A Theory of Moral Objectivity (Chapter 7 - The normativity of the Middle Way)
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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This page contains the whole of Chapter 7, a relatively short chapter explaining why the Middle Way described in the rest of the thesis is normative, i.e. why and in what sense we ought to follow it.
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said “Men of
The main structures of argument are now in place on which to rest the central claim of this thesis: that we should understand moral objectivity in terms of non-dualism, and use this conception of objectivity to take the place of the discredited tradition of theories of universal ethics based on metaphysics. This claim has often been foreshadowed, but I will now turn to present it in the light in which moral objectivity has more frequently been understood in modern philosophy, that of normativity. For the central question which yet remains in presenting this claim is “Why is moral objectivity (in the form I have presented it) universally normative?”. In other words, “On what grounds can it be claimed that everyone should be following the path of psychological integration?”.
This question has already been addressed to some extent in 6.a.ii, where I argued that the integration of desires (at least up to the point of stream-entry) is justified by metaphysical agnosticism. But this may not form a justification in the terms of the Western tradition of normativity. This demands some reassurance that I am actually asking the same question that those who have searched for the foundations of ethics throughout the Western tradition have asked. For to some it may seem that I have merely provided a set of prescriptions discontinuous from that tradition, which asks “Why should we be good?”.
The kind of answers which have traditionally been provided are primarily explanations of how we conventionally use the word “good” in a moral sense. Clearly non-dualism offers prescriptions which go beyond such merely conventional analyses, which, even when they claimed to be universally prescriptive, were largely justifications of convention; yet if it were entirely discontinuous from them, it would be just as useless, for even when practised it would make no difference to our ways of thinking about ethics. The concept of normativity provides the key to these traditional Western approaches, in which prescription must be based on rules or conventions which appear within a particular context. I must now argue, then, that a non-dualist concept of moral objectivity is normative not only in the sense that it offers grounds for prescription which go beyond such conventions, but that it offers an explanation for the mysterious nature of the conventional language itself and its “queer” property of universal prescriptive reference in a relative context. Whilst normativity is itself purely conventional, offering a rule- or language-bound account of why we should be ethical, that convention can itself be useful for the non-dualist in providing a justificatory starting-point for the adoption of moral language.
In this chapter I shall be pursuing this argument in two ways. In this section I shall be considering three types of approach to moral normativity, based respectively on reason, desire and group convention, and arguing that in each case non-dualism implies the kind of normativity-claim that is being pursued. The type of implication claimed here is an asymmetrical rational implication, such that if the dualistic normativity is taken to apply in its own terms, those terms also require a non-dualistic form of normativity which supersedes them. Conventional beliefs about normativity, consistently understood, are taken to rationally imply non-dualist ones, but non-dualist ones do not conversely imply conventional ones, because any form of normativity requires the most normatively justifiable option to be selected in each case. Since normative ethics is by nature conventional, I shall not be attempting to show that any one particular form of conventional normativity can be shown to prevail universally, but rather that the arguments in each case identify an aspect of convention which indicates the universal normativity of non-dualism. In the following section I will then go on to consider other areas of normativity beyond what has traditionally been regarded as “moral” normativity, and argue that these also offer continuities with non-dualism.
The first type of approach to normativity I shall consider is that based on reason or on rationality. This is an approach that I have already commented upon as it appears in specific figures or schools such as Kant or various analytic philosophers, but here I shall be discussing it in terms of its general implications.
The normative implication of rationality appears to be its dual role as a method of imposing order on experience on the one hand, and for extending that order through abstraction on the other. The former function of rationality is one with which we readily identify, whilst the latter at the same time offers a challenge to our identifications by providing universal grounds. The analytic and Kantian versions of normative rationality respectively tend to concentrate on one of these functions at the expense of the other: in the former case it is our identification with individual rationality which is purportedly the basis of normativity, in the latter case the universality of rationality abstracted to complete impersonality. Whichever version forms the basis of the normativity-claim, however, it is reason itself which is claimed to offer that feature. Reason systematises, and a systematised picture of the world is taken to be preferable to an unsystematised one.
But if the appeal is to reason itself as the source of normativity, there are no grounds to limit its application at any point. All reasoning depends upon premises, but any premise can be questioned through Sceptical argument. Any appeal to the normativity of reason thus leads us inevitably to the normativity of Scepticism. This is the case where reason is perceived as being instrumental to an individual (which relies on contestable premises about the nature of individuals) as much as where it is perceived as being universalisable (in which case the auxiliary premises of any particular derived prescriptions can be questioned). Whilst in dualist hands this argument would be a reductio ad absurdum, for a non-dualist it can provide entry to the argument I have already offered on Sceptical agnosticism: that Sceptical arguments taken systematically offer neither positive nor negative metaphysics as the outcome, but provisionality of both values and beliefs.
Following this argument, any appeal to reason as the basis of normativity thus leads us to provisionality of a type which cannot be explained in purely rational terms, but also requires psychological explanation. Reason could indeed be a source of normativity, for no other reason than that it is conventionally regarded as such, but this does not provide any excuse for the selective use of premises. Rather non-selective Scepticism, which avoids such selective premises, illuminates the limits of reason and its interdependence with emotion, just as it will undermine any other kind of dualism by questioning the metaphysical discontinuity on which it rests. The normativity of reason thus implies that of non-dualism, in the asymmetrical and normative sense of implication given in the last subsection.
Other versions of normativity base it on desires. This type of normativity includes the crude egotism by which it is assumed that the immediate satisfaction of one’s own desires is normative, classical utilitarianism according to which a universal aggregation of desires in the form of externally-stipulated happiness is normative, and preference utilitarianism, in which the same normative aggregation must consist only in the explicitly expressed desires of those aggregated. I have already argued for the weaknesses both of universal aggregation and of individualism as interpretations of the normativity of desire, but they are united in taking desire (whether or not directed by reason) as wholly or partly the basis of normativity. Where it is only partly the basis for normativity, the remainder is supported by reason or convention.
In its original context, the appeal to the normativity of desire did not include any appeal to the integration of desire, despite the fact that desire is a psychological property. Unintegrated desire is completely prior to any reasoning, or any other attempt at modification with regard to surrounding conditions: it offers coherentism at its most elementary, but is to be found only in the pre-egoistic state in which neither desire nor its frustration can be experienced. As soon as even the most rudimentary imaginative representation of ends is introduced, the possibility of other unrepresented ends appears, and thus of conflict between possible ends which makes it unclear which desire is normative even within one organism. But before that stage we cannot even speak of desires at all, only of responses to stimuli. To claim that pre-egoistic desires are normative is thus in complete contradiction to the idea of normativity: there is nothing to apply a norm to because there can be no concept of a norm for a pre-egoistic creature. If it is claimed, nevertheless, that a pre-egoistic creature is in some sense normatively justified in offering the responses to stimuli which it offers, this cannot be contradicted, but this appears wholly irrelevant to human judgements.
If desires are normative, then, it must be the desires of creatures with egos that are meant. With the presence of an ego, however, comes reason, at least in the elementary form of a prioritisation of desires in response to conditions. Whatever desires are taken to be normative must already have been processed in this way, which means they must have begun the long process of objective integration to some degree. There are no “raw” desires which could be normative which are also unaffected by the belief which is produced by the dualising activity of the ego.
Once the role of belief is admitted in making desire normative, however, it is admitted that the adaptations created by reason also have a role in producing that normativity. There are then two arguments to support the view that any such normativity is incrementally magnified by the degree of integration of desires and beliefs together. The first can be based on the notion of satisfaction which egoistic reason applies to desires. As I suggested in 5.b.i, so long as this notion of satisfaction is egoistic, it will be subject to frustration. The greater the integration of the psyche, however, the more this frustration is diminished and the more relatively pure the satisfaction of desires becomes. On the basis of the normativity of desires alone, then, where desires are those of an ego, the integration of desires increases that normativity.
This argument may not be fully convincing, however, because from the standpoint of the dualistic ego desires are not understood as frustrating. The lack of convincingness here parallels that of verifications of the Middle Way: verifications act only as boosters of confidence for those who already have enough confidence to begin following the Middle Way, not as a convincing argument for those lacking such confidence, and likewise, the future satisfaction of desire only provides an incentive to those who recognise the limitations of their present satisfaction and believe it can be improved. The relationship between unintegrated and integrated desires (considered apart from the associated beliefs) is not one of rational implication, but rather one in which the less satisfied states at a less integrated level presuppose the possibility of a satisfaction which is only obtainable at a higher level.
The second argument, however, appeals to reason as a basis of normativity, as outlined in the previous subsection. If reason is always present to allow the ego to exist at all, then there seems no reason not to follow reason through to its logical conclusion of Sceptical agnosticism. Since some application of reason is required to make desire normative, but inconsistency of reason cannot be tolerated on rational terms, that reason must be consistent and thus imply the integration of desires in correlation with belief. Strictly speaking, however, this will only support a graduated progression of normativity, as beliefs are extended within the current horizon of meaning from the standpoint of whatever degree of integration of desires has been achieved, and this extension of belief (and of meaning) creates the conditions for an extension of the satisfaction of desires. At any given point of integration it is thus the available extension of belief that is normative rather than an infinite chain of notional extensions.
This argument leaves a difficulty in understanding the normative status of aesthetic integration and integration of meaning. Where desire or meaning are temporarily integrated without a corresponding integration of belief, is this kind of integration to be considered as morally normative? It might appear that the case for them also being normative is supported by the first argument, since they provide a temporary reduction in frustration and a greater breadth of satisfaction. However, as argued earlier, such integrations are of no objective significance except insofar as they are used to help to produce objective integration. Likewise, then, normativity only extends indirectly to these forms of integration insofar as they provide conditions for objective integration. Aesthetic integration and integration of meaning may provide greater satisfaction temporarily, but in the longer term, if this integration is not “re-invested” into moral integration, they can reduce overall satisfaction by raising expectations but not necessarily creating the conditions for their fulfilment.
Aesthetic satisfaction of a type based on quite small degrees of very partial and temporary integration, though, is perhaps the model that utilitarians or hedonistic particularists who appeal to the normative status of desire tend to most have in mind when they appeal to the normative value of pleasure or of the satisfaction of preferences. We feel pleasure (and fulfil our preferences) through many small enjoyments: food, sex, comfort, exercise, entertainment. All of these create a temporary focus in which desires are partially unified for a while on a particular object, and all may conceivably fulfil an indirect role in helping us to create conditions for objective integration: but much more often they merely distract us from it. They thus cannot be described as justifiably normative in any direct sense. There are many subsidiary reasons why we should pay attention to our need for such desires to be satisfied, but these provide no justification for elevating them to the status of moral imperatives.
Nevertheless, desires understood at a more basic level provide a condition for all three possible types of normativity, and, as I have argued, provide the fundamental basis of the scale of objectivity throughout. As such, whatever the confusions in the dualistic philosophies which attempt to take them as normative, they can be said to offer the most promising indicator of the source of normativity.
A third approach to normativity makes it wholly dependent on social conventions. This is the basis of say, Humean descriptivism, and also of Aristotelian virtue theory, since the definition of virtues in that type of context varies with moral tradition or society. Normativity on this account consists only of social conventions, and has no universal legitimacy beyond this, although more sophisticated accounts such as MacIntyre’s will suggest incremental moral development is possible within such a tradition, and there may also be an attempt to bridge the gap between convention and universality through fideism. Appeals to the normativity of convention may thus also include elements of appeal to reason or desire.
The descriptive case for the normativity of conventions is strong: it is clear that we are heavily influenced by social conditioning and that this forms the initial base of our understanding of morality. But for this case also to extend to prescriptivity and thus to have any power to change the status quo, conventions need to be fully representative of desires of the group whose conventions are being prescribed. Otherwise, in any case of dispute as to the normativity of one claimed group-convention over another, there is no basis for decision without recourse to reason or desire. Since the appeal to the normativity of social convention requires a basis for judgement beyond the mere imposition of power (whether by leaders of the group, by dissidents, or by a majority over a minority) if it is to be able to resolve such cases to any degree, such normativity must be based on consensus.
Consensus, however, as I have argued in 6.d, consists in the integration of the group, and this is highly dependent on the integration of individuals. The collective beliefs and desires of the group thus reflect the beliefs and desires of individuals in being more or less integrated as they take into account the complexity of conditions, and similarly, once the process of integration has begun, in there being an element of reason present from the earliest stage. The imposition of power in a group is equivalent to the imposition of immediate desire for the individual, in being almost inconceivable in a pure state: the very presence of power-imposition, like that of desire, requires the presence of an assumed environment in which desires will be fulfilled and of possible alternative strategies based on different perceptions of that environment and its values. Power cannot be exerted without at least some gathering of energies and consideration of conditions, and therefore requires at least the beginnings of the exercise of reason. But once some reason has been exercised, once it has been admitted as a component of normativity alongside convention, its own drive to consistency, along the same lines as argued in the last subsection, results in the normativity of the integration of convention through consensus in the group.
As an illustration, consider the way in which dictators fall. They do not inevitably do so, but nevertheless when they do so, it appears to be under the influence of just such a normativity of consensus. The dictator has maintained his power through the ideological appeal to convention alone, whilst this conventionality was largely dictated by the imposition of power. However, the dictator cannot come to power or even stay in power without some assessment and manipulation of the conditions around him, and it is this limited integration in his exertion of power which maintains it. The longer he stays in power, the more conditions he must take into account: the feelings of the people, the economic conditions, external pressures etc. But these very concessions to conditions bring in a rational element to the justification alongside the conventional. For example, if he sets up rigged elections in an attempt to maintain internal and external support without yielding power, this sets up an expectation of fairer elections which take the rationality of elections to their logical conclusion. Or if he accedes to external pressures to maintain stability, it may be those very external pressures which, then having more influence over the country, lead to his downfall. The limitations of coherentism are once again demonstrated through the gradual exercise of rational Scepticism, and in the process this rationality gradually becomes normative in the place of mere convention.
The normativity of convention, then, leads like that of desire to the normativity of its integration, and thus to the normativity of integration in general. Like desire, it can be argued to do so on its own account as providing greater satisfaction in the group, but similarly this argument has little purchase on a recalcitrant dualist, who in this case could claim to be satisfied with an unintegrated group in which consensus was not achieved. But as in the case of desire, a second argument based on the requirement for reason at any point of group integration should carry more weight.
My argument is now complete, then, in attempting to show the grounds for believing that normativity of any of the three common types appealed to rationally implies the normativity of moral objectivity through psychological integration. The apparent conflicts between (or within) these different conventional grounds of normativity can thus also be resolved through the appeal to psychological integration and its corollary non-dualism, which offers a higher normativity implied by the lower ones. A conflict between convention and reason, for example, can be resolved by taking more and more conditions into account until the conflict is resolved: in the case of reason this would involve taking reason to its logical conclusions, questioning metaphysical dualisms, and in the case of convention this would mean broadening the implications of the appeal to convention so as to use only the consensus of completely integrated persons as a guide. Similarly, through non-dualism there is no longer any conflict between duties to self and other, because a further normative ground superseding this apparent conflict can be found by abandoning the dualism between self and other and considering only the total set of conditions for individual action with maximally broad identifications. Whilst the application of this raises many more problems which will be discussed in chapter 8, for the moment I will take the normativity of non-dualism to have been shown.
According to my argument there is only one form of normativity, which is the normativity of psychological integration, although epistemological acceptance of this is incremental like the unity of virtue itself. The unity of normativities thus does not need to be prematurely believed in as a dogma, but is nevertheless part of the provisional theoretical structure of non-dualism. In the last section I argued that what are currently regarded as differing grounds for moral normativity all actually imply the normativity of psychological integration, but here I will deal with what are conventionally regarded as non-moral types of normativity on similar grounds. In each case here the conventional appeal to a particular “non-moral” normativity masks the implication of a further non-dualist normativity, which is both moral and supersedes its “non-moral” predecessor in every respect.
I have already suggested that there exist temporary and partial forms of integration which can occur independently of objective integration because they do not involve integration of belief. These forms of integration I called aesthetic integration and integration of meaning. Both of these forms of integration are associated with normativities, of the kind often referred to as aesthetic value and literary value respectively. Aesthetic normativity, then, is the conventional value attached to the appreciation (and indirectly to the production) of beauty as it is experienced in states where desires are temporarily integrated by attention. Symbolic normativity is the term I shall use for the conventional value attached to the appreciation (and likewise indirectly to the production) of meaning as associated with particular symbols, as it is associated in states where meaning (in both its cognitive and affective aspects) is relatively integrated.
These two forms of normativity (which are often intermixed) may be readily associated with valuation of the achievements of great artists, composers, and writers, but they have a much broader application than this. The value ascribed to such everyday activities as cleaning, and the value of the conservation of a particular natural feature, may be largely aesthetic, whilst the value of writing readily comprehensible English or of appreciating a nuance of tone in someone’s conversation is one of symbolic normativity. This does not mean, of course, that such ascriptions of value cannot also be morally justified, but as I have already argued, such moral justification does not follow a priori from the aesthetic or symbolic justification.
To take aesthetic or symbolic normativity and assume this alone to be grounds for objective normativity in a particular case, then, is not justifiable. However, this is a distinct process from an exploration of the implications of claims of aesthetic or symbolic normativity themselves. I can think a particular artist great (i.e. have a high aesthetic valuation of his work), for example, without necessarily thinking all the sacrifices he made for his art, overriding the interests of others, to be justified only for that reason, nor on the other hand assuming that a narrowly “moral” perspective should necessarily prevail which requires that all such sacrifices are unjustifiable. The value of his work involves a moral implication, but not an overriding one.
What makes aesthetic and symbolic normativities apparently incompatible with objective normativity is the way in which they value integration of desire and of meaning without integration of belief. Where integration of desire or meaning coincides with integration of belief clearly this is justified as objective integration and made normative by the forms of moral normativity, but it appears that according to aesthetic or symbolic normativity such temporary integrations will be valued for their own sakes alone, even if they have no effect on belief. Aesthetic and symbolic normativity thus appear at first not to imply the normativity of non-dualism in the same way I have claimed that the moral normativities of desire or convention do, because they are not subject to reason to any extent and thus not subject to the argument of the logical implications of the use of reason used in the last section.
The point that aesthetic and symbolic integration does not necessarily imply objective integration, however, does not imply that no beliefs at all accompany aesthetic and symbolic integrations. Rather it means that accompanying beliefs remain unintegrated. Aesthetic or symbolic integration can be linked to unintegrated beliefs simply because it continues to be understood within the same framework of belief as existed before the aesthetic or symbolic integration. For example, my first sip of a very fine, aged and complex wine may stimulate a mild aesthetic integration as I take delight in the subtle flavours, but I may still respond to this experience in accordance with the belief that I will continue to enjoy this experience by taking more of it (in this case, drinking more of the wine). The mild integration very quickly fades, firstly as I become more habituated to the sensations and secondly as I imbibe more alcohol and the subtlety of my senses is dulled as a result. No integration of belief has resulted from this experience: on the contrary, the continued dominance of unintegrated belief, taking into account too limited a set of conditions, has limited the aesthetic integration that I have experienced.
Nevertheless, aesthetic or symbolic integration does require the application of reason: the limitation is just that this reason is limited to a certain sphere of coherence, and that this use of reason is not necessarily extended by the experience. Even our appreciation of ordinary sounds, sights, textures, tastes, and smells, let alone of complex and refined works of art, depends on a development of sensitivity based on a learned response to certain stimuli, which we attune ourselves to receiving because we have realised that they bring pleasure. Similarly, symbols gradually acquire meaning for us through a learned response to them. We also avoid other types of stimuli because they bring pain. Even if a sensual or symbolic experience itself does not seem to directly involve the exercise of reason, it is the exercise of reason which makes it immediately possible for any advances in aesthetic or symbolic integration to take place.
Thus the same arguments can be applied to link aesthetic and symbolic normativity to the normativity of non-dualism as with the normativity of desire in general. On the one hand, it can be argued that the desires expressed through aesthetic or symbolic normativity are more fully fulfilled through the greater satisfaction that is brought about through objective integration. Where beliefs are integrated too, aesthetic or symbolic normativity is simply made increasingly sustainable because more conditions are taken into account. If I enjoy complex wines, for example, I will be able to sustain that enjoyment much more if I take into account the conditions imposed by the limitations on my physical and psychological capacity for this type of enjoyment, and thus stop drinking it after the first glass or even the first sip.
On the other hand, if coherentism makes this argument unconvincing, it can be pointed out that if aesthetic or symbolic integration is normative, so is the process of reason which makes such integration possible. Such reasoning, as I have argued already, needs only to be extended to the logical conclusions of Scepticism to take us beyond the coherentism suggested by aesthetic or symbolic normativity and into non-dualism.
The independence of aesthetic or symbolic normativity from moral normativity, then, and the possibility of it being pursued to extremes in disregard of the context, should not lead us to conclude that aesthetic and symbolic normativities do not imply moral normativity. It is coherentism as the underlying dogmatic mode of belief here which is incompatible with non-dualism, not aesthetic or symbolic normativity itself. The pianist in the
By scientific normativity I mean the belief that discovery is itself a good. I have argued throughout that the objectivity which enables discovery is the same as moral objectivity, but this raises a further question: is the normativity of such discovery thus compatible with moral normativity? Can the scientist who sacrifices his family for his scientific career, or who makes discoveries which enable the construction of weapons of mass destruction, for example, be morally justified because he is developing dispositional objectivity in science? As with the case of the aesthetic values of art, the values of science are often conventionally assumed to be distinct from and incompatible with moral values. But I shall argue that, as with aesthetic normativity, scientific normativity implies moral normativity, and the apparent conflict arises not from scientific normativity itself but from dogmatic coherentism.
Scientific normativity differs from aesthetic normativity in focussing, not on the value of experiences themselves, but on theories and the value of their justification. It is selectivity in the theories which it is taken to be valuable to justify, then, rather than selectivity in experiences taken to be valuable, which distinguishes a scientific type of coherentism from an aesthetic type. Without this coherentism, which specifies the value of discovery in some areas over that in others, the use of reason in science can easily be shown to imply non-dualism in exactly the same way as I have used it in commenting on other types of normativity. If it is valuable to discover some conditions, then rational consistency demands that it is valuable to discover all other conditions, whilst if it is admitted that if it is through integration that discovery is enabled to occur, the value of integration will also follow from the value of discovery.
Clearly, then, a conflict between the value of discovery and the value of moral integration can only be apparent when an over-narrow conception of “discovery” is adopted. The scientist who sacrifices his family for scientific career may not have “discovered” the complex set of social and psychological conditions which support his family relationships: it is only if he has examined these as fully as possible but still concluded that his research takes priority and there is an irresolvable conflict of interest, that he can be said to be justified in sacrificing them. The conditions attached to the social effects of discovery and of their technological use (insofar as they can be predicted) are also part of the sphere of discovery which is made valuable by an extended scientific normativity: the idea of “pure” science is just the imposition of a dualism. As I have already argued, there is no imperative to discover things whose harmfulness is obvious, nor to maintain knowledge of discoveries which have proved to be harmful: to “forget” about such scientific discoveries is merely to make an even broader recognition of the conditions under which scientific discovery takes place, recognising the limitations of our capacity to make good use of knowledge. To insist that scientific discovery is inexorable is merely one of the dogmas of scientism, by which cosmic justice beliefs are recruited to support an absolute assumption of the value of knowledge, conceived in dualistic opposition to value rather than as a broad discovery of conditions.
Scientific normativity, then, at least when purged of scientistic coherentism, clearly implies non-dualism. Since it is the presence of this type of normativity that has transformed Western society (by contrast to traditional societies) since the Renaissance, it is to the spirit of scientific normativity that we can turn for an important part of the impetus to non-dualism from which we have often benefited.
 See 3.g
 See 4.d.vi
 See 4.b.i & 6.a.i-ii
 See 3.k.ii
 See 4.a.i & 4.d.vi
 See 5.b.i
 See 6.c.ii
 This relationship is similar to that suggested by
 See 5.f.i
 See 6.a.ii
 See 4.c.v
 See 4.b.iii
 See 4.b.iv
 This means consensus as defined in 6.d.ii. (i.e. the incremental integration of a group) and must be distinguished from a manipulated consensus in which an appearance of harmony or agreement is reached, to a given degree, without actual group integration being achieved to the same extent.
 See my argument on the unity of the virtues, 6.b.vii
 See 5.f.i
 See especially 2.b.iii, 5.d.iii, & 6.d.iii
 See 4.a.ii
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