Whence and Why

This post is a response to this one by Bernard Beckett and it deals with the area of morality and ethics.  Bernard has an interesting take on this whole area and it seems to boil down to “desire” or his emotions and how he “feels.”  Rather than place his reasoning in a stated philosophy or logical system, he appeals to his subjective desires (which is a philosophy by the way).  This is enough for him.  He sums up his point here:

“But, here it is, the option is to let go of the sense of objective morality altogether. What if the very notions of right and wrong make no sense, divorced from the context of the human being making the judgement? What if the best any of us can ever say about any moral issue is that we, personally, don’t want to live in a world where such is sanctioned?”

Now, clearly a lot is not being said here.  One certainly gets the feeling that something is being left out.  For instance, one wants to ask: Who is saying that any of this should be divorced from the context of the person making the judgment or the judgment itself?  An appeal to an objective morality certainly doesn’t require this.  Putting that aside, there are many avenues we could take to deconstruct Bernard’s post but I want to focus only on three.

The first one is, whence our desires?  Where do they come from?  Why are some considered better than others?  Are the desires of Americans better than the desires of Kenyans?  Is there an evolutionary answer?  Clearly we have desires to survive.  And it would appear that this is all natural selection would be interested in.  But a prisoner in a cell “survives.”  If we fed a person regularly, gave them water, a blanket, let them walk a bit each day, and kept them safe from the elements, they would “survive.”  If the whole world were a prison, and natural selection the warden, then it will have done its job in just meeting the bare elemental conditions of giving us a chance to “survive.”

Clearly though, when we begin to talk about desires for the good, the true, and the beautiful, we have moved beyond the minimum conditions for survival and must give other reasons for such desires beyond purely evolutionary reasons.  Beyond the bare conditions for survival, evolution or natural selection cares nothing about the good, the true, and the beautiful.  So yes, one just happens to desire a world in which harming the weak or innocent doesn’t exist, but whence the desire?  After all, if one is “prepared to work actively to rid my world of its [torture] possibility…” wouldn’t one want to know how to create this same desire in others?

I would posit that our desires in these areas come from meta-narratives of meaning that help us to form reasons and philosophies that cultivate these desires.  As this is done through education, the arts, religious formation, and other such tools, a culture is formed that then begins to “desire” one good over another.  In other words, we are not born innately knowing that we should “desire” the welfare of others over our own, we are “formed” to become that person, to “desire” such.  Clearly I am leaving out those persons who through chemical imbalance or some sort of actual brain damage do horrendous things even though they may have had an upbringing that tried to form them differently.  All things being equal however, we have the desires we do because of our formation from the time we are children all the way up to adulthood and beyond.  And I’m not talking about “taste.”  Regardless our formation, one person might like vanilla ice cream over chocolate.  I’m talking about desires for the good, the true, and the beautiful.  We are “formed” into these desires.  Whether caught or taught (always both), we are brought up into these desires.  They may seem natural to us but they are not.  A group living half-way around the world from us, who lives with a different narrative of meaning, may think our desires odd—even unethical.  We have to remember the groups in antiquity that were cannibalistic or thought nothing of torturing their enemies or even their own people.  They were formed to have different “desires” and emotions about such things.

So it is fairly easy for a Westerner in 2013 or anyone who has grown up in a culture that is predominately Judeo-Christian, liberal, and progressive to then say that they just happen to “desire” one good over another.  Well, of course they do.  And, shocker, they are the same values reflected in that culture.  What they don’t consider however is how that happened initially.  It’s easy to say, way down the line, that one desires a certain good (we shouldn’t own slaves), and such (the desiring alone) is reason enough, AFTER, one’s entire enculturation, education, and the consensus of his times reflects those same goods.  The question becomes- what if my culture doesn’t desire those goods?  What if I had been born and raised up in a culture that desired slavery?  The same reasoning would work, right?  “I simply desire to own slaves and my emotions and conscience are not bothered.”  Someone had to come along and say something like this: “Our desires are wrong.  We need to desire this other thing and here is why?”  If one’s desires were formed such that slavery is “moral” what would change one’s mind?

This brings me to the second point.  How does cultural change happen?  How do our desires change?  They change when narratives of meaning change.  They happen when the meta-story we tell changes.  A huge problem with what Bernard is saying is that if we simply give our reason as “desire,” while we may be describing our personal feeling, we could never move others to change their own desires if they were different than ours.  How would it go over with you if someone were to tell you, “You know what your problem is?  You don’t “feel” or emote the way I do.  You need to desire what I do.”  Oh, okay.  Historically, there isn’t a single example (please give one if you know of it) of someone (or a group) bringing positive mass change to a culture (let’s just use the example of slavery) who simply cited their different “desires” or “feelings.”  In other words, no one actually trying to change a culture’s desires has made the argument Bernard is making here.  For me that is significant.  They might have said they felt “bad” or their conscience was pricked, but they always had reasons behind their feelings.  Their appeal was never just, or only, to their personal desires or feelings.

And that brings me to the final point.  Why were reasons necessary?  Partly because it was considered more reasonable and logical to take everyone’s feelings (the subjective realm-where it could only be about power, one of us, simply asserting our will over the other) out of the equation and place our reasoning in an objective source, so that one person or party didn’t feel they were just arbitrarily submitting to the power/will (desire?) of another.  Whether the reasons were placed in God, or in some universal logic or reason, people like Martin Luther King never said that the laws of the land should change just to suit their personal desires or feelings.  Who would say such a thing by the way?  Think about it.  We would normally attribute such to a megalomaniac.  Who would say to an entire culture, “You need to desire what I do.”  If one is “prepared to work actively” to see positive change in his culture, is this what his rallying cry is going to amount to?  “Everyone- emote like I do!”

Now Bernard states that we (anyone who believes in an objective morality) are faced with the same issue as far as when our desires differ from others, and violence becomes the final form of adjudication when all else fails.  I think he is missing two key differences however.  First, there is a difference between a private individual dealing out punishment for an alleged wrong and the state or community doing the same.  The state doesn’t appeal to desire or personal feeling.  It appeals to objective laws, cultural norms, history, reason, and other objective factors.  The parties that would come upon their cattle being taken (even though perhaps it is a misunderstanding) and immediately, out of anger and the “desire” to protect their property, hang the so-called offender are acting purely from “desire”— a desire to punish, a desire to see their anger as righteous.  One of the points of a criminal justice system is for the very purpose of saying, “We are not just handing out punishments based upon our personal emotions or desires.”  Even if, therefore, there is a final resorting to violence, it is different when one is basing their decision upon objective factors as opposed to personal desire or feeling.  This distinction is behind the very idea of justice being blind.  It is the only way it is fair and is why a culture accepts its authority.  People can then at least see the final resort of violence as justified.

Secondly, one is far more likely to reduce or not require violence if one is making reasoned arguments based in some objectivity to the differing party rather than basically saying to them, “Look, this is what it boils down to: My desires are (fill in the blank) than yours—so see it my way or a bullet (or prison or shame) will settle this.”  This difference is supposed to be the difference between a civilized state and organized crime or criminal gangs.

To conclude, I just think Bernard’s take is short-sighted and leaves countless factors unconsidered.  I’m reminded of the story of the man putting on a “get rich” seminar.  He claimed he could show anyone the secret of how to become a billionaire.  When people showed up on the day of the seminar they were a little perturbed and confused to hear the seminar leader start off his presentation with, “Okay, you want a billion dollars?  Here is what you do, first, you take a million dollars and…”  As is the case here, after reading Bernard’s post, one is left thinking, “But wait a minute, where do these desires and emotions come from, our feeling of one thing being right or good, while this other thing is wrong or should make us feel bad?”

Which is the better or more reasonable world-view—one that makes positive cultural change possible at the point of contention, at the point, initially, where an entire culture is being asked to change their “desires” or one that while perhaps (a big perhaps) gives one a personal reason to desire one thing over another, could never move an entire culture to change—or never has historically?  In other words, it is easy to justify and feel comfortable with one’s desires about morality when one already lives in a culture that shares those same values—and in fact passed them on to us!  That is pretty easy.  But what of cultural change?  If one’s personal desires regarding morality could never produce a Martin Luther King or Wilberforce, then one’s morality could only always be a reflection of the status-quo, thus how would it ever motivate others to produce change.  To rebel against the status-quo would require different desires—which flow from different reasons—a different narrative of meaning.  Those who have led rebellions against the status-quo challenged, fundamentally, either the total or key parts of the reigning narrative or world-view.  How would appealing to or citing one’s personal “desires” ever do that?  After all, historically, it never has. 

It is a very nice thing to say (progressive and liberal even!) that one would prefer to not live in some worlds, for instance one where slavery is legal and accepted.  However, if a desire to the contrary alone has never prevented such a world from existing, should it not give one pause?  If one’s view of morality could never produce change, moving people toward that preferable world one wished to live in, in a way that doesn’t necessarily depend upon violence, is such better or worse than others that have a track record of actually producing non-violent change?  I think of the non-violent Civil Rights Movement here in the states led by Reverend King or Gandhi’s non-violent struggle.  Both appealed to values based in some transcendent objective source.  It is easy to speak in abstractions.  What is the track record of one’s view historically?  Is there even a track record?

Related is legacy.  If one is thankful that he lives in a culture that no longer sanctions slavery, is he at least self-aware enough to know that he sits on the shoulders of others?  Is he even more aware that the personal choices he has made about how he determines what is moral for himself have certainly never produced a culture he is now thankful to belong?  

Speaking of preferable worlds—does one really want to live in a world where all reduces to power ultimately?  A world in which, while we might appeal to all sorts of objective sources- God, reason, logic, human nature, universal law, common decency, science, or whatever, but where secretly we know (wink, wink) that we are just really (in the really real world!) imposing our desires on the other.

Wouldn’t one if he is “prepared to work actively to rid [his] world of its [name the evil] possibility…” want to then work toward a world where all didn’t reduce to power or will?  If the answer is yes, then how will one do that if his personal philosophy of morality is based upon that very understanding?
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5 Responses to Whence and Why

  1. Hi Darrell

    One thing that is interesting is the way conversations shift so easily into positions of antagonism, rather than attempts at synthesis.

    So, while you might be right to call my take on this short sighted, it might also be the case that the differences you perceive between our points of view are largely illusory.

    So, rather than counter what you say, may I perhaps point out the similarities in our points of view. I too think of our desires being a function of our biological, cultural and personal legacies.

    I too am interested in the ways societies can best shape their collective viewpoints so as to serve the interests of their members.

    I too am interested in the process by which those values we both hold dear may be transmitted to the next generation.

    And I too am vitally interested in which of the many rich strands of our narrative history can best be used to take us into the future we desire.

    And, like you, I am vitally interested in the way we might establish community values that find alternatives to reducing all to power. (And, like you, I suspect a vital part of the answer will be the stories we tell ourselves.)

    I think, if we start off in attack mode, we end up doing battle with straw men, and experience suggests it then takes us an awfully long time to untangle our presuppositions and misunderstandings.



  2. Darrell says:


    I re-read my post and didn't “hear” the same tone of an “attack” or of anything overtly antagonistic. I think a more generous reading (as you are want to do, right?)would see it as a post simply pointing out disagreements and key areas you may have overlooked. It was, after all, a post of critique.

    Regardless, if you felt I was attacking you, and clearly you did, I apologize. I meant to examine your ideas, not you personally. And I will be the first to admit that we (me) all are short-sighted in many ways.

    Thank you for your thoughts- as always, they are helpful.


  3. Hi Darrell

    I don't mean to imply the post was a personal attack, it wasn't. It kept to the ideas, which is the right way to go.

    I was more musing on the cultural instinct we all have to think in terms of exclusive oppositions, and wondering if this doesn't lead to us creating conflicts where none exist.

    As an example, the idea that we might think of our moral judgements in terms of our desires doesn't imply that we should think of our desires arising out of nothing. They do indeed, as you say, come to us from a cultural context.

    Similarly, to treat our moral judgements as desires doesn't imply that we can't make judgements about moral stances. So long as two people, or perhaps a society of people, share an ultimate goal (perhaps theyhave come to desire, by way of cultural evolution, a world in which the individual is able to explore and develop their human potential) then we can reasonably examine individual moral stances within this context, and ask which stances are most likely to lead to the flourishing we desire, just as the objectivist does.

    And you are correct, it is no coincidence both groups might reach the same ultimate oughts or desires, we share our biology, and in conversations like this, much of our cultural baggage.

    So, I'm just suggesting that much of that which you instinctively critique is not native to my point of view. The Cruel God thought experiment is sometimes used to suggest that sometimes there might be no difference at all between the theist and the non-theist on matters of morality.

    My initial response then, is why not start by mining commonalities, rather than setting up dichotomies. This isn't an accusation, I do it all the time myself, and to be sure the role of devil's advocate is a useful one in honing our understanding, but perhaps not to the point that opposition becomes reflexive.

    What do you think?



  4. Darrell says:


    You suggest that, perhaps, I see conflicts were none really exist. Well, my post was written because, in my mind anyway, I thought I did see where conflicts existed. Otherwise, I would have just agreed with you or not written anything at all. It is true that often we all do see conflicts where none really exist. This is why dialogue and conversation are important.

    I think if you would have suggested all the points you have noted in this and your last response, within the body of your post, I would have responded differently. But you didn’t. I responded to your post. I’m not sure how I was supposed to anticipate those points you now share.

    I most heartily agree with you that our opposition should not be knee-jerk and unthinkingly reflexive. But I also don’t think, with the exception of one person, that such isn't a huge problem with the people in this conversation. I don’t see the majority of us doing such. Perhaps you feel otherwise. And if so, we should all certainly try harder. I think, Bernard, that when you see especially egregious examples of this, you, and all of us for that matter, should most certainly comment.


  5. Darrell says:

    Whoops, I meant “is” and not “isn't.”


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