A Liberal Metaphysic

May 31, 2012

An interesting challenge over on Crooked Timber: given the willingness of liberals to dismiss the religious metaphysic of morals through the likes of the Euthyphro dilemma, are they able to provide a metaphysic that justifies their moral claims?

While the instinctive response of a liberal may be to dismiss such requests as irrelevant, or metaphysical requirements as the exclusive domain of those making religious claims (which is broadly what CT does), such a response would be intellectual cowardice. If nothing else, it is always an interesting puzzle to attempt to derive one’s position from first principles; indeed, it helps to illuminate those parts of our thought about which we are not quite as certain as we would like to be.

So let us begin. The first step is to reject the moral requirement placed here: liberalism does not necessarily make overt moral claims, but rather ethical claims.

These two terms are often used interchangeably, but this is incorrect: a moral claim relates to whether a particular action is good, while an ethical claim relates to whether a quality of character is good.

This distinction is important, because it allows us to illustrate what some traditional philosophical problems are really about. Consider the classic problem of who one saves from a burning bus: a child, or a middle-aged doctor on the brink of a cure for cancer? Such a question reveals our moral intuitions, but it does something beyond that: it allows us to contemplate and refine them.

This is crucial, because in a real-life situation one would not have time to weigh up the pros and cons of either action; one would simply have to act. What we want to do then, if we are looking to act morally, is to train our moral intuitions to respond correctly when under pressure – to cultivate our character so that the responses we provide when decisions are demanded of us are the right ones. Our response to the requirement to choose whether or not to kill the fat man is not determined by our split-second decisions at that point, but rather by our ethical character. The ethical act lies in the consideration of the decision, rather than the decision itself.

The problem, of course, is that we do not know which decisions are correct, and so we do not know what sort of character we should cultivate. Religion, in general, attempts to short-circuit this process by claiming that a range of decisions are correct, and so we should develop our characters in particular ways. It does this by making metaphysical appeals to features of the world which are not accessible to any of our traditional five senses. Liberalism, the argument goes, does not appeal to these ‘external’ features, and so makes ethical claims which are, in a sense, wholly arbitrary.

This may seem unfair, but it is a claim which can withstand some consideration. We are thrust into the world in possession of goals, whether they be simple aims to satisfy desires or more complex ethical and moral objectives. These goals are a precondition of our encountering the world – we perceive the world through them along with our other categories. It is useful to refer to Heidegger here – we encounter, say, a hammer through the nexus of our goals that a hammer can help us achieve. No object is outwith a use-value in terms of our objectives, as it is those goals which help bring it to life.

The problem is that use-value is fundamentally uncertain. So, the use value we ascribe to a hammer could be wrong. When we think our goals are best served by using the hammer to build a treehouse, those goals could be best served by using it to bludgeon to death a passing squirrel. The squirrel-killing use is not given to us by the hammer, but by the relationship between the hammer and everything else in the world, only part of which will be accessible to us at any given point.

Any decision we make in pursuit of our goals is therefore arbitrary, in the sense that it is made without any certainty as to whether it is the absolutely correct decision or not. This applies to any goal, whether it be religious or otherwise in nature. We do not know whether our aim of not killing is best served by cultivating a passive disposition, or whether a seemingly threatening disposition will preclude us from ever having to kill. The religious can, at least, be confident that not killing is the right thing to do. How they go about ensuring that they do not is still up for grabs.

How, therefore, does this provide us with a metaphysic of liberalism? It does so not by appealing to metaphysical features that are inaccessible to us, but rather by appealing to the features that provide the conditions for the possibility of accessibility: our goals. Despite the impossibility of certainty around their resolution, they remain goals, because they are a requirement of the way in which we encounter the world. It is impossible to have no wants while remaining alive and conscious. They bring meaning to the world, because things in the world only have meaning in the context of our goals. A beautiful view only has meaning in the context of beautiful views being something we seek out for the pleasure to be gained from them.

With this in mind, we need to consider how we best seek to achieve our goals in a context in which absolute knowledge is impossible, but relative knowledge is not. We can make claims that a given quality of character is more likely to respond usefully in a given situation than another, in much the same way as we can make the claim that a hammer is relatively better than a sponge at bashing nails into bits of wood. We can do so based on our experience and a broad range of exemplars of different goals and different approaches to reaching them that we can call Other People.

As long as we don’t do anything to excessively upset them, Other People will go about their lives trying out lots of different ways of achieving practically any goal we can possibly think of as a consequence of their enormous range of different characters. We can talk to them and compare notes, co-operate to achieve goals we can’t achieve ourselves, and increase our relative understanding of how we achieve our goals. If we try to control them, then we’ll cut the amount of useful information we can receive, because instead of trying out their own ways of reaching their goals, they’ll be using ours.

The absolutely uncertainty with which we encounter the world makes the freedom of everyone else crucial to our own objectives. Murder, control and other constraints upon other people serve to diminish our potential pool of information. Regardless of what our goals are, our approach to the Good, if there is such a thing, is always best served by liberalism. Without learning from the character of others, we can only cultivate our own in a small, niggardly way. Deprived of the richness of the other, our own characters are lessened.

We approach the world in such a way as to enable others to have freedom not because some metaphysical feature of the world says that freedom is a good thing, but because the freedom of others is necessary to discover how to achieve the goals we necessarily possess as a consequence of being in the world. This is a transcendental basis for liberalism, a metaphysic which says that the beginnings of our ethical character are not given by an external feature of the world, but an internal feature of the way in which we encounter it – which, in itself, is beyond the world, as it constitutes it for us.

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One Response to “A Liberal Metaphysic”

  1. My assumption is generally that there’s no true good or evil present. There are things that are positive or negative for a given group, and one can go for wider or narrower groups, and different weighting for different things.

    But the idea of true ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ as opposed to things that we’re just culturally inculcated to call such, just isn’t something I believe in.

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