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A Theory of Moral Objectivity (Section 6b - The Middle Way in philosophical problems)
By Robert M. Ellis, originally written as a Ph.D. thesis 'A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity' in 2001. This html version copyright 2008.
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The philosophical problem of supervenience consists in the difficulty of reconciling different levels of explanation of the same phenomena. If it is believed that a uniform type of explanation can be applied to all phenomena, the problem vanishes in the assertion of reductionism. If, on the other hand, it is asserted that a higher level of explanation of phenomena produces features unavailable at a lower level, the higher-level explanation ceases to be reducible to the lower, although it still maintains some form of isomorphic relationship to the lower. The higher-level features can then only be understood as “supervenient” upon the lower. It might be claimed, for example, that biological features are supervenient upon chemical ones in the sense that the phenomena of life can be (at least in principle) explained in terms of chemistry, but that such a chemical explanation will remain incomplete as a description of living organisms.
The interesting feature of the problem of supervenience is that it can be posed in relation to a variety of relationships at a variety of levels. Its most common application is in relation to “natural” and “non-natural” properties, and thus it is posed as a problem of analytic metaethics: in what sense, if any, are moral properties supervenient upon natural ones? It can also be posed about the relationship between different sciences, as already mentioned. It could also conceivably be posed about any two differing descriptions of what are taken to be the same objects: are these descriptions equivalent, does one take priority over the other, and is the unprioritised description reducible to the prioritised one? The problem of supervenience thus has a formal nature which can make a non-dualist response to it the starting-point for formally similar responses to other dualisms.
The dogmatic basis of the problem should already be obvious to any reader of Part 1. One can only provide a privileged status for a particular type of explanation, or incompatible types of status to different types of explanation, on the basis of dogmatic metaphysical claims about their value as explanations, which ignore the Sceptical problems which might be raised about those claims. Sometimes the dogmatism takes the form of an epistemological claim and sometimes a claim about meaning, but the outcome, as I argued in chapter 4, is similar in each case. Only explanations with holistic pretensions (positive or negative) can be a priori incompatible: but otherwise we can merely accept them as partial representations whose relative representational truth is unclear but whose respective usefulness may be evident in particular pragmatic contexts.
Nevertheless, whenever we employ the simple duality of verbal discontinuity, we are left with a basic problem of supervenience. For the discontinuities I employ, being dependent on many complex conditions relating to the defeasibility contexts in which I construct meaningful language, remain unstable over time and differ from the verbal discontinuities employed by others. Neither communication nor comprehension appear possible without a comparability between discontinuities: but that such comparability is pragmatic, being based on the fulfilment of desire through communication and comprehension, is very difficult for the dualist to admit because it involves abandoning the value which he places in one or another type of representation. Our representations and our verbal discontinuities appear similar because they provide enough harmony (or opposition) to provide a basis for actions in which each other’s behaviour is a factor. In this sense it can also be said that they are provisionally correct in relationship to each other: pragmatically lined up. In the example of the two dogs in the previous section, I and the dog-exterminator are “lined up” in opposition to each other, but the crucial respect in which we differ is that in which the discontinuities in our representations differ in their practical implications, not when measured against some abstract representational truth.
Since my account of the colour of the dog is more complex than that of the dog-exterminator, my account is “supervenient” upon his in the sense that the two accounts are pragmatically “lined up”, but that it is impossible to reduce my account to his level of complexity without entirely losing its distinctive features and conceding the dog’s life. Transpose the same considerations to the broader theoretical terrain of the supervenience of ethics on natural features and one finds a similar pragmatic lining-up: reductionist and non-reductionist each appeal to the same duality, and seek what may at first appear to be differing practical objectives (consisting in the predominance of their school of thought with its many implications). But in the broader context this lining-up proves to be harmonious as well as oppositional, for agreement on the terms of the debate creates a dualism which justifies the conventional conditions in which it takes place. Eternalist and nihilist are united in turning the verbal discontinuity of natural and ethical terms into a metaphysical discontinuity by either confirming or denying supervenience at the broadest level.
So how can an appeal to awareness of complexity avoid the assumption of supervenience? Through non-dualism in the broadest context. Whilst verbal discontinuity and the pragmatic lining-up of verbal discontinuities is essential for action at any given level, if the broadest context of this discontinuity is non-dualist, no assumption of metaphysical discontinuity is made. In psychological terms, the ego is working through the unavoidable discontinuities of its own existence, but with a model of its ends which is based on its ultimate harmonious unity with the whole psyche.
In relation to non-dualistic ethics the most obvious question of supervenience is “how do ethical features relate to psychological ones?”. This is only problematic if the epistemological background of ethics and psychology is understood dualistically, without the recognition that any description of psychological phenomena is inescapably a process of valuation, just as ethical prescriptivity is a matter of description of psychological processes in accordance with a valuation. At the broadest level, then, the implication of non-dualism is that there is a continuum of emphases between psychology which describes mental events, and philosophical ethics which prescribes them, but that neither type of language ever attains purity. The only boundary consists in the indeterminate point where the predominance of one kind of emphasis takes over from the predominance of the other. The application of non-dualism requires not only increasing awareness of verbal discontinuities in the use of both types of language (thus defined), but the ability to move between them as flexibly as possible.
Nor is the relationship between the language used at different levels of awareness of verbal discontinuity one of supervenience. Whilst the claim that higher levels cannot be reduced to lower ones is practically an important one to sustain, the basis for the claim is one of degree of awareness rather than accuracy of description. The superiority of the description of the dog as “blackish-grey” rather than “black” depends entirely on the respects in which that description (contingently, in relation to other conditions) manifests greater objectivity. Such greater objectivity consists in a greater contextual awareness which is being applied to the practical communicative situation.
The remaining dualisms which I shall survey in this section all depend on the application of a supervenience claim (or its denial through reductionism) in relation to the distinction between natural and non-natural attributes. In each case the basis of a non-dualist solution will thus be the same, but the implications for philosophical debate spread in different directions. In surveying some of these implications I will attempt to give further clarity to the philosophical basis of my argument so far through a process of virtuous circularity.
This dualism, already discussed to some extent in 2.c., rests on a metaphysical interpretation of the verbal discontinuity between real and ideal. It may thus be helpful to begin by considering the provisional usefulness of the real/ideal duality in a broader context of non-dualism.
Distinctions between what is more real and more ideal can be made along a continuum, at any point of which one could make a judgement as to the relative reality or ideality of an experience. Since, as I have argued throughout, there are no grounds on which we could ever judge whether or not an experience is real in the sense of correspondence to an absolute reality without thereby having recourse to dogmatism, the basis of judgement is thus not representational, but the pragmatic basis offered by objectivity of the kind I have argued. A relatively real experience is thus one had in a state of greater objectivity, a relatively ideal one more dominated by egoistic limitations. A (notional) experience that is merely ideal is thus understood not as one that takes place solely “inside the mind”, but rather as one that takes place “inside the ego” (though both these metaphors have their limitations). Its apparent objects may or may not be produced by processes taking place outside the mind of an individual, but it is only the dispositional objectivity applied that allows us to identify them as “real” in accordance with the pragmatic fruitfulness of thus identifying them.
To apply this particular verbal discontinuity is to provide one of the necessary conditions for action: in this sense all verbal discontinuities involve a realism/idealism distinction. Whilst Macbeth judged the dagger before him to be real, he tried to seize it, but on realising its illusory nature he stopped doing so. Trying to seize a hallucinatory dagger is not a pragmatically fruitful thing to do, as he would not have been able to fulfil his desire to grasp hold of it. If he had reflected further he might have attributed a different type of reality to the dagger, that being the reality of psychic disturbance which it represented, and this again might have been a basis for action: but Macbeth would have needed a greater degree of integration than Shakespeare depicts him as possessing in order to engage in this type of psychological realisation. It is the objectivity created by integration that allows us to make relatively correct judgements of the pragmatic fruitfulness of judging something “real”, because the greater that integration the more aware we are of verbal discontinuities, of the greater complexity that can be encountered within a defeasibility context, and of the possibility of moving to other defeasibility contexts.
Such an approach is not “idealist” even in the common metaphysical sense, since it does not reject the possibility of metaphysical reality. The labelling of such a perspective as “weak idealism” should be rejected as based on a confusion between agnosticism and denial in relation to absolute external objects: metaphysical agnosticism implies complete even-handedness between metaphysically realist and metaphysically idealist positions, not a watered-down version of the latter. Metaphysical agnosticism might just as well be called “weak realism” as “weak idealism”, since it accepts provisional accounts of the nature of the subject of experience no more nor less than of its object.
Since, however, no progress can ever be made on the issues of realism and idealism so long as they are interpreted metaphysically, no apologies need be made for adapting the language of this hopeless dualism into that of mere verbal discontinuity. An incremental account of reality and ideality in terms of objectivity and egoism enables both the useful elements of the traditional discussion to be credited and the value of realism to be unequivocally extolled.
As an example of how the useful elements of the traditional discussion may be credited, take Descartes’ argument that even a totally “illusory” experience, such as that perpetuated by an evil demon who controls the universe, would still maintain the same subject as the most accurate perception. Although this argument was immediately made the basis of metaphysical claims about the irreducible self, if we take it before this step is made Descartes can be seen as merely identifying the ego as the common structuring feature in all experiences. Even in dreams, where we often encounter the psyche beyond the habitual ego, we can only do so because the rational structuring of the ego becomes very loose. We still have a sense of the subject which encounters objects, although our degree of awareness and control over experience is usually rather more limited than in waking life.
The Cartesian ego shorn of its metaphysical features is thus merely the psychological one, which in fact provides the basis of the arguments and to which we can attribute the enduring appeal of those arguments. Were it not for his appeal to God, this would also leave Descartes with an idealism which (also like many examples of metaphysical realism) could be better understood in terms of his egoism, since its motive, as I argued in 3.f.ix, was dualistic.
Similarly, the value of a linguistic realism like that of Nagel can be seen in terms of the extent to which it provides support for development beyond the ego by insisting that our current horizons do not provide a discontinuous perimeter of meaning. Likewise, the value of some versions of idealism may be to lay stress on the respects in which our “reality” is egoistically projected: a necessary propaedeutic to loosening that projection as part of the process of extending the ego. In this respect the incremental distinction between dualist linguistic idealism and non-dualist linguistic realism cuts across the traditional metaphysical distinction between idealism and realism, but allows much clearer conclusions to be reached about the same issues: namely that realism (interpreted linguistically) is conducive to the process of integration and hence morally justified in a way in which linguistic idealism is not. At root both our practical assumption of verbal discontinuities composing “reality” and our continued openness to change in these theoretical formulations involve a movement towards the recognition of reality: one which metaphysical idealism and the dogmatic realism of common sense both lack.
The metaphysical dualism between realism and idealism manifests a supervenience claim because an ideal object is judged on the basis of the dualism to be clearly either irreducible or reducible to a real one, or vice-versa. This dualism becomes the basis for other dualisms (which I shall now be considering) which are also dependent, not only on the model of supervenience, but on a metaphysical real/ideal distinction: these are the mind/body dualism, the distinction between qualitative and numerical identity, freewill and determinism, the presence or absence of cosmic justice, positive and negative freedom, and the unity or diversity of virtues. In each case the non-dualist response will be almost tediously similar: there is no justification for an ultimate metaphysical position, only an incremental spectrum on the basis of which particular dualities can be judged; the language of these philosophical discussions can be made useful, but only by the adoption of a genuinely pragmatic approach.
The dualism between mind and body depends upon that between ideal and real in that each side of the dualism is epistemologically supported using idealist or realist assumptions. The mind-body monist appeals either to the dependence of all investigation on the mind, or to the final priority of material explanation, whilst the mind-body dualist attempts to maintain both types of epistemology in respect to different objects. The transferral of the discussion from ontology to language here only shifts the dualistic assumptions in relation to belief to parallel ones with regard to meaning: if we claim that mental language is meaningless, eliminable, or reducible to physical language, for example, we just as surely reject the grounds for belief in the mind as a distinct type of substance (by rejecting the meaningfulness of such a belief) as we would through a more direct ontological or epistemological claim.
From a non-dualist perspective the duality of the verbal discontinuity between “mind” and “body” does not need to be wholly abandoned, merely put into the context of its provisionality. Instead of mental and physical substances (or correlative defeasibility contexts), non-dualism implies a spectrum of phenomena which can be provisionally classified as more or less mental or physical. The phenomena which one might describe as predominantly mental are those often cited by mind-body dualists in support of mind as a metaphysical substance: for example intentionality, qualia, self-consciousness, and the experience of choice. The argument that these phenomena cannot (or at least cannot yet) be explained in wholly physical terms is a strong one, but it justifies only agnosticism about the metaphysical status of the mind, not dualism. Similarly, predominantly physical phenomena appear to lack these mental qualities and to conform to the laws of physics, yet this justifies us only in giving them a provisional status as physical objects relative to mental objects, not in assuming their metaphysical reality. The laws of physics here provide a background assumption which is itself provisional. Whenever we confront an object, the physical sciences provide us with one kind of theorisation with which to classify it in relation to other objects, according to the extent to which they appear to be able to account for its nature, but this is not the only nor the definitive form of classification.
The mind-body duality also needs to be decoupled from the ideal-real duality. In traditional metaphysical terms, as I have noted, they are interdependent, yet if a more useful approach to the discussion about ideal and real is to be made in terms of a spectrum between egoism and objectivity, the mind-body duality (based on the application of natural science and its limitations in explaining the mind) needs to be seen as distinct from either metaphysical idealism/realism or egoism/objectivity. The spectrum which results from a series of particular discriminations between physical and mental cannot be an incrementalisation of metaphysical idealism/realism, because it is incapable of incrementalisation. It also has no necessary relationship to the spectrum between egoism and objectivity, because objectivity of judgement can be exercised just as easily on mental phenomena as on physical.
Objectivity often requires an openness to the mental on the part of one who has concentrated on the physical, or vice-versa, and is indifferent as to the starting point. Even within those categories, the physical scientist might extend objectivity through a balanced heuristic, which enables engagement with the psyche beyond the ego through the identification of rejected psychic elements with rejected theories, whilst the psychoanalyst or meditator changes his behaviour with regard to rejected external objects by working with symbols of the psychic energies which he regards as internal to his mind, but the difference between them lies in the effectiveness with which they engage with the rejected desires and beliefs, not whether they are “mental” or “physical”.
Nevertheless, the distinction between mental and physical does offer a useful ground of differentiation between individuals. Whatever the state of the ambiguous evidence regarding psychic communication or collectivity of unconscious life, the mind is largely the property of an individual, identified provisionally by its uniqueness of access to that individual. The mind is thus a crucial part of our situatedness: mental properties do not endure in time or spread in space, and are limited both by their context and in their power. To identify an object as mental relative to another object is thus to stress its lack of universality, its uniqueness and limitation. If I talk about my own particular experience of the red of a tomato, for example, I do not mean something like a physical substance that constantly changes form as it rolls around the universe, but something very specific which is mine, not in the egoistic sense that I necessarily identify with it, but in the sense of being associated only with the body and experience that is called mine. To separate mind/body qualities from ideal/real qualities (in the egoistic/objective sense) is thus to make the vital ethical distinction between situatedness and identification which I apply at a number of points during this book.
This position must be distinguished from some existing types of position in the philosophy of mind with which it might be falsely assimilated. It is not a dual aspect theory, because a dual aspect theory accepts the metaphysical account of mind and body and attempts to apply both sorts of metaphysical claim to the same object. It may well be the case that all features generally described as mental could conceivably be described in physical terms, or that physical features could be explained in mental terms, making it impossible to rule out the presence of both “aspects” in any object, but these “aspects” can be acknowledged only in a context of agnosticism where “mental” and “physical” are incrementalisable terms for something apparent, not absolute terms still applied absolutely to aspects of an object.
Nor should a non-dualist approach be confused with functionalism, and again it is the issue of completeness of explanation which separates them. Whilst functionalism attempts to define the mind as a set of causal relations, non-dualism is based on the negative foundationalism according to which accounts not only of the nature of the mind but of causal relations must be accepted as merely provisional. Whilst an understanding of the mind in terms of causality rather than substance provides a flexibility which substantialist approaches lack in that it allows recognition of mental features in machines, animals, and notional aliens, this flexibility is only compatible with metaphysical agnosticism insofar as it allows for doubt and for degrees of mentality. A computer may show many mental features, especially when compared to an undifferentiated block of metal, but this no more justifies us in claiming that it thereby has a “mind” as an absolute quantity than in the similar case of a human being.
The ethical advantages of this approach will become increasingly apparent as its implications are traced in the next two subsections in relation to identity and freewill issues. In either case, if we incrementalise the special status given to minds over bodies, the sources of many conflicts dependent on dualistic assumptions begin to melt away.
The basis of the dualism usually applied to identity issues is that between qualitative and numerical (or quantitative) identity. To assume a metaphysical distinction here is to assume that there is some final distinction between objects and their qualities, or that there is finally no such distinction. This again follows the supervenience model, whereby the same object is described on mutually reducible or irreducible levels: here in the sense that qualities are in some sense properties of an object, but nevertheless distinct from the object itself, so that neither object nor properties are reducible to each other; or at the other extreme that there are no objects, merely clusters of properties, and hence all talk of objects is reducible to properties. In terms of time this implies that either objects endure as properties continually change, or that objects are continually changing with even the smallest changes in their properties.
The dualism of identity is also dependent upon the mind-body dualism. On the one hand it is the irreducible or reducible features of the mind which are appealed to in order to support notions either of the irreducible and essential self, or of the absence of such a self, in the case of personal identity. On the other hand it is the irreducible or reducible features of the physical world relative to the mind which are appealed to in order to support the irreducible or reducible features of objects, when it is claimed that these either have or lack numerical identity.
As with the other dualisms on which it is dependent, the dualism of identity can be turned into a mere duality in the context of non-dualism. In any given case, our judgement as to whether an object (or a person, or a quality, indeed any concrete or abstract entity) is present is pragmatically important: but, as I have been arguing throughout the last few subsections, the levels of object specified can be more or less subtle, according to the degree of awareness of verbal discontinuity that is present. As I have argued, this awareness, enabling increasingly accurate theorisations of objects, must be attributed to the degree of integration of the individual, not to any property of the objects themselves, which remain ultimately unknown. The spectrum in relation to which judgements of the independent existence of objects must provisionally be made, then, is none other than the spectrum of integration itself, which in this connection can be understood as a spectrum of degrees of identification rather than of identity. At one end of this spectrum is a relatively crude understanding of the universe as made up of discrete objects, distinct from their properties, viewed by a discrete and independent subject. Such objects may be abstract as well as concrete and a relatively crude view may include the metaphysical idealist notion of the complete absence of subjects and/or objects based on reducibility to their properties: the universe may then be said to be understood in terms of abstract negative objects whose existence is being denied. At the other end of the spectrum (at the point of stream-entry) is a relatively refined understanding of the universe as containing numerous contingent objects and properties, identified for the purposes of action, but no final reducibility to one or the other.
The dualism of identity is also heavily dependent on that of idealism/realism, and the non-dualist response to it is similar. Metaphysical realism consists in the assertion of grounds for numerical identity based on objects, whilst metaphysical idealism rather attributes such grounds to the mind of the subject alone, making all identity qualitative. This applies even to personal identity, despite the fact that metaphysical realists and metaphysical idealists may agree on this issue. A metaphysical realist, seeing the self as an object, can assert its continued existence on the same grounds as that of other objects (though he may alternatively go down the Humean path of denying the self’s existence), whilst the metaphysical idealist, seeing the self as a subject, can assert its identity on the very grounds that it is not like objects. In either case a desubstantialisation of the position in line with metaphysical agnosticism requires a prior incrementalisation of realism and idealism in terms of egoism/objectivity along the lines suggested in 6.b.ii above. The less the egoistic limiting of identification, the less need there is for metaphysical commitment on identity.
The only residue left by this process of incrementalising the identity dualism into a spectrum of integration is one that can be understood in terms of the mental-physical spectrum discussed in the previous subsection. It may be claimed that provisional assumptions of identity cannot be reduced to those of identification in the case of personal identity because there are specific situated mental features we encounter, either in ourselves or others, which are part of the apparent nature of the universe we theorise about, not merely being subsumable into the integrity of the process of theorisation itself. I will still encounter individuals (including myself), with mental features which are conventionally associated with identity, even when I have ceased to confuse my individual nature with my ego, and have separated the individual natures of others from my identifications in relation to them. This residual identity, however, is indistinguishable from the idea of mind as situated mental features judged relative to physical ones. The very term “individual”, which I have been using throughout, presupposes such relative judgements.
This may be clarified further by considering (by way of a thought experiment) a world entirely inhabited by enlightened beings. Such beings (as the word “being” implies) would be individuals, and thus such a world would not differ from ours in the sense that it would contain a number of situated minds. Perhaps we would have clarified exactly what that means rather more, but nevertheless the nature of individual minds would still be under investigation, with a provisional recognition that the best theorisation to assume is probably that there are individual minds. However, apart from this conventional basis for identity, the complete psychological integration of all beings would mean that there would be no more identification with one being over another other than that required by situatedness. The spectra of integration and of mental/physical objects would thus be working alongside each other, fulfilling rather different purposes, but other ideas about identity would have vanished.
The implications of this could help to defuse areas of ethical debate which are strongly polarised by the dualism of identity. The conflict between the quantitative value of human life and the qualitative features of human life in medical ethics issues provides one example. Medical ethics provides stark examples of the requirement for judgements to be made based on dualities, even in the face of an awareness of an incrementality of values: this is often put as the requirement for a choice between “lesser evils” (though one might just as well say “greater goods”). In these circumstances, the polarised positions usually reflect either the prioritisation of human life as a value in itself, or the prioritisation of quality of life, in each case reflecting the dualism between quantitative and qualitative views of identity. If we substitute for this dualism the two distinct spectra of integration and mind/body, however, it becomes clear that not only do we need to judge in terms of an incremental scale in such cases, but that the type of incrementality on which one could judge takes two forms: the relative presence of mental properties and the degree of integration. Within the latter the degree of integration of the judge creates one factor, that of those whose lives are in question another, whilst the relative presence of mental properties (which in many cases provide key conditions of the potential for integration) is by no means unimportant in relation to the other two factors. No formula could justifiably pre-set the balance to be struck between these three considerations in any given case, but merely to formulate them in this way is to begin to overcome the dogmatic assumptions which all too often form the only sphere of discussion in such cases.
Such examples give some indication of the ways in which a non-dualist view of identity, through its use of the spectrum of integration (used normatively in ways which will be explored more fully in chapters 7 and 8) offers fundamental challenges to the metaphysics of egalitarianism. Values based purely on integration cannot be based on fixed quantities of value, so that the value of human life in itself cannot be a metaphysical starting point, even if it is often a vital pragmatic assumption. Likewise, they cannot dispense with the assumption of quantitative value in human life and focus only on qualitative issues, for that would be to attempt a prematurely absolute position like that often embraced by utilitarians, which ignores our degree of identification with human life and its characteristic mental features. Rather we can recognise our identifications with the value of human life, de-absolutise them, turn them into an incremental scale of priority in which even small potentials have their place, and work to extend them and reconcile them with the harsh decisions sometimes offered by rationality. We cannot say a priori that, say, a foetus, or a person in a persistent vegetative state, or a Siamese twin whose continued life is incompatible with that of her partner, has a right to life: but we can integrate our emotional responses to the prospect of ending the lives of such individuals with the rational demands of a consequentialist analysis, so as to try to make a judgement in each case which most nearly reflects the full complexity of the issue.
More discussion as to the broader application of such an ethical approach will be found in chapter 8. Meanwhile it need only be noted that the issue of identity here forms only the first of a series of dualisms which carry important implications for the background of assumptions within which ethics is conceived and practised, all dependent on the approach taken to dualism in general as discussed in the earlier parts of this chapter.
The dualism between freewill and determinism has a strong formative role in dualist approaches to ethics, and its overcoming is equally formative in producing a non-dualist approach. Perhaps no other problem of Western philosophy has seemed so intractable, or attracts so many vested interests: for freewill offers the illusion of control basic to the ego in the fulfilment of its desires, determinism the illusion of a leap to an absolute level of control which overcomes the limitations of the ego. Freewill and determinism are so closely related to important aspects of egoistic experience that this dualism is perhaps more difficult to eradicate than any other. Nevertheless, in the light of the incrementalist approaches to other dualisms I have offered so far, the non-dualist “solution” appears clear.
The dualism between freewill and determinism is directly dependent upon the mind-body dualism, since freewill is offered as a metaphysical characteristic of minds, whilst determinism is a characteristic of physical phenomena. Determinism I take here to involve the claim that all phenomena are sufficiently caused, freewill the denial that sufficient causality operates upon the will, which thus becomes itself the initiator of a new chain of causes. Determinism here involves a metaphysical realist claim about all phenomena, the direct contradiction of which is another kind of metaphysical claim, indeterminism, that all phenomena are not sufficiently caused. Freewill thus amounts to a claim of metaphysical indeterminism within a limited sphere, based on the claim of irreducible characteristics for the mind. An agnostic approach here must thus not be confused with metaphysical indeterminism, either in its more general sense or its more specific freewill sense, any more than with metaphysical determinism. It must also not be confused with compatibilism or soft determinism, the strategy of maintaining metaphysical determinism and redefining freewill so that it no longer contradicts it: even if the definition of freewill then becomes incremental, that of determinism does not.
An agnostic approach here need only take a well-established argument – that of Hume’s inductive account of causality – to its logical conclusion. Hume appreciated that causality was only understood inductively, but nevertheless failed to take this Sceptical caveat seriously enough, as well as maintaining too narrow a view of inductive observation. Given that causal judgements are based on a finite number of inductive observations, and that the interpretation of those observations can never be absolutely conclusive, any universal conclusion as the operation of sufficient causes in all possible circumstances must be dogmatic. To avoid such dogmatism it is necessary to restrict theorisation to relatively specific and relatively observable claims about causal relationships which take into account our degree of ignorance of the sufficiency of causes producing an event. Whilst in many cases it may appear clear that we have identified the necessary conditions for an event (since experiment continually replays it), this does not mean that we can justifiably claim to have identified the sufficient conditions. Without a single case of certainty about sufficient conditions, we cannot know whether sufficient conditions operate. Even in the cases of apparently natural events remote from human agency, determinism is constantly undermined by this element of doubt.
Nevertheless there appear to be grounds for drawing a contrast between such natural events and those that we describe as “actions”, simply because of the even greater extent to which the sufficient cause of actions lies in doubt. Such a contrast is not one of dualism, but, as in the other cases I have examined in this section, of judgement between particular cases as lying at different points along a spectrum, allowing us to call one event more conditioned relative to another which is less conditioned. This judgement is not based upon a complete knowledge of all the conditions operating upon a given object or event, but only from a comparison of the extent of conditions which appear to be operating in each case.
In the case of the erosion of a rock by a stream, it seems that we can explain the necessary conditions for erosion and that we can predict approximately how it will occur: so whilst the margin of error in any prediction about exactly how long it will take for a stream to erode through a certain thickness of a given rock does not allow us to describe that event as determined, we are still justified in saying that it is heavily conditioned in ways that we can account for. By comparison, the actions of an animal may be relatively less easy to predict, and those of a human being still less easy: not because they are entirely unpredictable, but because the margin of error is greater. The truism that social sciences are less precise than physics does not have to become the basis of a dualism, though. The greater difficulty in prediction in the social sciences may ultimately be due to a greater complexity of processes or to a qualitatively different type of process in the human mind: we do not know and have no way of determining. But in either case, predictability appears to provide the basis of a spectrum of conditioning based only on estimation of our relative degree of ignorance of each case: effectively of probability, understood as a measure of the confidence of an individual rather than as a feature of independent events which are judged more or less probable. In the case of a highly conditioned event like the erosion of the rock, a given range of predictable outcomes is highly probable, whilst in the actions of a human being it is less probable that predictable outcomes will occur.
Apart from the particular form that a theorisation takes then ( i.e. what it hypothesises and what it predicts), a non-dualist account of the heuristic process must offer an incremental scale for the confidence with which it is advanced. I have already explained the ways in which a non-dualist account of confidence differs from a dualist one, in that it is based on integration of belief rather than on dogmatic assertion. It is through the notion of probability, then, that we can see the nature of the link between integration and conditioning. The higher the probability of a predicted outcome, the greater the confidence of the individual concerned in the theorisation of causal processes which forms the basis of the prediction; and the greater that confidence, the greater the degree of conditioning which can be understood to apply to the predicted event.
A more integrated person is better able to understand conditioning because such understanding is based, not on the non-psychological conditions which form the background of the attempt to understand, such as the degree of information available about the objects with which she is concerned, but on the psychological conditions which provide the basis of her response to that information. To the extent that she is integrated her response will be balanced in confidently asserting the theory whilst maintaining an awareness of its provisionality. But to assert the theory is to assert the existence of conditions, whilst to be aware of its provisionality is to be aware of our degree of ignorance of conditions. It is thus one’s way of asserting a theory which determines correctness of judgement as to the degree of identifiable conditionality in the objects of theorisation, not the content of the theory itself. My theory may be about a refined and apparently unpredictable class of people – say, artists – but I can still assert it in a way that assumes artists to be as strongly conditioned as the crudest or simplest material objects. Likewise, I can theorise about the simplest objects and yet do so in a way which fully respects the mysteries which still surround their conditioning. The degree of conditioning which I ascribe to an object or person thus has no necessary relationship to the extent of evidence for conditioning, but rather the extent of evidence assumes significance when interpreted by an individual with the capacity to weigh that evidence against a recognition of our degree of ignorance. The less that capacity, the more likely it is that conditioning will be understood in terms of the extremes of determinism and indeterminism, but the greater it is, the more likely that a pragmatically correct conclusion will be reached.
The same criteria apply when we consider our experience of individual choice. As
It is in this sphere of ignorance that the “freewill” of the ego operates. We have a sense that we can affect an external universe in accordance with our own wishes, yet we do not know how this is possible. If we try to leap prematurely to a standpoint beyond the ego, we conclude that it is impossible, yet continue to implicitly believe that it is, merely appropriating the idea of universal processes (as I have argued throughout chapters 3 & 4). The way to overcome this egoistic illusion, then, is not through such a leap, but through the gradual recognition of our ignorance of the grounds for belief in freewill (or the grounds for its denial). It is through recognition of our ignorance that the egoistic urge to constantly interpose a dualism between what we control and what we do not can be gradually overcome. For the enlightened, there must merely be an acceptance that, as individuals, we both affect the universe of our experience and are affected by it, with our identification residing equally in each. The end of “freewill” has ceased to be a threat, and “determinism” has ceased to be an appropriated metaphysical absolute.
But the implications of integration as the basis to understanding conditioning go even further than this: they also clarify the nature of the will which we exert and its degree of effectiveness. An unintegrated will is hampered by doubt as I described it in 5.d.ii: that is, by a dogmatic rather than a balanced apprehension of experience which means that beliefs have to be defensively asserted against challenges from experience. This means that the background against which the will operates is one of dogmatism both in relation to the beliefs which it assumes as the basis of its action and the ends which it posits for itself. Doubt, then, leads the will either to strike out in sudden “wilfulness”, or to retire in confusion, but to lack incremental means of reaching its ends which rely on a confident assessment either of its environment or of its desires and their realisation. Greater integration, then, provides greater scope for the will to realise its ends (relative to the circumstances of the individual), both because those ends are more consistent and because a clearer sense can be reached of the conditions which will aid or interfere with them. The more integrated individual thus has a will which is less subject to the limitations imposed by psychological conditioning (even though he is still subject to other sorts of conditioning).
To return to the incrementalisation of freewill and determinism, then, I have argued on the basis of the implications of a number of earlier arguments that the implications of non-dualism are that the spectrum of integration can replace the dualism of freewill and determinism. This spectrum allows the application of a duality in order to make a practical distinction between degrees of conditioning, not only when assessing ones own will and its own relatively conditioned or unconditioned nature, but also in assessing the degree of conditioning affecting the will of another being, and also in assessing the degree of conditioning affecting objects. In each case, though, we will be assessing the extent of conditioning relative to that person or object, not applying an a priori belief. Integration operates not only as an indicator of relative freedom from psychological conditioning in the integrated being, but as an indicator of the relative capacity to judge the degree of conditioning elsewhere.
However, the application of the spectrum of integration here, as in the previous subsection in relation to identity, is not quite sufficient to cover all the distinctions which have been made under the dualism of freewill and determinism. A difficulty remains in accounting for the discontinuity I seem to still be relying on here between psychological and non-psychological conditioning. An integrated person can be understood to be free from psychological conditioning to exactly the same extent that he is integrated, but the judgement he has developed in assessing the degree of conditioning in himself, others, and objects applies to other types of conditioning as well as to psychological conditioning. Is there a contradiction between the integrated person’s relative freedom from psychological conditioning only and his ability to judge the extent of non-psychological conditions? This question would rest on a misunderstanding of the basis of the claim of the integrated person’s relative ability to judge conditions. It is not based on any appeal to a special resonance between his own degree of freedom from psychological conditions and that of others (which does not mean that such a special resonance may not exist), but from the general balance of the heuristic he applies in understanding all conditions. If he applies that balance to the investigation of non-psychological conditions, including those of his own body and mind, his degree of integration would aid him there too, within the limits of the non-psychological conditions under which he labours in any case.
The issue of how far psychological conditions are present, or potentially present, in an object or person is of course part of another spectrum of judgement which I have already specified: that of mind in relation to body. It is only where mental features are already present to a given degree that one would begin to look for psychological integration. This point of distinction, however, is a practical rather than a metaphysical one: we do not know there to be mental features in inanimate substances, and thus do not look for psychological integration in such substances, but this does not mean that we can completely dismiss the possibility.
The incrementalisation of the dualism of freewill and determinism has immense implications for ethics, because it removes the traditional assumption in Western philosophy that discontinuous freewill is a necessary condition for ethics. The concerns that led to that belief can still be recognised in an incremental scheme of the degree of conditionality: for it does appear that we can be relatively free of psychological conditioning and that this freedom, indeed, is the basis of ethics. But this idea of “freedom” needs to be treated with extreme caution: the almost visceral appeal of the word can lead straight back into egoistic appropriation and dualism if it is not constantly related to the heuristic process by which we understand conditioning. We are not born free, nor do we merely assert our freedom: we earn it bit by bit through the gradual acknowledgement of reality beyond the ego.
A further implication is the undermining of criticisms of non-dualism which argue that it proceeds on voluntarist assumptions (or, from the other side, deterministic assumptions). Such criticisms tend to confuse an agnosticism in the area of freewill and determinism with an adherence to the opposed metaphysics. In the case of the accusation of voluntarism (an argument which can be used to attack the theory of belief given earlier), there is a confusion of provisional belief with a belief that can be simply assumed at will, rather than relying on a complexity of conditions. The adoption of belief, however, is ultimately a mysterious process about which no metaphysical claims should be made either way.
The relationship between cosmic justice and determinism is one that I have already discussed to some extent. Cosmic justice amounts to the supposed moral value of universal determinism: for there cannot be cosmic justice without such determinism, despite the fact that it appears to contradict freewill. Scientism, as I have argued, tends to reject eternalist cosmic justice but at the same time assume the value of its own, supposedly purely cognitive, version, whilst existentialism rejects it but has difficulty in avoiding its implicit re-introduction.
Cosmic justice claims of some kind are very difficult to avoid wherever any kind of value is assumed beyond the ego, yet the ego is not distinguished from the individual: for if no ground of value is to be found in the psyche, it must either exist in a real universe or consist in the mere assertion of the ego. With the incrementalisation of the idealist/realist dualism into the spectrum of integration, then, is removed the whole ground of cosmic justice claims: for without metaphysical realism (or some form of transcendental or absolute idealism which likewise makes a claim of some metaphysical reality beyond the ego) there is no longer any recourse to a basis of ethics beyond the integration of the psyche. Likewise there is no basis on which to deny cosmic justice, whether through the scientistic or existentialist route, without either a rival metaphysical realism or a metaphysical idealism.
The incrementalisation of the freewill/determinism dualism as integration also provides a basis for the incrementalisation of cosmic justice. For the appreciation of the regular operation of conditions gained through the confident assertion of theorisations, increasing with integration, is of direct relevance to moral judgements. The more effectively I can understand and predict the workings of conditions (including my own psychological conditions), the more this will assist me in making effective judgements in particular moral circumstances. For I will not only be able to take a relatively critical attitude to my ends, balancing the need for action with an estimation of ignorance, but I will be able (to the extent that I am integrated) to predict the consequences of a given action as accurately as is possible within the limitations of information and mental capacity I work under. The more integrated I become, then, the more I will be able to overcome frustration through a combination of the integration of desires (making my ends more stable) and pragmatic effectiveness (making my ends more realisable).
Integration thus offers an incrementalised version of the role traditionally played by cosmic justice, for it provides a basis for morality which lies beyond the ego, but one which is only discovered by also being in harmony with the ego. At each step of the way I create a new represented “cosmos” within which my desires can be fulfilled at the level of integration they have reached, but at each step I have also formulated my ideas and beliefs so as to make that fulfilment possible by cutting off challenges from beyond the ego as it is at that point. There is an incrementalised “cosmic justice” in the gradation from one step to another, in that I achieve a situation where my desires are more capable of fulfilment than they were before, in return for my adjustment of those desires and increased awareness of conditions, but this is achieved without the need to alienate present desires or make metaphysical claims.
The provisional theorisation of specific conditional links between phenomena, and the confident use of such theorisations, is thus of great moral value. This does not imply, however, any usefulness (rather the reverse, as I have argued) in the generalisation of that moral value to all conditions, since non-psychological conditions constantly interact with psychological ones to produce unpredictable outcomes. The most that can be claimed generally, then, is that integration of the psyche produces the best available fulfilments of desires given the range of non-psychological conditions: but within the range of this claim are the possible intercession of all kinds of non-psychological conditions, such as bring about, for example, the greatest extremes of suffering, including ones which have the effect of reversing objective integration which is not yet permanent.
Since up to the point of stream entry even advances in objective integration are not permanent but subject to other conditions, the main causal claim here is that there is a point at which integrated psychological processes become independent of the non-psychological processes which can disrupt them: but this is only to the extent that death or mental deterioration do not interfere with the basic conditions on which the continued existence of the psyche appears to depend. As a claim about the general operation of conditions this is hence limited and plausible, but of course it cannot be proven and must be treated as a provisional hypothesis. The crucial point about such hypotheses, however, is that they do not resemble cosmic justice claims in the sense of offering a metaphysical basis for ethics: if they should turn out to be false, non-dualism and psychological integration as a basis for ethics could still stand since they depend, not on a hypothesised end-point, but on an incrementally discovered process.
A further dualism continues to afflict even talk of ethics which uses dispositional terms: are the virtues one or many? In support of eternalism and proto-scientism respectively Plato and Aristotle were obliged to assert the unity of the virtues against the relativists of their time who argued that courage, patience, magnanimity etc bore no necessary relationship to one another. A similar argument may be turned against the use of integration as the basis of ethics. Does the appeal to integration amount to an appeal to metaphysics because of the insistence that there is only one type of virtue to be cultivated in this way? It is not necessary to make use of Aristotle’s list of virtues, conventional in his society, to make this point, but only to point to the number of dualisms I have attempted to resolve by means of integration in this section so far. Is awareness of conditionality identical as a virtue with freedom from conditionality, with breadth of identification, and with engagement with reality: and are all these really the same as goodness?
As I have defined them, these virtues are identical, but the objection is based on a descriptivist premise. The objector wants to know whether these virtues as we encounter them are identical rather than whether they can be defined into a unity. There is no complete response to this which will prove the unity of the virtues on dualistic grounds, but it can be shown how a non-dualist response offers a quite different conception of unity from that of Plato and Aristotle: not a unity which is imposed upon diversity, as the ego imposes itself upon the rest of the psyche, but a gradual and harmonious transformation of diverse desires to realise their capacity for unity.
This difference of approach, which I have already discussed with regard to Plato, is accompanied by a different conception of virtue, which is quantitative rather than qualitative. For the dualist, virtues must be qualitatively understood discontinuously either as unified or disunified, with the result that progression from one to the other, either morally (where we gain unity of virtue) or epistemologically (where we understand the grounds for the unity) becomes difficult to conceive. A non-dualist approach, however, understands virtue continuously and quantitatively, as the energy of desires which can be directed in more or less integrated ways according to the circumstantial beliefs.
At the level at which the dualist objector asks the question, then, it may well be true that we experience the virtues either as a diversity or as a unity: but we do so only with egoistic preconceptions which lead us to interpret them with a metaphysical rather than merely verbal discontinuity. A non-dualist account of the virtues does not insist on the unity of the virtues a priori, but rather enables us to overcome the dualism created by the dogmatic assumption that they are either unified or disunified. It does this by incrementalising the development of virtue on a scale of unification, a term which has much the same sense as integration: the process of bringing disparate things together to gradually form a unity.
At the less integrated end of the spectrum, the virtues are not only not unified in a given individual, but that individual is less able to appreciate their unity in others: there is a moral as well as an epistemological disunity. At the more integrated end, the converse applies. This can be understood in the same terms as the relatively integrated person’s ability both to be less subject to conditioning herself and to assess levels of conditioning in herself or others: virtue consisting merely in the absence of egoistic psychological conditioning. At any point along the spectrum, then, one will perceive the virtues in general as relatively unified or disunified, in proportion to the degree with which one perceives them as such in oneself or in others. In this case it does not matter what conventional descriptions are given to different virtues: for it is in accordance with the very fact that we see them as disunified under whatever descriptions that they remain disunified in us.
Any examples will inevitably rely on a particular set of conventional descriptions of virtues, and will also need to abstract to an almost distorting degree from the real complexity of characters: but I shall attempt one with these limitations in mind. Suppose (for the sake of simplicity) that I have only two relative virtues: clarity of thought and kindness to animals. I may think that there is no necessary link between these two qualities, especially given that my clarity of thought is often applied in a narrow-minded way and I am often unkind to people. This means that the way my egoistic defensiveness manifests itself consists in the erection of dualistic boundaries of belief and/or meaning between animals and people as objects of kindness, and between clarity and breadth as applications of thought. If I were to develop a little, this might take the form of some integration of attention and/or emotion which might lead me to appreciate the value of overcoming these dualisms: but in the process of gaining such an appreciation, I would thus already be breaking down my beliefs about the disunity of different sorts of kindness or different applications of thought. As a further step I may then begin to consider ways in which breaking down the barriers between types of kindness is an application of thought, and the extension of breadth of thought beyond habitual applications involves an emotional development akin to kindness, in doing so breaking down a further dualism which is not only moral but epistemological. In the process of these developments the qualitative description of the virtues involved changes in a way which makes it arguable that they are the “same” virtues throughout: but when the conditions for our conceptions of the identity of virtues are taken into account, a quantitative model can better convey the nature of the changes in virtue.
The dualism between the unity and the diversity of virtues thus turns out to be resolvable, like many other of the dualisms I have considered, into the spectrum of integration. In this sense it closely follows the form of other discussions where some other form of monism or holism is under consideration (such as in much eternalism): in each case it is the premature adoption of such monism without allowance for an epistemological gradation (as well as a moral one) which makes it unacceptable from a non-dualist perspective, rather than the positing of unity as a final goal.
Finally in my account of dualisms I come to their political application in the dualism between positive and negative freedom. Here I understand negative freedom to indicate the political valuing of providing citizens with the opportunity to fulfil their desires, by positive freedom the similar value of enabling citizens to overcome their desires.
Negative freedom usually implies a liberal position in which the goal of government is to interfere in the lives of citizens as little as is compatible with the peaceful pursuit of the fulfilment of their desires. This requires a division between public and private morality in which the values of citizens remain justifiably diverse, but the values of government are those of the scientism of the “neutral” arbiter (which I have already commented on). As I have indicated, its advocates can attempt to justify this approach either in terms typical of eternalism or of nihilism.
Positive freedom, on the other hand, is associated with the idea that government has a moral duty to improve the citizens, and that interference in individual freedoms can be justified by this moral duty of governments. This requires a view of ethics that understands moral practice in terms of alienation: for the state’s role here is to prevent the individual from fulfilling his desires in order to detach him from them, on the grounds that the real “freedom” for the individual is found through fulfilling the moral duty of the individual. Positive freedom can thus only be justified from an eternalist standpoint.
Despite the existence of eternalist liberalism, then, positive and negative freedom depend on exactly the same metaphysical discontinuity between absolute and relative as the ethics of eternalism and nihilism: eternalist liberals cross to the other side of the dualism in political matters, but they nevertheless maintain the dualism. The dualism differs from the ethical dualism only in that it is applied at a remove, by the government to the citizen rather than by the citizen to himself. The dualism between positive and negative freedom assumes that there either is or is not an isomorphism between state and individual in the sense that the same moral criteria can be applied: the advocate of positive freedom assuming that there is such an isomorphism and that of negative freedom that there is not. To apply positive freedom a belief in both an absolute source of ethics and an isomorphism is required, whilst the denial of either results in negative freedom.
The dualism needs to be tackled in two ways, then: the first, which will already be familiar, is the incrementalisation of the absolute-relative dualism in ethics by substituting the spectrum of integration: it is then this kind of moral development, not a state-determined nor a wholly private one, that is desirable. The second is the incrementalisation of the affirmation or denial of the isomorphism between individual and state with a scale of integration of the state. This scale is different from that of the individual in the respects that it must be recognised that states are not isomorphic to individuals, but on the other hand also involves the recognition that governments, too, can develop in the sense of becoming increasingly integrated in policy. Governments, like individuals, begin with desires, which are the desires of the politicians composing the government in proportion to their degree of influence, and reflecting the desires of those who elected them to the extent that politicians are actually able to, and wish to, represent those desires. These desires, like those of individuals, can be more or less integrated in relation to the meanings and beliefs by which they are framed, taking more or less account of a breadth of conditions and thus being more or less effective. On the other hand, governments differ from individuals in the sense that another layer of complexity is present: that of the psyches of those involved in it (not only politicians but, to a lesser extent, electors, civil servants and the public in its response to policy). Some of the solution to the problems of government can thus not be resolved at the level of government, and governments also need to recognise this condition. The scale of integration of a government thus begins at the lower end with this crude affirmation or denial of the moral role of government, and develops with an increasing recognition of the complexity of the particular ways in which government can and cannot contribute to the balanced moral development of citizens.
If the integration of government is to be understood in this way, then the goals of government in relation to citizens cannot be resolved a priori outside the process of integration, any more than the goals of individuals can be morally justified outside the process of the integration of those goals. To assume that government has an absolute moral responsibility to impose a certain set of moral duties on its citizens is likely to prove as erroneous as to assume that it has no moral duties and is merely a “neutral” arbiter between citizens. Rather the more integrated government becomes, the more it will take into account the complexity of conditions, including the limitations of its own power (for it cannot always gain its ends by coercion or persuasion), the extent to which coercion is necessary and the point beyond which it will merely create alienation, and the extent to which it is able to provide effective moral support to citizens. To take the maximum of conditions into account and balance them with the need for action (which is one of the conditions) is to integrate government and thus to enable it to find its justifiable ends.
To the extent to which government has moral responsibility, then, it can only be based on the desirability of the process of integration in individuals. An important part of the process of integration for governments thus needs to involve the recognition of this: for the best interests of government are served by the maximum recognition of conditions by all the citizens, facilitating their moral integration and thus reducing the conflicts between citizens in which governments need to intervene. To bring this about, though, may demand either intervention or laissez-faire on the part of government, dependent on the surrounding conditions.
Thus the non-dualist “freedom” which is desirable for individuals is not to be formulated in the metaphysical terms of negative or positive freedom: rather it consists in the process of integration and the freedom this offers from psychological conditioning. It is this conception of the justification of political freedom (or its shadow, coercion), together with that of the integration of government, which will form the basis of the non-dualist political philosophy to be offered in section d of this chapter and section c of chapter 8, which forms an integral part of the unfolding account of non-dualist ethics.
 Descartes would not have to be more “selfish” than his fellows to qualify as egoistic in this sense: rather his philosophical reliance on the ego can be seen as typical of the general extent to which his context offered few opportunities to extend the limitations of the ego.
 See 2.c.iv.
 In particular, that of the Yogacara school of Mahayana Buddhism, the apparent idealism of which needs to be understood in its predominantly non-dualist context.
 A Kantian type of determinism, based on transcendental idealism, is also possible: but, as Kant argued (Kant 1929 B275-9) this is necessarily linked to empirical realism.
 See 4.c
 I take this to be generally accepted. However, even if it is not, my argument remains unaffected by its denial, so long as in the comparison of specific types of cases of predictability there will still be some which prove more predictable than others. In the unlikely event that objects proved less predictable than people, we would still have mental features to fall back on to incrementally distinguish between human beings and objects.
 See 5.d.iii
 See 4.d.vi
 See 4.e.iii
 In the sense of 5.d.iii
 See 4.a.ii
 See 3.b.ii and its exemplification throughout chapter 3
 See 3.d.iii & iv
 See 4.d.vii
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