Once More On Moral Hallowing

My post last week on moral hallowing kicked up some conversation with atheists who took issue with my claim that everyone, even atheists, engage in moral hallowing.

Feel free, if you're curious, to wade into those exchanges in the comments of that post. It's not very illuminating. As you might expect, the atheists I was engaging with and I generally failed to communicate and talked past each other.

And yet, the many back and forths made me want to clarify some of the confusions I noted and to clarify the argument I was making.

There was a lot of confusion about what I meant by "moral hallowing." I admit, that language is idiosyncratic. But the post did define what I meant by "moral hallowing," specifically that ethics requires some "metaphysical grounding."

But that phrase also seemed to cause confusion. Here I became confused, as I felt I defined what metaphysical grounding meant in the post (and repeatedly in the comments). Also, I don't feel that the point I was making was all that complicated. I think most readers saw what I was getting at. But maybe it's a hard idea to grasp.

I think some of the confusion came from the atheists assuming that "metaphysical" means "supernatural." But that's not what philosophers mean by metaphysical. Yes, to posit a supernatural realm implies metaphysics, but metaphysics doesn't imply the supernatural.

So, what is metaphysics?

Metaphysics involves many things, but the thing I was focusing on is how metaphysics involves any analysis and definitions of first-order concepts, rules, and presuppositions. Metaphysics is going "meta" in your analysis, stepping back to observe and specify the foundational definitions at work, the rules in play, and the unspoken presuppositions regulating in the background.

I often describe metaphysics as positing the "axioms" at work in a system, but that also seemed to cause confusion. What did I mean that ethics requires "axioms"? To describe axioms I use the word "given" a lot, but one could also say "definitional" or "assumed." Some philosophers use the words "simples" or "atoms." Basically, axiomatic means the definitions and rules that have to be posited and taken for granted to get the logical or analytical ball rolling. Ethical and moral judgments, in the case of my post.

The biggest axioms in moral hallowing are concepts like "good," "evil," "should," "wrong," or "ought." In the comments of my post I repeatedly tried to get the atheists to give me a definition of "good" that wasn't non-circular to illustrate the axiomatic, metaphysical nature of their ethical reasoning.

For example, when I asked the atheists why something is "wrong" they mainly answered by saying something like: "Something is wrong when it causes harm or suffering." To which I'd ask them, but why is causing harm or suffering wrong? Why couldn't it be right? Or a matter of indifference? Suffering is, after all, just a brute fact that the cosmos doesn't care about. The responses I got tended to be something like, "Causing pain and suffering is wrong because it harms and hurts people (or some other synonym of pain/hurt/harm/suffering)" In one fascinating exchange a lot of time was spent on the ethics of torturing kittens.

Anywho, it all boiled down to a lot of circular reasoning: Causing harm and suffering is wrong because it hurts people.

That circular reasoning, this definitional spinning of the wheels, is a sign that we've just bumped into an axiom, that we've just engaged in metaphysics and moral hallowing. That is what I was trying to illustrate. Most of us, I assume, espouse an ethical axiom along the lines that causing pain and suffering is wrong. This is a metaphysical judgment in that it's an evaluation imposed upon an indifferent cosmos. Stated simply, wrong is different from pain. Pain is just a brute fact. Wrong is a judgment about something being out of kilter with the Gestalt.

But there's even more metaphysics involved than this evaluation of wrongness. For example, I repeatedly tried to get the atheists to make a distinction between preferences and morality. There's a difference, most of us admit, between saying "I don't like people causing harm and suffering" versus "It is wrong to cause harm and suffering."  When we say something is "wrong" most of us mean something more than "I don't like that."

I admit, I badgered the atheists about this distinction. The reason I did was twofold. First, it's important to nail down that we do, in fact, make a distinction between "That is wrong" versus "I don't like that." Because there is a theory of ethics, it's called emotivism, that argues that all ethical language really is just an expression of preferences. According to emotivism, when I say "That is wrong" all I'm really saying is "I don't like that."

The reason I needed to get clarity on this point is because emotivism doesn't involve metaphysics. In emotivism moral language like "right" vs. "wrong" or "good" vs. "evil" really is just an expression of preferences and emotions. Hitler is horrifying, according to emotivism, but he isn't evil.

Most of us aren't emotivists. I asked the atheists, and they weren't either. To a person they agreed that there is a difference between preferences and morality. We all agreed that "wrong" means something more than "I don't like that."

But how, I asked repeatedly, do we move from preferences to morality? What's happening when we say something is "wrong" that isn't happening when we say "I don't like that" or "I don't approve"?

One big distinction is that when we say something is wrong there is an expectation of compliance. People shouldn't do wrong things, and if they are doing wrong things they should stop. Beyond evaluation, when we say causing harm and suffering is wrong we are also saying that people should stop causing harm and suffering.

When I describe this aspect of moral language I often talk about our moral axioms being "binding" and how we can't "opt out." What I'm talking about is how moral hallowing creates the words "should," "ought" or "must." You should not, ought not, must not cause harm and suffering.

My point in drawing attention to this aspect of moral judgement is that this "should" and "ought" is, once again, a metaphysical move. An imperative shows up on the scene, a command that doesn't exist in the cosmos until we create and impose it upon matter. Again, suffering and pain is just a brute fact. As David Hume pointed out long ago, there's nothing in the raw empirical picture that creates an "ought." You can't get an ought from an is. You need metaphysics for that.

Now, an occasional response here is to leverage the data of the social sciences to create an "ought," to squeeze values from facts. We examine all the personal, social, and political factors that promote human flourishing. Then, in light of all that empirical data, something is "right" if it contributes to flourishing and "wrong" if it doesn't contributing to flourishing. The notion here is that the trajectory of human flourishing creates a telos, a goal that we should be working toward. "Right" and "wrong" are just words we use to describe people who are contributing to or undermining the flourishing project. "Should" and "ought" language is pragmatic in this view: if you want humans to flourish you "should" and "ought" to do x, y and z.

Now you might have noticed something a bit squirrelly in what I just said. Specifically, just because science gives us the levers of flourishing does that mean we must pull them? And that we must thwart those would are horrifically interfering with flourishing? Empirically speaking, sex traffickers are impeding flourishing. That's a fact. So, if we want to promote flourishing--if that is our preference--then we should stop them. But must we? Are we morally obligated to stop them? Or is this just a preference?       

We're back to the issue I kept posing to the atheists about preferences and morality. Is the promotion of human flourishing a preference, something we'd like for the world, or is the promotion of human flourishing something we must work toward? Are we morally obligated to stand in the way of sex traffickers?

We might debate that point, and I doubt we could get universal agreement that we are morally obligated to stop sex traffickers. But for my humble purposes, I don't need everyone to agree with me. All I need for the purposes of my post is to note that a lot of people, Christians and atheists, are very willing to say we should, must, and ought to stop sex trafficking, to say nothing of rape, pedophilia, and genocide. (And by stop I don't mean kill, I mean stop. We can be non-violent in trying to stop evil if non-violence is an ethical axiom you assume, something you morally hallow.)

And if this is granted, and I don't know how you can't grant the point that most people think we're morally obligated to stop evil, we're back to another example of metaphysical grounding and moral hallowing. The rule "if you're harming people you must stop" isn't an empirical fact. It's a rule we impose upon the cosmos. It's an axiom we take as a given, a background assumption of the system. And to my point, most people, even atheists, do, in fact, assume it.

Now before closing, let me also say this. There's a lot of work in ethics trying to create, for lack of a better description, a "naturalistic ethics," an ethics that is rooted wholly in empirical data. Sam Harris comes to mind. The attraction of this project for atheists is obvious. And as a social scientist I find a lot of this work, which is focused on human flourishing, very interesting.

That said, at the end of the day this project really boils down to what might best be described as moral technology or social engineering, what we should do from a pragmatic point of view to promote human flourishing without any obligation to do so. Because, at the end of the day, the cosmos doesn't care about Hitler or pedophilia.

But even then--even then!--this project is going to require some metaphysical guardrails. Take the example of eugenics. Even if science can give us the end of the project--more human flourishing--it can't always help us with the means. Some non-negotiable, axiomatic rules need to get laid down, as some ends don't justify the means. Once again, we're back to metaphysics, rules that have to be assumed before we can get the ball rolling.

All that to say, after a lot of discussion with the atheists I'm even more confident that ethics requires metaphysics.

Everyone, even atheists, engages in moral hallowing.

To be fair, not everyone engages in moral hallowing. But most of us do. Even atheists.

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