On the Question of the Timelessness of Moral Judgment

If valuing is about ascertaining reasons for seeking to acquire or follow or do something, based on the thing’s relationship to ourselves as agents, as I would argue it is, then choosing to treat others as we would ourselves be treated by others must be based on what making that choice means for each of us who makes such a choice. And that value to us which is found in acting towards the other in a way that recognizes and accepts their own interests is what enables us to most fully realize the kind of creatures we are, i.e., creatures with an awareness of selfhood and what it entails. This is so because you cannot say one thing and do another in still mean what you say.

It’s on this self-realization basis that we can establish moral valuing, the choosing of acts in the specialized moral sense. We choose thus (when we might choose otherwise) because we come to think doing so makes us better persons, better selves. And here “better” just means more fully realized. It makes us consistent with our own natures, selves recognizing selfhood and thus other selves. This does not exhaust valuing as an activity we engage in, of course. But it establishes a baseline for moral valuation. The morally good act is the one that makes us better than we were. Why does consistency make us better? Because recognizing selfhood as a shared condition with other persons means behaving towards them with deference to their selfhood, with recognition that they are persons not things and that means we are persons not things, too. Awareness of other selves is also to embrace mutuality as a way of living in the world.

Moral valuation is not absolute in any trans-human sense but it can be seen as rooted in the kind of creatures we are, making it transcultural if not transcendent. And to be transcultural is enough to establish a baseline for judgment outside each of us as individuals. This doesn’t mean cultures are all the same, of course, but only that they are changeable with the growing awareness of their members. A man like Abraham Lincoln was a man of his time but also a catalyst for changing his society and, thus, a bridge to ours. He also appears to have harbored certain racial prejudices, even while finding slavery an abhorrent institution which deserved eradication. Does Lincoln’s prejudices make him less moral because he was not entirely free of the beliefs of his time?

It’s often argued that moral judgment is rooted in particular cultures and this leads to a kind of moral relativism. Without some absolute standard we wonder how moral claims can be compelling at all. If they are just the subjective expressions of individuals or groups of individuals, how can they compel our agreement? Yet, if they cannot, how can they provide us with a basis for expecting others to trim the sails of their behavior to our presumptively moral winds? Well, isn’t there a kind of middle ground here, with this idea of a transcultural foundation? Moral valuation, like all forms of valuation, is a function of human understanding, human vision, how we see our world. But being human is not limited to time or place or culture even if these condition the world in which we happen to stand. The moral standards we subscribe to are somewhat contingent and so not fully realized in every time or place or culture. But if they are transcultural, in us because of what we are, they may be drawn out from the implicit facts about our selves as rational subjects when we come to the point where we see these or see them more clearly.

In the matter of making moral judgments we must somehow get to the point of recognizing the other as like ourselves. Of course this is not unique to human beings. Dogs do it. Cats do it. Apes do it. Even the birds and the bees do it. The issue is not the sub-rational recognition which all these creatures have and which we possess in common with them, for we know others at a basic level by their appearance and behavior. But this is not sufficient for making moral claims. Such claims arise when our grasp of our world comes to include the grasp of ourselves as part of it, as conditioning it, and when we come to think about this state of being as our way of being in the world. When awareness of selfhood becomes part of our deliberative consciousness, a factor in our decision making itself, then the one that thinks ABOUT things and stuff in the world becomes his or her own object of reference and valuational target, too.

Creatures lacking the human discursive capacity don’t have this other capacity either (the ability to think about things, though they certainly can remember and react). To think about something we need the capacity to turn our sensory inputs into a world, to make them more than just our immediate impinging environment so that they becomes part of an extended domain in time and space, for us, with a past and a future and a here and a there. China exists for us but not for non-language using creatures even though they share our world, the same one in which there is a China. It’s language capability that enables us to frame our inputs as a world and to relate to its many parts in a valuing way. This world we observe is horizontally existent for us but the things in it are vertically existent as well, existing on a vector that extends outward from us to each of those things we recognize as in the world.

Valuing takes many forms, plays its tune in many registers, and one of those is the moral. Moral valuation is about human action but not just any action because there is an abundance of involuntary actions we perform, e.g., reflexive, unconscious and coerced and none of these are deemed morally relevant. What we count as morally relevant are those actions whose objectives we can think about and assess in a valuing way, actions we can decide to do or not do for some reason or other. Valuing them is about deciding when and if we have reason(s) to do them and if those reasons are compelling for us to act.

Moral valuation is only relevant to deliberative human action. But we can look at actions in a couple of ways. We can look at them as physical events in which case the issue is their utility and whether or not it’s prudent to undertake them in light of what we can expect them to yield. But we can also look at actions as constitutive of the selves we are, as aspects of our personas, our characters. And here we are looking for a different sort of reason to choose our action. Instead of what it can secure for us, we want to know what doing it makes of us, how it affects the persons we are.

Moral claims consist of several different deliberative dimensions (including conforming with the standards our group looks to us to conform to), but the one that is quintessentially moral in our general usage, that overrides the claims of our group upon us, is the claim that addresses how what we do affects others.

Because language capacity enables us to see a world where other creatures see only the immediate environment within which they stand, it involves our conceptual construction of things and situations, places and times and states of affairs and, indeed, of selfhood itself. It enables us to place the self that we are and that anchors all our judgments, including our valuations of the things we “see” about us, within the world. To be able to value, there must be a subject, a creature or entity with needs and wants that drive its actions as well as a rational capacity to frame and sort the phenomenal impingements. Valuing as a function we possess must rest on both needs and wants and rational capacity.

At some point in human development we reach a stage where we can think not just about the other in a behaviorally familiar way (and so respond appropriately to it) but as having the capacities we have, a mental life that is, with its wants and needs, as we have. Moral valuing occurs when we reach the point where we can think in a sufficiently abstract way to recognize this status, selfhood, subjectness, as a referent and thus as something we can value, too.

What makes valuing of selves work then? This happens when we develop the notion of selfhood and begin to address it as a conceptual phenomenon and not just at the gut level, the level which enables a dog to recognize another dog, a cat another cat, etc. To get here we need language to reach a certain level of sophistication and so provide us a framework for thinking ABOUT things including ourselves, our selfhood. Humans don’t start out with this though its appearance is not a mere latter day development. We can go back to the various religions’ beginnings and discover that they were and are doing precisely this: creating a framework within which selfhood can be thought about and explored.

This is why we find so much similarity in moral notions across very different religions. Religion as we have it today is not just about metaphysically accounting for how the world came into being or describing its purpose (or if it even has one). It’s also about orienting adherents in relation to their world. And that means it’s about explaining and situating the self in the world. This is why the Golden Rule of Christianity has so many echoes and reiterations across so many different religions.

This doesn’t mean that all religions get there, of course. Religion is about orienting the self in its world but not all religions necessarily develop a full sense of selfhood. What’s needed is a capacity to move beyond metaphysical speculation into grappling with the self we each take ourselves to be and within that sort of framework it is possible to conceptualize selfhood as a particular state of existence. In that conceptualization lies the seed of concern for others, the core of moral valuation.

But to get there we have to see this. There is no logical syllogism to get us to this point, though, only the process of conceptualization and then seeing the implications of having such a conception. The idea that we should treat the other as we would be treated (a general rule with many possible particular expressions) is embedded in the recognition of selfhood as referent, as part of the world we live in. But seeing this can take some work. It takes experience no less than logical analysis of the concept of the self because we must have the experience of actually seeing the other as a self like ourselves. When we do though, it turns out that we are also motivated to treat the other as a self, too, because seeing is tied tightly into doing.

Kant argued for a kind of logical (rational) analysis that would oblige us to see others as ends in themselves rather than means, which is just to say as entities with wants and needs like ours. In doing so, we would recognize that we are bound by a rule of universalizability, i.e., that we can only justify those actions to ourselves and other rational entities that we would see universalized, that is that everyone who acts would be justified in doing. If we cannot so justify our actions then we cannot justify them at all he thought and this was the basis of the moral way as he conceived it.

But in human life justification is not as sublime as all that. It’s typically an exercise in being practical, as in doing what works. But what works for actions intended to gain some thing or advantage for ourselves does not necessarily work for actions intended to make us better selves. For that we need to consider what a better self would be. Here I want to argue that the goodness involved is one of achieving a certain condition, in being, that is, in sync with what one is. A self that does not recognize other selves also denies its own selfhood.

This is why moral justification has tended to look and feel religious and why principles like the Golden Rule are discovered in ancient Egyptian papyri, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and Islam. Moral valuing is about self evaluation and that is done by thinking about and exploring what it is to be a subject in the world, an exploration that leads us to the further recognition that we subjects are all in this together. Empathy follows and from that the moral precepts in all their particulars.

So slavery was once not a moral issue because it was not recognized that enslavement is harmful to selfhood because the other’s selfhood was not fully realized or recognized. Once it becomes recognized though, as we begin to see ourselves in the other, our moral sphere expands and our judgment of different actions is altered. But how can you step outside the context within which you understand your world and condemn others who did not share that world and understanding?

Of course, there is not some sharp divide between then and now but only a constantly changing and evolving continuum of contexts. Simon Legree, albeit a fictional character, was seen as evil in his time, too. because that society in which his character appeared in a fictional context was in the process of becoming ours. Many of today’s perspectives about the moral good were already in place. Moral valuation, its growth and development, is an ongoing process. So opposing slavery made sense to many even then, steeped as they were in the teachings and insight of Christian charity, even though Christianity did not originally preach against slavery and many Christians in that era didn’t share the aversion to it which informs our society today.

So was Lincoln a man of his time? He was. But he was also ahead of it and at the forefront of changing it. It is absurd to condemn him for his prejudices, imbued in him by the culture he lived within, especially because he managed to rise above it as few others ever do, and so change the society that followed him.

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