There are no short-cuts to moral objectivity, but it can be gradually cultivated.

It is one thing to recognise that moral objectivity can improve, but still a further thing to recognise that we can improve it through our own efforts. Our own efforts make a difference: not a dramatic or sudden difference, but a gradual difference. The best way of checking this is experimental. By making efforts to improve moral objectivity, over time, see if you experience an improvement. Of course you could be deluded as to whether improvement has occurred, but the longer your experience tells you that improvement is occurring, the more likely you are to be right.

There are two extremes of metaphysical view that stop people engaging in gradual cultivation of moral objectivity, and usually it is one of these that stands in the way of recognising that progress can occur and has occurred. These two views are freewill and determinism. Belief in freewill can easily be used as the basis of a fantasy that you can instantaneously make the world more how you would like it to be in more dramatic ways - and that provides a distraction from actually improving. Belief in determinism, on the other hand, can easily be used to undermine experience that one's own efforts can make a difference. However, both of these views are metaphysical and lie beyond our experience. We may experience cause and effect, but we do not experience an inevitable process of cause and effect affecting everything, and thus the belief that all events are inevitable is a metaphysical dogma. Similarly, the conviction that we can do what we like regardless of our conditioning is another metaphysical dogma. All that we are justified in believing is that we experience conditions affecting us, holding us back from progress, and we also experience progress being made in response to our efforts. The implications of uncertainty are those of sober hope. 

Objectivity is a habit. It is both incremental, involving gradual progress, and personal, being a property of persons. An improved habitual state is a more virtuous state and a more objective state.

So what can we do to become more morally objective? The short answer to this is "spiritual practice" (where the word "spiritual" does not appeal to supernatural beings, but to our deepest motivations). The Buddhist tradition has a well-worked out account of what spiritual practice consists in, though of course it does not have a monopoly on it, and you can find spiritual practices in many other traditions and cultures. A spiritual practice is anything that helps your intellect, body and emotions to work towards fuller awareness, balance of judgement and positivity. Such qualities depend on a complex interrelationship of conditions. The habitual judgements of the mind may depend on bodily and emotional states and often cannot be changed only through intellectual resolve. So reflection on one's habits and their effects on body and emotions is important.

The Buddhist tradition usefully divides practice into three general areas: morality, meditation and wisdom. In a broad sense these three areas are all about morality, but morality in a narrower sense here refers to awareness of outward behaviour and its effects on oneself and others. Meditation means direct cultivation of more objective mental states, usually through mental exercises that involve focusing inwardly on our own state and working with it purposefully. Wisdom is broadly the same as morality, that is greater objectivity, but more narrowly can mean working with one's beliefs to try to overcome illusions.

Internal links for further discussion of these themes:

The Middle Way and meditation

Thesis chapter 5: the psychology of the Middle Way

On Incrementality (A paper originally published in Shabda, the journal of the Western Buddhist Order)


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objections and responses copyright Robert Ellis