Mon 2 Dec 2013
The American philosopher William James writes that “the radical question of life” is the question whether this is “a moral or unmoral universe.” (He says this in his essay “The Sentiment of Rationality,” in his collection The Will to Believe.) Is the universe merely material, something which just happens to be, with no mind or purpose or plan for good above it or before it? Or is there some objective standard of value either built into the universe or transcending it, so that it really, ultimately, matters how things go in the world, and how I live my life?
James points out that there is an enormous practical difference between the moral objectivist and the moral skeptic or subjectivist. The skeptic will have moral feelings and make moral judgments like the rest of us, if only because social convention and human nature require him to do so, but “when his moral feelings are at war with the facts about him, [he] is always free to seek harmony by toning down the sensitiveness of the feelings.” Since his moral feelings are mere brute data, neither good nor evil in themselves, he can lull them to sleep if doing so makes his life easier. In a society run by Nazis or slave-owners or the Mafia, toning down one’s conscience will be the surest route to a pleasant life.
The moral objectivist, however, is not free to sacrifice his moral principles when they clash with the world: “Resistance…, poverty, martyrdom if need be, tragedy in a word – such are the solemn feasts of his inward faith.”
Now let’s suppose for the sake of argument that there is no conclusive argument proving that the universe is moral or unmoral. After all, the evidence of our experience is mixed. In many ways the universe seems morally indifferent, oblivious to human suffering and injustice. And yet, our experience perhaps suggests to us the ultimate importance of values like love and justice, so that we do not feel free to abandon our commitment to such values when the going gets tough.
But here’s the rub: I have to decide how to live my life. Do I proceed on the assumption of moral objectivism (e.g. by believing in a God who is Love), or on the assumption of moral subjectivism (e.g. by believing that mindless matter is all there is)? We do not have the luxury of waiting to begin our lives after a period of indefinite reflection and investigation. Even as we reflect and investigate, we must act and choose. We are gamblers, staking our lives on an uncertain throw of the dice. Faith here is unavoidable, since “faith means belief in which something concerning which doubt is still theoretically possible,” and it will always be possible to doubt both moral objectivism and moral subjectivism.
What kind of a world do you prefer? Here are your options: (1) a world in which the appearance of moral seriousness “is but a superficial glaze upon a world of fundamentally trivial import,” or (2) a world in which every choice you make is a matter of infinite seriousness, where “the nature of things is earnest infinitely.” To believe in the former is to run the risk of anaesthetizing yourself exactly when you most need to brace yourself for moral struggle: to stop Hitler and the Nazis, to end slavery, to rescue loved ones in dire straits. James is right to assert that “skepticism in moral matters is an active ally of immorality.” Since an act of faith is unavoidable no matter what, is it not most rational to believe in a moral universe? And does this not point also towards faith in a God of Love?