Life in Community, Thinking about Morality

One of the first lessons we ought to learn when we begin thinking about moral philosophy and questions of justice and virtue and duty and rights, is that these are questions that need to be entertained only in the close company of intelligent friends, and often not even then — often, as if in the absolute privacy of one’s own thoughts.

Why is this? It is because morality, as well as being something that we can consider rationally, is something that gets drilled into us by our society and communities at a subrational level. The people around us (and we ourselves too, most of the time) have very strong, emotionally explosive commitments to certain moral convictions, for most of which we cannot give a single convincing argument.

And it’s not a bad thing for communities to inculcate moral standards irrationally into their young people. Indeed, it is a very good thing, a necessary thing. Without it, we would live in communities of vice and injustice and open crime. Some minimal level of dogmatic morality is necessary just to make a society functional. Tampering with that is the work of the foolish.

However, for the philosophical soul who legitimately desires to inquire into moral questions, to find what can be known with confidence about our moral obligations, this situation means we need to exercise reasonable caution in expressing doubts about moral dogmas.

This is not to say that the philosopher will always be an immoralist. By no means. But the philosopher is a questioner, and in any social context there will be things that are appropriately unquestionable.

Now, it is possible sometimes to think rationally about morality in a “safe” context, where the discussion is all about justifying the moral intuitions we already hold, where the questions never lead us away from what is comfortable and familiar. Even in that setting, though, there is some danger. Just by making morality the object of rational investigation, answering to the tribunal of reason, a risk appears that someone will begin to ask the wrong questions, or to find some of offered justifications to be inadequate.

It is a difficult thing, learning to navigate one’s obligations as a philosophical soul while remaining true to our social duties to those around us. It makes for an awkward transition, a series of awkward transitions, during the process of learning, and good teachers and guides are rare. Still, a sharp mind will discover a way, and having found it, will be prepared for a lifetime of joy in community and delight in thought.

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