Posted by: gcarkner | March 7, 2019

Dennis Danielson Grapples with Moral Discourse


Beyond Paralysis: Radical Hope for Morality in a Cynical Age

Dennis Danielson

Professor Emeritus English UBC


Wednesday, March 13 at 4 pm,  

UBC Mathematics Building, Room 100

Audio Recording File: Z0000008


Three quarters of a century after the publication of C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, moral relativism remains the approach to ethics that dominates the public square. The reductionist (even nihilist) approach to morality and other things that give meaning to human life also continues to shape what our children are taught in school. In the face of this ongoing dominance, it is imperative that we reassert a case for moral realism and cultivate hope for an ethics transcending a mere exercise of power.


Dennis Danielson (PhD Stanford) is Professor Emeritus and former Head of English at the University of British Columbia. His interests have ranged across literature, religion, the history of science, and ethics. He is a past recipient of UBC’s Killam Prize for research in the humanities, and of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s Konrad Adenauer Research Award. His articles have appeared in Mind, Milton Studies, Nature, American Journal of Physics, Journal for the History of Astronomy, and Scientific American. His books include Milton’s Good God: A Study in Literary Theodicy (1982), The Book of the Cosmos: Imagining the Universe from Heraclitus to Hawking (2000), The First Copernican: Georg Joachim Rheticus and the Rise of the Copernican Revolution (2006), Paradise Lost and the Cosmological Revolution (2014), and, most recently, The Tao of Right and Wrong: Rediscovering Humanity’s Moral Foundations (2018).


On The Tao of Right and Wrong:

“Dennis Danielson’s message in The Tao of Right and Wrong needs to be urgently heeded. … This book should be on every teacher’s reading list.”

—Margaret Somerville, Professor of Bioethics, University of Notre Dame Australia


The Tao of Right and Wrongis a remarkably compressed and equally lucid exposition of the truths that really count. … The debate in which this book engages is, in the full sense of the term, a fundamental one.”

—Rex Murphy, Commentator for The National Post and formerly for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation


“Dennis Danielson marks the 75thanniversary of C.S. Lewis’s classic work The Abolition of Manby updating it for our present situation and applying it to current concerns in a skilful and thought-provoking way. Timely, deft, impressive.”

—Michael Ward, University of Oxford, co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis; author, Planet Narnia.

In The Tao of Right and Wrong, Dennis Danielson offers a vigorous primer on moral realism, asserting that humans can and should exercise ethical judgments—and that these judgments are not reducible to subjective opinion, animal instinct, or cultural “construction.” The book is a twenty-first century call for the virtuous cultivation of “humans with hearts,” for a rejection of moral nihilism, and for a life-affirming embrace of moral realism founded in the Tao—the transcultural fund of ultimate postulates that form the very ground of moral judgment, codes of ethics, and standards of right and wrong.

The point is not that animal behaviours have no relevance to our understanding of human nature, but rather that we  require a standard  of judgment above and beyond that offered by bare biology as a guide to what is morally permissible, advantageous, or obligatory. (39)

The very fabric of our lives is teleological–purpose-driven–in ways that far transcend the disseminating of our genes (though perhaps that is part of it). Therefore, a failure to account for that strong sense and experience of purpose, of goal-directedness, of moral worthwhileness, is a serious failure indeed. It points decisively to a limitation of science as naturalistically conceived and practical….So the inability of naturalistic science to account for the “goods and shoulds” of human moral life might accordingly be treated less as a failure than as blameless omission–a mere innocent incapacity to achieve something that was never part of its competence or job description in the first place. (58, 59)

[Human rights codes] embody, or should embody, or at least reflect, a vision of what it means for human beings to flourish, to fulfill their potential, to cultivate their gifts, to pursue good purposes, to live lives of meaning and justice….Rights codes by themselves, however, are inadequate as a moral foundation….They are no substitute for the cultivation of virtue. (63, 75)

What assumptions are you making about the nature and purpose of human beings, about what constitutes the good life? How does your moral framework promote virtues of beneficence and magnanimity? How does it cultivate human happiness? (76)

Great selection of C.S. Lewis books at Regent Bookstore (Wesbrook @ University Blvd.) Gate One

Other Scholars Who Hold to a Form of Moral Realism

Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self; A Secular Age; The Language Animal.

Alasdair McIntyre, After Virtue; Three Versions of Moral Inquiry

R. Scott Smith, In Search of Moral Knowledge.

Russ Shafer-Landau, Moral Realism: a Defense.

Miraslov Volf, Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World.

Jim Wallis, The (Un)Common Good.

Dennis Hollinger, Choosing the Good: Christian Ethics in a Complex World..

David Brooks, The Road to Character.

Glenn Tinder Atlantic Monthly 1989 article “Can We Be Good Without God?” which morphed into his book The Political Meaning of Christianity.

Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life. (read in parallel with Gordon Carkner’s The Great Escape from Nihilism)


Taylor’s Moral Ontology.current Charles Taylor on the Recovery of the Moral Good–His Version of Moral Realism 

Moral Subjectivism by Gordon Carkner

See also Blog Posts within on Qualities of the Will; Search for Meaning; and those on Ethical Relativism.

On Relativism by French Intellectual Chantal Delsol, Icarus Fallen: the Search for Meaning in an Uncertain World

One of the particularities of our time consists in the fear of truth. We hold dearly to the good but we are suspicious of the truth…. [Modern man] does not fear what is false but what is evil…..The disappearance of truth understood as objective truth, and its replacement by “points of view” or subjective “truths,” does not stop contemporary man from identifying moral imperatives that he would not abandon under any circumstances. Where do these moral imperatives come from, seemingly born out of nihilism, like trees flourishing in the desert? (Icarus Fallen 45, 46)

Morality has reduced to revulsion, indignation, disgust, instinctive nausea, recoil of the heart against the negative consequences of ideology: “This instinctive nausea…is the undergirding, however negative and frightful it may be, of contemporary thought.” (47) Certainties are the target of such revulsion: “The rejection of ideological truths through moral intuition has two consequences: the fear of truth, and the redeployment of a new imperative through the intuition of an objective evil.” (47). It is a reaction to totalitarianisms of the past. “Certitude kills, irrespective of whether it is truth or error that nourishes it. Great certainties terrorize in great ways. Truth or the belief that one possesses the truth, is [seen as] inherently dangerous.” (47)

A pervasive moralism, reduced essentially to bad conscience, that is, to an anemic moral code, has replaced the search for truth. Contemporary man is satisfied to merely reject the objects of his disgust. His only compass in the general disorder of his thoughts is the consensus of repugnance–towards Nazism, totalitarianism in general, anti-Semitism, apartheid. There is no other solid ground to stand on. This disgust indicates an anxious search for the good….The criterion of disgust is only able to impose itself on what has already proved to be unacceptable. In order to denounce a great wrong, we must wait until it produces virtually irreparable human disasters. (48, 49)

Indignation–which is after all merely a gust of anger and one unaware of its sources–reveal the only certainties, however modest they may be, that are left in a time that is otherwise deprived of certainties. In the era of the philosophy of values, of moral relativism, we are still able to point to an absolute evil….From the discovery of an absolute evil, however, we cannot deduce the existence of an objective good, since in our time it is imprecisely the relativity of the good that guards against falsifications of the Good, and against the Good’s great temptation to rule by terror….Henceforth, morality must prevent, but not bind. Its norms are exclusively negative. This, then, is how we are able to reconcile everything that is dear to us, that is, by erecting barriers that protect us from the unacceptable, while allowing each person to choose his own good. (50, 51)

Of course there is a kind of inherent dishonesty in the refusal to designate the good….By antithesis, absolute evil, once it has been recognized, cannot fail to evoke the existence of the absolute good, which is also objective. An absolute good would also entail obligation, and this would necessarily limit individual freedom….The only moral faculty that contemporary man considers valid is a bad conscience…. This morality of the requisite minimum keeps intelligence at bay. (51, 52)

To denounce an evil essentially means to identify a good under attack….The good is understood to exist even while it is denied. It lives, albeit as a nebulous presence, in the very heart of its desertion.(52)

The identification of an absolute evil forces us to believe that an order exists beyond our will, beyond our capacity as creators of order. This identification puts into doubt not only the subjective morality of our times, but the very possibility of its being. We cannot decree that each individual has the sovereignty to invent his own values and at the same time point the finger at an intolerable and permanent universal. We cannot proclaim “To each his own morality,” and at the same time decry racism and apartheid. There is a flaw in the reasoning that we will inevitably have to confront. (53)

Dogmatic relativism suits our independence-hungry spirit perfectly well. Its presuppositions, though, and also its consequences, contradict our common vision of humanity…. Humanity thus becomes fragmented into individuals radically differentiated from one another by divergent paths–each person’s “good” being nothing more than than the destination that he has set for himself. Through this very divergence, the other is kept from becoming one’s fellow man. Relativism takes away all meaning and the raison d’être of empathetic consideration and compassion in the sense of “suffering with,” which which seems so natural….This inner certitude obscurely convinces us that a valid “good” does exist for the entire species, that is, independent of our sovereign will. Relativism which makes of each of us a species unto himself, as if to be preserved on Noah’s ark, contradicts our most profound convictions. This is why it is not viable. (57)

In short, the contemporary era cannot be defined by the absence of moral references, but by the rejection of an Evil and the apologetics of a Good that are taken for granted and detached from any idea of objective truth that might give them legitimacy….The attitude signals a refusal to go looking for such foundations, for fear of actually discovering them. Contemporary man postulates not the emptiness of truth, but the danger of truth. His agnosticism is of a new sort, born not of conviction but of fear…. The contemporary era tells the tale of a veritable flight from truth. (58)

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