It’s been quite a while since my last post. The reasons for this delay is that I thought, before continuing to concretize my thoughts into the written form, that I should give myself some time to read, reflect, and age. I find that when I do this and then go back to my writing, my orientation will have shifted somewhat, which forces me to approach things somewhat differently than I had originally intended. This way I can avoid (somewhat) that wretched mental circumstance that plagues all deep-thinkers, i.e., inflexibility.
Before venturing into the next post, I took some time to review my previous posts in this series. Besides a few minor grammatical errors and some incoherence in my logic, I feel more-or-less content with the ideas I’ve presented insofar as they are worthy of reflection and discussion. However, I’ve decided not to continue down the rabbit hole I had set upon with my last post. At least, not in the manner I had intended. The following post takes a brief digression into the realm of moral judgments, which has occupied my thoughts of late. If you’re interested in learning/thinking more about the ideas I’m presenting below, I highly recommend the following books:
As I contemplate the themes presented thus far, I am faced with the very practical matter of moral judgement. In the absence of faith, on what basis do I ground my moral sense? As so brilliantly articulated by Dostoevsky in his 1866 novel, Crime and Punishment: “If there’s no God, then everything is my will, and I’m bound to express my will.” Yet, even in the expression of my will, I’m faced with an entrenched moral sense that cannot stray far from sympathizing for others. Even if my “boundary” (as Taylor puts it in The Sources of the Self) or “circle of regard” (as Baha’i scholar, Steven Phelps, defines it) fails to encompass the entirety of Being, and is instead restricted to those who I am familiar with, a simple adjustment through fellowship and familiarity can eventually increase that sympathy to embrace All Things. The presence of this sympathetic self, this moral sense, counteracts my boundless will to do as I will. Lack of sympathy, however expressed, seems very much to be a source of inferiority – and an all-encompassing sympathy to be the highest manifestation of humanity.
Yet, to infer a “higher” and “lower” implies the existence of a fundamental ontology, which exists beyond the sentiments imposed by human cognition. That is, it implies that a moral reality exists beyond the mind, a moral reality that can be sensed and appreciated by the mind, and which has an absolute existence. However, the modern secular variant of naturalism denies the existence of absolute moral ontologies as it tries to “disenchant” human knowledge altogether. This leads to the modern predicament, as presented most earnestly by Charles Taylor (p. 10):
…many people, when faced with both the theistic and the secular ontologies as the grounds for their reactions of respect, would not feel ready to make a final choice. They concur that through their moral beliefs they acknowledge some ground in human nature or the human predicament which makes human beings fit objects of respect, but they confess that they cannot subscribe with complete conviction to any particular definition, at least not to any of the ones on offer. Something similar arises for many of them on the question of what makes human life worth living or what confers meaning on their individual lives. Most of us are still in the process of groping for answers here.Charles Taylor, The Sources of the Self
As I attempt to understand this predicament, it seems to me that the problem of moral sense offers two ontological propositions. In simplistic terms, they are as follows:
- Moral nihilism: There is no moral reality “out there” in the world, only our conceptions of what is good or bad, which are arbitrary constructs adopted from tradition and culture. Acts can only be said to be “good” insofar as they help us make progress towards this or that human standard and/or convention. In this way, these can be said to only be prudentially moral, i.e., the prudent thing to do in order to progress towards a given end. The ends and the means, however, are both constructions of the human mind.
- Moral absolutism: There is an absolute moral standard against which our actions can be judged as either right or wrong. This judgement does not need to be hard and fast, and can take contextual factors into consideration. Therefore, an act would be judged relative to a moral absolute, and would be considered “good” or “right” by the degree to which it approximates the moral Truth.
A third approach, which seems to be the sort that is common — though it typically involves little or no reflection — is to act as if moral standards are absolute. This approach dismisses the problem of moral difference, and ignores the various Truth claims. Instead, what is common is believed, and what is believed is assumed to be common, and those who are different are considered to be immoral.
In order for moral absolutism to work, it needs a source of absolute authority. As it goes, moral claims are often beset with errors in logic. For example, if we say that one must protect life because life wishes to be preserved, then we are begging the question – a common logical fallacy in this domain of inquiry. In effect, the above statement assumes that “life wishes to be preserved” before proposing that “one must protect life.” However, this begs the question “why does life wish to be preserved?” Well, one might say, life wishes to be preserved because living is good. To which another would reply, “why is living, good?” ad infinitum. Note: If this doesn’t make sense to you, it’s probably worth your time to think on it until you’ve got it – the concept goes a long way.
At some point we may wish to end this cycle of argument by insisting “living is good because it is so!” This response would be familiar to any parent who has had to subdue their interrogative child. In this case, the absolute authority would be the parent. Therefore, the parents’ word would be the absolute moral standard, so long as the child complies with the authority of said parent. Then the child grows a little older and realizes that there are many parents, many homes, and many moral standards. Some quite different. Then the child questions the parent again, “why are your moral standards different than those of Sarah’s parents?” At some point, the parent must concede that these domestic moral standards are completely arbitrary, but that the child’s dependence requires them to oblige…then they grow up, and they leave, and they assume their own set of moral standards, and the cycle continues.
Who, then, provides the absolute moral standard for the rational (adult) soul? Who is the authority who will prescribe, condone, condemn, and punish the moral acts of Man? We might say that there is no such authority, and that moral standards can only (as far as we know) be conceived by human minds. Yet this does not explain why human minds are capable of moral sense and judgement in the first place. If you subscribe to a natural philosophy, then the following principles might shape your genesis story for the birth of moral sense and judgement (adapted from Hunter & Nedelisky, 2018, Science and the Good):
- Everything that exists can be reduced to natural and explainable phenomena.
- The mind emerged through Darwinian evolution.
- The function of the mind is to maximize benefits to individuals, groups, and species.
- Morality comes from the minds’ contemplation of feelings or sentiments.
- Moral actions maximize benefits to individuals, groups, and species.
According to this worldview, there are no absolute moral standards. There is no prescription for “right” living. Rather, there are only individual feelings and sentiments, which are exchanged in an intersubjective space and, overtime, coalesce into a common morality. This model is internally coherent and consistent with empirically derived knowledge. However, it requires us to abandon moral absolutism, and adopt a nihilistic metaphysics. The implication of this approach is that it turns the quest for the “Good” into a social engineering activity. “Goodness” is whatever results in the greatest benefit, the preferred outcome, the least suffering, etc. What is of benefit, who should benefit, whose preferences are adopted? These questions become matters of power and consensus. Every opposing view is legitimized. The idea of an “immoral” or “offensive” act is no longer grounded in a prescribed moral absolute, but in the power of the dominant social milieu. Universal rights and duties are no longer “universal,” but optional; legitimized only by subscription and participation.
Where does that leave moral absolutism? Is there any longer a need for an ultimate “Good”? How could such a “Good” be derived?
These sorts of questions are unlikely to be resolved through any standards of human learning. Neither science nor philosophy have managed to resolve, once and for all, the matter of absolute morality. In fact, both seem to have concluded that reality is void of moral Truth(s): a metaphysical position called moral nihilism. However, far from putting the issue to rest, we seem to have inadvertently relegated the problem of moral absolutism to its proper domain, i.e., the domain of testimony — and I hope you can make the connection here to the themes discussed earlier, but I’ll review them briefly below.
Human knowledge will always be limited by the boundaries of perception. Even as our minds expand in their comprehension, control, and influence over reality, this boundary will continue to exist. True reality will always remain beyond our direct grasp, hidden behind the veil of perception. Our knowledge of what “is” will always be confined to a mere approximation, or how it “seems.” By analogy, though our maps allow us to navigate both land and sea, they will always be incomplete pictures of reality.
It is for this reason that knowledge derived from testimony — rather than by reason or experience — poses a serious challenge to established standards of rigour. What I mean here by “testimony” is when a person makes a claim and asks that we accept their claim solely on the basis of their authority. A modern, very human, example of testimony is when we encourage survivors of abuse and/or trauma to report their lived experience, and we offer to believe them on the authority of their testimony alone. However, this analogy is limited as this version of testimony can be verified by finding physical evidence that validates the reported abuse.
The testimony of the prophets and Manifestations of God is yet another, albeit incomprehensible, example of testimony. These beings testify, “I am the Truth,” and by that reason alone another person declares, “I believe.” There is no reason, as far as human standards of knowledge go, to accept such a claim. In fact, modern standards of epistemological rigor would dissuade us from ever “appealing to authority” to justify our beliefs. The historical record is rife with examples of self-interested charlatans — masquerading under the guise of piety — extolling the masses to accept the truth of their claims on the basis of some divine authority granted to them by God.
However, there are others who have made extraordinary Truth claims, while demonstrating little if any self-interest. They claim not only to know, but also to prescribe and manifest the ideal Good, and their proposition: Believe in this claim on the basis of my self-proclaimed authority, an authority granted to me by the One and True God. The individual who encounters such a claim is then faced with what I call, “the Problem of Revelation.” That is, they are faced with the choice of either accepting the claim and thereby recognizing the station of the claimant, or rejecting the claim outright.
Some might see this as a simple choice, like deciding between cream or milk for ones coffee. However, these claimants have also proclaimed that this choice actually fulfills the essential purpose of Man’s spiritual reality. That, in order for acts to be truly Good, they must proceed from recognition of the Manifestation – the fountainhead of Goodness. This relationship between the duty to recognize the Manifestation and the true morality of acts is contained in the first paragraph of the Aqdas:
The first duty prescribed by God for His servants is the recognition of Him Who is the Dayspring of His Revelation and the Fountain of His laws, Who representeth the Godhead in both the Kingdom of His Cause and the world of creation. Whoso achieveth this duty hath attained unto all good; and whoso is deprived thereof hath gone astray, though he be the author of every righteous deed. It behoveth every one who reacheth this most sublime station, this summit of transcendent glory, to observe every ordinance of Him Who is the Desire of the world. These twin duties are inseparable. Neither is acceptable without the other. Thus hath it been decreed by Him Who is the Source of Divine inspiration.Baha’u’llah, Kitab-i-Aqdas
The Problem of Revelation can best be illustrated, I think, using the Signal Detection Theory. Using this theory, the individual’s response to Revelation can fall into four possible quadrants:
|Claim True||Faith warranted (no risk)||Infidelity unwarranted (high risk)|
|Claim False||Faith unwarranted|
|Infidelity warranted (no risk)|
As illustrated in the above table, a person can have faith that is warranted or unwarranted. Either way, the repercussions of choosing faith poses little to no risk to the believer. If you choose to believe in a revelatory claim that turns out to be true, then your faith is warranted and you’ve fulfilled your spiritual purpose. Your good acts proceed from the fount of absolute goodness, making such acts truly Good. If, however, you choose to believe in a revelatory claim that turns out to be false, this poses little risk as you will likely proceed to act within a moral framework. Although this moral framework is arbitrary, it will serve to fulfill the human need for purpose, belonging, and meaning. Unwarranted faith does pose some risk as it can result in dogmatic beliefs, group-think, and unfettered irrationality – though it could be argued that humans are generally prone to such things with or without Faith. If you choose to reject the claimant and the claim happens to be true, then you are assuming the greatest risk. The testimony of revelation attests to severe consequences that result from refusing the Manifestation, as this is the same as denying the soul’s purpose. Finally, infidelity poses no risk if the revelatory claim is false. However, in the absence of anything else, one could be deprived of the benefits that religious belief offers: a sense of purpose, belonging, meaning, and a moral framework against which one’s actions can be calibrated and measured.
Some have asked why an All-Loving, All-Knowing, and All-Powerful God would orchestrate reality in this way. One possible answer entails two overarching principles. First, “God doeth as He willeth.”
He, verily, is the Unconstrained; He doeth as He pleaseth and ordaineth whatsoever He willeth.Baha’u’llah, Kitab-i-Aqdas
The second employs a certain self-evident logic. By creating a system where the truth of the claim is concealed (i.e., whether the revelatory claim is true or not is not apparent to the human mind) and we are left completely free to choose as we please, the choice itself assumes the utmost gravity, allowing the purity and earnestness of one’s choice to be tested.
Yea, such things as throw consternation into the hearts of men come to pass only that each soul may be tested by the touchstone of God, that the true may be known and distinguished from the false.Baha’u’llah, Kitab-i-Aqdas
Indeed, there would be no need for faith if the truth of God’s purpose were to be wholly manifest. As already mentioned in one of my previous posts, Baha’u’llah explains this matter explicitly in the following paragraph:
Judge fairly: Were the prophecies recorded in the Gospel to be literally fulfilled; were Jesus, Son of Mary, accompanied by angels, to descend from the visible heaven upon the clouds; who would dare to disbelieve, who would dare to reject the truth, and wax disdainful? Nay, such consternation would immediately seize the dwellers of the earth that no soul would feel able to utter a word, much less to reject or accept the truth. It was owing to their misunderstanding of these truths that many a Christian divine hath objected to Muhammad, and voiced his protest in such words: “If Thou art in truth the promised Prophet, why then art Thou not accompanied by those angels our sacred Books foretold, and which must needs descend with the promised Beauty to assist Him in His Revelation and act as warners unto His people?” […] they bear witness to this well-known tradition: “Verily Our Word is abstruse, bewilderingly abstruse.” In another instance, it is said: “Our Cause is sorely trying, highly perplexing; none can bear it except a favorite of heaven, or an inspired Prophet, or he whose faith God hath tested.” […] when the divine Touchstone appeared, they have shown themselves to be naught but dross.Baha’u’llah, Kitab-i-Iqan
Of course, the inherent problem with using a risk-based model for determining your response to revelation is that it is ultimately superficial. True faith is born of genuine love and recognition of the Manifestation of God, and stems from the hearts yearning to fulfill its spiritual purpose. That is, the spirit of true faith is an act of love and certainty, not a calculated decision based on a careful cost/benefit analysis, which is exactly what Pascal proposed when he said the following:
…you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.Blaise Pascal, Pensées