Correspondences: on conscience and the inner law

Dear F.

Thank you for presenting us with this lucid argument for a basic moral law and lawgiver in the cosmos. I think you did an exemplary job depicting the way in which many people’s basic intuitions—even people who, when asked, would profess to believe in no such thing—betray a tacit faith in an objective moral law, which in turn seems to entail a moral lawgiver of logical necessity. 

I especially appreciated your observation in this regard that it is something of a transcendental condition to being able to evaluate anything as good or bad that there be an ultimate standard or reference against which this evaluation can proceed. As you noted, without this standard, what would we be talking about with such an evaluation? I think many people would argue that it ultimately resolves to a question of maximising pleasure while avoiding pain and this might seem to be a plausible answer until it is considered that it does not really answer the question but only conceals it: to wit, what makes pleasure good? But I wonder what you would respond to someone who said “our minds evolved for the sake of increasing our evolutionary fitness and so there is no reason to believe them about questions outside of this purview (i.e. feeding and breeding, etc.). Do you think this is a sound counterargument? Why or why not?

I was very excited by your observation here:

When you are faced with a choice of instincts, there is a third thing telling you what instinct to follow.

It is quite an art to avoid identification with either of the binaries and keep to the “third thing” but I think this is perhaps what we mean when we call someone “wise,” as opposed to “smart” or “clever.” What do you think?

I also appreciated your characterization of each of our unique “perspectives” or “situations” in life in which we look out into the world and in to our own selves. You made a very important point about what we find when we look inwards into the interiorities that we can see and made a defensible case for extrapolating what we find where we can see to where we cannot. Thus we expect that there is a moral order outside of where it happens to be visible to us. It is not unlike presuming that there is terrain outside of where a streetlamp shines even if it cannot be seen in the dark. 

You made another interesting point about how we tend to give other people the benefit of the doubt, as it were, in respect to the moral complexity of their inner lives, while we assume that a tree, for example, lacks such interiority. Part of the reason for this is that my fellow human being’s interiority is indeed invisible to me to begin with but he or she may always reveal it to me if he or she wishes through speech. We even have expressions for this like “speaking one’s mind.” This really emphasises the value of communication for me, since it is essentially the medium that relates interiorities. Space, by contrast, could be thought of as the medium of external relations. The Scientific Revolution in Europe was largely accomplished by limiting its study to the latter kind of relation while excluding the former from its scope of inquiry. Up until the seventeenth century, it was “common knowledge” amongst ordinary and educated people alike that the planets, for instance, were not mere objects but bodies. Just as our own bodies both instantiate and also are animated by our souls, so it was believed that the planetary bodies were animated by celestial intelligences like angels. It was the same with many apparent “objects” in Nature. The exclusion of internal relations from the scope of science has allowed for immense progress in many respects but it seems that a number of people are starting to consider what it leaves out. Perhaps we are living on the cusp of a new evolution or revolution in science. The interesting aspect of this question is that we probably will not know except in retrospect of many centuries. “Life is lived forwards but understood in reverse,” it is said.

Your point about the relation of love and freedom was very moving as well. I think it goes both ways: if we are to love, then we must be free. But also: if we are truly free, then we will find that love is our only reason for acting. Many conventional notions of freedom obscure this connection by making freedom seem like something that has to be won by throwing off yokes of oppression from the outside. But none of this will do any good if I am still indentured to my own capricious desires. By the same token, if I am free from them, then I am free from everything that would impel me to action outside of my own decision and as a result, if I did anything, it could have no ulterior motive and so the only impulse for it could be love. This is probably best thought of as an ideal towards which a person may strive but I think self reflection can reveal how we may draw closer to it in small ways by casting off the addictions and attachments that fetter us to unfreedom.

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