Is There a "Perennial Philosophy"?

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?


  1. Thanks for the kind words, Gene; they mean a lot coming from you!

    The concern I have with the argument you've offered here is that I didn't intend to suggest that the thinkers you listed were not realists; rather, I meant to point out that the thinkers held different views about why realism is true. In other words, they all arrived at the same conclusion, but their arguments in favor of that conclusion were not the same.

    It's my contention that the conclusion in question is a very natural one to believe, given the very human propensity to project evaluative attitudes onto objective reality. Accordingly, it's not surprising at all to me that most thinkers throughout history believed it. But it seems to me that this way of thinking is not entirely correct, in much the same way and for much the same reasons as the "realist" theories of value in economics were both ubiquitous, unsurprising, and false. Just like it's not the bread that is valuable, but rather I who values the bread, so I claim that it's not the act that is morally objectionable, but rather I who takes moral exception to the act. It seems to me that morality, as commonly conceived, is built on a framework of attributions of intrinsic value, and that these are literally false. This doesn't mean that the attributions capture nothing true -- surely when we say that money "is" valuable, we are saying something that makes a great deal of sense even though it is literally not true -- but I think it does mean that moral claims are, strictly speaking, false.

    On Siddartha, one of the intrinsic problems with Buddhism is that Siddhartha's teachings have been adopted by a number of different religious groups. And often these groups have changed or even novelly written their texts, with the consequence that we can't always know exactly what came from the Buddha himself and what came from those who simply saw themselves as clarifying and expanding upon the Buddha's thought.

    But one of the central texts in many (if not all -- I don't know) Buddhist traditions is called the Diamond Sutra, in which the Buddha attempts to expound his theory of metaphysics (sunyata, "emptiness," or "radical non-essentialism"). He does this by offering a number of rather cryptic examples and illustrations, many of which are built upon paradoxes -- for example, he argues that when someone helps all the living things to achieve nirvana, one has actually not helped anything do anything. The idea here can be stated, "There is no thing that is anything," and should be reminiscent of folks like Heraclitus in its simultaneous rejection and embracing of identity. The Buddhist philosopher Candrakirti would later offer an example of a merchant telling a customer that he had nothing to sell, and the customer asking if he could buy some of the nothing to take home with him. Another Buddhist thinker, Nagarjuna, offered a "Two Truths Doctrine," by which we should understand the world both as a differentiated world of separate objects and also as a unified world of codependence and interconnectedness. I'm not sure how much better I can explain it than that.

    But as may be clear, the Buddha's concept of sunyata is rather incompatible with a realist view of morality. It simply cannot be that there are actions which are wrong, in this view. And later in the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha himself offers an explanation, " should not be attached to things as being possessed of, or devoid of, intrinsic qualities. My teaching of the Good Law is to be likened unto a raft. Does a man who has safely crossed a flood upon a raft continue his journey carrying that raft upon his head? The Buddha-teaching must be relinquished; how much more so mis-teaching!"

    It's on the basis of this teaching that I call Siddhartha a fictionalist. He would say that we must act morally, but that there is no such thing as moral action. And incidentally, so would I.

  2. A bit more digging reveals the Diamond Sutra as being among the Mahayana Sutras, which means that is was likely not a part of Siddhartha's original teachings and was only added later. Given that my study of Buddhism has focused mostly on Mahayana thought (particularly the Madhyamaka school), I'm not surprised that I would have come to this perception about what the Buddha's position was. But unfortunately, my familiarity with Theravada ideas is too limited for me to be sure that the historical Buddha actually held this postion.

  3. Anonymous5:54 AM

    The ultimate problem is - how would morality ever convince anyone who does not share your ultimate value assessments? Me, for example, who cares nothing for the human race any more than I care for the 'tiger race'? Yet, if men can be tigers, and tigers care nothing for morality, is morality then nothing but - a prejudice?

    If the Good and Right are so important, let them care for their interests. I - I will care for MY interests, and do not care if you call it 'good', 'right', etc.

  4. Well, Vichy, you have correctly identified a problem. Unfortunately, just as when someone is yelling "A cliff!" to another person who is rushing towards it while declaring "I care nothing about cliffs!" the "problem" exists for only one of us.

  5. "But it seems to me that this way of thinking is not entirely correct, in much the same way and for much the same reasons as the "realist" theories of value in economics were both ubiquitous, unsurprising, and false."

    Danny, you've made a mistake here. Economics can in no way show that 'realist' theories of value are false. How in the world could it possibly demonstrate this, since the question is philosophical? What Menger pointed out was that, for the purpose of economics, the question of the 'real value' of something does not arise -- the price is determined by what people think something is worth, whatever its 'real' worth may be. Menger explicitly acknowledged that the value someone places on something may be incorrect.

    It was a terrible mistake on Mises' part to try and turn Menger's correct theory of economic value into a metaphysical doctrine about the 'purely subjective' nature of value. In fact, nothing whatsoever is or ever could be 'purely subjective' -- both subjective and objective are abstractions from any concrete experience, and neither can exist on its own.

  6. "But as may be clear, the Buddha's concept of sunyata is rather incompatible with a realist view of morality."

    Yes, if you want to bring things to that level, fine. But then what's all this talk of what you want, and the way you'd like things to be? If you're still operating in the world of ego, wants, and desires then all you've done by 'dissolving' morality is to let the ego run rampant. If you're going in for emptiness, you gotta go all the way, baby.

    Within the world of practical life, morality is 'real'. In fact, it is the ultimate reality of that world.

  7. On the subjectivity of value, here's my reply.

    On the Buddhist point, I attributed fictionalism to Siddhartha, not nihilism.

  8. Gregory5:35 PM

    This seems to be becoming a semantic argument at this point. It seems that Gene is arguing that whether we call something prudence or moral right, the fact that it is the practical reality makes it real.

    I think there is one meaningful point of distinction: Is morality necessarily so?

    When we talk about objective truth we usually mean something that is necessarily the case. I can say "I think therefore I am" because the way we conceive of thinking requires existence.

    Everyone seems to agree that there exists a practical morality. Even Vichy would agree that there are certain norms she must abide by even if she doesn't experience the emotional content that most people associate with them. The relevant question though is: Is this the only possible practical morality or is it only the result of historical circumstance?

    I think we have to accept the latter. Yes, an accepted morality exists, but it might very well have been completely different. The fact that we can selectively apply morality, that it is impossible to formulate universal rules, seems to support the idea that practical morality is very much a function of how we view ourselves and our relationships to others, not a necessary objective feature of the world.

  9. "On the Buddhist point, I attributed fictionalism to Siddhartha, not nihilism."

    Well, I'm not sure I'd call it that, but, let's say you convinced me to -- then I'd say morality is a 'fiction' for Buddha only in the same sense that the ego is a fiction. So what you can't do is invoke Buddha in support of fictionalism while still talking about what you want and so on.

  10. "the "problem" exists for only one of us."

    Yes, Gene - for the one without a glider or parasail.

    Likewise, any "objective" moral order would be true only relative to the physical and mental endowments of the species and, as each individual has objectively different cognitive and other physical endowments, and of such species` individual members.

    If we limit the discussion to humans (Homo sapiens sapiens), at most, it seems to me that we can speak of is being genetically endowed (via a process influenced by natural selection over eons) with a range of moral beliefs, which find differing expressions given our gender, environment etc.

    Yandle touched on some of this here:

  11. For clarity, we aren`t endowed with beliefs per se, but with a capacity for them.

    But what we end up with is heavily influenced by our upbringing/social millieu, gender/brain chemistry etc.

  12. "Likewise, any "objective" moral order would be true only relative to the physical and mental endowments of the species and, as each individual has objectively different cognitive and other physical endowments..."

    Of course slime molds do not think, "Hmm, it's wrong to steal." But how is the relevant? Does the existence of blind people make you doubt that light is objectively real, or think, "The laws of light propagation are only true for sighted people"?

    The same point shows the irrelevance of cultural millieu, upbringing, etc. to the question of objective moral truth. Of course these things influence what our moral beliefs are! Did you think I was unaware of the existence of other cultures?

    But, again, what is this supposed to demonstrate? Does the fact that before 1900 no human being believed in quantum mechanics, and today few people understand it yet, mean that there is no objective truth about the topic?

  13. Gregory: "When we talk about objective truth we usually mean something that is necessarily the case."

    That's not what I usually mean by it, nor most people I talk to. When I say, "It is objectively true that the Celtics lost in Game 7 last night," I don't mean that it is an analytical truth! (Although, with Kevin Garnett out, maybe it was an analytical truth!)

  14. Gene, while I consider it objectively true that human individuals display a moral sense, I see it as a biological trait (based on genotypes but with a wide and heavily environment-influenced phenotype) that exhibits a range across the species.

    Outlines of the moral sense can be generalized, but each individual possesses his own, which may be quite different.

    Needless to say, or biologicial relations, if as conscious and self-reflective as we, would have a different moral sense.

  15. Right, Tom. And that relates to the question of whether or not there is objective moral truth just how?

    (We all have unique sense organs. Does that mean that there can't be any objective truth to the statement 'Light travels at 186,000 miles per second?)

  16. Gene, while my own sense organs are limited, flawed and play tricks on me, it does seem to me that there is an objective world outside of me. At least, my experiences lead me to believe so.

    Scientific method and technology allow us to discover ever more about such objective reality (even while giving us conundrums about the particle/wave duality of electromagnetic radiation, and bizarro world of quantum mechanics).

    The physical world is real, not only to us, but to other life forms that have entirely different ways of sensing, experiencing and interacting with it.

    "Light", including parts of the EM spectrum that aren`t directly visible to man, and sound (vibrations that can be sensed) exist in the real world, Gene.

    But where is the "objective moral order", that exists independent of humanity (or other life forms that act in ways both familiar and unfamiliar to us), communities and individuals?

    Even if there were an objective moral order apart from our own feeble abilities to perceive it, it seems to me far more useful to regard our thinking about it in the context of our human nature, as beings subject to group selection pressures.

  17. Tom, other than just saying, "Well, physical things just are objectively real and moral truths just aren't, ha-ha!" I don't see you arguing for your position in any way at all. Sure, if you assert from the start that physical things are objectively real (or so it "seems to you", huh, Tom -- kind of subjective there!) and moral truths aren't, then of course that is the conclusion you will reach at the end.

    So what?

  18. Gene, thanks for coming back on this, but have you addressed my comments fairly, or just taken a long time to punt?

    I think I`ve been probing rather than reaching conclusions, much less ones ending "ha-ha!"

    In part, I`m trying to figure out what YOU mean by an "objective moral truth", which appears to be something real and can be tested for despite the inability of a particular observer to perceive directly - like beings that can`t directly perceive light (or like us who can`t personally physically observe much of what technology allows us to).

    Is that what you mean?

    And are you asserting that, for every conscious and self-aware being - regardless of species - that there is a uniform, objective moral order in the universe? [Leaving aside the question of how this objective moral order applies to type of organisms that are not conscious, or are conscious but not self-aware.]

    Or are you only talking about an objective moral order that exists only for humans, that perhaps someday can be identified and located in universally shared mental processes, based on brain activity and arising from shared genes?

    Or an objective moral order that exists for some humans, but not all - depending on physical development of the brain as we mature (with the development of some being impaired via genetic or other defect)?

    Sure, if you assert from the start that physical things are objectively real (or so it "seems to you", huh, Tom -- kind of subjective there!)Yeh, kinda tricky how despite the fact that, in our search for understanding we have to rely on a brain that plays all manner of tricks on us, I agree with your basic premise that some parts of the world we inhabit is objective.


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