My friend Danny Shahar, whom, I predict, will be a philosophical star very soon (lest Danny think I am buttering him up, in fact, I am like an NBA scout who hopes to get credit for being the first one to spot the high school hoopster who is going to be a first-round pick and a pro franchise player), has ignited a discussion on morality that has now spanned three blogs. (See, for instance, here and here, and, finally, this post.)
What I want to address in the present post is Danny's objection that my list of moral theorists supporting the notion that there is an objective moral reality is flawed, because "many of those thinkers held mutually incompatible positions ." Danny backs up this contention by noting that various luminaries on my list did not offer identical philosophical groundings for their moral views.
Now, Danny is no doubt right about this; but, I argue, that is beside the point. Let's say I am arguing for the existence of an objective 'natural' world, based on the fact that, for instance, when I see a tree in front of me, all other normally endowed people do so as well. But, my critic objects, I am mistaken: when I say I see a tree, the Frenchman says he sees an 'arbor', and the German a 'baum'. And, lest I suggest that simple translation software can handle that complaint, he further notes that some people regard the object I am indicating as a form of God, some as a chance product of evolution, some as a miracle of nature, and so on. However, as a Marxist might put it, these are the 'ideological superstructures' erected upon a common 'material basis'. Surely, what marks the tree as 'objectively real' is that we all agree it is woody and leafy, that running into it headfirst will hurt, that it can provide shade on a hot day, and that if we cut it down we can use it as fuel. And just so, as I see it, with morality: while various of the thinkers I cited offer different embellishments as to the metaphysical standing of morality, they all view it as on objective reality whose precepts we must heed if we wish to live a good life.
Let me illustrate what I mean by examining a few of the names from my list. Aristotle, for instance, held that there were moral principles one must follow if one wishes to achieve eudomania -- the best form of human life. Lao-Tsu contended that there is a 'way' (the 'Tao') that should be follwed to achieve peace of mind and self-fulfillment. Buddha taught there is a path (the 'Dharma') that must be followed to reach Nirvana (release from captivity to suffering). Christ preached about a pattern (the 'Logos') that, if one acted in conformance with, one could enter 'the Kingdom of Heaven'. (And whatever meaning this has in relation to an after-life, it is clear to me the he was [also?] pointing to a state one could reach right here and now -- the Kingdom of Heaven is 'at hand'.)
Certainly, all of these teachings were colored by the cultural milieu in which they arose, and so they all differ in emphasis, in metaphysical assumptions, and more. But aren't they all saying something very similar, namely, that there is an objective moral order to which anyone who wishes to achieve true happiness must pay attention? Isn't it significant that, when Buddhist missionaries traveled to China and encountered Taoism, they quickly translated 'the Dharma' as 'the Tao', and achieved success by placing Buddhist precepts in Taoist terms? And when Christian missionaries followed after, they swiftly translated 'the Logos' as 'the Tao'? Aren't all of these offerings essentially regional variations of the 'same dish'? (By arguing this, I don't mean to suggest that Taoism, Buddhism, and Christianity are really 'just the same thing' -- their differences may or may not be of some crucial importance. What I am arguing is that, in terms of how they view humanity's relationship to an objective moral order, they are quite similar. For instance, someone holding, as many Christians do, that Jesus offers the only true path to salvation, should still have no problem acknowledging that Lao-Tsu and Buddha were perceiving, even if imperfectly, the same moral order that Christ described -- and, in fact, that is exactly the attitude that many of the Church fathers took towards 'pre-Christian saints', such as Socrates.)
Danny, at several points, tries to separate the idea of an objective moral reality from the notion that certain courses of action will result in happiness and others in misery, e.g., 'It's surely different to say, "That action is inconsistent with the aim of integrating yourself properly into the natural flow of reality," than it is to say, "It would be morally wrong to fail to integrate yourself properly into the natural flow of reality."' But, if particular kinds of actions consistently result in unhappiness, and others in happiness, whether or not the person following those courses believes in some 'moral fiction' or not, isn't that very good evidence for an objective moral reality, rather than an argument against the existence of one?
Finally, regarding Danny's contention that Buddha may have been a 'moral fictionalist', I admit I am puzzled: I am unaware of any Buddhist sage who held, for instance, that the law of Karma (which, by the way, looks awfully similar to the Christian precept, 'as ye reap, so shall ye sow', doesn't it?) is just a 'fiction' that it will be useful to embrace. Surely Buddha believed that the law of Karma was an inescapable universal principle, operating independently of one's 'subjective' beliefs, no?