Are moral standards real, relative, or both?

Reading through Hill's overview of the history of western philosophy in After the Natural Law, I was reminded of a thought: that this history and development has largely been an ongoing battle between two opposing worldviews, with land lost and regained over the millennia. Materialism and idealism. Absolutism and relativism. Atheism and theism. Their seeds are all there in the ancient Greeks. But the land itself remains largely the same.

And perhaps therein lies part of the answer: it is all the same land. As in, both positions occupy some ground, but like changing borders they miss the wider truth: that the land itself encompasses both. Reality can tolerate either extreme position, to a degree, because each takes into account a part of reality as a whole. But they are incomplete on their own, and when either demands exclusive worship like some tribal god, they commit a form of philosophical blasphemy. Borrowing somewhat from political epithets, I'll call these positions, rather than radical left and far right, the extreme up (mind or spirit) and the far down (base matter), or: uppers and downers.

But how can apparently wise philosophers be blind to as much as half of reality? It's pretty simple, actually. We all have a hyper-rational schizophrenic in our minds โ€” at least in potential. It's called our left hemisphere, and it'll believe anything, no matter how much evidence to the contrary. (And it will come up with extremely rational, yet insane, reasons to justify itself.) As McGilchrist put it, with reference to an experiment with split-brain patients:
Breaking down an entity into its parts to see how it works and attempting to build it up again so as to manipulate and control it are familiar proclivities of the left hemisphere. So too is the phenomenon of denial, refusing even to countenance that a living organism might not be a machine when the evidence stares us in the face. It is reminiscent of the exclusively left hemisphere-dependent subject in Deglin and Kinsbourne's experiments insisting that a porcupine is a monkey, because 'it says so on the card'. (The Matter with Things, ch. 12)
Or, as Kahneman called it: WYSIATI (what you see is all there is). If you focus all your attention on the physical world, it will be very easy to convince yourself โ€” left-hemisphere fashion โ€” that everything is physical, even the things that obviously are not.1

Same for idealism or solipsism.

This tendency to divide things up perhaps also inspired the philosophical disaster of Cartesian dualism (which is at least a step up from pure physicalism or pure idealism). It is as if Descartes looked first at the mental world and said "this is all there is," then looked at the material one and said "this is also all there is." He was thus left with two radically different worlds, fundamentally removed from one another and yet somehow connected. Whereas the radical uppers and downers deny their complements, without which they cannot make any sense (you can't have up without down and vice versa), the radical dualists deny a third something: the medium in which and by which the two "substances" of mind and matter are connected or related, and without which they cannot connect or relate. This medium, unfortunately for dualist reality theorists, is reality itself.

What all these worldviews lack is the right-hemisphere tendency to see things holistically โ€” or as McGilchrist might puts, simply to see reality as it actually is, not in abstraction. In the stream of our everyday experience, we unconsciously grasp this whole, which is to say we live it, instinctively โ€” the seamless blend of our thoughts, feelings, perceptions, intentions, and the movement of our bodies in coordination with our inner world and the world around us. We don't flicker in and out of existence like some Lynchian nightmare; we aren't radically displaced from one position in spacetime to another as a regular matter of course; our intentions to lift our right arm or left leg don't randomly produce the intended effects in their opposite members, nor in those of some poor soul who finds his own limbs moving seemingly of their own accord.

In our experience, all of these things are part of one integrated and comprehensible whole. Philosophy is the attempt to rationally understand how and why this is the case โ€” what are the general rules and principles which characterize this thing we experience and call reality. The advantage of the uppers and downers is that they can tell us something about reality โ€” limited to a specific domain, or segment of reality. But the goal should be to harmonize them. This happens every so often, as in the Stoics' still somewhat incoherent mental materialism, Aquinas's hylomorphism, Whitehead's philosophy of organism, or Langan's CTMU, to name a handful.

These ideas have an important advantage over the uppers and downers: they are cool. They are interesting. They fire up the imagination in a way that the wishy-washy idealists and the stale materialists can't possibly do. Take two opposed views on theism, for example. Is God fully transcendent, apart from the world? Or is He simply equivalent to the world, and nothing more, as in pantheism? This debate has a simple knock-out argument: Boring! QED. Here's an objectively better question: Is God both immanent within all of creation and the transcendent consciousness in which all creation is present? The alpha and omega, each wrapped in the other like some Mรถbius meta-strip. That's panentheism, the Giga-Chad of theisms.

Materialism can be cool too, if matter somehow exists within consciousness. Idealism, as well, if consciousness pervades matter. Put them together and you get something like panpsychism, but not the boring kind where little bits of mind-stuff just happen to clump together like the materialists say inanimate matter does, and magico-presto!, you get complex, rational minds. No. That is beta philosophy. Again, it's much more interesting if rationality itself is somehow fundamental; if the ultimate, cosmic mind both precedes microcosmic minds, and is anticipated by them.2
Alpha-omega, Mรถbius meta-strip philosophy.

Objective moral relativism

So what about moral values and ethics? During one of my exchanges with L.P. Koch on MindMatters, I half-jokingly brought up my idea of objective moral relativism, a way of reconciling the upper of moral realism (the idea that moral standards are in some way independent of us) and the downer of anything-goes relativism (according to which they are merely subjective, and no one standard is objectively better than any other, because standards aren't made of quarks and therefore can't be said to exist in any meaningful sense). He suggested I would have to post about it sometime. Luckily I don't have to develop it very much, because Aristotle and Aquinas already did most of the heavy lifting.

The reason I thought something like this was necessary is that I can see very fine arguments on both sides. (Believe me!) On the one hand it's obvious not only that we inescapably think in terms of better and worse (better and worse arguments, better and worse gas mileage, better and worse states of mind, better and worse people, better and worse choices in relation to ourselves and others on multiple social levels), but also that at least some of these seem to extend beyond mere personal preference. A better mathematical argument really is better, whether you like it or not โ€” it's not a matter of consensus whether or not a mathematical proof is true or not. A reality where a small minority of humanity kills everyone including itself, snuffing out humanity's entire cultural history with it, really is worse than mankind surviving another day. It really is better not to rape, mutilate, and murder children. Yes, you can objectively screw up your own life, those of people around you, and that of humanity as a whole if you try hard enough. We all know this, but we conveniently forget it when we philosophize. WYSIATI.

On the other hand, whatever universals there may be in human biopsychology (like Haidt's moral foundations), we really do have a lot of variation between cultures, within cultures, between epochs of history, and even between the mini-epochs of a single individual's life. Surely one simple set of rules can't cover everyone at all times. Some allowance has to be made for the conditions one finds oneself in. However, this is not the epic takedown of moral realism that some may think it is.

The way I put it on MindMatters went something like this: In any given situation there will be objectively better and worse courses of action. But these courses of action will not necessarily look identical at the level of specific details. What is objectively best in one set of circumstances won't necessarily be best in a different set of circumstances. So in this sense, the moral standards and principles are real. But, since the specific application of the principles will be relative to the particular sets of conditions, this allows for some cultural pluralism, without the "anything-goes" aspect that usually accompanies relativism.

For example, if a culture does something other cultures find obscene, corrupt, or otherwise wrong, it may be exactly those things: obscene, corrupt, and wrong. It's not "just their culture" (said with a hand on the hip and a finger wagging in the face). Some cultures may be objectively worse than others, sometimes because they fail by their own standards. Just because Chinese or Americans do something, that does not mean it is automatically best for China or America. The lack of social capital in southern Italy isn't "just their culture"; it's the sign of a perennially sick culture.

I'll call these geographic differences the spatial variables. There are also temporal variables. What is good for 18th-century Americans might not be best for 21st-century Americans. And what is good for a six-year-old me might not be best for a 30-year-old me โ€” like the decision to court a woman.

The criteria or standards by which all this is judged are also be stratified. So there is what is best for you, your family, your community, your nation, your planet, your solar system, up to the entirety of the cosmos. These different levels may or may not align with each other. At times they may even come into conflict.

To recap my previous article on the natural law: "The teleological idea," Hill writes, "holds that the world is an ordered, purposeful, and ultimately intelligible place" (p. 14). The Good = "that which promotes the realization of the human telos" (p. 66), the unfolding of essence, in this case human nature, which is both our ultimate potential, and the limits within which we have to work. Because our essence is an expression of the ultimate teleology, essence and teleology are compatible. The development of our humanity will fit right in to the bigger picture.

On that fundamental level of the self, then, the best course of action will by nature include an element of virtue โ€” the development of character. The development of virtue is how we express our human nature.3

Virtue ethics โ€” good intentions, discernment, right action โ€” will thus tend toward good consequences in our lives and its principles will align with our basic nature, eliminating any conflict with, or need for, strict consequentialist or deontological ethics. This just seems like common sense to me. Imagine the following bizarro worlds for comparison, in which the above things are not true:
  • A world where the purest of intentions lead to no discernible outcomes. No matter how much you will the best, absolutely nothing happens or changes for better or worse.
  • A world where bad intent always leads to good outcomes. Out of hatred for humanity and reality itself, you and everyone else lie, cheat, steal, and murder, and somehow human understanding of all areas of science advances at extraordinary rates, the economy runs smoother and fairer than ever, social capital goes through the roof, and with every subsequent crime, you each gain even more respect and social standing.
  • A world where the virtuous life leads exclusively to evil outcomes. Teenage chastity leads to mass suicide. Two-parent homes create bands of roving tween savages. Attempts at temperance lead inexorably to obesity, drug addiction, exponentially growing birthrates, and telepathically transmitted venereal diseases.
In the real world, good decisions tend to align harmoniously. What's good for your family or wider community will probably be good for you, especially when taking into account the temporal dimension. (Sacrifices might seem like they violate what's best for you, but that's often a delusion based on an artificially constricted time focus.)

But even all this is a vast oversimplification. Life is extremely complex, and conflicts will arise. But as a general rule, I think something like the following is how things probably work. Within this stratified, hierarchical moral structure (the natural law), evil is when one acts against nature at all levels, or focuses exclusively on the lowest level at the expense of higher levels. This is the domain of selfish, self-centered, hedonistic, short-term self-gratification. Its ends include the corruption and destruction of others, the active suppression of the Good, the denial of reality, and ultimately self-destruction, which can take the form of psychological disintegration (psychosis), physical disintegration (death), and spiritual disintegration (the ultimate "fiery" dissolution of one's identity or soul).

Good is acting in harmony with all levels, or with a higher level at the expense of a lower level. In a world where contingency and evil are real, it may not always be possible for one's choices to align on all levels. It may be necessary to sacrifice the lower ones. That may mean leaving one's family to fulfill some obligation to one's nation, or laying down one's life for one's family. One's physical survival, which ordinarily forms the foundation for the achievement of all other worldly ends, may not always be possible to secure. It's not a rule that one must sacrifice oneself, but it may be objectively the best option. The Christian myth of salvation โ€” Jesus' willing self-sacrifice for the highest good โ€” exemplifies this principle.

Practical wisdom

As Hill puts it in After the Natural Law, ethics is "not an exact science" (p. 45), and it's not meant to be. It is the domain of practical wisdom โ€” making judgments about contingent matters โ€” this situation, at this time, in this place โ€” not about fixed truths like logic or mathematics. Virtuous behavior is less a matter of following an instruction manual or a flow chart than it is learning to hear the voice of one's conscience โ€” which grasps the whole of a situation and whispers to us what is right and wrong โ€” and acting accordingly. Like any other skill, we become better through practice, learning what works and what doesn't. The source of this inner direction is our essence, the nature of which is shared with the wider teleological reality in which it is embedded; and the process is aided by our reason, which brings our inclinations, principles, choices into order.

"The goal of ethics is action, not knowledge, and the sphere of action always involves changeable reality" (p. 46). This is what I tried to capture with my spatial, temporal, and hierarchical conditions above. Reality is complex, and navigating it requires experience, practice, skill, and character. Hill gives some reasons how this can be the case:
This multifaceted nature of Aquinas' ethical thought means that ethical judgments are often very difficult to make. There will be disagreements โ€” not because general moral standards are not objective but because there are so many points at which even reflective, morally advanced actors may differ. Aquinas was thus in agreement with Aristotle that, as we descend to particulars, there will inevitably be less certitude in our ethical conclusions. (p. 67)

Among a range of possible responses to a moral problem, some options are affirmatively wrong. Yet there may be more than one appropriate response within the range of permissible responses. ... A second reason for the diversity of ethical practices is that the natural law must always be adapted to differing social or cultural circumstances. (p. 77)
Finally, judgments differ because of human fallibility and corruptibility. We may have an innate sense of better and worse, and our inclinations may be compatible with the healthy expression of this nature, but that's about it โ€” we still need to learn and discover for ourselves. And there are obstacles. For Aquinas, our natural inclinations can be corrupted by "a vicious culture, by bad arguments, or by a perverted character." In other words, our conscience ("our everyday awareness of right and wrong") "can be distorted by custom, habit, or argument" (p. 78).

Lobaczewski observed that Aquinas may have been a great thinker, but he lacked the "talent for understanding psychological realities," unlike Augustine. There's a hint of just that in the above. A vicious culture may produce sociopaths. Bad arguments (or better, paralogistic, paramoralistic arguments) can manipulate and misguide. But a perverted character can have many causes. Hill (and perhaps Aquinas) seems to hold the opinion a psychopath, for instance, is simply a person who has developed an evil character through his own choices and crystalized habits. This seems to assume that all people basically start out the same, which isn't the case. But I'll leave that there from now, as I'll be devoting a future piece to this in the next week or so.

I find that a much more realistic account of moral standards than the ones currently on offer. If moral standards were strictly conventional, it would always be right to follow convention, and never to oppose it. If they were solely linked with self-interest, there would be nothing wrong with the worst crime, as long as you could enjoy it and get away with it. And the Good as utilitarian, in addition to being the most boring and uninteresting option of them all, is an abstraction and impossibility: it removes the human actor from the whole, it reduces virtue to being a nerd with a calculator, the calculation isn't even possible, and people don't actually work like that. As I wrote above, we grasp a sense of the whole situation, based on all our past experience, and listen to our conscience.

As one final observation, Hill writes that Christianity added a new dimension to Aristotle's conception of character as achieved through action: "To attain the deepest spiritual understanding of the world, one must reorient one's soul to the steady performance of good actions" (p. 47). Or as Augustine put it, the "weight" of one's love draws one "in the direction of his goals and desires โ€” either back to himself and to a self-centered embrace of the things of the world or to an orientation to others and to the things of God" (p. 99). The structure of this reorientation is implicit in the letters of Paul, and shares the same basic structure as the Stoic schema of inner transformation.4

Maybe all these things are connected. Materialistic vs. holistic worldviews. Left vs. right hemispheres. The self- vs. other-centered orientation of one's soul. Reality and its denial. Good and evil.
Harrison Koehli an editor, the host of MindMatters and author of the the substack Political Ponerology.
  1. "Matter" is an abstraction from reality, as are measurements by which we quantify it. The numbers and mathematical relations of physics are not all there is to reality โ€” they cannot be. Because the mind that discovers these things, and which uses logical rules to understand them and fit them together in a coherent whole, is just as real. Those logical rules are also real, but there is no logic particle or logic force. There is a logic of physics, but no physics of logic.
  2. It's not just interesting, of course. It's a better option all around, for reasons having to do with logic, comprehensiveness, coherence, and consistency.
  3. And to add some psychological depth to the natural law, Dabrowski describes the inner dispositions by which human nature is fulfilled. He calls them dynamisms, and they're the emotional-instinctive functions without which personality development is impossible. One may get the impression from Aristotle, the Stoics, and Aquinas that personality development is mostly or exclusively a function of intellectual reason. It actually has much more to do with our emotional nature.
  4. As shown by Troels Engberg-Pedersen in Paul and the Stoics, or more recently (and more briefly) in Paul on Identity.