ad astra per alia porci

Moore’s non-naturalism, but with a touch of… love

The nature of goodness has perplexed many and generated a huge corpus of diverse philosophical works. For theists, the concept of the Good is intrinsically bound up with God, for God determines what is good. Philosophers however in general tend to be of the secular persuasion, and hence tend to view the Good and God as distinct and separate, and place the Good above God. Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good is one of the attempts to construct a metaethical view without God, a project which is of particular interest to me from an intellectual and personal point of view.

Murdoch is a unabashed neo-Platonist, an increasing rarity in today’s academic landscape which is increasingly moving away from the Platonic worldview. Murdoch’s view of the nature of the Good finds it roots in Plato’s concept of the Forms, where the Good has an ethereal, non-natural quality, and is a close cousin of G.E. Moore’s ethical non-naturalism. Murdoch rejects the pervasive rationalist influence on the conception of the Good, which states that in the absence of God, the Good is purely the product of human will. In the gap that God left, the existentialists and rationalists fill it with human will. In Murdoch’s words, “Kant abolished God and made man God in his stead”, such that the will is the creator of value and “values which were previously in some sense inscribed in the heavens and guaranteed by God collapse into the human will”. Murdoch sees the Kantian man as “the offspring of the age of science, confidently rational and yet increasingly aware of his alienation from the material universe which his discoveries reveal”.

Murdoch advocates a return to conceiving the Good as being identical to God’s characteristics. While some philosophers view Good as materially different from God, Murdoch’s concept of Good is essentially God without God. Murdoch defines God as “a single perfect transcendent non-representable and necessarily real object of attention”, and suggests that “moral philosophy should attempt to retain a central concept which has all these characteristics”. Murdoch’s view of the Good is mystical, and almost religious:

“A genuine mysteriousness ataches to the idea of goodness and the Good. This is a mystery with several aspects. The indefinability of Good is connected with the unsystematic and inexhaustible variety of the world and the pointlessness of virtue… Good is mysterious because of human frailty, because of the immense distance which is involved. If there were angels they might be able to define good but we would not understand the definition. We are largely mechanical creatures, the slaves of relentlessly selfish forces the nature of which we scarcely comprehend… And if we look outside the self what we see are scattered intimations of Good. There are few places where virtue plainly shines: great art, humble people who serve others. And can we, without improving ourselves, really see these things clearly?”

She suggests that Kant looked at the wrong place when he tried to find the Good without God: the self. The Good stands outside of the human self, and is a non-natural singular entity that can be perceived but never fully defined.

A unique aspect of Murdoch’s view is her introduction of elements that are seldom seen as the core of ethical deliberation: love, beauty and the arts. Rationalism has formed the core of much of ethics since the Enlightenment, with Kant being the most prominent advocate of the use of reason as a neutral objective means of determining the Good. Even Plato was suspicious of the power of the arts and argued that the arts distorted reality. To the contrary. Art, to Murdoch, is closely connected to the Good. Murdoch rejects the Platonic suspicion of art, and argues that instead of distorting reality and manipulating man’s perception of reality, art offers a more accurate view of the real, and ultimately the Good. Murdoch hand suggests that beauty and the arts are a means to access the Good, the apprehension and comprehension of which is part of the process of “unselfing”, where an existence that exist independently of the self is perceived and validated. Love, while not being the Good itself, “is the energy and passion of the soul in its search for Good, the force that joins us to the Good and joines us to the world through Good. Its existence is the unmistakable sign that we are spiritual creatures, attracted by excellence and made for the Good”. “Good is the magnetic centre towards which love naturally moves”.

I think Murdoch makes several important points. Firstly it seems to stand to reason that the Good probably is acutely similar to God. If philosophers replace God with the Good, it seems that replacement suggests compatibility and similarity. God is mystical, unknowable and all-encompassing. If human experience tells us anything, the Good is also similarly impossible to fully comprehend and retains a mystical allure. How much of this is due to Murdoch’s possible deep-set desire to cling on to the vestiges of Christian thought is probably a moot (but interesting) point. Secondly the Kantian grip on moral philosophy should be reexamined and perhaps rejected. The self and its will, unlike what existentialists say, is not the creator of all value, and is not the sovereign entity in this world. The world outside of us is much bigger than the single consciousness that apprehends it, and anyone who has encountered the beauty and immensity of nature will have to admit so. Anyone who apprehends art will know that concepts like beauty and love exist outside of the human will. If anything, the will is at the mercy of hard reality, and anyone who claims to be doing the Good is exerting a claim of objectivity, which presupposes an objective existing source of normativity that stands outside the individual. Third, and this is linked to the second point, it seems that we should start being honest with ourselves and give proper consideration to the role that emotions and beauty have to play in achieving the Good. The arts seem to me a means to reveal reality and the Good, and appreciation of the arts itself is at least commonly accepted as something that is prima facie good. Love, to me, seems to be as mystical and unfathomable a concept as Murdoch would view the Good. It has a strange attracting quality, and its mysteriousness is the reason why countless poems, novels and songs have been written about it. Its complexity is fascinating, while its simplicity is understood by all humans.

Non-religious ethics, be it at the first order or second order, is a particularly young and exciting field of growth in philosophy, because of growing secularism and an increasingly interconnected world we find ourselves in. Many people who grow up without God or rejected religion remain (I hope) genuinely interested in what is the right thing to do. Problems like pollution and financial meltdowns are global in nature and are no longer localised, and it is important to find a common ethical ground upon which people of diverse cultures and religious affiliation are able to agree upon and formulate enlightened global policies. In an interview I watched a while ago, Kwame Anthony Appiah went further to suggest that it is inevitable and necessary for the world to find a common ethical system, as our formerly local spheres collide with each other in this cosmopolitan world.

And this is where philosophical ethics can step in. Rational argument is the basis of philosophy, and the means through which men of different backgrounds may come to agree upon certain points. Hopefully, philosophical ethics may in the future provide a viable ethical code that any rational man would accept, upon which global action may be based upon and misunderstandings and divisions may be erased.

These are exciting times for me, on the intellectual front. Finishing Murdoch’s book coincided with the start of a new academic term, in which I will be continuing my exploration and deepening my understanding of ethics. Particularly, I taking courses on first-order moral philosophy, political philosophy and normative ethical theory; these courses are exactly the courses that I have wanted to take since my junior college days, and the focus of my interest in philosophy. I always had my reservations about the apparently elegance and simplicity of utilitarianism as well as the otherworldly abstraction of Kant’s categorical imperative, and found the inadequacies of consequentialist and deontological approaches to ethics to be somewhat patched up by virtue ethics. I would like to listen to what my professors have to say.

August 3, 2010, 3:08 pm
Filed under: diary, the arts | Tags: , , ,

“Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog”.

– Oleg Gazenko, 1998

Despite my interest in graphic novels, I have not read anything that got me close to shedding tears. So it was a strangely pleasant experience when Laika came close to doing so.  A well-crafted and ultimately heartbreaking mix of fact and fiction, Laika tells the story of the eponymous dog, who was the first living creature to be sent to space. Through Nick Abadzis’s simple yet evocative drawings, we are introduced to a dog who touched the lives of those she interacted with and while unable to speak had an ocean of emotions. Laika came to trust the humans who cared for her, and earned their love and affection. However by the end of the book Laika was unfortunately reduced to a pawn in the former Soviet Union’s plan to boost its national pride during the Cold War, a casualty of the folly of human pride and carelessness, as she was hastily sent on a one-way trip to outer space as a test subject on the Sputnik II, which was commissioned to commemorate the Bolshevik Revolution.

There is something deeply heartbreaking about sending a sentient creature who cannot speak and cannot make its feelings known to anyone else to die alone in space in a metal container, thousands of miles away from the nearest breathing creature, because of some mindless, meaningless and ultimately childish contest of power between two impersonal blocs of power, under the guise of “progress” and “the greater good”. I believe that anyone with some heart, not just animal rights advocates, will be moved by Abadzis’s able and sensitive portrayal of a dog’s remarkable journey from the streets of Russia to the lonely heights of outer space. One of the best graphic novels I have ever read, not on the basis of technical accomplishments but rather its strong emotional pull.

my life my lover my lady is the sea
August 2, 2010, 4:05 pm
Filed under: diary

Is romantic love or a dream more important? Or perhaps the question really should be, whether ideals or love has a stronger hold on a person’s actions? The luckier ones find their overaching purpose in life, but they are not without their problems too. Love is probably a very basic human need, so what happens when such people have to choose between their dreams and settling down? Is love a substitute for a dream, or is love all that matters? I think the biggest tragedy is when a person finds love in someone but that someone chooses to pursue his or her ideals instead.

He came on a summer’s day
Bringin’ gifts from far away
But he made it clear he couldn’t stay
No harbor was his home

The sailor said ” Brandy, you’re a fine girl” (you’re a fine girl)
“What a good wife you would be” (such a fine girl)
“But my life, my lover, my lady is the sea”