What is Moral Authority After Existentialism?
The problem is that our moral systems come to us from history based on authorities of religion, and precedence. God or man said to do it this way, we’ve always done it that way, so we do it that way now. Moral instincts make us very conservative. Unfortunately, many parts of the systems from the past simply don’t work well in the present. They are being challenged and they cannot be defended by what are commonly accepted as proofs today. For a long time in the West, the moral authority was the Catholic Church. That authority has diminished greatly for a number of reasons and a new authority is needed. The systems from the past are also hard to analyze to see how they work and they usually come back to “divine” reasons which are not defendable. This is important because different people may need different strategies and understandings, especially when it comes to the details. So we need new foundations for our moral systems that offer understanding and an authority that is currently acceptable. The strategic practices may not change so much, they have worked fairly well up until now, but new foundations and understandings will be needed to provide authority. Without an understanding of our moral systems and their authority, they will not be used and cannot be defended. We need to be clear on the moral foundations and authorities we use so that we can make good decisions, have confidence in our decisions, and defend our decisions. This essay is about how we might be able to do that. Most of the philosophy is from the Ancient Greeks, particularly the logic and reason of critical thinking, but also some of their observations. Most of the rest of the philosophy that is used is from the Rationalists. Ultimately though, for the purpose of survival, a person will also have to rely on their survival and moral instincts. So those need to be explained.
Philosophy encompasses a huge body of knowledge. Some of it is the result of observation and much of it is the result of reason. When you get to the end of it though you find what the Existentialists pointed out. It is a question of what knowledge you want to believe. In a way, their reaction is something similar to the earlier rationalists. Both were a response to the diminishing authority of the Catholic Church. During the Christian Era, the Christian God and by extension the Catholic Church were the unquestioned authority in all things in the West. The Rationalists realized that a new foundation for government was required to replace the authority of God. They basically said that the government had to be based on the consent of the governed. That is still widely accepted today. Later, the Existentialists examined what that lack of divine authority meant to the individual, but didn’t seem to try to find a replacement for the authority as the Rationalists had. They seem to have concluded that the only philosophical or moral authority was oneself. They had a point in rejecting a God as an authority, but they perhaps took it a bit far when they pointed out that you not only don’t have to accept reason and logic as an authority but you could completely ignore morality if you wanted to. That seems a bit extreme. I’m not sure that it could ever have been sustained very long except that it implicitly accepted science as an authority. Science is pretty good but there are two problems with these. One is the limitations of science and the other is limitations on what authority an individual can provide.
Science is a fantastic tool and it holds itself to a very high standard of truth but it has huge limitations, some of which are self-imposed and some are inherent. Science limits what can become part of science. It is a defined process. A lot of truth doesn’t fall into that category and a lot of truth has just never become science. The reason science gives out a Ph.D., a doctorate of philosophy, is because the person has created new knowledge, philosophy, and gone through the processes, such as peer-reviewed publications, of adding it to the body of knowledge that is science. A lot of good knowledge hasn’t gone through this process, including knowledge that has been generated by scientists and scientific institutions. Law, history, politics, religion, lore, and many other great bodies of knowledge just don’t fit in science. They remain in the realm of philosophy and philosophy was largely a casualty of the war between science and religion. Science is a jealous master of knowledge. About the time of the Scopes trial, it claimed all authority of truth and more than religions suffered.
There is a major problem with the Existentialist idea of taking oneself as a moral authority. It is quite difficult. Plato described such a person as a Philosopher King. He said they were “a ruler who possesses both a love of wisdom, as well as intelligence, reliability, and a willingness to live a simple life.” More than just that, they need a lot of wisdom which today means more than philosophy meant then. Now it includes knowledge of philosophy, sciences, cybernetics, history, law, religion, and many other disciplines combined with some challenging life experience. Few have that available. Luckily a lot of that knowledge has become part of our culture, but a lot of our common basic moral education that comes from culture was husbanded and taught by religion. That moral education has not been replaced. Really, most people are not capable of making very good moral judgments yet we live in a complicated world that requires very good moral judgment. It takes discipline that is rare, especially in the young. Contrary to what the Existentialists might say, we need excellent moral authority to survive in the modern world and probably better than most people can provide.
So, what can we rely on for moral authority? Really, it is about what we believe and our knowledge is just a tool so it is a matter of what we learn to use of the tools offered by those authorities. So what authorities can we use to make the best moral judgments? I would suggest perhaps six things: education, experience, the logic and reason of critical thinking, the moral authority used by the ancient Greeks, heroes, and instincts.
I’ll hit the topic of critical thinking first. The Ancient Greeks considered the most powerful tool of all for discerning truth. Some have claimed that reason is the only reliable criterion of truth because it cannot be fooled while the perceptions can be. The problem with that somewhat extreme view is that modern computer programming shows us the limitations of complex logical formulas. Still, it is the best tool ever devised for determining truth, sometimes because lies are easy to reveal. The best way to learn critical thinking is by reading because the author can describe the thought processes of the characters including how they detect a problem, how they define it, how they solve it, how they check their solution for accuracy, how they implement it, and how they start over when needed. Almost nothing else than reading can give that training about simply how to think. Being communicated in the written word puts its own constraints on it since it is hard to write illogically and logical flaws can be easily pinpointed. A person can be trained in critical thinking in other ways such as the Ancient Greeks did in their proposals and arguments. That is an excellent way to learn rhetoric and logic, but not as widely accessible as reading. There are seven standard logical mistakes and other minor ones that a person can use to deceive themselves or others using logic. A basic logic class can teach about these.
For all the power of critical thinking, logic and reason are not enough. Facts from one’s own experiences and from others are necessary. Perhaps an unlimited logical ability could discern any truth by thought but facts make it far easier to limit the amount of deduction needed to discern truths. Facts are anchors to truth and understanding. This is where science can become so useful. It restricts itself to things that can be good anchors of truth. A good education does as well though often education has been less robust and rigorous than we need nowadays. Luckily electronic media can be a great aid in that moving forward, though at the same time one must be very discerning or get their education and media from trusted sources that show the authority and process that has vetted the information for truth. Education is about learning the facts and truths that can be learned from others by transference.
The human mind is so much more than logic and reason. For all that they are great for distinguishing truth and even providing is some they aren’t really our primary tool of understanding. That is the neural net of our brain. By definition, it is a pattern recognition device. Modern computer cybernetics has given us a good deal of understanding of how it works, though Michael Polanyi described much of the basics in his book “Personal Knowledge”. It is the knowledge that cannot easily be transferred. It must be learned. Facial recognition is a good example. Everyone does it, but it’s not taught. Most education is about transferring knowledge but courses can be designed to direct a student so they discover understandings. One thing learned from artificial intelligence research is that apparently, the best way to develop it is by making mistakes or even forcing oneself not to use previous methods used for solving problems. This is described in detail in the book “When Barbara Explained Genius”. A wise person can actually learn from other’s mistakes. The challenge is to transfer the insight created by the ancient abilities of the neural net into cultural artifacts such as math or language that can be retained in one’s mind or communicated to others. That can be very hard. Circling back to logic as a tool, the mind will automatically trigger logical processes to analyze the parts of an insight that logic and reason can be applied to. Long before the Ancient Greeks explored logic and reason, the brain contained systems to do the same thing. They can be long-running automatic processes that logically evaluate possibility after possibility that the neural net has created as part of an insight. A person is usually unaware of these processes though they may momentarily require all of a person’s intellectual ability. They can feel it and another person may see them momentarily “space out”.
The next authority to mention is that used by the Ancient Greeks. It might be called common sense but is probably partly the instincts mentioned further on. It is very relevant though to this story which is about humans finding new ways to survive. It was simply that the Greeks could compare their civilization to a tribal culture created more by nature, simply by looking outside of their city gates. Humanity in nature is not a pretty sight to a human in a civilization. Live can be short, harsh, and brutal as nature tends to be. It was obvious to the Greeks that they wanted civilization. That was their moral authority, a conscious choice to be more than what nature made them. Without civilization, a few of them would be able to return to the tribal-state if they had to, but only a few. Even a simple civilization can support far more people and better than any advanced tribal ecology. There is a difference between a tribal human and one in civilization and that extends to genetic nature as well. Humans in a civilization need a lot of adaptation to it.
Corresponding to that push from below there was also a pull from above. The powerlessness of humanity naturally led to stories of Gods that had powers over nature, disease, hunger, mortality, and fate that humans were so subject to. The literature was full of the aspirations of humans to be like Gods. Friedrich Nietzsche described this as the power of envy. The ancients had plenty of stories of what life could be like and desperately desired something better. It’s not just about physical achievement. Our moral instincts are programmed to moral aspiration. We can see others and our moral instincts pay attention. We respond to “moral superiority” as a form of status. We have to be careful though as those instincts aren’t always that bright, but that is nature.
The next authority to mention is our instincts and this is very important. There are two main instincts to mention here: our survival instincts and our moral instinct. Survival instincts are almost certainly older and simpler simply because it needs to be little more than a drive while moral instincts need to be strategic. Remember, these are organic. They are created by evolution. They were not created by logical processes. They were created by what worked. Survival is not about logic. The Existentialists tried to apply logic to survival and repeatedly were baffled about why they shouldn’t simply commit suicide. Well, some of the best reasons are simply because your instincts are telling you to survive. Ultimately they are the authorities that people are going to have to accept. As the Existentialists did, other reasons may be accepted as well such as that life is fun, but it isn’t always going to be. Many times life will not be so challenging that one will need the power of one’s deepest, strongest instincts to survive. Sometimes it will be though, especially because now having children is decoupled from the powerful drive to have sex so having children is a choice now. The fact that many people choose not to have children but still choose to have a moral life based on survival shows the power of our instincts. I learned that many priests made choices to not have families and instead chose to make their vocation one of igniting that spark and fanning into life the moral instincts of not just the children that need their moral instincts “released” but husbanding and nurturing them in others in their community. Some just chose to serve. The moral struggle is not a war to be won but the everyday moral battled fought by all good men and women.
The final philosophical or moral authority to mention is heroes. It can be hard to find a real moral authority in any philosophy and your moral instincts can be very quiet. It’s difficult to achieve the qualifications of a Philosopher King. In any case, the Existentialists were right that it is largely a choice, one a Philosopher King would also have to make. Perhaps the best and easiest thing to do once you have made that choice to be moral is a Stoic practice. Choose a hero. Learn about them. Learn from them. Imitate them. Unfortunately in this day and age, you have to contend with that everyone seems to want to deconstruct and tear down heroes, but they are human and so are you. Neither is perfect and that is OK, so learn from them what you can and try to be like them. Ask yourself “what would they do now”. This has the added benefit of abstracting yourself which develops self-awareness. Though flawed, there are so many great men and women in history that were heroic in so many ways including as warriors, moral leaders, knowledge leaders, medical leaders, political leaders, parents, teachers, and achievers of other great human accomplishments. These are great people that can offer examples of how you can act and achieve, of how you can survive, and how you can contribute to the survival of your society and even humanity. Accept their moral authority and the truths they learned. Add it to your own. You will be strong and you will be equipped to survive. Become morally competent or perhaps even a moral artisan.
Looking back again at the classical philosophers, there was discussion about whether knowledge of morality was enough or did it need to be practiced. Almost all agreed it had to be practiced, especially Aristotle. That makes sense. To paraphrase: “you need your morals glued on tightly or you will lose them when you need them the most”. Unfortunately, the perhaps most widely used “philosophies” today are forms of Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism can be a lot of things and embrace many ideas, but it can also be problematic since it is often about the “good” in a way that seems very shortsighted and without much reference to traditional moral values. They may skip morals altogether with an assumption that a person is easily a moral expert without more than passive cultural training. It seems a bit like Dr. Spock saying that children don’t need moral education and they will turn out alright… Something that he later apologized for. Like that was, skipping the importance of moral training seems just to be laziness. Not only do we need some moral authority, but we need moral training, practice, and exercise or when the skills are needed for survival they will not be available.
Recognize there are two moralities, not a blend between them. There may be a balance or even an overlap between the moral strategies of nature and humans, but not a gradation. They are different. This is one of the great modern problems. It is so tempting sometimes to solve problems by just reverting to Darwinian strategies and let nature take its course, but then you have rejected your human choice and strategy. Only a well-developed and practiced moral strategy can thread that path. A civilization that does not actively teach a moral strategy with an authority that supports survival does not have a long future.