The Metaphysics of Morality: Part 3, Metaphysical Smuggling

Since I've started pursuing these explorations into the relationship between morals and metaphysics I've been reading quite a few books on this topic. I am not, you should know, the first to have noted the connection, that there is a "givenness" to values that can make them tautological and circular in how they simply have to be axiomatically asserted. Nor am I the first to note that this "givenness" makes morality and ethics an inherently metaphysical enterprise.

One book that has been very helpful in this exploration has been Steven Smith's book The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse. If you've been intrigued by my posts about moral hallowing and the metaphysical grounding of values you might want to read Smith's book.

A part of Smith's argument involves an examination the Enlightenment. Summarizing a conclusion reached by many scholars, Smith describes how the Enlightenment thinkers set out to build a moral system from scratch using only "pure reason" and the careful study of "human experience." But what the Enlightenment thinkers ultimately and unconsciously ended up doing was "cheating," smuggling in the values of the Judeo-Christian tradition they thought they were repudiating. As Smith describes (p. 157), "While purporting to derive ethical guidance from human experience, in fact they systematically imported their own preconceived values and imposed these values onto human experience...[T]hey pretended to ground their principles of ethics and justice in their empirical research and reflections, but in fact [as Carl Becker observed] 'the principles they are bound to find are the very ones they start out with.'"

In short, the Enlightenment smuggled Judeo-Christian values into their system. The Enlightenment thinkers praised themselves as Apostles of Reason, but their entire project was "constituted at its core by a practice of pervasive deception and self-deception."

Smith then goes on to argue that we continue to follow the footsteps of the Enlightenment. Specifically, we also smuggle metaphysical notions and values into our ethical arguments. As modern, secular people we pretend we can use pure reason to make ethical decisions independent of axiomatic values or metaphysical commitments, values and commitments often dependent upon or borrowed from religious traditions. We convince ourselves we are reasoning independently of these values, but what's actually happening is a smuggling operation, we are using non-religious terms and ideas but we are using these as vehicles "suitable for sneaking values or premises that are officially inadmissible" into secular ethical and legal deliberations.

For example, Smith has us consider the harm principle. Something is wrong if it causes harm to others. The harm principle seems to be a straightforward, rational, and objective criterion by which we can judge right vs. wrong. A related criterion, one Smith doesn't consider in as much detail but has come up a lot in the discussions on this blog, is that we should act in ways that promote human "well-being" or "flourishing." Again, this seems to be an objective and rational way of thinking about right or wrong.

But in both these cases, according to Smith, smuggling is taking place. When you drill down into the harm principle or the imperative to promote well-being and flourishing you eventually uncover a lot of values, values that simply have to be asserted, taken as axiomatic givens. We think we can avoid metaphysics when speaking about harm, well-being, and flourishing, but all we are doing is smuggling in our values.

Consider the harm principle. On the surface, it seems simple. Do no harm, right? What's metaphysical about that? Well, a moment's consideration reveals that people have very different notions about what does or does not constitute harm. As Smith observes (p. 104), "'[H]arm,' as we've seen, turns out to be a receptive vessel into which advocates can pour virtually any content they like, or that they can persuade others to swallow." 

Consider the following contentious issues:
  • Is the War on Drugs causing harm? Would legalizing drugs be causing harm?
  • Is it harmful for adults to have sex with consenting teenagers?
  • Who is more harmed, the baker who is asked to bake a wedding cake that violates their beliefs, or the gay couple who is refused service?
  • In the case of border control, whose harm should we care more about, harm to the citizens of the nation or harm to the illegal immigrant seeking a better life?
We can go on and on. Bland statements like "First, do no harm" are useless here outside of any metaphysical or values-based commitments.

Beyond harm, the same goes with defining "the good" as promoting human "well-being" and human "flourishing." As with harm, people have competing visions of human well-being and flourishing. There is no universal agreement on what "well-being" and "flourishing" even means. The statement "the good is what promotes human well-being and human flourishing" is meaningless. For example, does it promote human "well-being" or "flourishing" to have open or closed borders between nations? Does it promote human "well-being" or "flourishing" for the government to coercively garnish your hard earned wages to pay for social welfare programs? And if so, to what degree? What about legalizing drugs or prostitution? What about abortion? And on and on. People disagree about all this stuff. So you need to define what you mean by "well-being" and "flourishing," and there is no way to do that without sharing your metaphysical commitments and axiomatic values.

In sum, words like "harm," "well-being," and "flourishing" in these debates are just a vehicles for smuggling in your metaphysical commitments and values. As Smith observes (p. 105):
It would seem to follow that responsible and meaningful debates would neither contend over the harm principle nor expect it to do any real work in resolving contentious issues. Instead, [these debates should] engage with the larger theories or visions or commitments from which particular understandings of "harm" are derived. "As we discourse on public affairs," John Courtney Murray observed, "we inevitably have to move upward, as it were, into realms of some theoretical generality--into metaphysics, ethics, theology." ... If conversations about "harm" are to be anything more that obfuscating and question-begging, they need to carry us to consider our deeper commitments and their bases in such things as "metaphysics, ethics, theology."

And there is the rub. Because it is precisely those sorts of matters that the cage of modern secular discourse operates to keep out of the conversation.
(If you want to see plenty of examples of this, just read some of the back and forth comments between myself and some atheist readers of this blog. You push them to unpack their definitions of harm, well-being, or flourishing, asking that they lay their values and metaphysical commitments on the table, and they just get stuck. They bluster, they name-call, they change the subject. It's fascinating to watch. And the reason they get stuck at that point is that it forces them to face their smuggling operation, forces them to admit they are working with metaphysical commitments and grounding values. But to admit that gives too much of the argument way. So they dig in their heels and a lot of "obfuscating and question-begging" results.)

In debates about morality, secular thinkers like to think they can avoid the issue of metaphysics by appealing to "objective" criteria like "harm," "well-being," or "flourishing." But these terms are functionally meaningless. You can't define harm or flourishing or adjudicate between harms or competing visions of flourishing without a system of guiding values rooted in a metaphysical notion of "the good."

All that to say, we are back to the argument I've been making. You can't get ethical reasoning off the ground without engaging in metaphysics, without minimally asserting some values as self-evident givens. From the Enlightenment on there have been attempts to sidestep the necessity of metaphysics for ethics and morals, but every attempt to do so through "rational" appeals to "harm" or "flourishing" simply end up smuggling metaphysics and values into the conversation.

You might think you can escape the necessity of metaphysics when you talk about morals, but you can't. You're just smuggling.

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