both her perceptions and her reasoning. Because her task is more difficult, her standards need be lower. She accepts truths demonstrable through a preponderance of the evidence that she examines, though always provisionally subject to doubt. That examination must be logical, not least because it requires a kind of mimetic analysis: does this mental construction mirror that thing in reality (see “The Tyranny of Rationality”). Her justifications will naturally fall into one or more of the following methodologies, here ranked from most to least reliable: empirical, rational, expertise, authority, undifferentiated experience (see “What Counts as Justification?”).
It is certainly possible and even necessary to mix and match coherence and correspondence justifications for truth and goodness. For instance, the most ardent coherentist would find difficulty rejecting the truths of empirical science or the technology those truths produce, so at least some acknowledgement of correspondence truth tests must creep into her schema. Similarly, the correspondentist who hungrily accepts empirical truths and admires their solidity must also face the unsettling truth that science’s hand may touch only the perceptual, the quantifiable, and the testable. Certainly, the history of science, especially the human sciences (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences”), is replete with overreach beyond the limits its methods warrant, particularly in those heady days of the nineteenth century when scientific discovery promised more than it could ever deliver. Its scope has tightened as its disciplines have standardized, and so it has left the correspondentist facing the necessity of using less powerful justifications for the most essential of all tasks facing human beings: discovering the good.
One difficulty is particularly vexing. It is called the problem of specification (see “Lacking Definition”). Concepts like goodness are unlike material reality in a way crippling to the correspondentist’s efforts to know it. To what does she compare her mental construct? How can she refine or defend her understandings with others who also have nothing concrete to examine? And if she wishes to find some correspondence, where should she look for it? In all of external reality, where is there such a thing as goodness (see “Is Goodness Real?”)?
This is a particularly challenging question in the age when science rules supreme (see “The Limits of Empirical Science“). The lack of a convincing, simple answer has led some to condemn any attempt to seek correspondence goodness in favor of coherentist schemas. After all, cultures may choose to call whatever they choose “good,” and anyone who counts herself a member should concur or risk anathema. And so we see cultural relativism advanced as a kind of groupthink warrant, which is really simply a diffuse sort of authority. Or we see spirited defenses of subjectivism or emotivism as “moralities of preference.” The explicit charge of these positions is that no correspondence mode of justification is adequate to the task of specifying the good and we are therefore left to decide for ourselves by whatever warrant we find satisfactory. At least these schemas are honest abandonments of any objective criteria for goodness. Utilitarian and pragmatist theories try to have it both ways, arguing that they are somehow objective because they advocate a “universal technique,” advising all moral agents to choose based on the “cash value” of their particular situation. Their chief difference lies in the complete freedom pragmatism grants its adherents to determine what to value, making it more suitable to the postmodern era that treasures it. As a Victorian moral theory, utilitarianism found itself embracing the modernist reliance on universal reasoning, this common means always abrading against the subjective desires the theory professed to admire. Both theories’ advice is accurate as far as it goes, for they both recognize the nature of preferential freedom (see “Our Freedom Fetish”) and properly assign moral choosing to that agency. These systems implicitly deny any further oughts, presumably because they regard human reasoning as so situation-dependent as to produce unpredictable outcomes in the variability of actual experience. This is particularly strange in regard to “the only American philosophy,” pragmatism, because its champions also deeply admired the scientific method, with its advocacy of a rigorous mode of logical analysis. In practice, both of these approaches are coherentist justifications, meaning their strongest warrant must always be their internal consistency with other truth and goodness claims embraced by individual or culture. And they all suffer from the same fatal flaw: they are incapable of reconciling disagreement with others who embrace different moral precepts. To their credit, none of these moral frameworks claim to be universally binding even if they prescribe a moral methodology. Since their elasticity is their strongest selling point, to mandate a value system would add hypocrisy to their already lengthy list of failings. Without prescription, there can be no means to arbitrate disputes because our differing choices can find no standard to appeal to. To find that standard, a moral system must be both universal and prescriptive. One that applies only to some actors fails as badly as one that applies only to some actions. So can any all-inclusive system somehow resolve the correspondence problem of specification?
It can if it doesn’t have to establish a rational relationship between moral precept and reality. This is not to say that such a solution must be irrational; only that it need not establish the deeply rational and mimetic relationship between moral goodness and what Kant called noumena, the thing-in-reality. But how to escape that seemingly necessary relationship? We’ve all seen the answer to that question, an answer that has so dominated moral systems that many persons can imagine no other warrant. It goes by the general moniker of absolutist moral system, and its justification is inevitably authority, specifically religious authority. It differs from the kind of cultural authority I referenced earlier in one crucial respect: whereas culture can summon no moral obligation for outsiders and frequently intentionally excludes them from its sphere of moral action, religious authority is inevitably all-inclusive. Its injunctions are binding on all moral agents, even those who reject the authority that gives weight to its dictates. Religions may thus be termed absolutist in two senses: their moral injunctions are beyond dispute and they obligate even non-believers to the same behavior as believers.
It is worth noting that the truth claims of absolutist moral systems share and prepare the way for the goodness claims that derive from them. The morality they command would be absurd to the believer who rejected the truth claims that undergird the moral system. Are these also based on authority? A moment’s thought will reveal that the answer is inevitably “yes.”
This reliance on authority as warrant eliminates David Hume’s famous is/ought objection to claims to objective goodness. Hume had argued that no obligation can derive logically from even the most transparent truth. We must bring something to a true statement to produce the “ought” that we might think it mandates. If I see an adult beating a child– and even assuming I simply cannot doubt the evidence of my senses– I can produce no moral obligation without introducing some new idea into the situation: that I ought to intervene to protect the child. But nothing in the reality I observe can be responsible for that notion. What produces it? Hume assumed some sentiment to be responsible, an emotion I might attempt to universalize into a moral imperative. Hume saw such things as a fundamentally irrational addition to the reality of any situation introduced by the participant and not implicit to the reality of the interaction. But absolute moral systems that rely on authority for both their truth and goodness claims can bypass Hume’s objection neatly by framing both the is of their truths and the ought of their morality within the bounds of an authority whose truth and goodness is assumed. The is of an authoritarian system includes the oughts that derive from a generalized trust in the authority itself. So goodness inhabits truth in these systems much as a parable embodies its lesson.
“A man once said to Muhammad, ‘O Messenger of God, permit me to become a Eunuch.’ He said, ‘That person is not of me who maketh another a eunuch, or becometh so himself; because the manner in which my followers become eunuchs is by fasting and abstinence.’ The man said, ‘Permit me to retire from society, and to abandon the delights of the world.’ He said, ‘The retirement that becometh my followers is to live in the world and yet to sit in the corner of a mosque in expectation of prayers.’”
We are not allowed to interrogate rationally either the content of the conversation just related or the moral conclusion that follows it. Both are presented with the tensile rigidity of a commandment that our prior acceptance has approved sight unseen. A sentiment may indeed seal the religionist’s acceptance of the transaction, but it could never be called a judgment of either its truth or its moral power. Those attended the prior embrace of its authority.
The power of authority to bypass the problem of specification explains its dominance in the arena of morality just as it explains its failure in arenas less hobbled by the problem of specification. When the Inquisition condemned Galileo on the basis of Biblical inerrancy, Galileo had only to respond that the Book of Joshua’s account of the sun standing still at the Battle of Jericho violates the facts on the ground. He didn’t, of course, and would have been condemned regardless, for the facts were not the issue. Authority can brook no challenge. Specification to reality has assaulted religious authority ever since with far greater success. But Hume still rules on the problem as it confronts issues of moral goodness. And for that reason alone, religious authority has retained a modicum of its former glory. Except for one problem.
I have frequently addressed authority’s Achilles’ heal: its inability to resolve conflict within its mode of warrant (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority”). Does this weakness condemn authority as a justification for moral truth? Does it reduce religious authority to the same level as the various coherence justifications previously discussed: convicted of failing to do precisely what any workable moral system must do: resolve moral disagreement? I would argue that authority’s failure is far greater. Whereas coherentist moral systems (even those that purport to be correspondence) may champion the individual’s or culture’s right to moral exclusivity, they also draw limits to that power based on their mode of warrant. In a coherentist schema, one culture can find no moral justification for imposing its values on another just as no individual can (that they do is inevitably viewed as a moral failing by adherents, who inconsistently then condemn the use of power to settle disagreements as immoral, but, of course, nothing is immoral unless the individual or authority deems it so).Absolutist moral systems recognize no such restraint in imposing moral responsibility on those who feel no trust in the authority that warrants it. The Protestant Reformation demonstrates the desperate issue for advocates of authority, who champion a universally binding moral system that depends for its warrant on the willing assent and trust of its affiliates. What happens if I refuse to accept your moral authority? You argue your morality is binding on me, but I reject your claim. In the Reformation, I would have clung to another authority. Perhaps you proclaim the truth of Menno Simons and the goodness of his Mennonite doctrines. But I embrace the truth of the Christodelphians and so reject your authority. What happens next? To whom or to what do you appeal? And in my rejection, what can I say to defend my own choice or to resist yours? How can our competing authorities be judged? What could you say or do to have me switch my loyalty? Since authority is built not on logical appeal but on allegiance and trust, what argument could shake mine or yours? None could, for all such appeals are at their center built on rational argumentation (see “Authority, Trust, and Knowledge”). Perhaps my attachment is, as Hume argued, a sentimental one. So what are the grounds for a reversal of sentiment? The Reformation’s ten generations of bloodletting taught us that moral systems based on absolute authority suffer from a peculiar disease: they require universal moral assent yet provide no means of resolving challenge within their own mode of justification. Put into other words, they make claims about my reality that they cannot defend from my objections. Worse, the presence of dissent may prove corrosive, for it could lead to a diminishment of trust in disputants that degrades each authority’s power, particularly if, as in the Reformation, competing authorities are seen as equally trustworthy. Repeated ad nauseum, such competition ultimately cast all authority into disrepute and led to a desperate search for alternative justifications for both truth and goodness (see “Premodern Authority“). Moral theory has yet to recover from these realizations.
But it has certainly tried. The problem of specification provides a tightrope of justification schemas for correspondentists. Four of the five modes of warrant stand condemned. Empiricism, the queen of present-day supports for our truths about the world, cannot speak to non-material, non-measurable, non-testable truths about reality, and the spectacular failures of the human sciences in the last century only confirm science’s impotence in response to this most important question of human existence. Expertise can also offer us very little on this subject, for the ethical questions at the heart of moral thinking offer us little opportunity in the melee of everyday life for the kind of repeated, similar experiences that expertise requires to work its method. We have already discussed the attractions and flaws of authority. The weakest correspondence justification, undifferentiated experience, is the foundation of moral pragmatism, which in practice degenerates into coherentism.
We are left with only one correspondentist justification at this point, reason. But reason faces its own demons in attempting to translate the truths it synthesizes into moral preference. How does it overcome the problem of specification? To what can reason appeal that allows it a mimetic 1:1 correspondence, or anything like one, if it wishes to produce a correspondence morality?
Such a thing would be called a universalist moral system, and it would find its power in the kind of inevitable categorizing that builds experience from sense data and the conscious reasoning that persons apply to it. So you see assumptions sprouting already: that reasoning is a universal quality that grants some degree of objectivity to our goodness claims just as it does to our truth claims and that even varied experiences contain the germ of intersubjectivity that allows us to interact and judge. Even that designation would introduce challenges. To prove workable, such a system would have to resolve problems authority failed to confront: how could it claim to apply to all moral agents and yet also reconcile conflict? To what facts of existence could it appeal for the truth that must underlie its morality? How could it resolve Hume’s is/ought problem? How could it both embrace the variability of experience and the directive force of moral injunction? How could it accept both the is of human psychology and the ought of human perfectibility? And, most foundational, how could a universalist system resolve the problem of specification?
Such questions threaten to cloud the lens of reason. We can reject as hopelessly ephemeral the line of thinking that equates the good with some intuited perfection, a train of thinking that stretches from Plato through Jung. If goodness really is an insight, a gauzy memory, a pantheist notion, a degraded apotheosis, a Romantic inner eye, an emanation of the infinite, or any of a thousand theories of quasi-religious revelationism, it is as ineffable in terms of warrant as any spiritual conversion experience and as incommunicable. We can seek no universalism in a pantheist intimation of immortality. Such misty stuff is incapable of being warranted rationally and thus it must fail to resolve disagreement and in practice would prove indistinguishable from the virtual circle and the problems of authority (see “Belief in the Public Square”). We are thus thrust back to other rational convictions less elevated but more supportable. If, as seems indubitable, experience is variable enough to produce subjectivity as a necessity of human existence, we must consider our success at communicating and defending a chosen view of it as produced by some other common source. But if experiences are too variable to justify a common perspective, and if intuitions too foggy to support a moral system, what is left? I would argue that our ability to communicate with other persons argues for something that grants a degree of universality. And that something is our reasoning. We find proof of the centrality of reason to our efforts to distill experience in the denotative meanings we establish in language usage and the patterns of grammar that govern their use. We see a communication system that grew organically out of human experience without the blessings of authority to give it shape and meaning. As idiosyncratic as experience itself, language still manages to communicate the gross substance of our experiences as well as the finest tunings of our reason. Contrary to the implications of postmodernism, connotation and contextualization have not destroyed denotation. Words cannot mean whatever the speaker wishes if she wishes to make herself understood, and her success in that endeavor is proof that the comprehension of experience that we communicate through language is dependent not on the experience but on the reasoning capacity of our listener. The subjectivity of experience and the limits of perception may deny our claims to objectivity just as they refute our desire for true empathy (see “Empathy: A Moral Hazard“), but our ability to make ourselves understood attests to a strong intersubjectivity reliant on reasoning. That becomes the lens through which we may appeal to reason as a filter of experience in producing and defending our truth claims to ourselves and to others.
Consider any concept, like love or justice, or even goodness. Viewed dispassionately and from the point of view of experience, there is no reason whatsoever that we would have anything at all to say to each other on these subjects, for nothing could be more certain than that all of our experiences have produced different understandings of these concepts.
Now a concept is certainly not a thing in reality. It is a construction of the mind. So the subjectivist who protests that we cannot find goodness in reality might say the same of justice or love or of any other concept, including any conceptualization of truth. We have all had our private experiences tangent to such terms and to whatever insights we might derive in relation to them. So from what common well can we draw a common understanding? A failure to answer this question, it seems to me, would doom correspondence goodness altogether, and coincidentally would also doom any mutual understanding of love, justice, and any other concepts whatsoever. A successful answer will validate our conversations about such things and render possible, though by no means require, correspondence truth as the means to choosing goodness.
If conceptual knowledge is not some dim categorical memory as Plato argued, of what can it be constructed? Aristotle’s answer strikes me as convincing, while also carrying import for our understanding of expertise and aesthetics. He saw our understanding of concepts as being a purely mental construct that accrued from many exposures to the instantiation of experiences that collectively produced some grasp of the concept.Think of conceptualization as a precursor to expertise. Children insist on the particularity of experience, but as they accumulate experiences, their reason begins a lifelong classification that eventually reveals valid concepts (see “Stereotypes and Categories“). By that explanation, I might gradually come to understand what justice is by continual exposure to situations that illustrate instances of fairness or unfairness, reward and punishment, equity, retribution, and distribution of goods. Each of these events in itself might have only a marginal impact on my conceptualization of justice, but over time they would accrue to a kind of calibration so that my understanding and my communication of it becomes ever more exact.The judge develops expertise through thoughtful exposure to hundreds of cases, but all of us experience enough to develop roughly true categorizations “true by a preponderance of evidence and subject to doubt” in the correspondentist sense rather than “true because it fits my virtual circle” in the coherentist sense that allow us to compare our understandings with others through discursive language and so improve our knowledge of justice. All conceptualizations work this way.
Now this notion is necessary but insufficient. Different experiences for each individual multiplied by many individuals could not produce anything but variation without an additional axiom. We must also assume that individuals share a common operating system so as to categorize these various experience in some similar fashion. Enter Immanuel Kant and his theory of preconscious categories. Though our experiences be manifold and various, our mental operating system must filter sense data into comprehensible categories of understanding, so that our differing experiences are presented to our consciousness as intelligible reality without our being aware of the picking and choosing that gives them comprehensibility. In this view it is not the experiences that we share but the mentality that interprets them. Because concepts are mental inventions, they sort experiences into categories that are profoundly rational and intersubjective. We may disagree on the nature of justice because of our experience. Our worldviews are different. But we share a dim understanding of justice, not as a bequest of some Platonic memory but as a distillation of all of our varied experiences sorted through the common human operating system of our rationality. Thus, though we might disagree as to details, we know that our discussion of justice is different from our discussion of angels or heaven, for we have experienced no instantiation of these things and have only authority to trust or reject for their nature and truth.
And so the stuff of reality is ordered into the stuff of correspondence knowledge. At least some notion of morality becomes a conceptual schema of rationally constructed propositions based on the truths of our experiences, varied as these might be, ordered by a common understanding of what is true and at least the thread of a common understanding of what is good, tethered to reality by the anchor of our common reasoning.
But what of Hume’s is/ought disjunction? Grant that we might eventually be able to say “This is justice” through the means just described and even grant that we might communicate fruitfully our disagreements about its nature so as to further refine our mutual understanding of the term; what must I add to the truth claims I make so that I might make quite a different yet simple claim: “Justice is good.” If true and warranted, such a claim must lead to a universal moral imperative binding on all moral agents. Remember that we must know what is true in order to choose what is good. But what must be added to go from the is to the ought?
Kant was so disturbed by Hume’s reasoning on this score that he derived an entire ethical system to explain that nothing need be added, that merely knowing what justice is would reveal to any rational agent its inherent desirability. This categorical imperative transcended situation or personality and in Kant’s view was irresistible so long as one desired the rational consistency that any moral system whatsoever requires. While his argument is convincing in regard to concepts like “justice,” Kant found his duty ethics mired in ethical muck for other kinds of ethical obligations, particularly in regard to conflicts among duties, relative obligations to loved ones and strangers, and, most importantly, to oneself. His attempt to bridge the is/ought divide was only partially successful because, it seems, not all oughts are self-evidently categorical.
Perhaps they are all its opposite then. If duties cannot bridge the is/ought divide, perhaps desires can. Perhaps all oughts are hypothetical rather than categorical. You might frame all moral injunctions in the form of if/then statements. If you want x, then you should choose y. That kind of hypothetical underlies all subjectivist systems, including the one established in direct opposition to Kant’s: utilitarianism. As already discussed, such a moral framework may call itself a universal system because its methods purport to be universally binding on all moral agents, but the goods they pursue are anything but universal, being the result of a near infinitude of personal desires. You can well imagine all the different things that persons desire, with Utilitarianism’s benediction: “If you desire it, you ought to pursue it.”
But we might still find something from the hypothetical position useful. Virtue ethics (see “A Virtue Ethics Primer”) regards only one hypothetical as self-evident. Accepting it produces the entire ethical structure of the system, one that is a workable universalist morality. That hypothetical is this: “If you want to live a fully human life, you ought to develop intellectual and moral virtue.” As it is irrational for a person to desire to live less than a fully human life, we may see this hypothetical injunction to carry a similar force to Kant’s categorical imperative without falling into some of the pitfalls that his moral system produces. Accepting the truth of the if statement adds the missing ingredient to Hume’s formulation of the is/ought conundrum and allows the moral imperative that follows to flow organically from the conditional. I find virtue ethics particularly attractive in its treatment of moral obligations to family, strangers, and government in that it manages to recognize both our proclivities and our duties to equity without self-contradiction (see “Needs Anchor Morality” and “Needs and Rights”) . It thus becomes the only moral system that both mandates moral behavior for all moral agents and provides the means to resolve disagreements among them. It accomplishes these goals while also respecting the diversity of human experience and the centrality of reason to it. Granted, persons may respond to its grand hypothetical by saying they do not wish to live a full human life. Their preferential freedom allows them to choose poorly or well. That process continues over a lifetime of choices, each dependent on determining truth as a means of choosing goodness. We call success in that endeavor a virtuous life.