Ethics and the Quest for Wisdom

Ethics and the Quest for Wisdom

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1. Ancient Wisdom, Modern Challenges

The subject of this conference session is “wisdom”; and the topic provides an oppor­tunity for me to present to you some ideas I have been developing for two decades that are part of a nearly completed book (entitled Ethics and the Quest for Wisdom), which defends new founda­tions for ethics rooted in a classical con­cep­tion of philosophy as the search for wisdom.

For most ancient and medieval thinkers of the Western tradition, theoretical and practical inquiry, fact and value, scientific explanation and purpose, merged in an overall quest for wis­dom. Knowledge of the facts about the natural world and human beings would also tell us what was good and valuable. Theoretical inquiry into the nature of things (theo­ria) would also answer practical questions about how to live (praxis); and explanations of why things behaved as they do, including humans, would tell us what ends and purposes they should pursue. We know how this worked for the great ancient thinkers. Aristotle held that among the archai or explaining causes of all things were final causes or ends that tell us what was worth striving for, for each thing. And for Plato, the intelligible world included not only mathematical forms that inform us about the structure of the natural world, but also ideal forms, such as Justice and Beauty, that tell us what to strive for. In this manner, for these ancient thinkers, theory and practice, fact and value, explanation and purpose, merged in a larger quest for wisdom (or sophia), the love of which gave philosophy its name.

The modern age, by contrast, is characterized by what Hegel called “sunderings” (Ent­zweiungen) of these and many other contrasts. There has been a tendency in the mo­dern era to pry apart considerations of fact from value, theoretical inquiry from practical inquiry (about the good) and scientific explanation from purpose, with the consequence that the uni­fied quest for wisdom of the ancient philosophers was threatened as well. A chief culprit in this process was the development of modern science. The story is by now familiar and does not need retelling to this sophisticated audience. As the modern era evolved, explanation of objective fact about the cosmos increasingly became the province of the new natural sciences of Galileo, Newton and their successors, which described a physical cosmos devoid of values, final causes and purposes.

The situation was somewhat different for the human sciences (behavioral and social) which came on the scene later in the modern era. Anthropologists, sociologists and other beha­vioral scientists did indeed have to talk about human values and purposes. But they embraced a kind of value neutrality of their own in the name of scientific objectivity. Social scientists might tell us what persons or societies or cultures believed was good or right or wrong, but they could not say what really was right or wrong. That would amount to injec­ting their own values and points of view into their research—an offense against the scientific ideal of objectivity. So, while objectivity in the modern natural sciences seemed to imply an absence of value in the world described by them, in the human sciences it amounted to some­thing quite different. Objectivity in the human sciences suggested a value relativismtoo much value, too many cultures, forms of life, views of right and wrong, with no non-neutral way of deciding between them.

It is ironic that ideals of scientific objectivity in both the natural and human sciences, which had inspired the ancient quest for wisdom about the cosmos and human nature, should have promoted in modern times subjectivist and relativist views about values and ethics.1 But that is an important part of the modern story.

And it is this part of the modern story I want to address today. Can the ancient quest for wisdom be retrieved or reconceived in a manner that would allow us to res­pond to modern doc­trines of subjectivism and relativism about values that seem to be implied by the modern proble­matic? I want to suggest a new way this can be done. Though I’ll talk boldly, much of what I say is provisional as befits such weighty matters. As St. Augus­tine said many cen­tu­ries ago, the way of seeking wisdom is a manifestation of humility; and that will be a key theme in what fol­lows.

2. Pluralism and Uncertainty: the “Modern Fall”

The question at issue has more than merely theoretical signifi­cance. There is consi­de­rable doubt and confusion in the modern world about the existence of objective values and ethi­cal standards and about how we can find them if they do exist. And many people point to these doubts and confusions about values as the source of misun­der­standing and strife in the “clash of civilizations” seen today throughout the world, often erupting into violence, as well as in the polarization of our politics and international relations.

Modern doubts about the possibility of objective values have their source I be­lieve in two inescapable conditions of the modern world—pluralism and uncertainty. By pluralism, I mean just the fact that we live in a world of many conflicting voices, philoso­phies, religions, ways of life and points of view on fundamental matters, including ethics and values. Such a pluralism is made more insistent by two pervasive features of the modern world—the crea­tion of a global order through information technology that puts people in daily con­tact with views and values different from their own; and the spread of democratic societies that allow and en­courage differences of point of view within individual societies.

The familiar image of a “global village” may be the wrong one for this new order of things since most villages of the past shared a common heritage of traditions and beliefs. A better analogy would be a global city in which different cultures and ways of life mingle and are forced to confront one another; or perhaps even a new Tower of Babel. In Nietzsche’s image, seeing a thousand different tribes beating to a thousand different drums, we become the first people in history who do not believe we own the truth.2

How such wonder in the face of conflicting alternatives leads to doubts about which view of the good may be true is nicely illustrated by a scene from C. S. Lewis’s fantasy no­vel, Pere­landra.3 Lewis describes the journey of a man named Ransom to the planet Venus—called “Pere­landra” in the novel and described as an Eden-like world of islands floating on water and covered by exotic foliage. There Ransom meets a solitary human-like creature, a woman who tells him that her god, Maleldil, has commanded her to search for a man of her own kind who also inhabits this planet. Ransom’s conversations with the woman are inter­rupted one day when he says that the floating islands on which they stand are making him queasy. He suggests they move over permanently to the “fixed land”—the land that does not float on water.

The woman is horrified by this suggestion, telling him that the one thing her god Maleldil has forbidden her or anyone to do is to stay overnight on the fixed land. Ransom’s response then confuses the woman. For he says that in his own world, on Earth, everyone lives on the fixed land, night and day, and no one thinks it is wrong. In her confusion, the woman wonders whether there are different meanings of good and evil, right and wrong, and whether God may command one group of people to live one way and others to live a different way. In her confusion, she is tempted to go with Ransom over to the fixed land: If others can do it, she reasons, why can’t she?

The thoughtful reader suddenly realizes that these two figures are reenacting the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden, with Ransom playing the serpent, tempting this new Eve in her alien Eden to do the one thing her God has commanded her not to do. In the original Biblical story, the command is to not eat of the fruit of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Eve eats of this fruit and Adam also; and by succumbing to temptation they come to “know good and evil” and are banished from the Garden. But in Perelandra, Lewis is suggesting a different, dis­tinctively modern, version of the knowledge of good and evil. The new awareness that tempts and confuses us is the awareness that there may be more than one right way of living and that our way may not be the right one or the only right one. Like the woman on Perelandra, we may then say: If others can do it, why can’t we?

Thus ends moral innocence—the secure feeling that the rights and wrongs learned in child­hood are the only correct or true ones, unchallengeable and unambiguous. By knowing other ways of life and entertaining doubts about our own, we learn something about the com­plexi­ties of good and evil. But the learning comes with a bitter taste. Having bitten into the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil in this distinctively modern fashion, we live “after the modern Fall,” so to speak. We have lost our moral innocence.

But pluralism itself would not be a problem is it weren’t for another crucial feature of modernity—an uncertainty about how to show which of the competing views is right. This un­certainty, it turns out is based on a deeper philosophical problem. There is a troubling circularity involved in trying to prove the universal or absolute rightness of one’s point of view from one’s own point of view in a pluralistic world. To show that one point of view is right and other com­peting views wrong, you must present evidence. But the evidence will be gathered and interpre­ted from your own point of view. If the dispute is about good and evil, some of the evidence will include beliefs about good and evil that are not going to be accep­ted by those who have funda­mental disagreements with your values in the first place. Your values must be defended by appealing to other more fundamental values that are also yours. Perhaps you will refer to the Bible or the Qu’ran or the Bhagavad-Gita or some other sacred text, which is not going to be accepted by those who have basic disagreements with your point of view in the first place. (Even those who share your sacred text may not interpret it as you do).

There is a troubling circularity in such debates, the circularity of defending your own point of view from your own point of view, of defending your values or beliefs in terms of other values or beliefs you hold, but others may not. The problem arises because we are finite creatures who always see the world from some particular perspective, limited by culture and history. How can we climb out of our historically and culturally limited points of view to find an objective standpoint about values above all the competing points of view?

This problem—the result of pluralism and uncertainty—haunts the modern intellec­tual landscape. It gives rise to trendy new theories such as postmodernism and poststructuralism and everywhere challenges beliefs about objective intellectual, cultural and moral standards. You can see, for example, how this problem threatens both of the goals of ancient wisdom: (1) understan­ding objec­tive reality—the way things really are rather than the way they appear to us—and (2) understan­ding objective value or what is objectively worth striving for in the nature of things.

3. Openness

Now one natural reaction to the challenge of pluralism and uncertainty that is com­mon in modern democratic and pluralist societies is the following. People think to themselves that since it seems impossible to demonstrate that their view is right from their point of view (because of the circularity problem mentioned) and since everyone else is in the same condi­tion, the only proper stance to take in the presence of pluralism and uncertainty is an attitude of “openness” or tole­rance toward other points of view. Judgments about good and evil, right and wrong, one might reason, are personal matters that should be made for oneself and not imposed on others against their will. Is it not true that much of the evil of human history has come from taking the opposite attitude, assuming one has the correct view and the right to impose it on others? “Evil takes root,” as the late Russian poet Joseph Brodsky once said, “when one man begins to think he is superior to another.”4

But this attitude of openness or tolerance, though it comes naturally to those who are reared in free and democratic societies, is disparaged by some theorists and social critics. One such critic, Allan Bloom, argues in The Closing of the American Mind that such open­ness or tolerance to all points of view (an “openness of indifference” as he calls it) affects society, edu­cation and young people in perverse ways because it leads to a kind of relativism which suppo­ses that no view is any better than any other, and hence to an indifference to objective truth and absolute right.5 “Make judgments only for yourself, not for others,” this openness of indifference says, “and don’t suppose your view is superior in truth or rightness to those of others.” But such an attitude, Bloom argues, is a short step away from supposing that no view is any better (or truer) than any other and that no one can take a universal point of view and say what is right or true for everyone.

Now relativism of this sort is a serious challenge in a pluralist world, as we’ve seen. But it is a mistake to think that relativistic conclusions of the kinds Bloom has in mind are the inevi­table conse­quence of an attitude of openness toward other points of view. I now want to suggest that such an attitude of openness, when it is conceived as part of a search for wis­dom, need not lead to relati­vism or indifference, as one might fear. Rather openness, when it is so conceived as part of a search for wisdom, actually points the way to belief in some objective and universal va­lues.6 We may begin to see how this might be so by engaging in a series of thought experiments. Those people who naturally think in terms of openness toward other points of view in response to pluralism and uncertainty are on to something important, I shall argue, though it is easy to misconstrue what they are on to.

To see why, the first step is to note that openness need not be an invitation to indif­fe­rence. It can be a way of expanding our minds beyond our own limited perspectives. It can be an effort to find out what is true from every perspective (universally true), not just what is true from our own perspective. Openness or tolerance to other points of view, so conceived, would thus become a way of searching for the objective truth about values under conditions of pluralism and uncertainty rather than a denial of that objective truth.

“Open­ness” and “objectivity” function in a similar way in other areas of human inquiry where there are conflicting theories and points of view. In the natural sciences, for examp e, where such openness or objectivity functions well, it requires consideration and testing of theo­ries and evidence opposed to one’s own theory. Such methods restrict undue bias in favor of one’s own point of view as well as mere authoritative appeals to one’s own point of view—all in the interests of limiting narrowness of vision and finding the objective truth about nature.

Why not think of openness in the search for objective values in the same way—as a way of expanding our minds beyond our own limited perspectives and thereby limiting narrowness of vision—in order to find the objective truth about values? The thought seems strange at first be­cause of obvious differences between fact and value and between theoretical and practical inquiry (two of the “sunderings” of modernity mentioned by Hegel.) In the first place, systems of value, as great sages of the past, such as Confucius and the author of the Bhagavad-Gita remind us,7 are not merely abstract theories that can be tested or experimented with in a laboratory. Systems of value are guides to ways of life that can only be ultimately tested by being lived. So openness to systems of value other than one’s own (in the interests of finding out what is true about the good from every point of view) would mean respecting other ways of life; it would mean letting them be lived or experimented with or tested in a way that is appropriate for values, in action or practice.

4. The Moral Sphere and its Limits

But, once the matter is put this way, we can see why people have shied away from this line of thought. Does it mean respecting or tolerating every way of life, allowing it to be lived or experimented with, which would mean tolerating (among others) the ways of life of the Hitlers, Stalins, ruthless dictators, killers and other evildoers of the world? Then openness would amount to relativism and indifference, as critics such as Bloom contend.

But the fact is that such openness does not imply respect for every point of view or way of life whatever. To the contrary, it turns out that you cannot open your mind to every point of view in the sense of respecting every way of life. There are situations in life (many of them in fact) in which it is impossible to respect every point of view. So, while the initial attitude in the search for wisdom is to “open your mind to all other points of view in order to find the objective truth about value,” the truth you find when you do so is not that “you should open your mind to all points of view.” You cannot. Openness of mind is an initial attitude in the search for truth. But “openness of indifference” or relativism is not the final attitude.

Why not? Consider a situation in which you are walking down the street and see a man being assaulted and robbed in an alley. Suppose you are the first to see the event and the out­come will depend on what you do. If you stop to assist the victim by intervening or yelling for assistance, the assailant may see that he has been found out and will run. But if you just “walk on by,” as wary city dwellers sometimes do, the man will be beaten and robbed. In such situations, where the outcome depends on your action, you cannot respect both the points of view of the assailant and the victim, where respecting their points of view means “acting in such a way that their desires and purposes are allowed to be realized without hindrance or interference.” If you do something to prevent the assault (by intervening or calling for help) you will not be respecting the point of view of the assailant. You will be acting in such a way that his desires and purposes are interfered with and not fulfilled. If you “walk on by” when you could have done something to help, you will be acting in such a way that the desires and purposes of the man being assaulted will be interfered with and not fulfilled.8

In such situations, where the outcome depends on what you do, you cannot have it both ways; you cannot be open to or respect both points of view in the above sense. When pirates under the command of William Kidd attacked Philadelphia in the eighteenth century, pillaging and raping, some of the resident men with pacifist beliefs would not protect their women. They were not thereby choosing a non-violent world in which everyone’s desires and purposes would be respected. They were choosing that it be the desires of the pirates that would be respected and not the desires of their own women. They had not chosen a world without violence, but a world in which the violence would be directed at their women and not the pirates.

So there are situations in life in which, when you are thrust into them, you cannot treat every point of view or way of life with respect, no matter what you do. You cannot be “open” to every way of life (in the sense of allowing it to be pursued without interference). When such situ­ations occur, let us say that the “moral sphere” has “broken down,” where the moral sphere is the ideal sphere in which every way of life can be respected in this sense. When this moral sphere breaks down, we must treat some ways of life as less worthy of respect than others. But which ones?

To find the answer we must return to the original ideal of respect for all, or openness. Recall that this ideal was not assumed to be the final truth about value, but was to guide us in the search for that truth. Montaigne once said that ideals are to us as the stars were to the ancient mariners: We never reach them, but we guide our path by them. Similarly, it is the persistent striving to maintain the ideal of openness or respect for all to the degree possible in the face of obstacles that is to guide us in the search for the truth from all points of view. Such striving preserves us, to the degree that is within our power, from narrowness of vision and gives us a chance to see the truth.

When the moral sphere breaks down, we cannot follow this ideal to the letter (“cannot reach it”). We cannot treat everyone with respect in such break-down situations no matter what we do, in the sense of allowing their desires and purposes to be fulfilled without inter­ference. But we can follow the ideal to the degree possible (“guide our path by it”) in adverse circumstances by trying to restore and preserve conditions in which the ideal of respect for all can be followed once again. In other words, when the moral sphere breaks down, the goal would be to try to res­tore and preserve it by stopping those who have broken it and made it impossible for others to follow the ideal. For, making such efforts to restore the sphere is as close as we can come to maintaining the ideal of openness in adverse circum­stances when we must violate it, no matter what we do; and striving to maintain this ideal to the degree poss­ible is our guide in the search for wisdom. In our examples, stopping those who have made it im­possible for others to follow the ideal means stopping the assailant and the pirates. We thus arrive at an answer to the original question of who is to be treated as less worthy of respect when the moral sphere breaks down and it is no longer possible to treat everyone with respect, no matter what we do.9

5. Two Ways of Searching

Needless to say, there are many complications and questions about this line of rea­soning that will have to be addressed. But lest we miss the forest for the trees, let us stand back for a moment and consider what it all means. It means that the attitude of openness to all ways of life, when put to the test in practice, does not lead to relativism or indif­ference, as its critics fear, but actually leads to the conclusion that some ways of life and forms of action are to be treated as less worthy of respect than others by anyone who searches for the wisdom about the objective good in this way.

Or, putting the result in another way, it entails that a relativism of indifference—under­stood as the belief that every way of life is as good as any other—like openness itself, is an im­pos­sible ideal when put into practice in an imperfect world. And what was said of the assailant in the alley and of the pirates, can be said of all the Hitlers, Stalins, murderers, rapists, oppressors, exploiters and other evildoers of the world. We do not have to say their ways of life are just as good as everyone else’s. By their actions, they place themselves “outside the moral sphere” so to speak, and make their ways of life less worthy of respect by making it impossible for others to respect them, while respecting everyone else as well.

Here is yet another way of looking at the matter. In a pluralist world of conflicting points of view, there are two distinct ways of searching for objective or universal values (those that hold for all persons and all points of view). An older way was to position oneself in one point of view—one’s own—and argue that it was right and every other view wrong. This is the way peo­ple have thought about establishing the objective truth and right for centuries. But in a world of pluralism and uncertainty, this way founders over our finiteness and the circularity problem discussed earlier. One could, of course, deny or ignore this problem—asserting the absolute or certain truth of one’s own point of view from one’s own point of view on authoritative or other grounds, as many do. In the face of the terrifying prospects of pluralism and uncertainty, one may engage in a kind of “fundamentalist retrenchment,” reasserting the old ways in the old way. I think we can understand this reaction and see why it has become an increasingly common means of coping with moral uncertainty in the modern age—even as we fear the dogmatism and violence that may result from it.

But our question is a different one: What options are available to persons who, moved by the reflections about pluralism and uncertainty, can no longer go back to the older way of esta­blishing absolute values—merely defending the universal truth of their own points of view from their own points of view? Such persons can either abandon the search for objective or universal values altogether or they can try something new. They may succumb to subjectivism, relativism or skepticism, or look for a new way of searching.

When the problem is put this way, the preceding line of reasoning may be viewed as suggesting an alternative way of searching: the way of openness. Instead of trying to prove your own point of view absolutely right from your own point of view, try this: Open your mind initially to all points of view in order to find out what is true from every point of view, not just from your own. Try this as a thought experiment and see what happens. When you do so, you will find that some ways of life are more worthy of being treated with respect than others in the sense required by a persistent striving for this openness under adverse condi­tions, and some less worthy; and this will be true for anyone who undertakes the experiment.

In this way, we lift from ourselves the burden of proving our view is absolutely right and every other wrong, and place the burden of proof on everyone equally to prove their ways of life right or wrong by their actions. If they break the moral sphere, they make their ways of life less worthy of respect by others by making it impossible for others to treat them and everyone else with respect.

6. Restoring and Preserving the Sphere: Violence and Pacifism

What then is to be said about our own way of life, if we proceed in this way? It is to be treated no differently than the others. If we break the moral sphere, then we make our view less worthy of respect by others. So we are not entirely off the hook as a result of having distributed the burden of proof equally to everyone. We still have the burden of proving ourselves right or wrong; and that is burden enough. For the “proof” (whether of our way of life or other ways) is not carried out merely by arguing in the abstract that one view is better than others, but in practical engagements with others, by how we live and act. (Theoria and praxis thus come together here in the search for wisdom about the good, as the ancients assumed, but not exactly in the way they assumed.)

Do we then have to wait until some persons actually break the moral sphere and show themselves less worthy before intervening—which would be disastrous in many instances? The answer is no, for the reason that, as noted, respect for the ideal of a moral sphere in which all persons are respected requires not only restoring that sphere when it has broken down, but also preserving it from breakdown in the future. The point is that it is by this persistent striving to maintain the ideal of openness to the degree possible in adverse circum­stances—in the interests of limiting narrowness of vision—that we go about seeking the objective truth about value. And we would not be respecting the ideal to the degree possible if we failed to take reasonable steps to forestall future breakdowns of the moral sphere when possible. For that sphere is the sphere in which the ideal can be followed.

Thus, we punish criminals not only to stop them here and now (restore the sphere), but to deter them and others from committing similar acts in the future (to preserve the sphere). We do this because it is as close as we can come to preserving the ideal of respect for all when we must violate it for some, no matter what we do. Similarly, in the interests of preserving the moral sphere in the future, we can act preemptively if we see it is about to be broken. Those who read Hitler’s Mein Kampf could see that his life-plan was a moral sphere-breaker and they had every right to intervene by force if they saw he was about to carry it out. Unfortunate­ly, we know that too many of Hitler’s contemporaries could not believe he meant what he said.

Consider pacifism. It may be the correct view within the moral sphere, but it fails when the moral sphere breaks down. Sometimes force is required to restore and preserve the very ideal that normally prohibits force. This is consistent with the idea that one should try to maintain the ideal to the degree possible when it cannot be followed to the letter, no matter what one does. When the pirates raided and pillaged Philadelphia, every point of view could not be respected. It was not a question of whether some view would not be respected, but whose view it would be (the pirates or their victims). The point is revealed by a joke about pacifism common among members of the Society of Friends or Quakers with whom I taught for a time in the Philadelphia area. It was about the Quaker farmer who found a thief in his chicken coup. Aiming his shotgun at the thief, he exclaimed, “I do not want to hurt you, sir, but I advise you to run, because you are standing where I am about to shoot.”

The tensions of an extreme pacifist view are evident in tales of this kind. There are some situations in which every point of view (including your own) cannot be respected, no matter what you do. Yet even as we might question the universal truth of pacifism, it is worth recognizing that pacifism might be regarded in another sense as the “ideal” view on the above account. For pacifism is the correct view within the moral sphere and the moral sphere is the ideal sphere. It is just that the world is not always perfect or ideal (indee it rarely is); and s