In my last two posts I talked about moral relativism and absurdity. Both concepts seem to pose significant barriers to my central philosophical intuitions – namely my concept that both knowledge and ethics is a progressive activity with which we should be continuously engaged. In both of my previous posts I suggested I thought I might have a way around the challenge posed by relativism and absurdity. Today I’m going to present some of the ideas that I’ve been working on.
First I would like to summarize what I understand the challenges presented by relativism and absurdity to be.
Relativism challenges the idea of universal morality. Proponents of relativism argue that moral assertions are really just assertions of an individual or of a culture, and that these assertions can have no reality outside of their context (aka it can be true that Canadians think that stealing is wrong, but stealing itself cannot be wrong.) There are many subtleties to the matter – many relativists would say that things can be truly right or wrong within a culture, for example – but I think I’ve covered the essence of relativism’s challenge. This is a problem for me because I am forwarding a normative claim: that it is right or good in some sense to be epistemically and ethically humble.
Absurdity’s challenge is slightly different from that of relativism. What absurdity proposes is that we are meaning seeking creatures which are incapable of actually discerning whether meaning actually exists. We can make our own meaning (and existentialism often proscribes this as a response to absurdity), but its hard to get moral prescriptions out of this meaning-making activity.
So here’s what I’ve been thinking lately: perhaps many moral realists make a misstep in their arguments. I think the essence of moral realism’s goal is to say that there are better and worse actions. To this end, many moral realists (including myself in the past) have pointed out actions we consider unarguably wrong (The Holocaust, female circumcision, etc.), and tried to use these to support the reality of morality. The problem is that this approach is dogmatic – to the questioning relativist it can hold no sway because the relativist is unwilling to accede to the premise that the Holocaust is wrong in an objective way. The realist is proclaiming the Holocaust as objectively wrong, while saying that dissenting opinions on the matter are not relevant. The error, as I see it, is that realists are trying to find a grounding for morality that ignores the fact that it is us who is voicing the opinion.
All moral reflection is ultimately individual. There is always an [I] reflecting on how it should exert and direct its powers upon the world. Ethical reflection is both reflection and action – the [I] examines how it should act, but it also attempts to exert power over the actions of others. The [I], in other words, attempts to make others an extension of its own ethics. My core intuition is that I do not think that this precludes there being better and worse actions.
In one of my previous posts (Everything starts in ethics) I proposed that human existence is fundamentally ethical – that our world presents itself to us as an ethical question, and that our living is a continuous response to this question. To this I also would add my concept of freedom. You are free when you seize yourself ethically, when you place responsibility for your actions on yourself instead of the world around you. From this framework I think I find a basis for a kind of morality: right and wrong is a personal matter which encompasses our entire world. To free ourselves from the push and shove of the world is to engage in ethical activity and struggle with the question of how we think the world should be – how we should act, but also how we should push on others. Within this framework morality is legitimized as the fundamental essence of human nature. Being involved in the ethical project is not so much an imperative so much as existence – those who do not struggle with morality are not really individuals but merely conduits of their environment and circumstance.
This is still an idea in development. If you have any questions or criticisms, leave a comment. Thanks for reading,