by Daniel A. Kaufman
Of all things the measure is man, of the things that are, that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not. –Protagoras
A common mistake that people (and philosophers, especially) make is to look for intelligibility in the wrong place. This is made worse by the fact that beyond intelligibility we also seek approval of – even permission for – our beliefs and actions. The cause of understanding and virtue is rarely well-served by insecurity.
Philosophers like to assuage their epistemic and moral insecurities by appeals to neutral, human/person-independent standards. That there are no such standards (nor could there be) is why these appeals and the accompanying theorizing never come to anything but stalemate and deadlock and finally, skepticism or fancy. We have seen this play out in Bernard Williams’ critique of Peter Singer’s utilitarianism, which I summarized in an essay on Williams’ “The Human Prejudice.” Singer and other modern moral philosophers think that moral philosophy provides a “view from nowhere” from which to determine how we should and shouldn’t act, but as Williams points out, moral inquiry and discourse are only comprehensible as expressions of human sensibilities. There is no way to deduce or otherwise demonstrate the truth of moral principles or the correctness of particular moral judgments.
If there is no such thing as the cosmic point of view, if the idea of absolute importance in the scheme of things is an illusion, a relic of a world not yet thoroughly disenchanted, then there is no other point of view except ours in which our activities can have or lack a significance.
It is no accident that the characteristics that every major moral philosophy identifies as morally significant – happiness and suffering; liberty and agency; rationality and dignity – are all things that happen to be of great importance to us. When was the last time a moral philosopher suggested that having an exoskeleton or hibernating or undergoing metamorphosis is what makes something deserving of moral consideration? Don’t hold your breath waiting. And understand that the retort that these are morally insignificant characteristics does not contradict the point I am making but rather, confirms it.
Human motivation and personality are complex, and as often as not, insecurity and arrogance cohabit within a single person. The desire that there should be an independent, authoritative standard of belief and conduct and that finding it should be the object of moral philosophy is motivated not just by the desire to be given permission to think and act as we do, but by the ambition to be in the position of granting such permission (or not) to others. We love to pretend that our demands on other people aren’t merely expressions of what we want but reflect some standard that floats above in the logical ether, and such a stance confers a significant rhetorical and discursive advantage, even if its actual authority is (as Anscombe once put it) “mesmeric.”
The inclination we are discussing is ultimately atavistic and hearkens back to pre-modern, religious ways of thinking (and to childhood). The point is to avoid negotiation and compromise, which is fundamentally antithetical to both personal and civic equality. Looking for neutral, transcendent standards that could provide some kind of ultimate authority began as a quest for God, and the modern philosophical version is simply a secularized variety of it. The comfort and authority we once received from the deity we now find in a priori metaphysics and deductive logic. “God says so” becomes “Logic and Reality say so.” (Apparently, Philip Goff, panpsychist extraordinaire, now thinks that not only is consciousness built into “fundamental reality,” but morality too.)
Speaking of God, one of the most common arguments one finds across the spectrum of Christian apologetics is that God is necessary to render morality as a whole intelligible and to provide epistemic foundations for moral claims. It is an odd argument, given the attitudes and behaviors ascribed to the god in question in the relevant canonical texts. After all, this is the god who not only ordered his followers to commit genocide but who did so himself, by way of a global flood. This is the god who damns people to eternal torment, even for minor transgressions. This is the god who instructs angels to torture innocent people and who murders people’s children. This is the god who, morally speaking, is worse than our worst psychopaths. So, how could he possibly render morality intelligible or provide epistemic foundations for particular moral claims?
The standard move in response to this objection is to claim the inscrutability of God’s morality and of God himself. The apologist tells us that there is a good to all the apparent horrors God orders or commits in the Bible, but we are incapable of seeing it. He tells us that the characterizations of God one finds in the Scriptures are metaphors, whose purpose is to help us get a sense of the Creator, despite his being inscrutable to us. But this only worsens the problem rather than solving it. God is supposed to make human morality intelligible. God is supposed to provide epistemic foundations for human moral claims. A god whose morality involves doing and commanding things that are directly contradictory to what we normally think of as moral and whose character directly contradicts what we ordinarily take to be virtuous – or is inscrutable – can do neither.
The only coherent role a god – any god – could play with regard to the intelligibility and justification of the moral would be as a super version of us. If you tell me that we can try to make sense of morality by imagining what a perfectly moral person would be like and calling that person ‘God’, then that makes sense. (Leo Tolstoy, in his famous work in the philosophy of art, argued that the “religious perception” of a people consists of their conception of their own perfection.) The trouble is that neither the Christian god nor the god of any other traditional religion can plausibly play such a role for us today. Gods are only comprehensible as part of an exercise in imagining human perfection, but the conception of perfection found in the traditional religions is archaic; a reflection of the values and mores of people living in very ancient and cruel times. For a god to play such a role today, he or she will have to represent an idealization of contemporary values and mores, and as these inevitably will change in the future, any conception of god will have to keep changing as well.
The argument presented throughout these Prolegomena has been that we feel forced to adopt “crazy” philosophies as a result of what seem to be a number of highly significant but unsolvable problems, but that in fact, these problems are illusory; the result of our sustaining a number of incorrect, but longstanding and widespread ideas and inclinations. These include:
1.) A hypostatic conception of ontological commitment.
2.) A commitment to explanatory unity.
3.) Conflating reasons and causes, actions and events.
These latest thoughts, however, suggest that I should add a fourth –
4.) The belief that the intelligibility and understanding we seek is of something that lies beyond human experience, representation or sensibility.
– which I gestured towards in these remarks at the end of the previous installment:
[T]here is a certain irony in the fact that the whole idea of divine intelligences occupying a supra-sensible, transcendent space was in part motivated by an inability to see how the world could be intelligible otherwise, but as it turns out, this intelligibility is entirely (and merely) a matter of the world including within it intelligent animals like us. It is an intelligibility that lies in the world’s representation, not in the world itself, an insight that we owe to Kant and his first Critique. And it is an intelligibility that can survive neither the aspirant-quasi supernaturalism of the idealists and panpsychists, nor the intentionality-abolishing efforts of the reductive and eliminative materialists.
The point is not that the world or morality are “in my mind or anyone else’s. (I can hear Crispin Sartwell complaining along these lines right now.) Of course they aren’t. Rather, the point is that it is our experience of the world and of morality that we wish to render intelligible, not some thing-in-itself; that what counts as intelligible – what constitutes intelligibility – with regard to some object of inquiry is as much dependent on the one engaged in the inquiry as it is on the object itself.