Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Eleatic Impasse and the Moral Impasse

Heidegger’s seminal Being and Time announces itself amidst a Platonic aporia. The impasse is quoted from the Sophist by the Eleatic Stranger who says,

For manifestly you have long been aware of what you mean when you use the expression “being.” We, however, who used to think we understood it, have now become perplexed (BT, p. 1).

Like Heidegger, I announce my intention with a state of observed philosophical perplexity. Unlike, Heidegger my concerns haven’t been completely eschewed by philosophers as the question of the meaning of Being. Instead, moral philosophers have paid attention to what I call the basic concepts of the good, the right and the just, and their opposite privations. Yet, it is the manner of contact these moral philosophers in the tradition have articulated understanding that demands phenomenological attention.

Moral philosophers are fragmentary in their reflective efforts to produce a coherent whole of unified beliefs concerning the possibility of moral knowledge, what moral values are, what, if any, principle(s) determine what we ought to do and what are the contents of morality itself. In their efforts, moral philosophers have left a collage of various moral intuitions and beliefs that require constant investigation, and piecemeal precision. The landscape of our normative condition is scattered with various problems in normative ethics and meta-ethical domains, maybe even both.

With this condition, the possibility of a unified moral philosophy that answers wholly the previously mentioned concerns is regarded as a pipe-dream, an implausible philosophical hubris too common to mention. Alasdair MacIntyre observed this lack of morality’s unity, and the implausible aims of ethics itself as a lack of historical and metaphysical commonalities to which all of us comply. Observing this dire state of ethics, he writes:

What we possess [in terms of morality]…are the fragments of a conceptual scheme, parts which now lack those contexts from which their significance derived. We possess indeed simulacra of morality, we continue to use many of the key expressions. But we have—very largely, if not entirely—lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality. (After Virtue, p. 2)

Now, I think it fair to say that MacIntyre is like the Eleatic Stranger. We have lost our way in moral thinking, and our culture, Western at large and the world, have either retreated to offer minimalist standards of obligation in some way, rejecting the possibility of ethics completely in nihilism or error theory, or somewhere in between these two extremes. Either we give up on the unity completely, reject the possibility of unity or lie somewhere in between. However, what is suspect in ethics is the entire spectrum of these possibilities. While to some they might be answers, they only conceal what is at issue in the poor neglect where we find ethical theorizing.

Observing these difficulties and considering them aright, moral philosophers are forced to answer some tough concerns. The very possibility of unity and objectivity in our moral thought is challenged by the fact that discourses take place within the simulacra of morality. We have lost those historical and metaphysical grounds that used to ground moral discourse in meaningful ways. There is no significance to these past historical habits of moral speech, words and concepts we employ. In effect, we are as Heidegger observed living in a time unconcerned with the most primordial of questions. For me, such a question is not about being, but about our basic conceptual tools to make sense of our moral life.

The very reason the simulacra of morality exists is the very reason I find the question of ethics so vitally important. Human beings care about morality. They cannot live without being so encumbered by morality. For we all care about how the world ought to be, even if by “ought” we do not mean good or right for all—instead, only “me.” Thus, the basic condition of human life is normative, and therefore it is likely that since morality is so intimated to what human beings are and live, then it follows that we would use our moral terms, language, speech and concepts even unknowingly in cases where there is no context or tie to the meaning in which such terms, language, speech and concepts had meaning. We unwittingly and unknowingly perpetuate the simulacra.

Given this condition of groundless morality, ethics can be labeled as being in crisis. The crisis refers to ethics and its inability to fully unify its elements into a meaningful whole. The whole can only be representative of our moral life if we understand how moral life is structure. Moreover, it is the intention of this author to prepare a way for a ground of morality. I argue that the ground of morality can only be seen if we first understand how it is that morality is lived and experienced. Once we capture how it is that we truly are in relation to morality, once our moral-being-in-the-world is elucidated, the basic structures of ethics can come into relief. Hence, a good moral theory is one that captures the phenomenological insights of moral experience and all its aspects. Henceforth, I announce this intention to construct a moral phenomenology using those insights of phenomenology to face off a crisis that much of Husserl’s phenomenology directs itself.

The question facing me, now, is whether such a phenomenological shift in ethical theorizing is an appropriate response to the concern raised herein, and the larger question is what aspects of our moral life require the employment of the phenomenological reduction?

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