The Wasteland of Morality

Everything that is anything is something because we make it so

One of the many binaries that has consumed philosophical discourse is the objectivity-subjectivity duet. The former argues that there are standards or criteria beyond or independent of the act of choosing that ground, determine, define or establish what is, in fact, right or wrong, and the latter argues there are no such standards and that the best that we can hope for (or aspire to) is choosing from a position of genuine, and invested personal or subjective commitment.

Interestingly enough most people today tend to buy into both of these seemingly contradictory positions. For on the one hand objectivity seems the knee-jerk reaction to the demands placed upon us to make the right decision. Most would demand that persons charged with making a decision, most emphatically when one person is choosing for others  or when one makes choices that impact others, can defend these by appealing to basic rules of reason and/or uncontested or uncontestable basic premises. Passing legislature on a whim, dumping waste onto my neighbour’s property as a convenience, sacking an employee from sheer dislike, failing a student from a position of prejudice, inflicting serious harm on others from spite, or crucifying the innocent from savagery just won’t do! Allowing one’s personal experiences, biases, stake, preferences, tastes to inform decision making practices wouldn’t, therefore, be well received. But this isn’t the whole story.

A strain has been placed upon this epistemic fervor for grounded moral judgment by the culture of authenticity. Though there is a long history both socio-anthropological and philosophical that informs this paradigm of thought, suffice it to say that this is sometimes understood a la Kant as the very form of objective moral judgment we aspire to, and other times, take Kierkegaard or Nietzsche, for example, as a creative, self-affirming and subjective position that stands quite outside of Kant’s Categorical Imperative. Philosophers may know of Kant, but few others likely do. How then does the idea of authenticity – from the Greek meaning self-mastery, or self-determined – play out in the lives of most people?

Beginning from a self-determining position of judgment most are prone to advocate that one should “do what one believes is right” free from the involvement and influence of others, or any extrinsic forces that might impede (literally get in the way of …obstruct) authentic personal judgment. Notice the interesting, albeit confused, parallel in the thinking of the objectivist. Objectively speaking one would be looking to ground judgement on or in some standard, criteria or formulaic expression that is free from any and all intrinsic or personal biases that may impede properly reasoned moral judgment. The subjectivist position aims to protect the domain of personal appropriation from incorrigible outside influences that threaten to compromise one’s authenticity; and the objectivist aims to factor out irrelevant contingencies that jeopardize the intellectualistic propensity for unadulterated, sound judgment and a look to how things are. 

Let’s take the Kantian objectivist (it is called objective but it is a transcendental subjectivism…but let’s not confuse matters) position first. Kant argues that moral judgment is normative in that it is not concerned with why and how people come to think and do the things that they do, but rather in recommending what one should do quite a part from what one might have learned to do, or have the natural inclination to do. On one level, the point is quite simple. Through the process of socialization we have all come to acquire certain moral values and beliefs which orient us in the world with others. Had I been born in Johannesburg, I would certainly have acquired an entirely different set of standards regarding race and justice than I did growing up in Montreal. No one doubts this descriptive point. Having simply acquired such values thusly, is, of course, a product of mere contingency. Were we instinctual beings that would pretty much be the end of the story. But we are self-reflective beings that are concerned, often consumed by, our interest to address ourselves in life circumstances that we experience ourselves in. Indeed, in noticing ourselves in life circumstances we immediately address ourselves as the kinds of beings that take issue with who we are and how to meaningfully, rightly, make our way through this world with others. A lot is at stake here for on the one hand we don’t want to somehow fade away into the background of contingencies and heteronomously lay plans to our life and somehow lose ourselves, and on the other hand, we seem to think that there is much more to this than simply standing out from or against all that threatens to consume us: we want to make the “right” decision too! The first strand seems to speak to the subjectivist stance and the latter to the objectivist stance. Well Kant, I suppose, might be thought of as accommodating our wish for his Categorical Imperative casts moral judgement within the context of acting from a position of self-determined or autonomous judgement which springs from Reason. It is therefore important that the choice one makes is, in fact, one’s own; but also that it is conforms to the dictates of Reason. As such, an autonomous person would also be a virtuous person of sound moral judgment. And any person of virtue would only ever act from pure intentions that reflect a “love for the moral law”, and hence the driving force behind all moral judgment is to act from a position of disengaged, indifference where all inhibiting forces that comprise the phenomenal world of cause and effect are not given the power to affect one’s judgement. A virtuous person it would seem is also a person who holds Reason in the highest regard, and who somehow (magically perhaps) stands outside of every and all aspects of humanity, and as a sheer rational being (I’m not quite sure what this involves) discovers what the right thing would be to do for all people, at all times, in all places; namely universally. Notice that when done rightly, namely when featured in properly reasoned judgment, there would only ever be one right way and hence a universal consensus to which all rational self-reflective and autonomous beings would concede in a cross-cultural, cross-national, cross-personal, cross-religious, cross-circumstantial stand point.

What is this, the Holy Grail? If it sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is. What Kant proposes is to make moral decisions about how to actually live life in a vacuum. Moral issues arise in a set of complex circumstances. Seriously, there would be nothing at all to consider were one not confounded, and were this quandary not taken up by the subject as somehow integrally important. Lying and the grade and colour of lying seems parasitic on the horizon of meaning out of which it is an issue at all. Lying to a dying patient who has no hope whatsoever of survival seems pointless and may not raise one’s moral consciousness at all unless you also knew that this person had become estranged from his gay son with whom he’d expression reconciliation as his dying wish. In other words, one only becomes reflective in and for a horizon of meaning. Now Kant would not deny this. But what he does deny is that this horizon of meaning is relevant to the manner in which one would find their way out of this quandary. Indeed his point is that the contingencies that comprise the issue at hand are interesting only within that paradigm of inquiry that makes sense within the horizon of meaning, if you will, that is constitutive of the phenomenal world of cause and effect. That is, within the phenomenal world of human understanding morality is drafted upon causal structures of meaning which facilitate answers to questions regarding how and why events, decisions, state of affairs appear and evolve as they do. Yet, this kind of inquiry, as interesting as it may be, is limited to an explanatory framework of understanding, and can not facilitate moral judgment. Judgment requires that one step outside of this paradigm of understanding, and consider that issue, for instance, lying, independently of all phenomenal contingencies of which it is constitutive. The point is that one wants to be able to address lying itself, all by itself, short of the implicating and biased platform of circumstances that would play into factors that affect and take hold of the way in which we experience lying in our particular lives.

The wasteland of morality leaves this objectivist stand-point barren. For it asks that we suspend the rich phenomenal context that makes any issue meaningful in order that sound moral judgment can foster. But notice that choosing from a position of suspended meaning would always find the moral agent choosing in a background of nothingness. Indeed there is no reason for acting and choosing as one does, except that it is wrong (of course, this is also a horizon of meaning which Kant doesn’t seem aware of). Who I am, how I am thereby related to this world and others, and the contributive impact decisions have upon the evolution of this human world is rendered irrelevant and, in effect, meaningless. And yet, surely morality is a meaningful human preoccupation precisely because as self-reflective conscious beings we take up concern for the meaning of our lives in the way in which we decide to live.

What then of the subjectivist? Initially I presented this binary position as “choosing from a position of genuine, and invested personal or subjective commitment” which was later replaced with “‘doing what one believes is right’ free from the involvement and influence of others, or any extrinsic forces that might impede (literally get in the way of …obstruct) authentic personal judgment.” These are not equivalent expressions. The latter invites the wasteland of subjectivity for reasons that parallel the objectivist’s. “Doing what one believes” suspended from all extrinsic forces leaves one in a state of free-fall since there is nothing to hang one’s choices on. The sense I get of this is that making an authentic choice that is truly one’s own is akin to, as Charles Taylor puts it, “listening to the voice from within”. This seems to imply that there is a voice within that one can tap in on when the cacophony of voices from the outside world it shut out. Even if we take this creative impulse to speak to the originality or authenticity of the subject, is there anything that is something that is not born out of a background of meaning? Do we, can we, from a position of abstraction (of course this too is already a paradigm of human understanding that has its own horizon of significance or meaning) make choices that speak to the creative forces from within? I suppose some might argue that this would a la Camus be akin to an act of arbitrariness (a far more complicated idea which cannot be explored here). I can after all only really suspend all inhibitors by acting from a position of randomness. Otherwise, however one chooses, this would always somehow be within the contours and shades of the factical. Some, and I would align myself with them, would argue that creativity is an em-powering transformative process of self-affirmation which does not work in a vacuum. And it is here that the wasteland of morality finds refugee, a despairing refugee, but one which finds one always already in the world with others in a sphere or horizon of meaning that is the grazing ground for all those who hunger for living an authentic, and good life. I would look to Nietzsche to offer a proper rendition of the initial subjectivist position I’ve expressed as “choosing from a position of genuine, and invested personal or subjective commitment”.



3 thoughts on “The Wasteland of Morality

    Kant and Nietzsche are dead
    Now in their dust we play
    Unearthing what nuggets
    From books that have fallen
    For us all to juggle.


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