Posted by: gcarkner | September 22, 2015

Rethinking Moral Foundations

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Rethinking Moral Foundations:

Moral Subjectivism, Ethical Relativism and the Failure of Practical Reason

See also philosopher Bernard Lonergan on Moral Intelligence

Modern Western moral philosophy has failed to discover or create a convincing secular foundation for ethics, and thus for shared moral community independent of inherited Christian or other religious beliefs. It has failed in providing answers to Life Questions based on secular reason alone. Alasdair MacIntyre writes:

Modern moral philosophy has miscarried its central objective. Not only has it failed to stem the subjectivization of morality…; it has augmented it in a secular, rationalist register. This failure has quite properly marginalized professional moral philosophy, at least as currently institutionalized, as a realistic resource for resolving any ethical disagreements, because it has no indication of being able to do anything but perpetuate them.” (quoted by B. Gregory, 2012, 220)

Gregory concludes that we are left with a major dilemma. The language of rights has broken down philosophically within the immanent frame of materialistic naturalism.

The commitments to metaphysical naturalism and ideological scientism that govern “public reason” dictate a conception of reality that prevents the grounding of any morality at all…. If metaphysical naturalism is true then human rights are not and cannot be real, natural or discovered. They are at most constructed conventions or useful fictions, but intellectually they are unwarranted remnants from a rejected conception of reality. (B. Gregory, 2012, p. 224-5)

Gregory raises questions about “The blithe and incoherent denial of the category of truth in the domain of human morality, values, and meaning among many academics. It is frequently alleged that all human meaning, morality and values can be nothing more than whatever human beings of different times and cultures subjectively and contingently construct for themselves” (B. Gregory, 2012, 18). This gives us some things to work on in the discussion that follows: i.e. how to ground truth claims about morality and values amid swarms of incompatible, shifting assertions about them remains a genuine and pressing problem. Gregory ponders, “What sort of public life or common culture is possible in societies whose members share even fewer substantive beliefs, norms and values save for a nearly universal embrace of consumerist acquisitiveness” (Ibid. p. 20). This he refers to as the current state of hyperpluralism.

How does our current social imaginary (a faith structure and a framework for reasoning) leads to nihilism? Philosopher David Hart (2009, 21) claims that the ethos of late modernity, its primal ideology, is nihilism, the belief in nothingness or absence. By this, he means that “there is no substantial criterion by which to judge our choices higher than the unquestioned good of free choice itself, and that therefore all judgment, divine no less than human, is in some sense an infringement upon our freedom.” Some deride it the blasphemy of autonomy: the claim that each individual not only is autonomous, but should be autonomous. Others celebrate it. Choice itself, not what we choose, is the primary good which trumps all other goods. The chief value of our age is “the inviolable liberty of personal volition, the right to decide for ourselves what we believe, want, need, own, or serve.” (Ibid., 21) It is the thought environment in which we swim.

Many today are attracted to moral subjectivism as part of this autonomy, meaning that they want to personally control what is right and wrong, what is morally good. It includes the assumption that moral convictions are a private matter: what makes something morally right is that an individual chooses and accepts it as right. If they are unaccountable for any overarching norms or codes, they feel free to express and rationalize a large variety of personal desires and behavior. It keeps society, the government, or the church from becoming too overweening and imperialistic. Superficially, it feels noble and progressive to tolerate others, even if I don’t particularly like their viewpoint. Self-construction, as we will see later in Foucault’s aesthetic self, is a key priority, and it often comes with an anarchic attitude towards authority and society itself. Yet this perspective on self and definition of freedom as an end in itself can surprisingly lead into a box canyon.

Autonomy does have a dark side. What is less well understood about moral subjectivism is that it leads to the corruption of morality itself; it is riddled with self-contradictions, and undesirable consequences. There are some very offensive aspects to subjectivism, what we call logical absurdities. What reason would there be to get along in society? Would not we have to call mass shootings in theatres and schools just a personal expression of desires? Relativism can encourage people to justify their darkest sociopathic motives and actions. There would be no standard or norm to appeal to if a dispute broke out between two parties—conflicts would remain unresolvable, leaving personal peace far out of reach. We would have to assess opposite expressions such as benevolence and violent exploitation as equally valid or noble.

Manipulation and power plays would be all that is left with Ethical Relativism: the power of the naked will. The rich and powerful would always have the upper hand, the final trump card. They could play God. One source of insight on this point is in Al Gore’s recent book The Future: six drivers of global change, (2013). He decries the brokenness in both democracy and Capitalism in today’s world, where the elite and greedy run the game to their own advantage. What will constrain the powerful and wealthy who want to remake our world in their image, and accumulate vast resources for themselves to the detriment of the poor, the middle class and weaker members of the human community such as the Global South? Technology and wealth can give certain people super powers (Plutocrats:the Rise of the New Global Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else by Chrystia Freeland, 2012) and create dangerous levels of inequity. Andy Crouch also has a very helpful analysis of this problem in his Playing God: redeeming the gift of power (2013). Subjectivism and Ethical Relativism plays into the hands of the rich, beautiful and powerful. Sociologist James Davison Hunter captures its nihilistic impact.

The power of the will first becomes nihilistic at the point at which it becomes absolute; when it submits to no authority higher than itself; that is, when impulse and desire become their own moral gauge and when it is guided by no other ends than its own exercise. The nature of pluralism … creates conditions in which one is required to choose. The dynamics of dissolution are that it dissolves all reality, all meaningful authority, and all meaningful moral purposes but will. (J.D. Hunter, 2010, 211)

Actually, moral subjectivism is a construct, a form of mythology. It is simply not true that my choice and acceptance of a value makes it ‘right’ of ‘noble’. I cannot transform a vice magically into a virtue by my will. Subjectivism claims to know how things really are for all people—i.e., that morals are relative to individuals. This makes a universal claim that is indefensible. This outlook or ethos is rooted in the questionable worldview—naturalistic materialism and empiricism which reject any higher moral universals. Moral philosopher R. Scott Smith (2014) writes:

Ethical Relativism is a bankrupt view of the nature of morality…. We should not settle for a relativistically based tolerance, since that will not succeed in building a moral society or in helping people be moral. That kind of morality forces us to consider all ideas as being equally valid, yet we know that this is not the case …. Nevertheless, tolerance (as respect of people as having equal moral value) would make sense if a universal, objective moral basis exists for that equality. (162)

It provides a very shaky foundation for moral life. Under subjectivism and ethical relativism, the universal value of persons does not exist, so justice and fairness becomes impossible to negotiate. We need a critical assessment of current metaphysical, epistemological and anthropological assumptions that run through this outlook. It must not be taken for granted, but carefully scrutinized. The current strong commitment to relativism leads to nihilism: it starts with the exhilaration of freedom and autonomy and ends with a trap—the tragic loss of discernment, meaning and purpose. The real danger, the real intellectual enemy here is ontological subjectivity. This is the conviction that an object or idea has no reality outside a person’s mind. Truth and moral integrity depend on me and my take on reality—the strict social constructionist view which we find in Neo-Nietzscheans like Michel Foucault.

Because morality is very closely tied to our sense of self, our identity and purpose in life, German sociologist Emil Durkheim coined the term anomie to describe the emotional and personal implications of relativism. This malaise in late modern society expresses itself in a feeling of lostness, an emotional sickness and uncertainty which comes from living without parameters or guidelines. It produces a sense of ambivalence, anger and alienation, loss of hope and breakdown of trust. How could I trust someone with my money who could take off in any direction that her desires moved her on a particular day? If all values are acceptable around the table, one becomes morally confused and ends up in personal nihilism, like the absurdity of saying that Mother Teresa is on the same moral plane as Joseph Stalin. How could we condemn indiscriminate criminal acts such as sex trafficking, rape or child-abuse? We would have to call notorious Ponzi scheme perpetrator Bernie Madoff a moral genius. This leads quickly to a cynical mentality.

At the end of the day, we all want fairness and justice in the game of life (at least those who want a well-functioning society), and for this we need some kind of substantial normativity. Thus, many moral philosophers would also consider our present situation as a crisis of consensus and a philosophical confusion (Alasdair MacIntyre). Someone committed to unpacking the social reality of freedom, award winning Canadian novelist David Adams Richards (2009) notes a con in this approach to freedom and choice. Have we indeed run a con on ourselves through too easily accepting moral subjectivism? This now sets out the problematic.  The hope of this short discussion is that the reader will awaken from the spell of nihilism and reflect upon our current addiction to the drug of radical autonomy and moral subjectivism.

~Dr. Gordon E. Carkner

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Is our choice between Nietzsche and Aristotle?

Is moral knowledge possible?

Can we find an objective definition of justice?

How do we make sense of love?

See also posts on Qualities of the Will, the moral thought of Charles Taylor

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