Sunday, March 27, 2011

Commitment as the basis of moral judgments

I want to write about morality soon, and certain concepts have become vital to my ideas about morality- engagement, commitment, significance- that I haven't quite figured out how to talk about yet. That's what I'm at work on now, and what's coming out of it is a theory of the nature of value which is both philosophical and psychological, and which also has the potential to be badly mistaken. I hope it's not, and after I've sketched it in my blog with all appropriate disclaimers, I'll have a lot of independent research to do in order to determine whether it's consistent with empirical results in modern psychology. One of my biggest worries is that I'm just spinning my wheels with all of this, and nothing of interest will finally come of it. Time will tell...

I want to say a few things right now about these ideas that I'm working on. Let me first put forth what will be, for some, the most troubling proposition I'll be advocating: There is no ultimate justification for anything.. Not for praising or condemning, not for war or peace, not for oppression or charity, not for anything. From the very beginning of Western philosophy, thinkers have attempted to discover the ultimate bases for their values in what truth they could discover about reality. I'm as certain of this as I am of anything: Our values have no ultimate basis in objective truth of any kind. When we clear away the obviously subjective influences of emotion, craving, desire, and preference from our moral schemes, what we are finally left with is not truth, but rather commitment. Commitments are deeply rooted and firmly directed motivations that drive us to achieve projects relevant to our own identity, to the lives we want to live, and to the world that we hope to be part of. They are closer to being mechanical impulses than to being statements that could be true or false. While commitments can be consistent or inconsistent with one another insofar as we aim through them toward conflicting results, and are therefore amenable to reason, they are never correct or incorrect in a way that transcends their contexts. It is commitment, rather than truth, which stands behind our judgment about what is right and wrong, what is good and evil, what we are required or forbidden to do, and how things should be.

After all that, I want to say this: While truth and falsehood do not lay at the basis of our moral judgments, they certainly play a vital role in our morality. Every day, ordinary decent people go about their ordinary decent business because they understand a little bit about how the world works and they're committed to living their lives in it. Meanwhile, deranged assholes oppress and terrorize populations of ordinary decent people because they're committed to the creation of a world in which their horrifically false ideology comes to fruition. Remember that there is no ultimate justification for choosing between these commitments, but ask yourself whether ultimate justification is something you really need in this case.

When we understand this principle correctly, we do not find ourselves required to abandon our commitments; rather, we come to understand that our commitments, and therefore our values, originate within us rather than within a perception of some transcendent scheme of ultimate value, and we cannot turn to such a scheme to nullify what pangs of conscience and empathy would call on us to question those values when we consider acting upon them. Understanding this about our commitments, we will still act upon them; what we will not do is adopt the kind of absolutist ideology that would triumph by any means necessary. My commitments include working for a world in which such ideologies are ancient relics.

That's enough for right now. I just wanted to put something here to convince myself and everyone else that I'm actually doing something. I'll post more about this stuff as I get it ironed out.

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