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A Theory of Moral Objectivity (Section 3 a & b - Eternalism)

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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3.      The failure of the dualistic model of ethics: (1) Eternalism


“It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumour; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration ‘the monk is our teacher’. Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘these things are bad; these things are blameable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill’ abandon them.”

(The Buddha speaking in the Kalama Sutta [Anguttara Nikaya, Sutta 65])


a)      Introduction to dualistic ethics


I now turn from the overall characterisation of dualist philosophy to particularly giving an account of dualistic ethics and its inadequacies. Like dualistic philosophy in general, dualistic ethics can be distinguished from its non-dualistic counterpart through its acceptance of optimal linguistic formulations of ethics as coming closer to truth than psychological states. As with dualistic philosophy in general, too, the Dogmatic and Sceptical types of ethical position are not absolutely but only generally separable, although the continued appeal of dualistic ethics depends on false dichotomising between them in which they are seen as the only alternatives to each other.


I shall be giving an account of dualistic ethics under the two headings of eternalism and nihilism: terms which, as I have already mentioned, derive from the Buddhist tradition, although I have in some respects bent them to my own purposes[1]. At the outset eternalism can be described simply as a view of ethics based on a Dogmatic view of the grounds of ethics, whilst nihilism is a view of ethics based on a Sceptical view of its grounds[2]. In this respect eternalism and nihilism are purely philosophical positions, and when considered purely in relation to their philosophical premises they may appear coherent. However, when they are considered as dualist philosophies (i.e. as having a certain relation to psychology) their incoherence can be seen much more clearly, as I shall attempt to show.


One of my assertions in offering criticism of dualistic ethics will be that no ethics can be adequate to its task of defining goodness unless it also enables goodness, and that these two tasks, the philosophical and the psychological, cannot be completed successfully in isolation from one another. The failure of eternalism to define absolute goodness in a convincing fashion, and the failure of nihilism to dismiss it, can thus be seen as the result of an over-specialisation between philosophy and psychology in which the enablement of ethics, with its psychological implications, is neglected.


Eternalism and nihilism are thus neither wholly philosophical positions nor wholly psychological ones: rather they are defined (when put together to comprise dualistic ethics) by the relationship between the philosophical and the psychological which they assume. This assumption, though, has both a psychological and a philosophical dimension. The philosophical dimension is the actual view that absolute ethics, if it exists, can be expressed more fully philosophically than psychologically, whilst the psychological dimension is the attitude of attachment to this view. Despite the existence of this distinction I shall not have cause to continually advert to it by making a distinction between capitalised philosophical positions and uncapitalised psychological ones, as I did with Dogmatism/dogmatism and Scepticism/scepticism: the justification for this being that ethical theories necessarily involve a claim about the value of people holding those theories, so that to hold any ethical view is to also claim that attachment to that view is good in a way not necessarily true of non-ethical philosophical views[3].


This point could only be doubted in the case of an esoteric ethical theory, where the justification for a particular approach to moral decisions is said to be separable from the conscious strategy of the person making those decisions. However, even in this case a value is claimed in at least one person explicitly believing the ethical theory, otherwise the justification it provides is never applied and the theory becomes of no conceivable value. Thus if the theory is to be applicable, the value of the theory itself also implies the value of attachment to it in at least one case, even if it can be argued that there are other cases where no such psychological value is implied[4].  The values of eternalism and nihilism as opposed to those of non-dualism are thus simultaneously both philosophical and psychological, and no further distinction between these two dimensions is helpful either when arguing from a non-dualistic standpoint alone or when drawing out the implications of dualistic ethical premises[5].   


In the respective chapters that I shall devote to eternalism and nihilism I shall begin by outlining the general features of the ethical views which I would regard as eternalist or nihilist. This will be followed by a more detailed historical survey of some of the most important eternalist and nihilist philosophies, whether represented by individual thinkers or movements. The object of this will be to give more detailed substantiation to my claims about the general features of dualistic ethics and their inadequacy, which will in turn provide support for my more general account of dualistic philosophy.  


b)      Features of Eternalism


i)                    Ethical foundationalism


The most important and pervasive feature of eternalism is its appeal to an absolute foundation of value from which other values can be derived. Such a foundation provides a final court of appeal where all ethical issues are concerned. This involves the application of Dogmatism to the question of the basis of value in order to support a theory which is based on metaphysical assumption. Some explanation needs to be provided by the eternalist of how we come to know the absolute basis of ethics, this usually involving an appeal to revelation, reason or intuition.


Perhaps the oldest of these foundations in the West, descending from Judaic tradition, is an appeal to a personal God, who provides a revelation of his ethical commands by various means. The idea that God designed the universe and that his reason is at work in it, however, may be replaced by alternative, more fully naturalistic versions of this divine command whereby nature provides an intuition, a structure or an example by which we can be aware of the universal ethical imperative. This type of naturalism can also operate without any appeal to God at all, since the cause of the natural command is perhaps less important than its alleged consistency and omnipresence: cosmic justice can be claimed to operate regardless of the existence of a judge.


Another version of the ethical foundation depends solely on rationalism, consisting of the Kantian view that the consistent use of our rational faculty alone will yield an ethical imperative (which then only, at least on Kant’s account, brings in God as a logical postulate). Even if this absolute imperative does not consist in a verbal formulation, in order to be applied (as I shall argue more fully when I consider Kant later) it must be reduced to one. A priori reason thus becomes an alternative naturalistic source of the ethical foundation discovered in the human mind[6].


Ethical foundationalism contrasts with the opposed view, ethical coherentism, whereby self-consistency alone is the criterion for ethicality (or more commonly “rationality”, with moral normativity only implied[7]) in a set of rules, actions or motives. These approaches to ethics depend on a broader epistemological debate. Foundationalism of any kind has an obvious advantage over this approach in that no matter how large a set of self-consistent propositions it may still be false, being inductively derived and perhaps arrived at in ignorance of important sets of conditions relative to the issue. Foundationalism, on the other hand, has to depend on the apparently arbitrary assumption of a given experience as normative over others, for which there are no a priori grounds.


The foundationalist - coherentist debate is not likely to lead to any clear resolution since it depends on the assumption that the objectivity of knowledge is grounded on some degree of correlation between its propositional expression and the state of affairs to which it refers (the same appeal to truth-conditions implicit in representationalism). This leaves the constant sceptical problem that we have no direct access to states of affairs in order to verify this correlation, other than through the interpretation of our conceptually-laden experience. The foundationalist position depends on the possibility of an exact correlation, the coherentist on a criterion of truth involving such an exact correlation which is then deemed impossible, leading to the conclusion that our knowledge cannot be shaped by states of affairs beyond ourselves at all. For the rest of this subsection I shall concentrate on the foundationalist position rather than the coherentist one (which I shall discuss in chapter 4[8]).


What would an exact foundational correlation between an ethical proposition (or set of propositions) and a state of affairs actually be like? It would have to encapsulate direct experience of all states of affairs relevant to ethics, free from any subjective distortion whatsoever which was relevant to ethics. What are the states of affairs relevant to ethics? The nature of the state of affairs would have to vary with the kind of ethical theory which claimed to represent it. In the case of a consequentialist or a teleological system, the states of affairs relevant to ethics are those which show consistent links between a particular action in accordance with the recommendations of that system and the achievement of an outcome considered universally good in that system. To have direct experience of all states of affairs relevant to ethics, then, would be to directly experience the causal links between all particular actions of all human beings (at least: perhaps also other beings) at all times (extending infinitely into the past and the future) and a universal desirable outcome which may never historically occur. No finite being could ever be in a position to have all the experiences of states of affairs which would enable correlative ethical propositions to be formulated.


A deontological system, on the other hand, does not explicitly claim any such knowledge of causal processes in the universe. Rather the state of affairs with which a foundational ethical proposition can be correlated is an a priori one. By its very nature a deontological system of ethics thus tells us nothing about the likelihood of success of actions in bringing about desirable consequences, nor why we should desire any particular consequences. There are thus no grounds on which to dispute the representational correlation in this case, only its relevance and applicability. The supposed a priori ethical propositions,  even if they turn out not to be merely Dogmatic assertions of metaphysical positions, will tell us nothing that we do not already assume, at best making existent implicit moral imperatives more explicit. Even if it is true, then, as the deontologist claims, that universal ethical intuitions can be expressed in this way, the resulting propositions tell us nothing about our capacity to perform those actions (or have those motives) which we ought to perform (or have), because such a capacity, relying on physical and psychological facts, is an a posteriori matter. An ethical imperative that we cannot follow even some of the time when it commands, and which we do not know to be commanding the possible at any time, seems to be an irrelevant fantasy.


Could foundational ethical propositions not be formulated inductively, reflecting laws which have been discovered to operate consistently in the universe within the bounds of finite experience so far? Certainly, but these strictly speaking should be given the status of ethical hypotheses or ethical theories, not ethical laws (even in the scientific sense of ‘law’). Such inductively derived propositions certainly do not merit the status of universal ethical imperatives.


Thus it seems sufficient here, in order to argue against the possibility of a propositional ethical foundationalism formulated by finite beings but also having impregnable foundations, to appeal to the impossibility of finite beings having enough scope of experience to produce foundations which are both impregnable and relevant. The difficulties of such foundationalist claims, as in my earlier discussion of scientific theories, are due to the Dogmatic nature of the way they have been formulated rather than the foundationalism itself or the claim of universality that they involve. If a foundational claim is understood as a theory to be provisionally believed in and tested against experience, it is heuristic in nature rather than Dogmatic: but in order to be understood in this way it needs to offer an explanation of causal or conditional processes which can then provide fruitful predictions[9].


But my objections so far have been directed only at universal ethical propositions formulated inductively by finite beings. What if an infinite being, such as God, exists and formulates  such propositions, or what if we finite beings have the ability to deduce such propositions from incontestable premises? Both God and the incontestable premises appear to depend merely on a naïve type of faith, but let us accept them for the sake of argument. Even so universal ethical propositions could not be formulated in a way which could necessarily lead to consistent interpretation by all human beings hearing or reading the propositions. Assuming that all beings were not absolutely objective (in which case, as I mentioned before, they would need no ethical theories), they would interpret any given ethical propositions according to their existing conceptual pre-dispositions. Even if interpretations then appeared to agree verbally, it is impossible to predict how they might diverge in the future given the diversity of conditions in which the propositions may need to be interpreted. Even the being (if finite) who formulated the propositions might interpret his/her own formulations differently at a future date. The liberal Christian tradition[10] here puts forward the idea that the real universality is one of interpretation inspired by God, not extant in texts at all: if this is the case to the extent that the text does not even provide the necessary conditions for ethical universality, though, we are no longer dealing with ethical universality in propositional form at all, only with propositions as contributory causes of it in non-propositional form. But again, this non-propositional revelation, in order to avoid a merely Dogmatic existence, must offer or imply some fruitful predictions.


Ethical foundationalism thus cannot be justified in its absolutist and propositional form. I shall argue in the later sections of this chapter that this basic argument not only applies to propositional revelation in Christianity and to Platonic metaphysics, but to the various rationalist and empiricist refinements of foundationalism made by Kant and his successors and by the classical utilitarians. However, it is not the appeal to a foundation as such which is problematic here, only the absolute and propositional nature of the foundation. All arguments use a foundation to some extent in the assumption of premises, which can be relatively justified through their  relationship to experience. A non-propositional, non-absolute, non-deontological form of ethical foundationalism is not subject to the same objections based on the infinite scope of its claims or the difficulty in accurately communicating and practising it, but on the other hand much argument needs to be made to show its universality. My eventual case for objectivity in ethics will incorporate some aspects of this much weaker form of foundationalism together with aspects of the ethical coherentist case.


ii)                  Cosmic justice


Closely related to absolutist ethical foundationalism is the belief that ethical facts depend on the existence of  a causal process which operates uniformly in the universe, whereby in some fashion the degree of ethical objectivity either in motives or in the nature of actions themselves is requited in a way which is commensurately favourable or unfavourable to the agent or agents. Many versions showing different understandings of this causal process exist, at both an individual and a corporate level, expecting justice to be done either on earth or elsewhere, in this life or another life, immediately after death or at the end of history. The Christian belief in an afterlife, in God’s control over history, and in the parousia  provide one obvious example. The traditional Hindu and Buddhist beliefs in a law of karma and in rebirth[11], Greek metempsychosis[12], Kant’s belief in the afterlife as a logical postulate[13], and Hegel’s[14] and Marx’s[15] different beliefs in the inevitable march of history to a desirable outcome all provide variations on this central theme. In all these cases the belief in cosmic justice is justified through ethical foundationalism and it is regarded as a perfect law admitting of no exceptions.


As in the case of ethical foundationalism, I would want to distinguish the deductive (or inductive but over-stated) claim of the existence of cosmic justice from a similar  but weaker inductive claim which is commensurate with possible experience. It is one thing to claim that our efforts to make progress towards objectivity are generally rewarded with success, and lack of effort a commensurate failure, another to claim that this is an iron law which operates unfailingly in every case. Claims about the likelihood of moral success or failure in this life are also much more defensible than claims about other existences which are in some way understood to share our present identity, or claims about the fate of the world in the far future. Such weaker claims can even be said to form a necessary background for the possibility of moral action, since we need a degree of predictability in the relationship between moral effort applied and results achieved in order to be able to consistently apply that effort and achieve any consistent results. In an arbitrary or random world where we could make no sense at all of the patterns of causality at work in events we would similarly be quite unable to understand or apply ethics, since any motive or action we hypothesised as ‘good’ might as well lead to massive and pointless suffering as to increased happiness. The fact that we do reach inductive conclusions which generally appear to be true provides enough grounds for the claim that we do not live in such an arbitrary world.


Nor, however, is it fruitful to believe that we live in a world where cosmic justice rules infallibly. There are several reasons for asserting this. Firstly, both the existence and the non-existence of cosmic justice are compatible with any conceivable experience had by any being, and thus amount to unfalsifiable metaphysical assumptions. Requital after death is plainly beyond any experience, but even requitals within this life are always subject to a variety of interpretations, since our desires and their degree of objectivity are constantly changing, and hence our view of a desirable or undesirable requital is not fixed. A being who had reached the degree of objectivity required to keep her desires stable  in regard to what would make a ‘good’ requital would also probably have brought those desires in line with the demands of objectivity to the extent that a requital would no longer be a motivating factor.    Unfalsifiability alone (as I argued in chapter 2[16]) is not a sufficient ground for rejecting a belief if it implies other beliefs which, together with auxiliary hypotheses, might be fruitful. But there are further grounds here for believing that we cannot anticipate the particular type of fruitfulness we might expect from this belief – that of justifying the objectivity of ethics.


Secondly, then, far from supporting a belief in the objectivity of ethics, a belief in cosmic justice can  undermine it. It tends to do this if all experienced events are taken to be necessarily caused by the processes of cosmic justice. An ethical analysis can then be applied backwards (usually negatively) from present events to posit past ethical conduct which must have occurred in order to cause them, thus preventing the causal differentiation between events necessarily caused and not necessarily caused by human agency which is required for the clear assessment of the likely effects of future actions, and which is useful in avoiding irrational guilt or undue arrogance in regard to past actions. Thus the Israelites of the Old Testament attributed their defeat at the hands of Babylon to their own sinfulness[17], oblivious to the complexity of other causes involved. Similarly, the traditional Hindu caste system as enshrined in The Law Book of Manu[18] provides a theoretical justification for the degrading treatment of those born into a low caste on the grounds of their alleged previous actions.


What if cosmic justice is not taken to provide a necessary cause for all experienced events[19]? This would mean that some events that we experience can be attributed to the operations of cosmic justice, others not. But in this case we would have no clearer criteria for differentiating one kind of event from the other than we had before. We are left in just as much confusion about which kinds of actions necessarily result in a requital and what sorts of requital they create. Apart from the continued danger of an exaggerated assessment of the effects of actions, we might also be in some danger of mistaking events which have human agency as a necessary cause for entirely natural ones, and vice-versa. In fact in such cases a deductive understanding of cosmic justice is of no moral use at all: instead we rely on inductively derived information on the relationship between human agency and its effects.


The third and perhaps most important argument for the incoherence of theories of cosmic justice stems from their dependence on the dualist adherence to the concept of the self. The assumption involved is one of the absolute identity of the self over time from any given point of moral consideration to the point of requital. This provides an external justification for the requital, on a retributivist view of  reward and punishment, extended by analogy to the cosmic sphere: if the accused is the same person who committed the ‘crime’, he deserves the ‘punishment’. In the ordinary, human judicial process a convention operates whereby any discrepancies (apart from those of conventionally-understood absolute identity) between the person who committed a crime and the one who is punished for it are largely disregarded (and there are good arguments, of a utilitarian as well as a retributivist kind, for doing so in this case), and this convention is extended to the cosmic sphere in cosmic justice beliefs. However, if ‘justice’ operates in the cosmic sphere it must by definition do so with a perfection transcending the limitations of terrestrial justice. We would expect the requital, indeed, to be absolutely proportionate to the goodness or evil that it requites: but this is impossible where the physical and mental states of the person requited have changed, as universal experience tells us they will (it is not even necessary to abandon the dualist concept of an absolute self to agree with this, because even an essentialism of persons allows for change in accidents). If justice is to be administered according to the standards of the earlier time (the requital the person ought to have had if it had taken place at the same instant as the requited deed), they are unjust by the standards of the later time (when the requital actually takes place) because they are delivered to a person whose dispositions are likely to be significantly either more or less towards the kind of deed in question than they were at the earlier time; but if we take the standards of the later time, tailoring the requital to the present state of the recipient, it is unjust by the standards of the earlier time, because it no longer requites the deed that was actually done, or even the mental state that actually motivated it. Cosmic ‘justice’ is thus shown to be impossible, because it is based on an idealisation of a worldly process which is necessarily imperfect, yet cannot mirror its imperfections. 


From a non-dualist standpoint this points to the fundamental weakness in cosmic justice beliefs: they appeal to a continued strong identification of the self with its future state and thus, far from encouraging genuine progress towards moral objectivity, encourage narrow identification with the ego and its constructions. Such narrow identification encourages us to think of the self as a fixed object, ignoring the constant changes which occur as the ego shifts its identifications, and impedes objectivity through the dogmatism which it promotes, which must be called upon to defend cosmic justice beliefs against the complexity of experience.


These criticisms of cosmic justice beliefs may appear to apply only to individualistic versions and not to corporate versions in which it is believed that history will inevitably lead to a desirable conclusion, such as those of Hegel and Marx, which I have also included in this discussion. In this version, certainly, the idea of a specific requital for individual deeds disappears. Specific individual requital is also absent from the conception of requital found in the Old Testament up to the time of Ezekiel[20], where God punishes “the children for the sins of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me”[21]. Corporate requital thus also has an important part to play in the traditions of eternalism, reflecting identification with the group rather than with the individual, and all the criticisms I have made of individual requital apply equally to this conception[22]. 


There are also versions of cosmic justice in which the apparently vital link between free agency and requital is apparently broken through the presence of some form of determinism: Calvinist predestination, Hegel and Marx all provide examples of this. As I shall argue when I discuss Hegel and Marx[23], however, this break in the link works as an overall rationalisation for confidence in the favourable operation of cosmic justice in history rather than as a disincentive to individual agency. The determinist eternalist believes that he is the tool of history, and through the operation of this belief the possibility of debilitating doubt as to the outcome is removed. The outcome is still believed to be ‘just’, even though its favourability is guaranteed, as the agent believes his own motives to be necessarily good and thus to necessarily deserve a good requital. This is perhaps the most damaging form of eternalism because it discourages even the crudest forms of moral reflection, which require some sort of choice between good and evil options.   


iii)                Freewill


Linked closely to cosmic justice and essentialism of the self  is the view that freewill exists, and that it consists in the absence of sufficient causality for an act of will. It is claimed that no person’s will is free unless they could have done otherwise given the same conditions, in this being opposed both to the hard determinist, who agrees with the definition of freewill but argues that it does not exist, and to the compatibilist, who argues that freedom is quite compatible with the presence of sufficient causality for acts of will[24]. Belief in freewill of this type serves the eternalist because it provides a necessary condition for the free choices which are requited by cosmic justice. It is therefore usually connected with the view that this type of freewill is necessary for responsibility, with responsibility providing a necessary condition for just requital.


The basis for this type of view of freewill, though, is the first-person perspective. It seems to me, when I make a choice, that the nature of that choice was not caused by anything other than the act of choosing itself. To others seeing me from a third-person perspective, however, my actions seem determined and predictable. Even if we cannot turn human predictability into a deductive law, the fact that human actions are very often predictable[25] gives good inductive grounds for the claim that the absence of sufficient causality is an illusion. On the other hand, the absence of such an absolute deductive perspective provides good grounds for not accepting determinism[26]. Both first and third-person perspectives may be subject to distortion in the direction of dogmatism or scepticism in interpreting our experience, but the perspective determines the likely form of the distortion. The first person perspective offers the possibility of dogmatic adherence to a theory of freewill, the third person perspective an equal possibility for dogmatic adherence to a theory of determinism: in each case the dogmatism is philosophically supported through the neglect of the other perspective despite the existence of both types of perspective in our experience. In each case scepticism has a symbiotic relationship with dogmatism in enabling the rejection of the other perspective.


In psychological terms, it is the distorting tendency of the ego to create identification with freewill here, just as in the contrasting case of adherence to determinism. If this is correct, we have about as much reason to trust the impartiality of philosophical arguments in favour of freewill given by a person with an ego as we do a smiling but corrupt official whose palm has been previously greased.


A further point against the credibility of the freewill claim is the complete inability of those who make it to explain what an act of will without sufficient causes would be like. It cannot be explained in terms of causes without being contradictory, yet to explain it merely in terms of the absence of causes is also inadequate, since the nearest we can get to understanding an absence of causes is to conceive of apparently random events, the causes of which we do not know: but the behaviour of human beings is not random. Our inability to explain the nature of freewill is not due to it being non-dual and therefore beyond the reach of Dualistic language[27], because if a freewill is to be my freewill it must necessarily be within the sphere of experience with which I identify. It would only be if freewill was to be understood non-dually, beyond all distinctions of subject and object, that it could be included in the sphere of the non-dual.


These kind of objections would not carry much weight if the notion of freewill as the absence of sufficient causation - vague, metaphysical and unfalsifiable as it is - was a fruitful one. This notion of freewill, however, cannot serve to help ground the objectivity of ethics, for the simple reason that it contradicts ethics. If I am to have freewill in this sense it means that I am necessarily distinct from the conditioned universe around me. This means that, to put it in existentialist terms, my existence precedes my essence: my mind can take decisions which have no predetermined form (apart from the bounds of logical possibility) at any point. This means that if one choice is more ethical than the others in any given situation, this fact has no conditioning effect on my free mind whatsoever (for it to do so is incompatible with that mind’s freedom). For a choice to be free it must be without sufficient cause, yet to be moral it must be sufficiently caused by moral considerations, moral motives or moral imperatives together with other necessary preconditions: thus for a choice to be free and moral at the same time is impossible.


The only way around this difficulty is to identify morality with freewill itself, as the existentialists have done[28]: but in doing so one drains morality of any objectivity. The difficulties here are a philosophical analogue of the underlying psychological  attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable: the ego with objectivity. As long as we see freewill and morality in the absolute terms which have developed from the account of eternalism so far, they will remain irreconcilable, with the former absolutely subjective and the latter absolutely objective. To see them incrementally is inconsistent with a metaphysical account of their grounding. In the case of freewill, the slightest incrementality (making the freedom of the will partial in some way) would be contradictory because there would no longer be an absence of sufficient causality. Similarly with morality, the slightest incrementality is inconsistent with a propositional foundation: either this foundation is wholly reliable or it isn’t.


Thus freewill as a feature of eternalism can be seen to be the result of the assumption that the first person perspective is identical with that of the ego, and the failure of freewill to provide a basis for objective ethics can be seen to follow from the subjectivity of the conception which it must appeal to. If, as I shall argue more fully in chapter 6[29], we understand freedom in a less personal fashion without denying its reality as part of our experience, and do not understand it as the absence of sufficient causality but rather itself as part of a possible (though not wholly knowable) causal process, a stronger basis for ethics can be created.


iv)                Alienation of desire


As argued in section a, the philosophical dimensions of an eternalist theory, at least insofar as it is distinguished from a non-dualist one, do not need to be distinguished from its psychological dimensions because dualism in general is defined through the relationship of philosophical and psychological that it assumes. The features of eternalism that I have discussed so far (namely ethical foundationalism, cosmic justice and freewill) are clearly philosophical ones. In each of these cases, however, I want to claim that there is a psychological dimension implied by this particular aspect of dualism used as an ethical position. As I have already argued, there are no necessary correlations between any given dualist philosophical and psychological positions: nevertheless I want to claim a general correlation here between eternalist philosophical positions and alienation. This general correlation is one I shall attempt to give some substantiation for in the historical examples which follow. Alienation can be created by any form of dogmatism and thus can also be created by dogmatic nihilism as well as eternalism, but the philosophical approaches which comprise eternalism as a Dogmatism of value provide good examples of a mechanism of belief which creates alienation, as I shall explain, thus showing at least one of the channels through which dualist philosophy necessarily creates dualist psychological states.  


Ethical foundationalism involves the assumption that there is some privileged aspect of our experience through which moral knowledge can be understood. In order to form the basis of a philosophical belief  this privileged aspect of our experience must be given conceptual expression, and thus becomes the property of the ego. Absolute value is thus understood in terms of particular conceptual beliefs with which the ego has identified, to the exclusion of other conceptual beliefs, which may be associated with other parts of the psyche which are not dominant at the point when the foundationalist belief is adopted or recalled. These excluded beliefs are the expressions of desires which I will describe as alienated. Regardless of whether these desires become conscious or remain unconscious at future points in time, as long as the foundationalist belief is held to, these desires are excluded from participating in mental processes coherent with that belief.


To some extent this may be true whenever any belief is held to dogmatically, but in the case of a belief about the foundations of value the alienation of desires is particularly pertinent, because of the implications of a belief about value for psychological states. As argued above[30], a philosophical belief about value also implies the value of (at least one person’s) holding that belief, a psychological state.


But what does it mean for a person to hold a belief? We can distinguish between explicit and implicit belief, where explicit belief only necessarily involves talk about the belief, and implicit belief only necessarily involves acting as though it were true (which does not necessarily always include talking about it). Given the fact of constant change within our desires and intentions, however, we would expect patterns of inconsistency in implicit belief which would not necessarily occur in explicit belief. The patterns of inconsistency may be due only to ambiguities in the meaning of the belief as it has been explicitly formulated, or they may be due to an incompleteness in implicit belief as it has failed to penetrate through the psyche. For example, a vegetarian, who believes it to be wrong to eat meat or its by-products, may eat a jelly: this may be because she is simply not aware that jelly contains gelatine, a by-product of meat; or because in deciding what to eat she exploits an ambiguity in her belief as to what quantity of meat product needs to be involved, or how visible it needs to be, to be rejected; or it may be due to an incompleteness in the belief in vegetarianism that she has taken up, so that sometimes she does not act in accordance with it. The vegetarian herself may not have explicitly thought about the differences between these reasons for apparent lapses, or be aware of them at all, although if asked whether she was a vegetarian she would still consistently reply in the affirmative.


The inconsistencies in an implicit value-belief can thus be taken to indicate the presence of alienated desires. These desires disrupt the consistent and explicit application of a value-belief  both by motivating actions which are contrary to it and by dominating areas of ambiguity. In an implicit sense, then, value-beliefs are rarely fully held because what appear to be near-universal psychological conditions of change and inconsistency make this impossible. A purely conceptual belief about the foundations of value can thus rarely, in practice, be fully held, and thus it cannot either be fully applied.


This incompleteness of belief is reinforced by the other two features of eternalist philosophy which I have discussed. Belief in cosmic justice can be understood as an outward compensatory projection which tries to create a completeness of value in the picture of the objective world in which we believe, due to its absence in the individual. Without an incompleteness in the values of the individual, there would after all be no need for cosmic justice. As I have already argued, belief in cosmic justice does not have the effect of producing genuine objectivity so much as of directing attention towards a future state with which the ego identifies because it wishes the continuation of that with which it identifies. Those parts of the psyche which do not identify with the future state, however, are thus excluded.


Belief in freewill creates a similar effect in isolating the ego from the rest of the psyche. For a will to be free of sufficient causality it must not be wholly subject to the psychological processes which result in desires: so a will which believes itself to be free, even in the event of that sufficient causality being present, will be inclined to deny that sufficient causality. Even if it is true that sufficient causality is not present (whatever that may mean), the will could still confuse which processes it was freely responsible for with those that were a result of causality[31]. The lack of appreciation of the causal processes which are in fact producing at least some desires leads to the alienation and exclusion of those desires from the will, which then return and take over the ego at some later stage when concentration has lapsed[32]. The more consistent and implicit belief in freewill, then, the more it thus leads to a wilfulness which in fact works against the consistent application of ethical belief.


Alienation as a psychological feature of eternalism thus prevents eternalist ethics from succeeding, even in its own normative terms. For whether the grounds of normativity are reason, desire or convention, anything that divides or counters those reasons, desires, or conventions throws into doubt any claim of normativity that may be constructed on them. Much more will be said later about the way that any possible ground of normativity thus implies non-dualism[33], but at present I shall limit my argument to the negative one of showing the psychological drawbacks of the eternalist approach. The presence of alienation, it is true, does not prevent anyone from following an eternalist ethic where the psychological conditions are helpful, but in these cases the ethic may merely be an epiphenomenon of those conditions and make little or no difference to the outcome. At best the ethic will have a temporary and localised effect on action on some occasions, which will be constantly undermined by the effects of the alienation preventing the underlying and more important psychological conditions from being addressed. The eternalist claim to be defining the best course of motive or action in any given situation is thus undermined because there will always be a better course of motive or action which addresses the psychological conditions.


v)                  Political polarisation


As Marx first observed, the psychological process of alienation has important political implications. If alienation to some degree is a widespread phenomenon, reinforced by eternalist ethics, this phenomenon will be reflected in social and political behaviour. As in other areas of philosophy there is a relationship between political philosophy and political psychology, which cannot be entirely neglected here because of its effects on individual psychological and philosophical conditions. I shall begin some account of this by considering the relationship between Marx’s view of alienation and the one I have offered in the previous section.


For Marx, the most fundamental form of alienation was economic. He had developed this understanding from an original Hegelian one, typified by Hegel’s account of the “unhappy consciousness” which is divided against itself in a similar fashion to the eternalist psychology I have already described[34]. Marx’s account, however, eschews all explicit psychology but attempts to give an account of alienation in entirely external terms based on the alienation of labour. As Marx writes:


…the object that labour produces, its product, confronts it as an alien being, as a power independent of the producer.…The realisation of labour is its objectification. In political economy this realisation of labour appears as a loss of reality for the worker, objectification as a loss of the object or slavery to it, and appropriation as alienation, as externalisation.[35]


Marx here obviously fails to avoid psychological assumptions: “confronts”, and the alien nature of the confrontation, can only refer to distinctly psychological processes. In psychological terms what Marx appears to be talking about is the lack of engagement, awareness or delight in work which results from a lack of identification with it. Marx’s insight was  to see the relationship between this type of economic alienation and political, philosophical and religious forms. “It is just the same in religion.” he writes, “The more man puts into God, the less he retains in himself”[36].


In terms of the psychological analysis of dualism that I have given in the previous chapter, this alienation is the result of the division between the desires grouped in the ego and those grouped in other parts of the psyche which do not identify with the purposes of the ego at a given time. The economic processes which Marx describes force the worker into a situation where in order to satisfy his basic material needs he must do work with which he does not otherwise identify. The fact that the worker is doing the work indicates that the ego and its prime desires for material sustenance still dominate the psyche, but the extent to which the energies of his mind are focussed elsewhere, excluded from more direct interaction with the physical environment, indicates the depth of the mental conflict which he feels himself forced into.


Alienation is thus a psychological state supported, not just by the kind of philosophical conditions I have described so far, but also by economic and political conditions. These economic and political conditions, however, can be seen as merely the embodiment and medium by which dualistic philosophy becomes the basis of belief for alienated workers. The alienated worker believes that the performance of his work is in the best interests of himself in the future and therefore that all other desires ought to be suppressed, at least insofar as they practically interfere with the performance of his work and the reward he will gain for it. This philosophy is dualist according to my earlier criteria because it is seen as coming closer to a true value for him than any psychological experience.


The worker’s philosophy can take either an eternalistic or a nihilistic form, according to whether she sees the economic, political and social mechanisms which create the conditions of work in cosmic or worldly terms. The eternalistic form is one which Marx readily identified in his equation of the ideology of the politically ascendant classes with dominant religions and philosophies[37]. The identification of the power of political, economic and social mechanisms with that of the higher power of cosmic justice itself provides the basis on which the ego can see the repression of other desires in the psyche as an inescapable necessity: for it seems not merely contingent processes which lead to the necessity of repression, but absolute and necessary ones. The alternative strategy which can likewise provide philosophical support for alienation is a nihilistic one in which the deferred satisfaction of the repressed desires is much more short-term and dependent only on beliefs about economic value, not absolute ethical value. But I shall defer any further discussion of this nihilistic strategy until the next chapter[38] and concentrate for the moment on the eternalistic one.


The three philosophical features of eternalism that I have discussed so far all have clear functions in supporting the alienation of the worker. Ethical foundationalism becomes the absolute support for a legal and economic foundationalism in which the laws enforced by the state in the interests of the ruling classes become absolute, and working for a living becomes an ethical imperative regardless of the conditions of work. Cosmic justice becomes identified with worldly justice. And freewill becomes the basis of an appeal to responsibility regardless of external conditions, whereby those who fail to compete successfully in the capitalist system (for example by being poor and/or unemployed) are seen as responsible for their own position rather than being the victims of circumstance[39]. 


But the causal claims I want to make about the relationships here between ideology and political or economic organisation are quite different from Marx’s. The relationship between them is not one of historical necessity, or even of clear linear causality. As I have already argued, there is no necessity in the relationships between distinct dualistic philosophies and dualistic psychologies, though there may be general correlations. The only necessities of relationship are those defined by the boundary-line between dualism and non-dualism, which is one created by attitudes towards the relationship between philosophy and psychology and having an impact on both. Thus I would only expect dualistic ideologies to support economic and political conditions which in turn support dualistic mental states, those mental states in turn supporting dualistic ideologies. Marx’s account gains a lot of its power from the way in which he tracks this process in its historical manifestations[40], but his claims to have gained knowledge of historical laws through scientific means about the relationship between economic and political conditions and ideologies fall foul both of any comparison with the methods of natural science[41], and the understanding of the limits of science implied in my account of the subject in chapter 2[42]. Marx appears to mistake some general correlations for necessities, as well as neglecting the psychological component of the correlations.


The eternalist nature of Marx’s own philosophy is one that I shall discuss more fully later in this chapter[43], but at this point it needs to be noted as an example of the use of eternalist philosophy to attempt to undermine and radically transform the existing nature of society rather than supporting it. At some points other eternalist philosophies which are otherwise conservative show a similar radicalism, for example, early Christianity up to the time of Constantine[44]. From these it will appear far from inevitable that an eternalist belief always serves a conservative function in support of the ruling classes.


These radical uses of eternalism can be explained in general terms as attempts to reform a worldly order in order to bring it into line with a cosmic one. A radical group can be formed based around an eternalistic philosophy, which gains its identity and purpose from that philosophy and the attempt to re-model society in accordance with it. The alienation is now of a slightly different nature, because the belief which defines the group now imposes itself on psyches which have been formed by a different culture and often still wish to relapse into their old ways. Strong psychological defences thus need to be erected around the radical group, often based on a fundamentalist adherence to the eternalist beliefs of the group and a rigid reliance on a foundationalist epistemology.


It is because of this radical as well as conservative political use of eternalism that I describe it as politically polarised. Whereas so far the conceptual pattern I have been describing is one of eternalism opposed to nihilism forming a dualism, when we consider eternalism in relation to its political application a rather different pattern emerges in which the opposition between eternalism and nihilism is no longer a symmetrical one. Instead, up till about the eighteenth century, eternalism tends to be associated with both the extremes of conservatism and radicalism. Since an intervening liberalism does not yet really exist, the dominance of eternalism in European culture can be associated with this crude dichotomy. Since ethics are understood as necessary, universal, and based on an authoritative foundation, the justification of political rule can only follow this pattern, with the moral authority lying usually with the rulers but sometimes against them.


It is only with the rise of nihilism in the West around the time of the eighteenth century that a new kind of intermediate political attitude arises: a liberalism that either directly expresses nihilism or shows the attempt of eternalism to adapt itself to the new conditions nihilism has created. Eternalist liberalism, typified by Kant or Mill, accommodates nihilism in private by allowing a strong distinction between public and private morality, and justifies it eternalistically by concentrating on the freewill component of eternalism rather than the component of external authority. It makes the external authority an increasingly distant one dependent on faith and disassociates the basis of morality from the practical basis of politics, so that governments are justified only to serve the free interests of citizens.


I thus characterise eternalism as politically polarised in relation to the common left-wing vs. right-wing conceptual model of political life. Far from being associable only with the left-wing or the right-wing, it provides a set of moral assumptions for the extremes of each, together with a component of liberalism. Nihilism, on the other hand, can gain political expression through liberalism or libertarianism[45] alone. The application of the Middle Way to political philosophy is thus of much greater complexity than the mere pursuit of political moderation. I shall be attempting to do a bit more justice to this complexity later[46].  


[1] See

[2] This definition assumes a prescriptive and universal concept of ethics of the kind outlined in 1.a.iii and used throughout.

[3] Here I go along for the sake of argument with the conventional assumption that there are such things as non-ethical philosophical positions, though according to my overall argument there are not. The distinction I mean to make here is that the implication of ethical views of all types (even dualistic ones) is that the holding of that view is to be prescribed, whereas for supposed non-ethical views, taken according to their own premises, there is no such implication. Ethics therefore creates a bridge between dualism and non-dualism which cannot be found in any other area of philosophy. 

[4] See 3.k.iv below for further discussion of this issue. Non-dualism, with its avoidance of a premature absolute position and its practical utilisation of moral authority (see 8.a.i) does involve a certain acceptance of esotericism, but an appreciation of the full implications of incrementality is required to see why this argument is not merely applying the fallacy that if x (i.e. moral justification implying the value of individual moral belief) is true of some members of set y (all people) then it must be of all. Rather  where x is a universal justification it is true of all and therefore should (abstractly) be believed by all, but the possibility of such belief is dependent on other conditions than a mere cognitive acceptance. It can be fully and implicitly believed in only to varying extents by different individuals. It is in the additional recognition of this condition that non-dualistic ethical beliefs become superior to dualistic ones.

[5] See 7.a for a detailed account of my argument that all forms of normativity in dualistic philosophies can be taken to imply the normativity of non-dualism.

[6] The distinction between foundationalism and coherentism becomes fuzzy where an appeal is made to consistent reason, as it is unclear whether a core of consistent reasoning is to be treated as an experience which is foundational to further reasoning, or whether the appeal is to consistency alone. It is not important to my argument whether this distinction is unambiguous, although it is important that mere ambiguities within dualism should be distinguishable from the Middle Way. For more discussion on this issue see my section on Kant (3.g).

[7] See

[8] See 4.a.i

[9] Chapters 3 and 4 regularly advert to evidence that this is not true of dualistic ethical theories. See 6.c for the argument that it is true of non-dualism.

[10] E.g. Paul Tillich: “There is no revelation unless there is someone who receives it as revelation” (I have been unable to trace the source of this quotation).

[11] See 10.iii on the Buddhist belief.

[12] See 3.d.ii

[13] See 3.g.vii

[14] See 3.h.v

[15] See 3.i.iv

[16] See 2.b.iii

[17] See especially the book of Jeremiah.

[18] See Manu (1886)

[19] This is the position put forward by Sangharakshita in an attempt to provide a more sophisticated understanding of karma and rebirth than that offered by many more traditional Buddhists. See Sangharakshita (1995) p.204-6.

[20] See Ezekiel 18

[21] Exodus 20:5

[22] In the light of the discussion of alienation in 3.b.iv below, it can also be said that corporate requital may also be alienated: for example one may labour for a reward that one believes only future generations will enjoy, yet still have an egoistic identification with that reward.

[23] See 3.h.iv & 3.i.v

[24] In 3.k.iii I shall discuss another form of compatibilism (as represented by the view of J.S. Mill) which is compatible with eternalism: this involves the view that all human actions are (at least in principle) predictable, but that nevertheless acts of will are not subject to sufficient causality.

[25] Hume (1975 Section VIII) gives a classic account of this which needs little modern amendment.

[26] For a non-dualist resolution of the freewill-determinism debate, see 6.b.v

[27] As in Kant’s view of freewill as noumenal and entirely transcendental in origin (Kant 1929 A532-558). See 3.g.v for more discussion of this.

[28] See 4.h.iv

[29] See 6.b.v

[30] See 3.a

[31] Of course the reverse confusion could also take place (i.e. if freewill exists, the will could underestimate its own power and assume that processes that are in fact free are determined). This is a nihilist tendency and just as much of a mistake, as I shall argue in chapter 4. The correct estimation of ones own powers and their extent (even if these powers are not metaphysically “free”) is a judgement which requires balance and care, like that of all knowledge based on experience.

[32] See 5.b.ii for more discussion of this phenomenon.

[33] See 7.a

[34] Hegel (1977) §206-230. For more discussion relating to this, see 3.e &3.h

[35] Marx (1977) p.78

[36] ibid. p.79

[37] Marx & Engels (1974) p.64-81

[38] See esp. 4.a.iii & 4.d.vii

[39] Lerner (1980) documents this process in terms of social psychology.

[40] Marx & Engels (1974) passim.

[41] See Popper (1957)

[42] See 2.b

[43] See 3.i

[44] See 3.f.v

[45] See 4.a.iv

[46] See esp. 8.c


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A Theory of Moral Objectivity: quick links to other sections


1. introduction

2a. Psychology of belief

2b. Heuristic process

2c. Psychology & philosophy

3ab. Eternalism

3cd. Plato

3e. Stoicism

3f. Christianity

3g. Kant

3h. Hegel

3i. Marx

3j. Schopenhauer

3kl. Utilitarianism

4a. Nihilism

4b. Scepticism & Aristotle

4c. Hume

4d. Analytic Philosophy

4e. Wittgenstein

4f. Pragmatism

4g. Nietzsche

4hi. Existentialists

5. Integration

6. Philosophical Problems

7. Normativity

8. Middle Way Ethics

9. Conclusion

10. Appendix



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