Moral Enchantment

Featured image is Starry Night Over the Rhone, by Vincent van Gogh

My fellow Sweet Talker Paul offered some thoughts on moral objectivity this week. It was not so long ago that I was looking for this very sort of answer to this very question. As few as two, perhaps even one and a half years ago, I might have quibbled with the details but agreed with the spirit of the piece. Eight years ago I took a stab at something like it, though much less sophisticated.

My situation was very different then.

Lately it is not the substance of the answer that I struggle the most with. It is the question itself: is morality objective or subjective? Even intersubjectivity seems dissatisfactory, when most simply treat it as either one or the other–either pseudo-objectivity, or just as arbitrary as plain old subjectivity.

In what follows I will offer, if not an answer, then a picture, an attempt to portray how matters appear. I am not yet at a stage where I could tell you the question to which this picture is a provisional answer.


The inward turn, the very division of subject and object, is a late development in our history. Most scholars on the matter that I have read pin the blame primarily on Descartes, as well as some of his contemporaries. Charles Taylor believes the intellectual stream can be traced back to Augustine, but in any case Descartes represented a radical shift (though to what extent this was driven by practice rather than by Descartes’ articulations, Taylor leaves explicitly ambiguous).

This inward turn has invited misreadings of works created before it occurred. We tend to think of Plato’s Ideas as something perceived in our minds. Instead, the metaphor he used was one of turning one’s eyes. Vision itself wasn’t conceived as having some internal component; you look with your eyes on your head, and you see. Simple as that. It is outward.

Taylor describes the pre-inward framework as follows:

Our activity of praising (when right) is continuous with the valuation in things, just as knowledge in its actuality is with the actuality of the object. The significance of being objects of praise inhabits, as it were, praiseworthy things. It can almost be thought of as something which emanates from them. (…)

The paradigm case of this relation is, of course, the glory of God. We glorify God; so glory is something we would seem to be bestowing. But in doing this we are only responding to God’s glory. The same term (‘doxa’) designated a property of God, and what we confer. The two join when our praising is ‘straight’ or ‘right’ (i.e., when we have ‘orthe doxa’).

The romantics, and their intellectual heirs, described modernity as a process of objectifying the world. Max Weber called this disenchantment, in the sense that the thick participation described above—where the “enchantments” took place—was lost to us.

I used to think this was hogwash, especially the notion of some special modern objectification. After all, since the first tool-makers, humans have found novel ways to turn their surroundings into means for their own ends.

But in the final analysis, there is something to it. A particular force that, if present throughout human history, has moved to center stage among the ideals that characterize our times. Now the drive to break things down to their simplest components, to dissect every living thing, and to achieve the highest levels of efficiency, are not simply intermediate goals to the actual ends they help us achieve—they have become ends unto themselves.

Stated abstractly, it isn’t such a bad thing. Romantic and continental handwringing aside, this disenchantment has borne some very good fruit. The discovery of penicillin, the mass production of standardized clothes sizes, the Green Revolution—these have greatly enriched the world.

But of course it has borne a great deal of rotten fruit as well. “Scientific” racism, nuclear weapons, and the institutionalized mass murders of the 20th century. Factories of efficiently produced clothing and cars inspired factories of efficient death.

Let us table all of that for the moment, and admit that, at minimum, our disenchantment has helped us learn a great deal about the universe that we might not have otherwise. In casting the scientist as a subject examining intrinsically meaningless objects, big strides have been made in physics, chemistry, and biology, to say nothing of the more applied fields.

However, it seems to me that there are hard limits to this approach. In particular, morality or ethics, language, and society, remain fundamentally enchanted.

Freefalling Into Life

Children first experience this world in this way. They do not encounter things as discrete entities to be examined one by one, but as imbued with significance and continuous with the situation in which they are encountered.

I am not saying that there is some instinctive, pre-cultural way of being that is superior. To be human is to be cultivated. But this cultivation takes the form of initiation into the games of social life; we learn how to participate in the practices, the arts, and the talk of our community. It feels like it is already there for us to join in on, yet to join it is to change it in subtle ways. The ground is constantly shifting under your feet, even as you begin to feel you’ve adjusted.

American cultivation includes initiation into the subject-object schema. This is not generally done through a formal explanation of the concepts; the language of objective and subjective pervade our culture. The relationship is tacitly assumed in our practices in a way that is almost invisible. You cannot grow up American and avoid having this schema form part of your background assumptions about how the world works. And as a result, you are likely to encounter situations in which you are called upon to treat some thing as a meaningless, inert object, to be put to purely instrumental use.

But part of what keeps the ground shifting under us are the myriad contradictions we must navigate on a daily basis. While the subject-object schema certainly forms an important part of our hermeneutic situation, there are other, clashing assumptions in play as well.

You see this in our art and entertainment. The heroic scientist-rationalist who has no patience for social conventions is a prominent trope, almost a stereotype; but they always seem to fall in love, or give in to the pull of the many comforting irrationalities of humanity. This is not presented as a deviation from the right path, but as growth. In short, the narrative reconciles romantic ideals with rationalist ones, though they are in truth quite incompatible.

And so a kernel of the old enchantment remains, though people are largely unable to articulate it. Yet in participating in social practices, in cracking the joke that is just right for the moment, and in using language in general, we tacitly point towards richer horizons than the subject-object schema can contain.

Returning to the Phainomena

Aristotle began his classic investigation of ethics by attending to appearances (phainomena), a move which confounds philosophers and philologists to this day. The phenomenology of virtue as Aristotle described it does not sit well with the subject-object schema. Virtue is not an object, nor is happiness (eudaimonia). Nor are they merely subjective projections. They can be read, instead, from the structure of human life, existing as part and whole in the hermeneutic circle in which we spend our days.

Aristotle clearly believed that there was value to be found in articulating this aspect of human existence. But it was not because he felt that a foundation was needed, lest we abandon morality. In fact, he thought that ethics was a worthless subject for all except those who in some sense already understood it.

Though he is no foundationalist, I sense in Paul’s post a bit of the anxiety of our age. I know I felt it myself when I wrote posts in that spirit. We have trouble taking a subject seriously if we cannot master it the way the mathematician or physicist can master theirs. This is the predicament we are put in by our flawed, disenchanted horizons.

It is simply inappropriate to ask whether morality lives as object or in subject. It is immanent in human life, in that enchanted space we are incapable of speaking of. It would therefore disappear if humans did, as we might expect something subjective would do. But characterizing it as subjective misses the point entirely.

We must attend in this case to the phenomena, as Aristotle advised. And he provided one of the best tellings we have of that phenomena—but he was perhaps too influenced by his master Plato’s vision of cosmic harmony. The phenomenology of morality appears, from my vantage point, to contain a far larger element of tragedy than either of them allowed. Augustine saw this more clearly; it is not just that we wrestle with uncertainty and indeterminacy, as Aristotle saw to a certain extent. We often see the right path open quite clearly before us, but have no desire to take it.

But we can grow,  struggling with our imperfect intellect and the perversities of our will as we do. We can strive to be and do good, though we will often fail.

Morality is immanent in lived human life, unfolding in each situation we encounter. The moral disagreement between and within cultures which the nihilist gleefully remarks upon is no argument for immoralism. It’s the unavoidable consequence of the vast plurality of situations human beings have encountered.

Consider how hard it is to say whether a social psychology study has been replicated or not. Invoking Heraclitus, Alex Tabarrok says “No experiment can ever be replicated so each attempted replication must assume that the things which differ don’t matter.” Psychologists increasingly cannot agree on whether successful or failed replications count, because they cannot agree on whether the experimental situation is importantly “the same” or not.

And that is when the situations are as controlled as they reasonably can be. What hope is there for universal agreement in the muddled mess of the world?

I believe it is important to oppose evil and dangerous ideas as best we can—though if philosophers took this seriously they would abandon their subject and become artists.

Regardless, I do not think morality requires some logically formulated foundation. I am sure that people will by and large continue to be enchanted by morality, even if they struggle to say so.

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