The Meaning of Morality

What we today tend to focus on as examples of morality truly are moral issues, but they are only the very barest beginnings of moral consideration.

For instance, there’s a realm of behaviour that is uncontroversially understood to be wrong, even evil. To raise a question about this realm is to be recognized by all sides as having a damaged mind. Included in this category would be matters like murder, different varieties of nonconsensual sex, and corrupt business practices.

There is also a set of contested moral questions, in which one party tends to take the side of tradition or convention, and the other the side of liberation from tradition, with each party feeling true morality is on its own side, representatives summoning as many arguments and examples as possible in support of their conclusion. Included here are varieties of consensual sexual practices, certain instances of the taking of human life, and the distribution or redistribution of money.

This same bifurcation, of uncontroversial and controversial moral convictions, can be found in smaller ways in our own private lives. Think of alcohol. Pretty much everyone agrees that to drive drunk is a terrible thing. There isn’t any such consensus on other uses of alcohol. Some are fine with drunkenness as a part of life, and at the opposite extreme there are others won’t touch a drop.

When we think about morality today, we tend to take the controversial cases as representative of moral fervour. We live out our moral duty by being faithful to our side of the debate, whether that means a peaceful and clear sobriety or an iconoclastic Dionysian frenzy, whether it takes the form of a traditional sexual ethic or a transgressive promiscuity, whether by working hard for a bigger paycheque or scaling down costs in order to live within a smaller income.

The same thing is true, perhaps even more true, in the political sphere. To fight for morality is to fight over laws about marriage and gender, over laws concerning abortion and euthanasia, either fighting for sanctity or for emancipation, and always feeling like the voice of justice is speaking through us.

Those liminal cases are important. We have to decide what we care about and how much we care about it and draw our lines in the sand.

But it seems to me that the reason why they’re important is so often lost.

We speak as though each decision is the doorway to happiness. We may even believe that a life of satisfaction is just on the other side of doing the right thing, or seeing the right thing done.

But happiness is not there. Happiness doesn’t come from making one choice, or by accepting one rule. Those choices and rules are only there to make it possible for us to pursue the sort of moral life which will actually lead to happiness.

What we think of as morality, with its promise of happiness, is only the outer entrance to the way of morality.

To pursue the moral life and the happiness that can come from it, is to commit ourselves to the life of growing in virtue. It is to embrace years and decades of trying to become better than we are, of seeking to be our best in all the situations that may arise.

No one will ever force us to do all that work, which is why most of us will never undertake it.

But we can be inspired to take up the challenge for ourselves. We can find inspiration in examples and words, in stories and encounters.

But first we have to realize that morality goes much deeper than we often assume.

Music as Numbers

There’s a mathematical way of listening to music that most people aren’t aware of.

The major and minor scales have seven degrees each. (If you just thought, “but a scale has eight notes from bottom to top!” you’re right, but the eighth tone is actually technically the first note repeated again, an octave higher.)

It doesn’t matter if the scale starts on a C or an Eb or an F#. The seven degrees of the scale will relate to one another in the same way. That’s why we can transpose a tune from one key into another and it sounds basically the same (or it does to the great majority of us without perfect pitch, anyhow).

In music theory, they sometimes refer to each degree of the scale by its number. “Dropping from the five, down to the three …” And each of the seven notes, each number, has its own characteristic feeling within the scale.

-The one is a place of rest.

-The seven is unrest, straining for the one.

-Five and three are also peaceful, though in the end even they long to resolve to the one.

-The four and the six are less urgently restless than the seven, each tending to fall to the more restful degree below itself (the six down to the five, and the four to the three).

-The two is a bit ambivalent, happy to move either down to the one or up to the three.

(Incidentally, I wrote this list to describe the tendencies within a major scale, but it is also true of the harmonic minor.)

Because of this set of tensions and tendencies, it is possible to learn to hear a musical tune as its numbers. We can train ourselves to recognize where a note belongs within the context of a song’s scale when we hear it.

My experience, which I know some others have shared, is that it can be helpful to start by focusing on the deepest notes in a song (e.g. the bass guitar), since they tend to stick out from the rest of the music, inhabiting their own sonic space, and they often (though not always) move around a lot less than the notes of the melody.

Some people will say that learning to hear music like this is a useless exercise. That’s not strictly correct — being able to hear music like this has made me an immeasurably better piano player than I would have been otherwise, for instance, which is a pretty cool skill to be able to pull out at a party.

But for the most part, it’s true, this is a useless ability. But I believe it’s a beneficial and worthwhile useless ability. Sometimes the useless things are also the most beautiful things. Don’t make this a top priority, but don’t be afraid to do it, don’t think it’s out of reach, and don’t ultimately treat it as a waste of time.

Like Magic

One of my favourite fictional series is Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy. I love it partly because of how well-written it is, and partly because of how it inspires me to strive to educate and improve myself.

In the books, learning magic is a little bit like learning high-level mathematics, and a little bit like learning complicated old dead languages. (Indeed, learning dead languages is actually one component of learning magic, in that universe.) It is arduous, slow intellectual work to improve at magic, but those few who can be disciplined enough to do it will find themselves able to change the reality around them with a word, a gesture.

This sort of story really appeals to me, largely because it points to a set of profound truths about the world we live in.

-Knowledge, words, languages, have power, power that can (if used rightly) make life better for ourselves and also for others within our relational reach.

-These things are difficult to master, really requiring decades of effort for most of us to make meaningful headway, and often with only meagre rewards in the short term.

-We can make faster progress once we have a sense of what we need to learn, but even then the only way forward is brute force, just putting in the time and effort and being consistent. Read and reread, learn and relearn, think it through to the point of understanding and then think it all through again.

We can study languages, and philosophy, and rhetoric, and the techniques and output of the great writers and thinkers of history. Without that study we cannot hope to change things in the world, certainly not in a way that is at all responsible. With such study, though, we just might.

The vast majority of people will not know that this is a reasonable choice to make; of those who do, a still smaller fraction has the capacity and the determination to follow such a course of studies down its twisting and exhausting path.

Do we have what it takes? Can we put in the time and effort now in view of the great advantages we will possess later? If we think about how we spend our time on an average day, we probably have our answer.

Philosophy Old and New

When we begin to study philosophy, we read what others have written about it. At that beginning point, there is a pair of opposed errors, either of which we can easily fall into: contempt for what is old, and contempt for what is new.

Some people beginning to enter into philosophy will think that things written a century ago are already ancient history, and that anything older will certainly be not much better than a systematization of superstitions.

Others will believe (often under the guidance of some contemporary thinker or school of thought) that any major thinker more recent than Duns Scotus, or Plotinus, or Aristotle, is just some shade or another of trendy garbage that has lost touch with the original, ancient philosophical impulse.

My own bias is to say that “contempt for what is old” is by far the worse of the two errors. It’s an understandable error, and it even contains some traces of truth, but not enough to justify it. The person with a love for the past has deep roots. The person who idolizes the present will have become ridiculous and worse in only a decade or two.

Still, in the end they are both errors. They are both, indeed, obvious errors. Each denies rationality to a group of people on the basis of prejudice rather than of proof.

Don’t reject the great minds of the past. There is so much wisdom and insight and beauty there, often of a sort that we cannot easily find today apart from their help.

But also don’t reject the leading minds of the present day. Just remain agnostic about them until there’s a chance to study them in more detail. We don’t need to say “They’re so awful,” in order to justify putting off thinking through their work in favour of what will seem like more basic or valuable or pressing studies. We can instead simply say, “That sounds fascinating, and I hope to be able to spend some time looking into it someday, but it’s simply outside my knowledge so far.” We can escape those situations without being rude or arrogant and simultaneously without jumping to unjustified conclusions.

And if we never get around to reading this or that random contemporary thinker, it’s definitely not the end of the world. But we really should try to grow more familiar with contemporary philosophy when the moment is right. There will be some insights that we couldn’t have had without their help, and also it opens up the possibility of becoming part of that contemporary conversation if we ever choose to do so.

To despise either the old or the new is a barrier to effective engagement with philosophical learning.

Mysticism and Philosophy

Mysticism is not simply an object of philosophical investigation. It is, in a way, the whole goal of philosophy.

Now, mysticism is indeed something that philosophy can investigate. It’s true that the philosophy of religion examines the testimony of people who claim to have mystical experiences and probes into the questions of language and reality that arise in light of such experiences. But it’s important to recognize that this isn’t the whole relationship of philosophy and mysticism. This is philosophy looking down, reflecting on written records of a particular phenomenon. But philosophy can also, metaphorically speaking, look up from itself toward mysticism.

We can speak of mysticism in a narrow way and a broad way, and both are legitimate. The broader view will not speak specifically of God but of the entire realm of existence toward which we are ignorant. We cannot begin to grasp the many truths that are unknown to us, and we have no way of knowing whether the area of our ignorance might include anything beautiful, anything powerful, anything dangerous, anything glorious, and so the nature of our ignorance, if we dwell on it, can inspire strong feelings and intriguing, often unanswerable, questions.

The narrower account of mysticism will focus on a smaller part of our ignorance. We do not know, and perhaps never can fully know, what is the source of existence, what is the highest truth, the goal of that human longing which is never fully satisfied by finite enjoyments. The narrower kind of mysticism reflects on our ignorance of the deepest origin, perfection, end, of thought and of human existence and of all things, an ignorance which we will never entirely eradicate in this life, and in so reflecting it casts us into questions concerningwhat might reasonably be called the divine, though some will prefer to avoid that term, which is okay too.

The thing that I want to emphasize here is that these matters, this investigation, these questions, are not merely something that reside outside of philosophy, something done by other kinds of people that can be analyzed by philosophy. This sort of work exists at, and belongs at, the very heart of the philosophical project. Such wondering is proper to philosophers, both in the broader and, perhaps even more so, the narrower sense.

Philosophers peer into our ignorance, with no presumption that such ignorance can or will be overcome. Most of all, philosophers attune themselves to the ignorance of the highest and deepest and greatest things, and stay there, not forgetting how little we know and how much there might be.

And to address oneself to an unknown absolute is itself, already, a mysticism, in the narrow sense.

Thinking about Feminism

I know, I’m wading into controversy. I want to share some thoughts about feminism. But actually, I should say up front that my whole approach to feminism aims to minimize the opportunities for controversy and self-superiority and bitterness, from all sides. It probably doesn’t succeed fully in that goal, but it’s the best thing I’ve found yet.

(In fact, maybe feminism is not as controversial today as it was half a decade ago. I know there are many feminists who, in trying to stay true to their feminism, are today considered regrettably bigoted, so please forgive me if I’m too far behind the times. See my post-script at the end of this post.)

I started out staunchly opposed to feminism. After some initial confusion and uncertainty, I had a professor who was very bright, very engaging, and quite dismissive of feminism. I remain indebted to this professor for so much of my intellectual development, but in some respects it has taken me several years to extricate myself from a few of his more flamboyant positions and think through the questions for myself. Thus, for some time I was convinced against feminism.

The first cracks in my anti-feminist position appeared when I observed how often my feminist friends would accuse those who were self-avowed non-feminists of being opposed to higher education for women and votes for women, since those things came from feminism. At first these accusations caused no trouble for my views, since they seemed an obvious instance of the fallacy of composition. Just because we call the people from a century ago by the same name as the people from today, that doesn’t mean they are or represent the same thing.

However, at some point it occurred to me that there was something implicit in the accusation which I had missed the first several times I encountered it. If not being a feminist meant you were opposed to women having higher education and votes, then was it also true that if you were in favour of higher ed and votes for women, you would be right to call yourself a feminist? The conclusion seemed to follow. I wasn’t sure about this, but it was something to consider.

Some time later, I heard a short staged debate on the radio between three women: a “radical feminist,” a “moderate feminist,” and someone who denied that she was a feminist. What was fascinating to me was the way the two feminists related to the non-feminist; everything she said about feminism, every reason why she didn’t like it or disagreed with it, was answered with something like “well you don’t have to believe that to be a feminist,” or even, “I’ve never met a feminist who believes that!” The non-feminist was very intelligent and brought up many of the points which were convincing to me, and many more besides: feminism thinks there are no differences of significance between men and women, or it thinks we should try to make men and women as similar as possible, or it thinks that women should be shamed for not being more like men, or it tries to hold men today guilty for what past generations have done. For each point, the other two didn’t try to defend the positions but simply said, you don’t have to believe that.

Hearing this debate was a real turning point for me. It helped me see the diversity in what had seemed the unified edifice of feminism. There is room within feminism for disagreement. It sounds so obvious, saying it now, but at the time it was a revelation! Being a feminist doesn’t mean signing off on a particular creed or agenda. There is a small non-negotiable core to feminism, and beyond that core there is room for debate.

So then what is this non-negotiable core? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says there are two basic propositions which must be affirmed by someone who wishes to be a feminist: that women should not be treated badly or unfairly on account of their being women, and that there are women in the world today who are being treated badly or unfairly on account of their being women. Thus, there is a normative and a descriptive component.

According to this standard, a great many people who don’t consider themselves feminists actually are.

It will be immediately clear what is lacking from the non-negotiable core: an account of fairness/unfairness, justice/injustice, goodness/badness. Different feminists will construe justice differently, and that is completely acceptable.

Why then waste time arguing about who’s a feminist and whether feminism is good or bad? Let’s all count ourselves feminists, since by this account we all are (or certainly we all should be). Then our quarrels will all become quarrels within the family, rather than conflicts between distinct tribes. That won’t solve all our problems, but it may bring us a considerable step closer to resolving our differences, and that seems eminently worthwhile to my eyes.

PS: It is my guess that I would try to follow this same approach with those other intellectual approaches which have been offshoots of, or greatly intermingled with, feminism, such as those contemporary theories dealing with race, disability, sexuality, gender, etc. However, I have not thought this approach through as carefully in those areas and so for now that idea remains only a conjecture.

Moral Disarmament

What I am calling “moral disarmament” refers to the idea that a person can’t stop being a cheater, a liar, a thief, a thug, a flatterer, a glutton, a philanderer, until everyone else has done so as well.

Perhaps that position sounds ridiculous (it is), but then again, it’s also shockingly common. Perhaps on reflectionit will be clear to some why this idea can seem so compelling.

Let’s suppose many people around us are regularly and casually lying to enrich or protect themselves. To tell the truth would be a great disadvantage in such a situation. In such a case, we might hear “I’d love not to lie, but if I don’t then everyone else still will and I’ll be the one who ends up getting punished! I don’t want to be punished for doing the right thing while everyone else goes unpunished for doing what is wrong.”

Suddenly, it’s not so hard to imagine feeling that way.

Suppose that it’s possible to cheat the system, and that there’s a small number of people who do so, taking scarce resources that others should have access to. “If I don’t cheat and get someone else’s share, then someone else will cheat and get my share. How would that be right? I don’t have a choice. I don’t want to blow my chance and come out of this looking like a fool.”

One person is on a diet, trying to eat in a way that is healthy and reasonable, while it seems like everyone else eats whatever they feel like with no care for the consequences. “It’s awkward for me not to eat like them. It makes them think I’m judging them, and it makes me think they’re judging me. Plus it makes me so sad not to be included in the things they enjoy together and to share in the conversations inspired by their enjoyment.”

There are many different situations which can bring about the condition that I’m calling moral disarmament. (I know it’s not at all a precise phrase, by the way, but it captures something of the dynamic I’m trying to describe.)

I’m willing to try to be better, we might say, but not until everyone else is ready to try as well.

It seems sensible. After all, why should I deliberately choose to be worse off?

The solution to this problem has to do with a complete inversion of how we see the world and what we care about.

We have to see as most precious, beyond anything else, our moral maturity, our interior strength, our integrity, our virtue. We need to learn to see these things as far more desirable than material goods or reputation or superficial friendships.

Once we start to make that switch, we can catch glimpses of the truth: that those who do the right thing, even without reward or praise or recognition, already have their reward because of who they already are, and because of who they are becoming and will soon be.

It is challenging to see the world in that way. We will need to be constantly fighting against how we are naturally inclined to perceive things, especially at first. But I can hardly think of a more worthwhile endeavour.

The Harmony of Philosophy and Religion

I really like Leo Strauss and the Straussians. I even appreciate much of what he has to say about religion, insofar as he recognizes that philosophy does not have (and cannot have) the capacity ever fully to disprove the possibility of revelation, which means that the philosopher must always keep open the possibility of the truth of revealed religion.

However, I have never been entirely impressed with his thesis that a person must ultimately (as I understand it) make a choice between the philosophical way of life, which questions and challenges established orthodoxies, and the religious way of life which is characterized by such orthodoxies. No one can really be both, according to the Straussian view (or maybe I could say instead, according to Straussian orthodoxy?).

I realize that to many today, including many religious people, and to many intelligent people on both sides, it will seem like a reasonable line to draw, and more than that, it will feel intuitively true.

However, in my experience so far, the dissonance which is felt is something that belongs to those who have not progressed far along either path. (I don’t mean to say that Strauss himself had not progressed far, only that this fact makes me wonder why he spoke of the matter as he did.)

Of course, we must all start in immaturity. And it is a very real dissonance we encounter in those early stages! I don’t want to discount that in any way. It can be a serious, unsettling, dreadful dissonance to endure. I’ve felt that, lived it, passed through it.

Thus, speaking in social terms, there truly can be an uncomfortable tension between those with more of a tendency to embrace religion and those with more of a tendency to embrace the questioning stance of philosophy. Strauss recognizes this, and points out traces of it through the history of philosophy, and he’s not wrong to do so.

However, if we think the challenge is insuperable, I suspect it is only because we have not thought about it sufficiently.

In philosophy, we start out exhilarated and awed by the weight of all the questions we can ask, all the doubts we can summon. Did you know that people haven’t always and everywhere thought parliamentary democracy was the best political system? Hey, were you aware that natural science was long ago already proven to be built on a foundation of fallacies, fallacious all the way down? Say, how would we really know if God actually spoke to us sometime in history, and then how could we even be able to understand what the revelation itself meant?

All good questions, and worth investigating. But just as we don’t have to end up rejecting politics or science because of all the questions we have about them, we likewise don’t need to end up at odds with religion — although we will surely start out at odds with all of them, if those are the kinds of questions we find ourselves inclined to ask.

The philosopher cannot help but begin with questions and doubt, and some never progress past that stage. But many others will apply themselves to finding what answers there may be, about how the world is and how it should be and who I should be within the world. As part of that quest, it is entirely possible that a person will end up reconciled to revealed religious faith in one of many possible ways.

In religion, something similar happens. Earlier on in a life of faith, there is a temptation to see hard lines drawn everywhere, where the believer must be right and so everyone else who isn’t on the same side must be wrong. Even if in principle the zealous believer can admit that others might possess some portion of the truth, in practice everyone else looks like a blood-stained idolater in need of repentance, and to find any agreement with them would almost feel like making a pact with the devil.

With maturity, though, what can happen (and in my view it can be beneficial that this not happen too soon in a religious person’s development) is that the religious person comes to see the truth and beauty contained in other ways of seeing the world, and can begin to discern a friendly desire to learn together and grow further with others from outside one’s own particular tradition.

In this way, just as the rebellious philosopher can develop an openness to the dogmaticism of a religion, the faithful religionist can develop an openness to the philosopher’s search for truth and wisdom wherever it may be found and in whatever form it presents itself.

Now, let me anticipate one more set of objections, one from each side. The philosophers may think that a religious philosopher has ceased truly to be a philosopher, and the religious might say that a truly philosophical believer has ceased to have proper faith.

Even if it is possible for a philosopher to accept religious faith, on this view, in doing so one must choose to renounce the life of philosophy. Likewise, the believer who becomes so catholic and ecumenical that every possible source of truth will seem worth learning from, has transcended religion and ceases to owe allegiance to any one revelation, we might be assured.

Neither objection needs to be true. Faith and philosophy can coexist. They can be treated as different and complimentary ways of knowing which need never come into conflict if we have understood them properly.

It is nonsensical to say that a philosopher ceases philosophizing by coming to a considered conclusion about religion, just as it would be nonsensical to say the same about a philosopher who came to considered conclusions about politics or science. And it is the same from the side of religion.

But let’s just say that the philosopher did cease to philosophize, and that the believer ceased to have faith, when either one approaches the other, so that we keep being sent back and forth between them and end up somewhere in between or outside, occupying a position not really comprehensible from either of these other partial and partisan viewpoints. Who is to say that where we will have ended up is somewhere inferior or undesirable? If nothing else, we should expect to find it a place inhabited only by the few and the brave.