by Jonathan Ekene Ifeanyi
|Plato and Aristotle|
In our yesterday discussion on Facebook, on the topic “Where do our morals come from?”, Jan Pretorius, responding to Jordan Azoth Mamano (and indirectly to my own article on Relativism), wrote:
“You claim that there is some absolute notion of right and wrong, and this is where my position gets tricky. I don't think there is absolute right or wrong, but we can establish objective right and wrong when we define a moral structure that we want to live with.
“The reason I feel this way is that I find a few problems with the idea of absolute morality:
“1. As soon as you say something is metaphysical, I don't know what you are talking about. Can we measure it? Can we at all even know anything about something that is metaphysical? A metaphysical element can, by its very nature, not be proven in conventional physical means. But, if you are not proving anything physically or demonstrably, then you are far way from proving it.
“2. Can we know or tap into such a metaphysical morality if it existed, and how can we discover what the absolute morals are? Furthermore, how did they come to be? You may think the origins of morality to be inconsequential, but it matters if we want to answer the question - WHY obey absolute morals, if they existed? This question is important because of my next point.
“3. How have you determined that the absolute morals, supposing there are any, are actually the best way to live? It is entirely possible that if absolute moral codes existed, they might not always be very efficient. Here is an example:
“Suppose that there was an absolute moral code that says we should never murder. Does that mean we should absolutely never murder? Or are there cases such as self-defence or preventing other deaths, where murder can be permitted? I doubt that an absolute moral code could be nuanced enough to include every single complicated moral dilemma possible. Either we would have to improve upon that morality, or we would have to adjust it in relative terms.
“For this reason I subscribe to an objective sense of morality (not absolute). We can say that it is objective when we determine the goals of morality. This is a morality that requires constant investigation and evaluating situations as they come along. I would say that this is better than absolute morality, and I would even venture as far as to say that this is better than absolute morality even if absolute morality existed (perhaps depending on its origin).”
Here, I wish to respond to these questions as briefly as I can, and without wasting time I start with the first objection raised, namely that “As soon as you say something is metaphysical, I don't know what you are talking about. Can we measure it?...”
What is Metaphysics? Metaphysics is that branch of philosophy which treats of the most general and fundamental principles underlying all reality and all knowledge. It is the foundation of a worldview. It answers the question “What is?” It encompasses everything that exists, as well as the nature of existence itself. It says whether the world is real, or merely an illusion. It is a fundamental view of the world around us.
The word metaphysics is formed from the Greek τὰ μετὰ τὰ φυσικά (ta meta ta phusika), a title which, about the year A.D. 70, was related by Andronicus of Rhodes, a Greek philosopher, to that collection of Aristotelean treatises which since then goes by the name of the “Metaphysics”. Aristotle himself had referred to that branch of philosophy as “the theological science” (theologikê). (Note: theology translates into English from the Greek theologia (θεολογία) which derived from Τheos (Θεός), meaning “God,” and -logia (-λογία), meaning “utterances, sayings, or oracles” (a word related to logos [λόγος], meaning “word, discourse, account, or reasoning”) which had passed into Latin as theologia and into French as théologie). Aristotle referred to that branch of philosophy as the “theological science” because it culminated in the consideration of the nature of God, and as “first philosophy” (prôtê philosophia), both because it considered the first causes of things, and because, in his estimation, it is first in importance. The editor, Andronicus, however, overlooked both these titles, and, because he believed that that part of the Aristotelean corpus came naturally after the physical treatises, he entitled it “after the physics”—Greek τὰ μετὰ τὰ φυσικά. This is the historical origin of the term.
Many modern philosophers—like the positivists—have been advocating a total destruction of metaphysics, the only crime of metaphysics being that it delves into the immaterial world inaccessible to sense perception. But it is impossible to destroy metaphysics—to do so is simply to destroy philosophy itself. Metaphysics is very important because it is, in fact, the foundation of philosophy. Without an explanation or an interpretation of the world around us, we would be helpless to deal with reality—we could not feed ourselves, or act to preserve our lives. The degree to which our metaphysical worldview is correct is the degree to which we are able to comprehend the world, and act accordingly. Without this firm foundation, all knowledge becomes suspect. Any flaw in our view of reality will make it more difficult to live.
In fact philosophy started just this way—the metaphysical way. The very first philosophers started with metaphysical cosmology (from the Greek κόσμος, kosmos “world” and -λογία, -logia “study of”), which is the study of the origin, evolution, and eventual fate of the universe by thought alone. Thales proposed a first principle (ἀρχή, arche) of the cosmos, namely water—holding that the universe is alive, that it has a soul and is full of gods; Anaximander posited what he called the boundless apeiron (ἄπειρον), and Anaximenes thought that there was something boundless that underlies all other things, and made this boundless thing something definite—air, etc. These philosophers—and their successors—thought of themselves as inquirers into many things, and the range of their inquiry was vast. They had views about the nature of the world, and these views encompass what we today call physics, chemistry, geology, meteorology, astronomy, embryology, and psychology (and other areas of natural inquiry), as well as theology, metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. They tried to explain the world and the whole of reality—which is the primary function of metaphysics.
Reality is absolute. It has a specific nature independent of our thoughts or feelings. The world around us is real. It has a specific nature and it must be consistent to that nature. A proper metaphysical worldview must aim to understand reality correctly. The physical world exists, and every entity has a specific nature. It acts according to that nature. When different entities interact, they do so according to the nature of both. Every action has a cause and an effect. Causality is the means by which change occurs, but the change occurs via a specific nature.
Aristotle (in Met., VI, 1026 a, 31) placed metaphysics in the genus of “science”—he called it “the theological science”. As a science, it has, in common with other sciences, this characteristic that it seeks a knowledge of things in their causes. What is peculiar to metaphysics is the difference “of being as being.” In this phrase are combined at once the material object and the formal object of metaphysics. The material object is being, the whole world of reality, whether subjective or objective, possible or actual, abstract or concrete, immaterial or material, infinite or finite. Everything that exists comes within the scope of metaphysical inquiry. Other sciences are restricted to one or several departments of being: physics has its limited field of inquiry, mathematics is concerned only with those things which have quantity. Metaphysics knows no such restrictions. Its domain is all reality. For instance, the human soul and God, because they have neither colour nor weight, thermic nor electric properties, do not fall within the scope of the physicist’s investigation; because they are devoid of quantity, they do not come within the field of inquiry of the mathematician. But, since they are beings, they do come within the domain of metaphysical investigation. The material object of metaphysics is, therefore, all beings. As Aristotle says (Met., IV, 1004 a, 34): “It is the function of the philosopher to be able to investigate all things.”
Unfortunately this is no longer the “function” of many modern philosophers—whose primary function rather seems to be their obsession with the rejection of the supernatural!
Jan Pretorius’ assertion that “if you are not proving anything physically or demonstrably, then you are far way from proving it” clearly shows that he isn’t even talking about metaphysics—which he perceives to be only about the immaterial—but about something else!
Pretorius is certainly a materialist. Materialism, naturally, objects to the claim of metaphysics to be a science of the immaterial. If nothing exists except matter, a science of the immaterial has no justification. But Pretorius—and indeed all Materialists—forgets that the assertion, “Nothing exists except matter”, is either a summing up of the individual experience of the materialist himself, meaning that he has never experienced anything except matter and manifestations of matter, and then the assertion is merely of biographical interest; or it is an affirmation regarding possible human experience, a declaration of the impossibility of immaterial existence, and in that sense it is a statement which in itself has a metaphysical import! Materialism is in fact a metaphysical theory of reality and hence is a contribution to the science which it professes to reject!
The second question, “Can we know or tap into such a metaphysical morality if it existed, and how can we discover what the absolute morals are?” sounds somehow meaningless because “metaphysical morality” is inherent in our nature as human beings. How can you ask me how you can discover what is in you?
Man is naturally a moral being, so asking the question “can we discover what the absolute morals are?” is just as funny as asking if we can discover that we are really human beings. For me, it doesn’t sound rational. As we read in the article (during our FB discussion), “Aristotle pointed out that all rational thinking is ultimately ordered towards some perceived good, and its function is to help us discern between good or bad, an essentially moral purpose. Plato and his followers insisted that man's nobility lies in his desire for ultimate truth, goodness, and beauty, and that all these are really facets of the same ultimate reality, making the pursuit of truth (rationality) impossible to divorce from the pursuit of the good (morality)”. (See: Where do our morals come from?).
Again, your assertion (that “People have gotten morality wrong for ages. It is something that we work on consistently. It is not sacred, otherwise we wouldn't be improving on it”) was rightly addressed by Jayson Paul Rucks. He wrote:
“When you say that we are “improving” on morality, isn't that appealing to an objective standard since you’re saying that there is an objective, ideal standard out there to “aim towards” with improvement? You can’t improve on morality without that sense of “improving” being attached to an “ideal” standard of “ethical goodness”. Therefore, who is the authority to define ---the--- “ideal” standard of ethics? Who is the authority to define what is good from evil?”
On the third question raised, namely that “I subscribe to an objective sense of morality (not absolute). We can say that it is objective when we determine the goals of morality. This is a morality that requires constant investigation and evaluating situations as they come along...”, I respond:
We can’t “determine” the goals of morality because morality exists independently of our thoughts and feelings. Moral Absolutism is the ethical belief that there are absolute standards against which moral questions can be judged, and that certain actions are right or wrong, regardless of the context of the act. Thus, actions are inherently moral or immoral, regardless of the beliefs and goals of the individual, society or culture that engages in the actions. It holds that morals are inherent in the laws of the universe, the nature of humanity, the will of God or some other fundamental source. I subscribe to this.
It is, of course, common nowadays for the non-religious to point out that almost all of them are “moral” in the sense they pay taxes, don't murder, don’t rape people, and so on. So already we see morality basically being understood as “not being evil”!
But morality is and has always been about more than that—it’s about what we mean by goodness, living life according to objective virtues, disciplining one’s passions, and living life for others, not oneself. It’s not impossible to be moral in that sense without a religion, but it’s certainly very hard. As someone puts it, “Without God or other ultimate grounding, a life spent masturbating all day while playing MMOs is just as “good” as a life where one works to raise a family while contributing to charity and volunteering.”
So Pretorius’ “good” as an objective concept is completely meaningless.
This is not to say that without a religion we become lazy blobs—many non-religious people of course live the virtues (though that is because morals, as already stated, are also inherent in the laws of the universe and in the very nature of humanity). It’s rather to make a reference to the objectivity of morality—to say that objective Good exists and is independent of humanity and does not depend on society or change based on culture. For Catholics, God is “The Good” and the goal towards which we must align ourselves in all our thoughts and actions—without Him, in fact, there is nothing like morality.
Atheists can donate to charity, love their families and friends, and do all sorts of other really good things. They do it because it makes them and those whom they help feel good. However, when we ask the question of why they and others should feel good, they usually chalk it up to “common sense” or some other non-answer. If pleasure is just another meaningless cosmic phenomenon, then it doesn't make sense to “construct” a moral system around it. However, if our form of the Good is God, who by His infinite nature continually gives meaning to Himself, then we have a good and solid foundation on which our morality is built.