Touching Moral Non-naturalism Again

There's a trick I missed in the last post about moral non-naturalism, which is that I went straight to mind. And I did so without really getting to the meat of non-naturalism before giving you my evaluation of it. Sure, a modern basically has no choice but to go the way of "mind" for moral abstractions—but it wasn't always that way. Moral non-naturalism was a live option for a very long time.

If there are in fact non-natural objective moral facts, upon which we must base our moral values in order to have a valid ethos, there is a question about what is and is not natural. Which I raised poorly and didn't put to bed properly. So, to make amends, and because perhaps it's useful to have examples of Christian morality that corresponds to the examples from meta-ethics, let's talk Platonism a bit.

Let's use the Greek and say that natural facts are physical; they relate to physis. Can we be morally guided by the physical? This comes somewhat close to the moral naturalism question. If the moral real is governed by the physical state of the universe, then observable facts of the physical world can be the basis for validating our ethos. What is good and right will correspond to some things, and what is bad and wrong will correspond to others.

There is then, as the early Platonic dialogues seek, a natural ground for which the moral terminology is an abstraction. What is beauty? Justice? Piety? Socrates goes about looking for reliable kinds for these moral abstracts, sets that can generally be agreed upon as representatives of the type so as to define the term properly. Natural attributes with which they can be equated. (The bane of Moore's existence!)

And yet the work of these dialogues seems to run in the direction of the middle works of Plato, in which he develops his "formalism"—note how many of the early dialogues are aporetic, meaning they come to no conclusion such as had been desired by the participants. Critical analysis of values leads to the understanding that they cannot be grounded in the physical, but only the rational. We begin to develop virtues superior to the natural and physical.

And yet these rational virtues remain realist in the Platonic understanding. They are connected to mind-independent formal realities external to us, just as objective as if they had a material basis, but non-natural. Beauty, truth, justice—for these things to vary as they do in real things of the natural world, they must not actually be embodied by any one natural thing. Just as redness, for a popular Wittgensteinian example, must have an ideal that is not represented fully in any one thing—but everything that may be red participates in it.

And yet, because these ideals are not material, the part of us that pursues material things must be understood as inferior in moral judgment. Therefore, when our appetites tell us that we should pursue ice cream as the solution to our problems, they are mistaken as to what is good, and have decided on an action that is not genuinely right. Reason knows this, and is capable of discerning that, after the ice cream, our problems will remain, and the immoderate consumption of ice cream in pursuit of the good may in fact produce new problems. The pursuit of true moral goods, and ultimately the Form of the Good, requires that we submit our appetites to the dictates of reason, and that we be trained in rational attention to what is good.

As Aristotle develops the idea, the appetitive faculty is subject to both our rational and our irrational natures. The key to moral virtue is to subordinate the irrational appetites to the rational appetites. This is the regulation of desire toward proper objects and away from improper objects—summed up in the maxim "seek good and avoid evil." And yet Platonic virtue is not to be identified with the kind of mean-between-excess-and-deficiency that characterizes Aristotelian aretology. Aristotelian virtue is a sort of dialectical exercise in dynamic tension, a moral libration point in a multi-body problem. We naturally seek it, but we do not naturally find it, and it is a difficult position to hold without constant adjustment.

And yet Aristotelian moral virtue is still dependent upon a non-natural real, because we seek something objectively outside of us which cannot be directly associated with any of the things we may choose for or against in the course of pursuing the right action. The good is not material. Pleasure, happiness, beauty, justice—these things cannot be had in a coat or a sandwich. Nor can they be had in giving away a coat or a sandwich. Getting them may involve eating or not eating or sharing your meal, dressing or not dressing or sharing your clothing, but the things are incidental to the pursuit of real virtue.

And so here is a version of the classical logic that underlies Moore's assertions about the irreducibility of the real ground of morality to natural facts. Even if we might find moral values represented in natural things, the natural is insufficient to explain the moral value. Things do not intrinsically have moral value. Moral facts are non-natural, and moral values are derived from them. We are mistaken if we take material desires, the pursuit of things in the natural world, as proper moral ends. (Which isn't to say that everyone doesn't seek their moral ends in natural things—just that doing so is deeply mistaken.) And so discussion of the moral facts and the moral values attendant upon them must be done in terms of the ideals.

You may find such a system in the Christian Plotinism of Augustine, who finds the origin of these ideal moral facts in God, as well as the ultimate and proper end of moral striving. Thomas Aquinas, who I earlier mentioned as a moral naturalist, has been likened more than once to a man attempting to lay the Nicomachean Ethics over Saint Augustine, and then adjust in Aristotle all that must be corrected in terms of Christian truth. I place him in moral naturalism in spite of this, because of his sense of the preservation of divinely-originated moral order in nature and human laws. Thomas has the idea that the justice of human laws is dependent on correspondence with natural laws and so on upward therefore to the divinely directed order of all things. There is no true and ultimate conflict between the natural moral fact and the divinely non-natural moral fact because of his strong, teleologically directed doctrine of God as creator.

And yet a modern reader of Wittgenstein and phenomenology still really doesn't have much of a recourse here.

(Onward to part III!)


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