The Metaphysics of Morality: Part 4, Everyone Hallows

As I've made arguments about the necessity of metaphysics to keep morality from sliding into nihilism, I've repeatedly made two points.

The first point has been the most contentious and the one we've devoted most of our attention to, the necessity of metaphysics to ground morality and ethics.

Skeptical atheist readers have had all sorts of questions about what I mean by "metaphysics" "grounding" ethics.

By metaphysics, as I have repeatedly said, I don't mean spooky or supernatural. By metaphysical I mean how some systems require axiomatic givens, a priori truths, and first principles. My argument is that morality only escapes nihilism if it can assert some goods and values as axiomatic givens, as a priori truths, as guiding first principles, non-negotiable values that the legal philosopher Hans Kelsen has called "basic norms." With basic norms in place we can proceed with the task of ethical deliberation asking, "What ought we do do?" Without asserting some basic norms we can never get traction on that question. We'd have no criteria to define "the good."

I think all that describes what I mean by metaphysics "grounding" ethics. But people still get tripped up on the word "grounding." What do I mean by "grounding"?

The definition of grounding I'm using is this: grounding involves "taking something vague, theoretical and abstract and giving it a firm practical basis." Metaphysics "grounds" ethics in that it takes abstractions like "good," "evil," "right," "wrong," "well-being," "harm," and "flourishing" and makes them practical by specifying the values necessary to give those terms concrete, actionable meaning.

For example, we all want to act in ways that are "good." But that abstraction--good--is meaningless until we lay some values on the table to define what we mean by "good." The same goes for words like "harm," "well-being," and "flourishing." There are wildly different views about what does or does not constitute harm, well-being and flourishing, so those words by themselves are too abstract to be of practical use. They need grounding. Metaphysics grounds ethics when we assert non-negotiable values that define what we mean by good. These values allow us to evaluate competing ethical claims, helping us choose the good and adjudicate between competing goods when they come into conflict.

So that is the first point I've been making. Metaphysics is required to ground morality and ethics. The alternative is moral nihilism.

The second point I've repeatedly made is that everyone engages in his metaphysical work. To be fair, everyone engages in this work except moral nihilists, people who think words like "good" and "evil" are inherently meaningless. But most people, however, think the words "good" and "evil" have meaning beyond an expression of our preferences. Most people think the statement "Hitler is evil" is different from "I strongly disapprove of Hitler." Which means most people are metaphysicians, positing values that exist independently of our personal preferences ("evil" means more than disapproval), values that are universally applicable (the values that define "evil" apply to me, you, and Hitler), and values that stand in judgment of people like Hitler ("evil" should be condemned, prevented and stopped).

And if all that is granted, and I cannot see how anyone but a moral nihilist wouldn't grant it, we reach the point that kicked off these reflections many weeks ago: Everyone engages in what I've called "moral hallowing."

To be sure, this is idiosyncratic language. "Hallowing" is an old term meaning "to make holy." To hallow is to declare something as sacred and set apart. I have described the metaphysical grounding of morality as "moral hallowing." By that I mean both parts of the argument I made above.

First, the metaphysics of morality "hallows" in that it asserts, sets apart, and protects the basic norms that ground ethical reasoning. The values that give "evil" its moral weight cannot themselves be called into question, otherwise we descend into moral nihilism. In this sense, these values are "sacred" and "set apart." Hallowed. 

Second, these values are universally applicable and stand in judgment of human actions. The values that judge Hitler also judge me and you. More, there's an expectation of compliance with these values. "Evil" isn't a lifestyle choice where we shrug and say, "Live and let live." We expect evil to stop, and feel morally obligated to prevent it.

All this points to the sacred, hallowed aspect of morality. Some values are "set apart" as inviolable and all of humanity is judged by those values, sorting the good from the evil. And everyone except moral nihilists engages in this metaphysical task.

As I've said, everyone hallows.

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