Thursday 10 September 2009

Moral Transcendence

This is an answer I gave in a debate on the question of moral transcendence.

OK, I’m going to strip this right back, just to uncover some of the assumptions behind my argument that ethics and simple morality are based on transcendent values whereas laws are based on power. I’m not sidestepping your examples, though whether Genghis Khan led a ‘good life’ or a ‘moral life’ is clearly open to question, as, indeed, is that of Ghandi, inasmuch as he pursued political goals which, albeit unintended, had seriously adverse consequences.

Please note I said that ethics were transcendent, meaning they go beyond history and circumstances, not that they were based on a ‘higher law’, which is something quite different. Also there are values that are shared across cultures and traditions; all of the main religions, from Judaism to Buddhism, contain certain core principles governing inter-personal conduct.

Yes, there are societies where killing may indeed have been perceived as a virtue, just as there were societies where cannibalism and head-hunting were also ‘virtuous’, if that word has any meaning in this context. Let me make it clear that ethics, in the complex philosophical sense, and morality, in the simple sense of knowing right from wrong, are not ‘there’, so to speak, floating around; nor are they God-given. They emerge by a process of deduction and reason, beginning with the ancient Greeks. Socrates is speaking not just to Athenians; he is speaking to all people.

I cannot possibly explore all of the nuances of moral philosophy here; it would just be too horribly complex. Let me just say that my argument is based upon what is known as ‘moral universalism’; that the same principles apply across culture. In simple terms this is based on forms of self-reflection and understanding. On an intuitive level one is aware of the possibility of pain and suffering, and the need to avoid the things that cause pain and suffering, as an act of self-preservation. On a rational level this leads, on the basis of a good life, an awareness that others are also subject to pain and suffering, and the moral position is to avoid inflicting on them what one would wish to avoid having inflicted on oneself. Self-interest and reason coalesce into what I have alluded to as a transcendent value.

For instance Immanuel Kant, one of the architects of the argument I am advancing here, says that moral values-though ‘law’ is his preferred term-are binding on all, irrespective of their empirical circumstances or their individual preferences or proclivities. It is in the exercise of rationality that true moral thought lies. If this did not exist then the only basis for action would be immediate and sensuous impulses, and the only basis for morality one of self-gratification. That is to say, morality enables us to act in defiance of baser impulses, to reject the pursuit of power and glory as a justifiable end in itself, no matter what the consequences, as in the example of Genghis Khan. Morality is a free construct, freely arrived at; not dictated by God or any external impulse. Even Schopenhauer, who argues that Egoism is the guiding principle in all moral choice is forced to admit compassion as one of the ‘mysteries’, as he puts it, of ethics. Compassion reaches beyond egoism; compassion transcends egoism.

Look, I’m going to stop now, though there is so much more I could say. I do not want to test your patience too much, nor do I wish to develop a full-blown dissertation on the philosophy of ethics. Let me just say, returning to my earlier points, that it is possible to recognise the difference between what is moral and what is legal. If I had lived in Nazi Germany I know that my rational understanding, my ability to go beyond the immediacy of my circumstances, would have enabled me to see that the Nuremberg Laws were wrong and un-ethical. If I am a free, intellectually free and rational, then I will not be blinded by sophistry. Law is based on power; morality is based on truth.


  1. Hi Ana,
    Nice post.
    I like the way you explained the basis of law and moralily.

  2. Picture to yourself the scene. It is a sultry midsummer evening in one of the Home Counties. A small party of guests has just adjourned to enjoy a few after-dinner drinks in a well-appointed drawing room in an old country house. There are gasps of affected admiration as the hostess is complimented on her skill and taste in furnishing the room in a sympathetic period style. This topic is soon exhausted, and the initial buzz of interest begins to die down. At this point, one of the guests - acting with a laudable resourcefulness and presence of mind to head-off an anticipated hiatus - volunteers what he supposes to be an innocuous observation on an uncontroversial subject, with a view to reviving the flagging conversation. But just as he pauses with a not unbecoming modesty to receive the gratitude and compliments which are surely his due for so timely an intervention, there is the ominous sound of someone clearing his throat. Suddenly, everybodys' attention is directed towards a rather crumpled and dishevelled-looking figure, slouched indecorously in a corner, and evidently already somewhat the worse for wear with drink, of which he had been partaking liberally at the dinner table. Previously taciturn almost to the point of truculence, this proposterous individual now erupts with an impetuous volubility. Heedless alike of the embarrassment of his hostess or the consternation of his interlocutor, he proceeds with a self-assurance bordering on presumption ungraciously to question assumptions, peremptorily to demand explanations, and insidiously to divert the stream of conversation into uncongenial and recondite courses.

    Apart from a gratuitous explanation of why I receive so few dinner invitations, I offer this anecdote by way of an apology for my presumption in taking issue with you here on the subject of "moral transcendence". I know that the primary purpose of your blog is to raise varied and interesting subjects in a large number of relatively short posts, and to avoid getting bogged down in too much detail. But I believe this is an important question, for you as well as for me. We appear to share much common ground in terms of key assumptions, so I'm fairly optimistic that I can persuade you to abandon the idea of "moral transcendence" (of the Kantian variety), and embrace instead a more pragmatic idea of morality, derived from social and cultural context as well as from human nature, but which is nevertheless more than just a rationalisation of the status quo, and which does not entail moral relativism. Do I at least have your permission to try? I promise to keep the post as short and as lively as is consistent with such an enterprise. If I fail to honour my promise, I believe that you, unlike my unfortunate hostess, have the option of gagging me by refusing to authorise my post. I await your instructions.

  3. Of course you do, dear Allectus. :-) I would never, ever gag you; you impress me far too much. I only gag fools. The figure at the party sounds a bit like Socrates. :-))

    Just one point of caution, though; I develop so many perspectives in thought, seeing reality through a kind of compound-eye of the mind. I like testing things, testing ideas, testing assumptions. I am the most inconsistent person you are likely ever to come across!

  4. I shouldn't worry too much about being inconsistent. In the words of the immortal Oscar: "Who wants to be consitstent? The dullard and the doctrinaire, the tedious people who carry out their principles to the bitter end of action, to the reductio ad absurdum of practice. Not I." Nor I. All the best thinkers and artists are inconsistent, precisely because they are complex beings, in which powerful opposing forces - good and evil, passion and reason, romantic and classic - are constantly contending for, but never quite attaining, supremacy. Consistency can normally safely be left to Chartered Accountants, pastry cooks and the funny little man - with a "Baldy Man" comb-over, a voice like Vince Cable's, and a row of biros protrudung from his breast pocket - who turns up to do one's Home Information Pack. All the same, there are certain spheres of intellectual activity where inconsistency can prove a distinct disadvantage: moral philosophy - a realm where the self-righteous and the dogmatic are accustomed to feel peculiarly at home - is one of these.

    I thought it might be useful to begin by listing the key points on which we are in agreement. Broadly, subject to a few qualifications I shall develop later, they are these:

    That a common human nature allows some measure of cross-cultural understanding.

    That compassion and other altruistic emotions play an important part in forming our moral values.

    That reason and reflection also have an important part to play.

    That morality is not the same as law.

    Briefly, our principal points of difference are these:

    That there exists a universal set of moral values, equally binding on all, regardless of cultural or historical context.

    That it makes sense to think of humans as primarily rational beings and of moral values as based primarily on reason.

    Let us begin with the roots of morality in human nature. Human beings have similar needs and therefore similar motives. For example, as you quite rightly point out, nobody (or almost nobody) values pain and suffering for its own sake, and so they tend to act to avoid these evils and pursue the corresponding goods of pleasure and happiness. Human beings are also social animals, members of a family, a tribe, or some form of civil society, to which they are bound by emotional ties of kinship or belonging. And it is where the interests and motives of the individual conflict with those of the social group of which he or she is a member that conceptions of morality begin to be relevant. It will be observed that individual members are always tempted to further their own interest at the expense of the group. It will further be observed that the interests of the group are best served where individuals are encouraged to resist these temptations. And so the concept of moral judgement is born. At first, moral conduct will tend to be driven chiefly by fear of censure by the group (a "shame culture"), but personal conscience will tend to assume a more important role as the society develops (into a "guilt culture").

    Continued in post 2 ...

  5. ... continued from post 1

    This idea of common needs, motives, goals and temptations does indeed provide for a measure of cross-cultural understanding. We can understand, for example, that a primitive tribe makes a gruesome human sacrifice not because it believes murder and cruelty to be inherently good, but because it believes that placating an angry deity serves its corporate interest. This does not mean that we can empathise fully with its moral emotions. But nor does it, at the other extreme, allow us to judge its behaviour in any meaningful way (i.e. one that implies blame as opposed to a simple expression of distaste) from our own moral standpoint. I shall return to the importance of cultural and historical context anon.

    We also agree on the importance of compassion, sympathy and other altruistic emotions in forming moral values. We differ only in whether to allocate primacy to these emotions or to reason in the formation and exercise of moral judgement. I say with Hume that "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them". The faculty of reason is purely instrumental in nature, and can be used indifferently to promote good or evil. Without an emotional context of one kind or another, reason has never motivated anyone to do anything, good or bad. The idea that humans are rational beings in the sense intended by Kant miltates against every plausible scheme of human nature, and has been further undermined by the insights of thinkers such as Nietzsche and Freud (and to a lesser extent, Schopenhauer) into the irrational side of our nature. So Kant's "kingdom of ends" - where rational beings follow a universal moral law, based on reason alone - although an appealing idea, is in the last analysis built on hubris and sophistry.

    It is compassion that is the well-spring of morality as we know it, and compassion is a primitive emotion, not dependent in any way upon reason. This is not to say that reason doesn't have a vital role to play in the exercise of moral judgement. Moral judgement, like aesthetic judgement, is an applied art, and is improved by experience, practice and reflection. This process of practice, experience and reflection is open-ended, a continuous dialogue of ideas, forever adapting to changed contexts and responding to new challenges. This does not mean that I believe that moral progress is necessary or inevitable, only that it is always possible and sometimes actual (as is its opposite, moral regression or decadence).

    It is sometimes useful to think of moral judgement as akin to the exercise of the imagination, or empathy, if you prefer - in other words, putting oneself in somebody else's shoes, and making due allowances for what one knows of their values, interests, motives and circumstances. The further removed that person is from you, the more demanding, and the less rewarding from the point of view of moral enlightenment, this exercise will become. Eventually, for most of us, there will come a point where the moral imagination gives out, praise and blame become irrelevant, and only the objective appraisal of the historian or anthropologist remains. The sheer strangeness of some cultures, even some with which we suppose we are tolerably familiar, can be overwhelming to our moral sense. Indeed, it is sometimes hard even to be fair and objective about the recent past, where the need to apply intelligent moral judgement is most urgent. As Heine once observed, "Was wir gestern bewundert, hassen wir heute, und morgen vielleicht verspotten wir es mit Gleichgueltigkeit" (roughly translated, this means "That which we admired yesterday, we hate today, and tomorrow perhaps we mock with indifference").

    Continued to post 3 ...

  6. ... continued from post 2

    So context does matter. It is easy, but not very fruitful, to trawl through the past, even the comparatively recent past, and condemn persons or institutions by standards that they and their contemporaries would not have recognised (you make this point very well in your post on Conrad). This doesn't mean that we should accept the past at face value, or that we should not attempt to learn from past choices, good and bad, in order better to understand and articulate our own moral position, or to recognise old errors in new guises. But this exercise needs to tackled carefully and with due sensitivity if it is to be worthwhile. Whatever they might think, moral judgement isn't something that the self-righteous are particularly good at. Cultural context will determine the point of reference in the ongoing dialogue of moral ideas that we should use to judge past behaviour (in the sense of assigning praise or blame). Historical context, on the other hand, will help us understand the likely consequences of a counter-factual course of action as a plausible moral alternative to a given historical state of affairs.

    You mention Socrates, so let us take the example of Athens in the Classical period and the institution of slavery. Slavery is a prime example of what modern morality would regard as something absolutely and self-evidently wrong. Adopting the Kantian approach, we would observe that slavery entails the treatment of another rational being as a means, not as an end in him- or herself, and thus violates a categorical imperative. But such a judgement would be meaningless because it disregards the historical and cultural contexts. Slavery was vital to the economy of the ancient world. Industries were heavily labour intensive and it was necessary for all able-bodied male citizens to be trained and ready for military service at very short notice (this was almost as true for Athens as it was for Sparta). To have abolished slavery under such circumstances would have been madness, and the likely consequence would have been enslavement by a more pragmatic neighbour. This is why Socrates accepted slavery as a necessary evil, and I find it difficult to condemn him for this.

    This leaves only the question of how, using my contextual approach, morality (what ought to be) can usefully be distinguished from law (what is). I am conscious of the fact that this post is already overly long, so I won't waste time conceptualising the difference between morality and law. Instead I propose to illustrate this difference by way of an example. You mention the Nazis, so let them serve as our example here.

    It might be objected that the emphasis I have placed on standards that the moral agent would have recognised make it difficult to judge the crimes of the Nazis. This is not so. If we discount the criminally insane, only a very few, socially marginal, individuals - whether out of hubris or sheer depravity - make an active choice consistently to pursue wickedness or evil. The vast majority of evildoers, including Hitler and the other senior Nazis, are able to behave as they do only because they deliberately avoid thinking about moral principles and the consequences of their actions. This is more or less the conclusion of Hannah Arendt when she discusses the "banality of evil", and this idea is developed skillfully by Mary Midgley in her fascinating little book, 'Wickedness'. It is therefore possible to condemn the Nazis and others for their deliberate avoidance of moral judgement when they commit evil acts, including the enactment of evil laws.

    Hope this makes some sort of sense.

  7. Yes, lots to think about. I'll give a detailed response once fully digested.

  8. It makes perfect sense; well-argued, well-reasoned, well-supported. I begin to think that philosophy must form part of your professional life, Allectus. :-) Alas, in this branch of thought, I am no more than an enthusiastic dilettante. My favourite philosophers, incidentally, are Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, not Socrates and Kant! So, I really should have said that all morality is directly traceable to power and the residues of power!

    I had to back trace here, to remind myself of the context of my argument; of what I was arguing against. It was a contention that there was no difference between what is ethical and what is legal, which seemed to me to be a dead-end, a way to a peculiar kind of relativism and blindness. I agree that human beings rarely if ever act through rational impulses though there is a simple rationality in ‘please do not kill me and I won’t kill you.’ The construction of society, though based on power and power relationships, has to proceed on developing and amplifying such basic forms of rationality; of constructing codes that last through time, beyond the immediacy of their creation. All the great religions, no matter how different, do share certain core values, values, if you like of transcendence; values of universal application.

    I’m not sure that I would accept your argument that the likes of Hitler did as they did because they avoided thinking about principles and consequences. Rather, for them there was no greater principle than the nation or the state, and literally anything pursued towards their greater amplification and preservation was permissible. As far as Hitler was concerned it was not he who was wrong but the whole Judeo-Christian tradition with its notions of law and of pity. But if morality and law was all relative, if there was no transcendence at all, then the whole of Germany would have seen these questions through his eyes. It did not. Even if there is no remembrance of the past, no belief in God, no recognition of anything beyond the glorification of power, there will still be Winston Smiths, those who stop, and think, and say, ‘this is wrong; this is not human.’

    We are closer, you and I, than you might imagine.

  9. I can't claim that philosophy ever formed part of my professional life (or even that I still have a professional life for it to form a part of), but it has always played a fairly important role in my personal life (or at least in allowing me to view the succession of disappointments, misunderstandings and embarrassments that comprise that personal life with a measure of detachment).

    Yes, Nietzsche had a good point when he opposed power to pleasure as a basis for morality. But the point was not that it was possible or desirable for moral values to be understood solely in terms of striving for power (although that was his point); it was rather that moral values need not be understood solely in terms of seeking pleasure or avoiding pain. Compassion is not the only distinterested emotion. There are also, for example, the love of beauty or truth for their own sakes. These represent entirely distinct, but equally legitimate, sources of value, and can be highly relevant to moral choices. I didn't bring this point out in my rather sketchy argument.

    I was pleased to learn that you are also an admirer of Schopenhauer. His brilliant wit and monumental learning too often go unappreciated. He's the only philosopher ever to have made me laugh out loud (although some have made me want to cry). His 'Parerga and Paralipomena' is also very much worth reading.

    Pursuing a single goal or value to the total exclusion of others is a particularly egregious form of moral negligence. No doubt if any of the more ideologically-minded Nazis (Hitler, Goebbels, Heydrich, or perhaps Himmler) had been required to answer for their crimes, they would have dismissed moral principles as irrelevant (e.g. because "un-Aryan") and discounted the consequences of their actions (e.g. because the Jews were "Untermenschen"). These responses are evasions because they involve a refusal to engage in even the most rudimentary dialogue with generally accepted moral values. Most of the other Nazis were chiefly driven by other motives, such as greed (Goering) or ambition (Eichmann), and simply weren't bothered by the moral aspects of their behaviour. But it's interesting that none of the senior Nazis who appeared at Nuremburg attempted an ideological justification of their actions. (Can you imagine Stalin or Beria, monsters though they were, doing the same?)

    I still find it odd that our interests and opinions should be so similar, particularly given our very different backgrounds and lifestyles. I don't want to give away too much biographical information, but a friend of mine once remarked (rather unkindly, I thought) that I reminded him of the neurotic, insecure and fogeyish Mark from Channel 4's 'Peep Show'.

  10. No, you have far too much style for that! Thank you again, Allectus; there is no fundamental disagreement here. I've not read all of Parerga and Paralipomena, just the Penguin edited version, which I greatly enjoyed. But I have read all of The World as Will and Representation in the Dover edition. Yes, it required a bit of stamina but not nearly as much as the impossible Sein und Zeit. :-))