Morality Is And Ought To Be Circular

Featured image is Spirals, by M. C. Escher.

A lot of bad moral philosophy boils down to a simple assertion that X is bad because Y. X is something we all agree is bad ahead of time, and Y is the justification the philosopher is attempting to supply after the fact. The problem is not that this reasoning is motivated. The problem is the reasoning itself.

If X is bad because of standard Y, why is standard Y good? Well, because of meta-standard Z, of course. And on and on—we have entered the classic infinite regress. Foundationalism from Descartes to the present attempted to find the last step in chains like this—Z because Alpha, full stop. But foundationalism is a failed projected, doomed because it attempts to supply a firm answer to a bad question.

Lest you think I exaggerate the viciousness of these regresses or the folly of foundationalism, see the discussion in the comments of this post. This fellow earnestly believes that “because it impeded humanity’s progress” is the correct answer to the question “why was it wrong to mass murder six million innocents?” When pressed on the matter, he pointed out that we’ve had “thou shalt not kill” for thousands of years, but people keep on killing each other. Thus, we need something more persuasive to make it stop, and apparently “killing impedes progress” is it.

Except there seems to be a problem here, according to the very criteria introduced. The notion of progress is very old itself, yet many of schools thought reject the very idea of it. What is more, the very people who perpetrated the mass murder of 6 million innocents believed that they were doing it to advance the cause of progress. So it seems that not everyone has been persuaded either that progress is good, or that that its being good entails mass murder being bad.

Maybe yet another link in the chain of reasoning is needed. Progress is good because it hedges our bets against extinction, and does so by preserving and creating diversity. Thus, to mass murder in the name of progress is an error, because that reduces diversity. Conceptual problem solved!

But why should we care about extinction, or hedging against it? That might not be a problem in our lifetime. In the meantime, I could indulge in a myopic hedonism, which could include relishing the suffering and death of my enemies and their tribes.

But I belabor this example. The problem has its roots in foundationalist thinking in general. To move beyond it, we must look elsewhere.

Morality properly understood is circular, though not a closed circle. We might instead call it a spiral.

In a previous post on the subject I drew an analogy with how we understand what a good heart is. We do not say that a properly functioning heart should pump blood because blood is good because oxygen is good, and so on. We observe the function of the heart in the context of the circulatory system, which itself is understood in relation to the other systems which make up the body. The operations of the body help us see what the heart is, and seeing what the heart is helps us understand the operations of the body.

The moral spiral is just this sort of back and forth movement between the system—in this case frameworks of evaluation—and the particular good or bad. Human life as it is lived, in practice, points to such frameworks, which in turn provide the context for understanding particular episodes in specific lives.

For this reason, portrayal in art is a far richer resource for morality than philosophy or any other intellectual field. Narrative, painting, poetry, and even music disclose worlds to us that can only be accessed through portrayal of this sort. Worlds that always exceed what we articulate about them. Who can read Eli Wiesel’s Night and believe some external justification is required to demonstrate that the Holocaust was an atrocity? Only the coldest rationalist, committed to an inappropriately applied ethic of inhumanly detached reason. For the rest of us, it is plain enough to see.

The task of philosophy is to flesh out articulations of these implicit frameworks, however finite and flawed these articulations may be compared to the multitudes contained in artistic portrayal and lived practice. But these articulations do create more resources for evaluating our practices; in the factories of death we may see the moral deformity of industrial society as a way of life in general, and the art which implicitly defends it. Articulation is not a mere rationalization of what is implicit in the practice; it provides the means not only for defense but for criticism. From there the argument becomes hermeneutical—do we read Night in the way described, or does it better fit into a framework which reduces all actions coordinated by government to violence? There are no knock-down arguments here, but if we are open to our interlocutors, we can muddle our way through, doing the best we can to find the correct framework.

Finally, the fact that these articulations owe their origin to culturally specific practice should not be taken for evidence of some specific metaphysics. All of the above could be consistent with platonism, theism, or some version of materialism. Charles Taylor, from whom I have taken most of this, believes that the latter is precluded. His former student Joseph Heath does not. For myself, I think some version of aristotelianism is the most likely candidate.

But that is a larger discussion. The main takeaway I’d like to leave you with is that morality has this circular structure, and that many alternatives remain in play as possible explanations.

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