When someone asks whether or not there is a meaning to life, this is a misspoken way of asking whether or not there is an overall teleological aim to the universe, usually seen as grounded in a divine design of the universe. While such grandiose claims are suspect in philosophy, these questions always come back again and again to non-philosophical audience since much of our common assumptions about meanings of life are derived from religious sources. In this post, I address not these concerns so much, but rather what distortion such criticism fosters about morality.
Michael Casey is a sociologist, and Catholic who inaugurates a return to transcendent values, truth and objectivity in the classical theist spirit offered by Aquinas. His particular criticism is not so much original as devastatingly wrong in seeing that skepticism or rejection of theist-based systems of meaning collapse immediately into relativism. As such, like so many, Casey sees objectivity in morality as either absolutist, or relativistic. This is his first mistake, and as a consequence another important feature of morality in such theist-based ethics falls out. What Casey and so many others distort is the actual capability of the content of morality. The content of morality isn't as specific in terms of its action-guidance it offers as people regard it. There is a generality to morality that requires actual interpretation as to the extent such action-guidance offers to normative understanding, and it isn't so simple as God on high ordering positive and negative duties.
First, I am in agreement with classical accounts that moral judgments can be true in the moral realist sense. This is the force of moral truth. Moral truth provides a reason for thinking that morality is overriding in the way we experience being “in the grip of a norm.” Our practical reasoning and cognitive capacities through reflection have access to a set of values that are tentatively and universally relevant to our experience, but it is not through intuition that we see values as applied to concrete situations, but through interpretation. We may know moral principles through intuition, but their applicability originates in reflection and interpretation. In this way, I introduce an interpretive type of moral hermeneutics that explains why there is disagreement about morality. Just because we access to relevant intuitions doesn't mean we understand morality as specific in its content. We might encounter life situations that are so different from how our intuitions can make sense of them that a much needed moral hermeneutics is needed to make sense of those new moral situations. Moreover, it is possible through self-reflection that our moral intuitions may be false, and that through self-reflection and interpretation we could show why it is that some moral intuitions need rejected while others don't.
Secondly, our intuitions give us limited understanding, even after interpretations of those values to concrete situations. They are preliminary justifiable given no other weighty considerations come our way. In this way, our moral judgments are defeasible a priori prima facie duties. If I promise another graduate to take their tutorials because they're going to a wedding, and my wife falls ill requiring immediate medical attention, I have all the reason to see my prima facie promise made to the graduate student as less weighty than my obligations I have to my wife. This suggests a way of seeing moral demands as a comparable set of intuitions that gives us several things. First, it gets us out of the oppressive claim that befall Kantian and utilitarian accounts. Secondly, it paints a more realistic picture of how general moral knowledge is, and thirdly, this type of Rossian-based account explains why moral claims are true, as the theist wants (but is certainly unneeded for us here), without distorting the generality of moral knowledge previously mentioned, and can explain why some moral opinions are false.
Now, let's tie this up with Casey's comments. For Casey, meaninglessness amounts to a denial of a transcendent reality, and he feels that our Western culture is symptomatic of Nietzsche, Freud and Rorty's purporting of meaninglessness. Casey regards culture as a reference point to provide a common way to reflect on meaning for people at large. Further, he suggests that these thinkers see liberation in the meaninglessness in which Casey feels such optimism is unwarranted. Specifically, their denial of meaninglessness shares an insular effort to shield us from the why be moral question. We won't have any reason to be moral, or responsible for our own actions if we are not “anchored” in a transcendent reality of moral truth and purpose. On this, he says:
“It is true that when the moment for action comes, and we are immediately confronted with someone who needs our help or something which needs to be stopped, we don’t spend a lot of time philosophising. We just do it. But getting to this point doesn’t happen automatically. If we are socialised to think only of ourselves or what solves a problem in the short-term or delivers a pragmatic cheap fix, we are much less likely to help others or to stand against evil. And when helping others or opposing evil is not the one dramatic moment of heroism that we have in our imagination, but the long, slow, difficult and even dangerous work that both are most of the time in reality, you need something more than the knowledge that this is just your own personal perspective on things to keep you at it.” (italics mine)
I'm unsure of the absence of a common cultural framework gets us complete skepticism about how less likely we are to help others or oppose to stand against evil. Holding culture suspect is a Socratic virtue. More than that, cultural socialization is not the exhaustive determination about how future humans will behave. Its unclear if lacking objective moral grounds contributes to undermining our moral deliberations in such a slippery slope fashion. Is our moral agency truly undermined? I can engage in agential deliberation on my own about MY intuitions about what ought to be the case, interpret and apply them. What results is the tooth-and-nail deliberations we make, not because of culturally determined social forces, but because human beings occupy a normatively-ladened existence. In other words, culture is not the source of critical reflection. The Socratic impetus which truly gives us meaning doesn't arise from an independent metaphysics posited by reason, but a life actively questioned, even to the point that orthodoxy of culture is undermined; this is the immortal tension between faith and reason, between Socrates and his accusers for “impiety towards the gods.”
Finally, I should say that the reason for rejecting Judeo-Christian teleology of the universe amounts to a lack of success in explanatory power. The empirical sciences consistently rise to the occasion, and provide verifiable evidence in suggesting X is caused by Y much more plausibly than those points in literal exegesis on the bible where religion contradicts science. If we see this success coextensive with issues of reliability, then it is reasonable to extend our want for scientific credence to our beliefs at large. Historically, the reason why science pushes over religion is that much of what religion thought it capable of explaining no longer holds sway. Religion suggests too much. It makes the content of morality into specific rules or instances grounded in the illusion of transcendence. In here, I have tried to suggest that construing values in ways of teleology are unneeded. We can have reasonable moral epistemological descriptions of value-experience and a minimal a priori that gets us moral general truth and overridingness without the violation of Ockham's razor that always accompanies religious reasoning on moral matters.