Our addiction to rationality as the moral problem
Our meta-ethical task as philosophers defines Smith as ‘making sense of ordinary moral practice.’ The moral problem, according to Smith, is ‘that ordinary moral practice suggests that moral judgments have two features that pull in quite opposite directions from each other (p. 11)’ Smith suggests that the moral problem follows from the psychological theory of Hume. According to Smith, accepting this theory results in having to make a choice between two features of moral judgment, objectivity and practicality – both choices ending in moral nihilism.
His solution to the moral problem can be summed up as: ‘To say that we have a normative reason to handle in certain circumstances C is to say that we would want ourselves to handle in C if we were fully rational. If there is a normative reason for some agent to handle in certain circumstances C then there is a like normative reason for all those who find themselves in circumstances C to handle that way.’ To assess the rightness of an action we need to add in platitudes about substances – platitudes like ‘right acts are often concerned to promote or sustain or contribute in some way to human flourishing’ or ‘Our handling in circumstance C is right if and only if we would desire that we handle that way in C if we were fully rational, where handling in C is an act of the appropriate substantive kind: that is, it is an act of the kind picked out in the platitudes about substance’(p. 184).
Platitudes are thus the key to righteous moral behavior. Smith describes platitudes as ‘descriptions of the inferential and judgmental dispositions of those who have mastery of a term’ (p.39). One of the platitudes he identifies is ‘our idea of the objectivity of moral judgment: When A says that an act is right, and B says that an act is not right, then at most one of A and B is correct.’;’ Whether or not this act is right can be discovered in rational argument.’ (p.39) Furthermore, the substance of morality is also formulated in platitudes, for example ‘Right acts are often concerned to promote or sustain or contribute in some way to human flourishing’ (Foot, 1958).
In this paper, I will show that his solution to the moral problem results in nihilism, because there is no universal, naturalistic ‘good’ substance of morality. The expression of an ‘appropriate substantive moral platitude’ is always a subjective predicate about what someone beliefs that is ‘good’ – which does not mean that it is not objectively true. As I see it, Smith does not realize that linking the platitudes about moral substances with ‘fully rational’ agents expresses a belief about what humans are – a subjective truth, expressed as a universal law. I believe this is very dangerous.
Two things need to be done to support my argument:
His ontological worldview needs to be broken down: he seems to suggest that the only two options available are either realism or nihilism.
We need to understand which purpose culture serves in order make a right connection between desires, beliefs, and morality.
Ontology: New Realism
The first mistake Smith makes is the introduction of a dualistic ontological choice: either nihilism or realism. I suggest that new-realism is a response to both of these theories. For a very brief summary of new realism, let’s take a look at this picture and describe what we see:
There are three persons in this picture. Frank Zappa – the guy with the spoon full of cocaine under his nose – is enjoying a quiet afternoon at his house. Then there is me with a banana in my mouth, and some Christian guy from the USA who hates drugs. As it happens to be, we both are with Frank in his house watching him getting loaded. With this very clear description, we now need to make a distinction between ‘fields of sense’ and ‘domain of objects’ in order to formulate what it says if we say something ‘exists’. The house, represented by the black square, is a domain of objects. This is a field that consists of a certain type of objects and in which the rules that describe the relationship between the objects are formulated and fixed. In this house, there are doors, tables, Frank, cocaine, me, the christian guy, a toilet: a plurality of shapes and representations. You can’t enter the kitchen through the toilet or flush your shit through the door – the relationships between the objects are fixed. Then there are ‘fields of sense’. These are fields in which, certain objects, appear in a certain way. Marcus Gabriel explains their function as: ‘The field provides objective structures and interacts with the objects appearing within it. It is already there, and objects can pass through it and change its properties.’ In the picture above we can see two ‘fields of senses’: the red form and the blue form. The red one is my field of sense, and the blue one is the Christians guy field of sense. I follow Gabriel’s standpoint that existence is always relative to a field of sense – and so is the existence of morality. There is no morality to be found in the domain of objects, only in the two fields of senses. If we reduce Frank to the pure act of ‘substance use’, then there is no moral judgment to be found until our fields change the property of the act into either good or bad. Which property is given to an act depends on the subjective predicates that are active in a field of sense. The new realist understand subjective not as ‘private’, but as ‘shared by all subjects of a certain community’. Clearly, my field of sense contains different subjective predicates than the Christian guy’s field. These premises lead to the conclusion that an act can be both good and bad at the same time because the existence of a fact depends on subjective predicates contributing properties to objects, which results in subjective truths – truths which are only accessible when certain registers are active that construct our different forms of human subjectivity.
Now: an objective moral, as Smith suggest, would follow if rationality unites all humans in adopting the same subjective predicates – all human subjects would be united under the community ‘humanity’ – and this community would choose the same ‘appropriate substantive moral platitudes’ on which rightness would be based. I propose that this is not true. Rationalism does not lead to an ‘appropriate substantive moral platitude’, without some underlying belief about what appropriate platitudes are. Smith does not understand where morality comes from, because he fails to notice the function it has. The theory of Ernest Becker gives an accurate insight in both where morality comes from and which purpose it servers. Let’s take a look at it.
The denial of death
Becker’s theory can be summed up in the following quote: ‘The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity – designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of man. (Ernest Becker, 1973). Becker suggests that culture developed in humans because of our self-consciousness – which creates the realization in us that our end is inevitable. Culture consists of transcendental symbolic structures – or hero systems – based upon religious, political and socio-economic beliefs, which help us deny our mortality. Methods to constructs these systems include religion, romantic love & sexual lust, warfare, spectator-ism, materialism, work-alcoholism, celebrity worship, athleticism – actually, all culture serves this purpose. These systems give our lives illusory meaning and provide the belief of personal immortality through offering a way in which we can let our small symbolic self-merge with a large transcendental system which will outlive us. These cultural hero systems have three characteristics:
They provide methods for personal immortality, as described above.
They provide methods for individual self-esteem: ‘Man earns his feelings of worth by following the lines of authority and power internalized in his particular family, social group and nation. Each human slave nods to the next, each earns his feeling of worth by doing the unquestioned good.’ (The Ernest Becker reader).
This ‘good’ is based upon beliefs common to the group – or, like Marcus Gabriel would say: our subjective truth depends on subjective predicates shared by all subjects of a certain community.
With this theory in place, we can now give a correct understanding of the source and purpose of morality. Morality was born the moment humans became self-consciousness and invented cultural hero systems as a way to deny the fear of death. These systems define what is ‘good’, and it is only rational for a death-aware animal to guide his actions towards this ‘good’, since culture is the only way of avoiding existential despair. I suggest that Gabriel’s ‘communities’ are the same as Becker’s hero-systems: these are the fields of sense which define what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’.
Through shifting the fear of death onto a higher cultural perpetuity, man has created a whole new problem for himself. The self-transcending symbols and the meaning they provide are only as strong and lasting as the systems which support them. This means that a whole new level of weakness and anxiety is born, because these systems are unstable and can be destroyed – an event even worse than death for an individual, because ‘what men fear more then death is death without meaning’ (Becker, 1973). What destroys a hero-system? Systems with other definitions about what is ‘good’ – for examples, we do not need to look far back in history. Nietzsche already saw this when he described that all moral categories are power categories; they are not about virtue in any abstract sense. Becker says that ‘purity,goodness, rightness – these are ways of keeping power intact so as to cheat death’ (1973).
We now have the ammunition to make the right connection between beliefs, desires and moral motivation. Becker uncovered the desire that underlines human motivation: the desire to be part of a transcendental symbolic system in order to avoid existential despair. An individual’s belief about a state of affairs is not enough for moral motivation – this belief needs to be linked with the desire to stay part of a hero-system in order to produce moral motivation. Gabriel’s theory showed us that the possibility of – what Smith would call – objective moral facts lies in finding some shared human ground which provides a subjective predicate uniting all humans. Smith’s argument for solving the moral problem depends on whether or not we accept his conclusion that rationality is this universal human predicate which unites us. Becker’s theory shows us that this is not the case. Rationality is nothing but a tool we deploy to keep our belief-systems in place. I, therefore, think that Smith’s book is a failure: his statement that rationality binds all humans is a paradox – he does not see himself that this is a mere belief, a belief that ‘all fully rational agents’ would choose the same moral platitudes. However, rationality without belief is an anything-goes, nihilistic tool: it is rational for the ‘islamic’ suicide bomber to blow himself up, it is rational for the pope to state in Africa that condoms are bad, it is rational for Socrates to drink the cup of poison – rationality is but a slave bound to the belief of the ‘good’ it serves. Kant already showed in his critique of pure reason that belief – faith – is beyond reason and rationality. Smith his argument fails, and this brings us to the situation which the tried to avoid: nihilism. This is an excellent starting point for solving the moral problem, I think.
If we go back to the new-realist ontology I presented earlier in this paper, and try to step out of our moral ‘field of sense’ by seeing humanity as a ‘domain of objects’ – how could we describe ourselves then? What is it that binds us, unites us, what is it – besides the simple fact that we live – that makes us human? Rationality? No, that’s not it. What process creates symbolic systems, how do we give meaning to our life? Through creation. Victor Frankl described, in his memoirs about the Nazi death camps, that people can survive the most difficult situations as long as they are able to give meaning to their actions – an act of creativity, since all meaning is subjective meaning, and it thus has to be created. I believe that this ability to create is the human predicate which unites us all: creativity. My suggestion for a solution to the moral problem would point in this direction. I believe that what binds us as humanity is life and creativity, and that the moral platitude which serves as the ‘good’ in a universal human hero-system should express this: the belief in life and creativity as the predicates that express the human condition. As long as your ‘rational’ solution for dealing with your existential despair respects this belief, you are – in my eyes – acting morally. – Giorgiotenkate