An Objective Moral Order? Or Merely a Universe of “Facts” and not “Values”? Part One.

In case you haven’t noticed, we are living in an ideological revolution with respect to various social structures such as family, marriage, sex, divorce, etc.   This is not a phenomenon limited to the United States, but is in fact being played out in the West (Europe, Australia, etc.).  I cannot really speak to Asia but a cursory look at culture headlines in China and Japan seem to indicate societal shifting taking place.  This might be a worldwide trend.

One of the huge conceits of our contemporary age is our condescending attitude toward anything from the past.  We simply don’t take seriously the societal norms or cultural landmarks of bygone eras.  Now we do this for a variety of reasons.  Since past societies were more ignorant than ourselves with respect to race, gender, tribe, etc., we find ourselves looking back at previous decades with smug satisfaction.  We rest assured that we are blissfully enlightened since we live in 2012, and not 1912 or 1612.  We do not, by and large, consider ourselves handicapped by racism or sexism.  We are delightfully modern.  Perhaps even postmodern.

There is a danger posed by this hubris.  In our self-congratulatory exultation, we might mistakenly discard virtues that would illuminate our times with refreshing perspective.  We tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Not everything that happened prior to 1964 was primitive and evil; not everything that has occurred since then has been part of a glorious march of progress.

Another danger: mistaking the possession of profound technology for wisdom.  Technological sophistication does not make us gods, though perhaps we are foolish enough to believe it.  I happen to believe that in terms of human wisdom, we haven’t made much progress in a long, long time.

Aristotle held that there was an objective moral order to the Universe.  Other philosophers that have promulgated this view are St. Thomas Aquinas and Immanuel Kant.  This moral order could be apprehended via the faculty of human reason.  In other words, you could use your brain and understand that some things were just so; that some things were simply right by principle.

There is an opposing view, of course.  David Hume discarded the notion of an objective moral order by essentially positing that our conception of morality was an evolutionary byproduct.  There are no independent values, there are simply facts.  In studying the world you cannot distinguish between an “ought” and an “is”.  This is very important, because if you have no moral basis for making value judgments, then there is no reason to make Mother Theresa a saint or to condemn Adolf Hitler for killing 6 million Jews.  A Humean world is essentially an amoral world.  In the words of New York Times journalist David D. Kirkpatrick, “if I have no rational basis for picking one goal over another, then I have no free choice, only predetermined “passions” — the result of genetics, a blow to the head, whatever made me prefer either curing the sick or killing the Jews. We have reason and free choice…or we have amorality and determinism.”

If you really grasp the dichotomy illustrated above, you realize the implications are staggering.  For if it is indeed true that there are objective values, then not every idea or notion is of equal value.  Then we may discard foolish ideas with impunity.  If there are true values to find, hold, and cherish, then by default we can measure other values and find them wanting, whether it be a precious political conceit or some other boondoggle.  In other words, once you find this moral truth, it can cut through the haze and fog of obscurantism and obfuscation, the two moral vices of our age.  We can almost single-handedly demolish the sacred Shibboleths of the prevailing liberal zeitgeist, whether it be abortion, gay marriage, or just plain old tom foolery.

Another hallmark of our times is the tendency for people to recoil from absolutist statements.  Yet, I would maintain that the Universe we live in requires us, every once in a while, to reduce concepts and ideas down to their fundamentals.  After all, you are either pregnant or you are not – there is very little nuance.  In some of the issues, there is no nuance to find.  And so we come right down to it: either we have free choice (or free moral agency), or we are creatures of fatalistic determinism.

Setting aside the issue of determinism for a moment and assuming that we are free moral agents, with the power of free will and choice, the supposition is that there is an underlying moral order to the Universe that gives us this rational, free power.  If this is true, are we obligated to find this moral order?  If we find it, are we obligated to embrace it?  And then are we not enlisted to defend it?

More to come.

5 Comments

Filed under Morality, Philosophy, Politics, Traditional Values, Truth

5 responses to “An Objective Moral Order? Or Merely a Universe of “Facts” and not “Values”? Part One.

  1. Agellius

    That was good but where’s part 2? : )

  2. Hi there! What a great post. You are thinking about the same issues that I struggle with. I am working on a paper about markets and morality and I have gone back to Scottish enlightenment period, well captured by Adam Smith in the Theory of Moral Sentiments and the Wealth of nations. Many scientific economists claim to have found Smith to subscribe to wertfrei study of economics and purely rational conduct by economic actors. Recent scholarship, however, is beginning to question this received wisdom. In fact, the Wealth of Nations should not be read outside the context of his earlier work, the Theory of Moral Sentiments. Some Christian economists have used this new evidence to claim that Adam Smith was a deist. I am not sure that the link is that obvious, but Smith certainly talks about the man’s inherent wish to do good. I could go on, but I don’t wish to bore you with more detail. But what you write about resonates, and in the 21st century social sciences are turning back to the basics to understand the “true” motivations of humans. Thanks for a great post!

    • Thank you for your comment! I find the Scottish enlightenment to be a fascinating period and need to do more reading of Smith. Also, the entire thrust of the question as to why we humans bother trying to do good is fascinating in and of itself.

  3. Pingback: An Objective Moral Order? Or Merely a Universe of “Facts” and not “Values”? Part Two. | Ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, Μοῦσα

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s