Preface: The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge

Published in The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge, Routledge University Press, 2018. Now available on Kindle!

Human life has an inescapable moral dimension. That is, it essentially involves choices with reference to what is good and evil, right and wrong, duty and failure to do what ought to be done. Any human community, whatever its scope, will exhibit patterns of such choices, more or less recognized as such by its fully formed members. Those patterns usually guide first responses to any question concerning what is to be done, and they provide a framework for further reflection on the appropriateness of actions, character traits, and social arrangements. They first confront the individual in the form of traditions of various degrees of inclusiveness, historical longevity, and ritual celebration that are “already there.” Those traditions are largely made up of what “goes without saying” but is nonetheless constantly ‘said’ in many ways, verbally and otherwise.

Because these traditional patterns are so important in determining how life turns out, and make up so much of individual and group identity, they generate huge emotional forces of rejection and acceptance, of exclusion and inclusion. They are instruments of immense benefit or harm. Hence, they can be good, not so good, or outright evil.

Thus, there arises the necessity of evaluating moral traditions and practices themselves. Beginning at least by the time of Plato and continuing up to the present, substantial human effort has been devoted to evaluating, justifying, and correcting moral practices and traditions, and especially to doing so in moral terms. Sometimes this has been largely intellectual or literary in form, but it has seldom stopped at that. It has also taken the shape of vast social movements: political, cultural, and even military—involving civil and international warfare. Seldom do people go to war without strong, ostensible moral motivations, usually with religious associations. Social change on a vast scale requires moral motivation: a strong sense of right, or being morally wronged, or of a good and righteous cause. Only that type of motivation can sustain individuals and groups through the rigors of suffering and sacrifice over lengthy periods of time. Such was the case, in the recent past, with the rise of Communism to political power (implemented in the Soviet Union, in China, in Cambodia, and Cuba, for example), as well as with the resistance to it. It was also true of the stand of the parties to World War II. Likewise for contemporary terrorism. The now standard attacks on “the West” are, with no significant exceptions, in terms of its alleged immorality. Buoyed up on a sense of self-righteousness and moral outrage, the lives of multitudes can be given and taken without blinking. “If you would make an omelet you must break some eggs,” we blithely say. Or: “All in a good cause.” And so forth. Resistance to terrorism and tyranny is also highly moralized.

Throughout history it has been knowledge —real or presumed—that was invoked to provide a place to stand in opposing, correcting, and refining moral and immoral traditions and practices. That stands out in Plato and in later Greek thinkers, as well as in the biblical experience, life, and literature—Jewish, and then the Christian. Biblical teaching (contrary to much contemporary misunderstanding) places a relentless emphasis upon knowledge of God and of what is good, as the basis for criticism and correction of human practices. For Plato and Aristotle, as well as for the Stoics and Epicurean teachers, it was putative knowledge of “the good” and of the human soul that served as foundation for their understanding of good and evil in human life and institutions, and of what should and should not be done. The conflict between moral and religious traditions and knowledge was repeated during the Early Modern period of Western history, in the encounter between the, by then, ossified traditions of Christianity and the upsurge of the “new” knowledge, with its new methods. Indeed, it seems that the critique of established practices, moral and otherwise, on the basis of presumed knowledge is a permanent condition of any “open” society that still falls short of ideals in the patterns of choice which form the structures of life and of life together.

What characterizes life in so-called Western societies today, however, is the absence, or presumed absence, of knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice: knowledge that might serve as a rational basis for moral decisions, for policy enactments, and for rational critique of established patterns of response to moral issues. This is what I term, in this book, “The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge.” That “disappearance” is not necessarily a matter of moral knowledge being impossible. Nor does it mean that no one actually has moral knowledge—though some have claimed that to be so. It is simply that knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong, does not, for whatever reason, present itself as a publically accessible resource for living and living together. Such knowledge is—again, for whatever reason—not made available as a body of knowledge by those institutions of Western societies which are regarded as responsible for the development and communication of knowledge crucial for human life and well-being. This is an observable fact, but, strangely, one not widely understood and taken into account by the very people who have broad responsibilities in human affairs—educational and otherwise.

One way of thinking about the disappearance is, of course, to regard it as just the way things must be, or ought to be, and to hold that any enlightened person would accept that as the case. The moral life, from such a point of view, is simply the kind of thing of which there can be no shareable, publically sponsored body of knowledge—if there can be any knowledge of it at all. Recognition and acceptance of this as being the case is thought by many to be the only way we can be “safe” from the often brutal impositions that those who “know” are apt to place upon their intimates and fellow citizens. Do not the moral follies of past history show this to be the case? Well, maybe not.

On the other hand, a sensitive observer well might recognize in such a position an essentially moral point, and one making no uncertain claim to knowledge of what is good and bad, right and wrong. That is how it usually comes over, at least, and there is a clear presumption, by the advocates of that position, that their view is based upon knowledge of what is the case—of how things stand in reality. After all, why should people not impose their “knowledge” upon others if that seems right or it suits them to do so? Why should such imposition be treated as morally repulsive, or as something only reprehensible or evil people would do, unless one had knowledge that it was so?

Here is, I think, only one manifestation of the fact that morality in life—moral discrimination, moral judgment, moral emotions, moral evaluation of people, practices, or institutions—is simply unavoidable, and of the fact that morality requires and admits of some significant justification in knowledge. Moral knowledge could be absent or disappear from life only if responsibility, and holding people accountable in the peculiarly moral manner, were to be absent or disappear. (The centrality of intention to law is only one persistent indication of this.) And that is not going to happen. The question with regard to morality, one might then suppose, can only be whether knowledge concerning moral distinctions can and should be made available in the way knowledge of other important domains is made publically available. Can a decent human existence, individual or corporate, be supported otherwise than upon a body of moral knowledge, understood as such and made widely available through standard instruments and institutions of education?

In any case, it is now true that knowledge of moral distinctions and phenomena is not made available as a public resource; and most of those who supervise the course of events in our institutions of knowledge—principally those of “higher education”—think that such knowledge should not, morally ought not, be made available through them. It nevertheless remains that those institutions and their personnel do constantly impose an identifiable set of clearly moral values upon themselves and others. They do this by means of the acknowledged moral perceptions, discriminations, judgments, and emotions which they exercise and must exercise simply because they are human beings among other human beings, exercising important functions in shared life. Perhaps they do not, in their official capacities, explicitly advocate or rationally securitize and defend the set of moral values by which they live. But they do impose those values upon others just by being there and carrying out their functions. This allows them, if it does not actually require them, to be arbitrary about the moral positions they adopt, and to confront others merely in terms of who can get their way or who can “win.” That makes them political, not moral, agents. The intellectual world is, accordingly, now conceded to the Sophist, so far as morality is concerned. Persuasion may occur, but knowledge is not provided—as Plato made painstakingly clear in his Gorgias.

This book is written to cast light on how our situation today, with respect to moral knowledge, came about. It is hoped that understanding the process will enable a critical appreciation of where we stand and of what might be done. There are no doubt many relevant historical and cultural factors that are not dealt with here, but some of the major ones dealt with are: the retreat from religion and theology as a basis of presumed moral knowledge, some of the developments within higher education leading to abandonment of a teachable understanding of the moral and immoral life, the movement of ethical theorizing from the hands of the “public intellectual” into those of the professional academic (where an entirely different set of social dynamics comes into play), the attempt to find a secular and scientific basis for moral knowledge and practice, the failure of that effort to turn ethics into a “science,” the rise of Noncognitivism (the view that moral terms and assertions are “meaningless” and hence nonrational), some of the main attempts to pull back from raw Noncognitivism, and their lack of success. Then, in the final chapter, I try to identify some possible wrong turns in ethical theorizing not limited to the last century and a half. I conclude with a sketch of what moral reality is for ordinary human existence and of how a body of knowledge concerning it might be developed, publically sponsored, and taught by the institutions of knowledge in the contemporary world.

—Dallas Willard

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