© Brendan Triffett 2018.
All rights reserved.
St Michael the Archangel, defend us.
All rights reserved.
St Michael the Archangel, defend us.
Moral realism is the view that moral statements are true or false in relation to how things are in reality. Let us grant that “murder is wrong” is a true statement. For the moral realist, this statement is true just because it corresponds to an objective moral fact. Somewhere in the totality of reality there is some objective state-of-affairs S to which this statement corresponds, where S obtains independently of any human response to things (hence the “objectivity” of the moral fact). Even if every human being were totally amoral in his approach to other human beings—even if no human person ever felt (or knew) personally any moral repugnance toward the idea of killing someone else just for personal gain—it would still be the case that murder is wrong. Murder would still be illicit—it would still be something that, simply speaking, should not be done—even if all human beings were completely ignorant or insensitive in respect to this illicitness. For the illicitness of murder is somehow inscribed in reality; it does not depend on human evaluation or social convention. Human evaluation and social convention are “true” (says the moral realist) to the extent that they recognise this ontologically-grounded standard (that murder should not be done).
If we are committed to moral realism, and agree that murder is wrong, then we should admit that something about reality itself repels us away from murder. We should agree that our moral responses—or more precisely, those which touch upon the idea of murder—are true insofar as they sympathise with the repulsion-from-murder that begins in reality. We should concede that true moral statements bring into expression the “spirit” of reality itself.
However, moral realists of the analytical type are unwilling to follow this trajectory of thought. By virtue of its method, analytical philosophy rejects anything which smacks of “mere” poetry, religion or mysticism. If something can only be said in these registers, with these modes of expression, then that “something” (says the analytical philosopher) is either (1) incoherent nonsense or (2) an irrelevancy that does not call for thought. In order to solve a given philosophical problem, or in order make sense of things rationally, it is not necessary (assumes the analytical philosopher) to give this “something” (whatever it might be) our philosophical attention. Reality as a whole is rationally manageable; we can make full sense of it (at least in principle) without drawing on the language of poetry or religion or mysticism. And so there is no “spirit” or “universal subjectivity” which pervades reality—don’t be so silly! If we are going to be rational, we shall have to be sensible, respectable, mature and self-contained (non-erotic, non-ecstatic) Anglo-Saxons.
However, if we attend honestly to the matter-to-be-thought, we are taken in the direction of “universal subjectivity”. If moral realism is true, then what follows is this: To say that murder is wrong is not merely to express our own thought or feeling about things: it is to give expression to what Reality “thinks” or “feels” about things. There is an implicit yet unyielding “No!” which resounds in reality—a silent gesture or “intention” which forbids and points away from the very idea of murder. Only by being attuned to the “spirit” of things—the way Reality feels, the direction in which Reality would have us move—can our moral responses be true. Moral truth has to be a poetic expression that rises out of Reality itself. To speak truly—including in moral matters—is to allow Reality to speak in one’s speaking. A moral statement is true to the extent that it is not merely an expression of “my” thought or “my” feeling or “my” emotional reaction, but an authentic outpouring (though my voice or action) from the heart of Reality—a poetic expression of Being, not simply an individualised expression of a being.
Following this “symbolic” understanding of truth further: The event of truth is not an externalisation of something (a thought, a feeling, a desire, an attitude) that is merely my own (and therefore not transparent to the universal or transcendent); it is the Logos, the depths of Reality, coming forth into the light, into claritas, through one’s prophetic speech. A moral statement is true if, by virtue of its logos or intrinsic meaning, it provides an authentic key or window into Reality itself. A true moral statement is an image of the Logos that is generated by the Logos (through human beings). A true moral statement, by virtue of its being an image of the Logos, has an inner “magic,” as it were—to speak this logos, in accordance with its inner meaning and spirit, is to begin to speak in and with the Logos. The true moral statement is a certain “trace” or “symbol” of God—to speak it authentically is to speak with the voice of God; it is to be initiated into Reality, to become profoundly attuned to the universe. (By contrast: A false moral statement does not open up transparently onto the divine dimension but closes in upon itself. It does not symbolise God; it fails to bring the depth of Reality into the light. To speak false moral statements is to be alienated from Reality, to be out of tune with the universe.)
Many moral realists—especially those in the analytical tradition—will question the necessity of any of this. On my view, moral realism is only sustainable if we adopt a “symbolic” account of moral truth (the bare outlines of which I just gave above). Can I provide an argument for this claim? For argument’s sake, suppose that there is nothing like a universal Spirit or Subject which pervades everything. That our true moral statements do not “tap in” to this Spirit or “give voice” to this Subject. That true moral statements are not in any way religious symbols by which we are (or can be) attuned to Reality as a whole. That to speak moral truth, it is not necessary to speak poetically and/or prophetically—allowing Being (or God) to speak in our speaking (acknowledgements to Heidegger here). How, then, could “murder is wrong”—or any other true moral statement, for that matter—possibly be true? With what feature or aspect of reality could a true moral statement correspond or line up, if there is no Spirit in the world, no Subjective Orientation animating the universe? What objective state-of-affairs could possibly validate (=make true) our true moral statements, if the world “out there” is, quite simply, spiritually empty?
[To be continued …]