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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A Theory of Moral Objectivity (Section 5c - Integration and meaning)

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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c) Integration and meaning

i) Meaning and desire


The introduction of meaning adds another level of complexity to the account offered in the previous section, providing further indications of its applicability. This level is also intermediate between questions of desire and belief and helps to clarify the nature of the relationship between them. My account thus follows a form parallel to the previous section, where I look first at the conditions creating a lack of integration, and then at what it might mean to work towards integration at the level of meaning. In order to lay the groundwork for this, though, I must first recall some of the features of the pragmatic theory of meaning I have already argued for in part 1, and also make clear how this pragmatic theory of meaning relates to the theory of desire I have outlined.

The most important elements of the pragmatic theory of meaning I advocate have already been outlined. In 2.c.ii I gave some account of the important theory offered by George Lakoff, which can form the basis of an alternative linguistic approach to meaning from the representationalist or expressivist one. This uses basic-level and kinaesthetic categories to relate an underlying encounter with meaning to our earliest encounters with phenomenal objects and with the sensations of our bodies, then explains more complex conceptualisations as deriving their meaning through the metaphorical extension of these basic-level linguistic categories. Further, in 4.e.iii I offered an account of meaning which overcomes Wittgenstein’s dichotomy between cognitive and affective meaning by suggesting breadth of experience as an incremental criterion of meaning which can be applied in both cognitive and affective contexts. The degree of meaningfulness of a piece of language to either communicator or recipient existed, I suggested, in proportion to either the length or the concentration of experience, or the combination of both, applied to it. Such a criterion can be applied to non-linguistic sources of meaning (e.g. instrumental music, a baby’s inchoate cry) as well as to linguistic ones.

This account of meaning, then, does not deny that meaning is often associated with representation or expression. However, an understanding of meaning purely in terms of one of these sets up an unnecessary and unhelpful dualism whereby the other must be rejected. Whilst a truly pragmatic account in effect does little more than put these two more limited accounts of meaning together, it also provides an overall rationale according to which both can be understood as accounts of meaning within a larger, inclusive framework. As I shall be arguing, this framework is another aspect of the aspiration for universality which addresses the egoistic limitations of more limited theories of meaning. The theory of meaning is thus ultimately a branch of ethics.

The first step in explaining this account is to link basic-level linguistic categories to basic-level desires. Whilst these are not to be simply equated, they do fulfil similar roles: each being heuristic tools to reveal the limitations of the more commonly assumed egoistic theories that their suggested existence challenges[17]. Whilst the device of basic-level desires as a theorisation of our experience counteracts the tendency to think of desires as functions of a pre-existent ego, likewise the device of basic level linguistic categories counteracts our tendency to think of meaning as a function of the ego, either in its subjective expression (expressivism) or its outward projection of a coherent set of representations (representationalism).

Basic-level linguistic categories are not, however, directly equivalent to basic level desires, but rather are tools used by desires in their drive to achieve their ends. In the case of basic-level objects, the identification of distinct objects and their meaningful association with language helps to serve an initial purpose, but after once being thus used the basic-level term is available to serve the ends of other desires beyond the one in relation to which it was first learnt. For example, once a child has learnt the word “banana” in relation to the desire for food, he can later make the link between an actual banana and a picture of a banana in a book: its later purposes for using this basic-level term in the new book-context may be to earn praise rather than to eat. Similarly with kinaesthetic categories, the linguistic identification of a type of physical sensation serves an initial purpose beyond which it is soon extended: a child who learns the meaning of “in” in the context of her mouth may shortly be able to extend it to a box.

How far is such extension possible? There seems to be no theoretical limit. As soon as a term starts to be used outside its original desire context, extension of its meaning has already begun. If we are to thoroughly rid ourselves of representationalist assumptions, there can be no point beyond which the extension of meaning starts to be “metaphorical”, because metaphor implies some contrast with a non-metaphorical original. Instead of defining metaphor in contrast with representation, then, it must be contrasted with its original desire-context. The child who identifies a banana in a picture is already dealing with a metaphorical banana. Such extensions continue from this point right through to the most abstract metaphorical extensions, such as the idea of “universality”. If “banana” first gains its meaning in relation to a particular desire to eat banana, “universality” gains its meaning from its function of serving the desire for unification of the psyche.

The meaning of a term thus extends as far as the desires that utilise that term for their furtherance. If we think of the proper units of linguistic meaning as being sentences, then sentences as a whole gain meaning from their function, but the particular words or expressions out of which the sentence is composed secondarily derive a new extension of meaning from their new context in the function of that sentence. Sentences are, in their turn, embedded in language-games within which their shared significance is understood, and in this respect they resemble other types of (non-linguistic) communication, all of which depend on conventions shared by communicator and recipient. Such shared conventions may be expressive or representative, but even in their most inchoate and undifferentiated form they fulfil a function which differentiates them from insignificant noises, sights, or otherwise sensed experiences. A baby’s cry serves an expressive function for the baby and a representative one for the parent (for whom it means something like “the baby wants attention”), neither of which would signify without the baby’s desire for attention or the parent’s desire to look after it. A more complex piece of communication (like this one) depends on shared extensions between writer and reader, and can succeed only to the extent that the current desires of writer and reader, whilst not exactly the same, can utilise the same extensions to fulfil their goals of communication and understanding.

Whilst much meaning is dependent on successful communication (because the desire which imparts meaning is a desire for communication), the relationship between communication and meaning is contingent because some uses of signs are fuelled by other sorts of desire: for example, to express, clarify or remind. As I have already argued in relation to “private” language[18], significant language is possible independent of publicly understood conventions because the self is not a fixed entity, and grounds for the defeasibility of meaning of a sign exist between the desires of a psyche, dependent on the breadth of experience which is applied to it (even if such defeasibility is in fact more likely in a public context). Defeasibility becomes possible wherever there is an expressive or representational function which may be more or less satisfactorily performed by sign, given its extensions. However, that function can be performed in any context where desires can utilise representation or expression in an attempt to attain satisfaction. Limiting himself to social contexts, Wittgenstein called these contexts “language games”, but there is no reason, once the meaningfulness of the expressive and non-linguistic has been allowed, why such contexts cannot be understood psychologically. A “private language”, if there is such a definable thing, exists in a language-game of its own, where the “players” consist in different desires utilising the same signs as a tool for satisfaction at different times. Even a social language game of the type Wittgenstein describes can be understood in similar terms: for it is not other people which provide defeasibility for my use of language (if I did not listen to them, a key condition for this would be lacking!) but rather my desire for others’ approval which leads me to be receptive to their use of language, or to represent to myself (in the form of a linguistic superego) what they would say. The contexts which provide defeasibility (which I shall call defeasibility contexts) are thus primarily psychological in nature, and depend on the relationship between desire and success in the function defined by the ego in the attempt to fulfil that desire. A defeasibility context, then, differs from the Wittgensteinian concept of a language-game only in its much greater inclusivity: the signs concerned may be expressive, non-linguistic and/or inchoate, and the context itself is a psychological one.

Defeasibility contexts are like sharpening rooms, where linguistic or non-linguistic signs can be honed to more effectively perform the task for which they have been adopted. They are also places for adaptation and bricolage, as an old tool is made sufficient for a new task through extension of its previous usage. A sign may be well-adapted in this way to a narrow purpose.

But defeasibility contexts also constrict the extension of a sign both in use and understanding. Used to one kind of defeasibility context which serves the purposes of the desires which dominate my ego, I am likely not to recognise the meanings which exist in other defeasibility contexts. Defeasibility contexts then become more clearly tools of the ego which enable the exclusion of other desires in the psyche, because those other desires are denied means of expression. I thus become habituated to particular kinds of defeasibility context: for example to representational or expressive, to one language rather than another, to one set of terms rather than another, to one preferred set of metaphors, to the dialect or jargon of one group rather than another. In failing to fully recognise the potential for meaning of the signs used in other defeasibility contexts we reinforce egoism.

In understanding defeasibility contexts in this way we can get over one problem which troubled Wittgenstein: that of the indeterminacy of language-games. Whilst Wittgenstein admitted that language-games were indeterminate, this appears inconsistent with the determinate boundary he places on meaning, which must be found within language-games. Psychologically understood, though, defeasibility contexts are determinate, having clear boundaries projected by the ego: for even though the sense of signs shared in a defeasibility context depends on a variety of uses by different desires, which are also constantly changing, the current extension forms a bound of sense beyond which signs are excluded from comprehension. We can recognise the indeterminacy of defeasibility contexts in general only as an abstract idea which we are inclined to egoistically appropriate, like the reality of frustration or any other idea coming from a universal perspective, and this appropriation leads (as in Wittgenstein’s case) to inconsistent application. The real indeterminacy of defeasibility contexts can be recognised only by extending defeasibility contexts themselves in parallel with the ego.

ii) The fragmentation of meaning


Just as integration of desires begins with an understanding of the frustration of desires, then, an understanding of integration of meaning begins with a recognition of the ways in which meaning is fragmented in the service of frustrated desires. As where the satisfaction of a desire is defined by the ego to the exclusion of other desires in the psyche, leading to the denial of frustration, so is the meaningfulness of the signs used in the process of fulfilling desires defined by their relationship to the success of those desires. Very often the suppressed desires in the remainder of the psyche remain mute, or their “language”, though entering into the sphere of our experience, is not understood.

As already suggested[19], the use of representational signs is not essential to an ego, as we can see a process of frustration at work even in animals. However, the inclusion of expressive language in the sphere of meaning indicates that even animals (or at least, those animals subject to frustration) are subject to the fragmentation of meaning, even if the signs they use, and the contrary desires those signs seem to indicate, are inseparable from their “behaviour” as we observe it. A cat that responds to my presence with a lashing tail is adopting a rather different strategy, reflecting rather different implicit desires with regard to me, than one that springs onto my lap with a purr. The “signs” here are merely part of behaviour developed to gain a particular end, but the same can be said of even the most complex representational language. Insofar as every cat with a lashing tail probably subjugates a purring one (and vice-versa), the cat’s signs can be said to be fragmented. Occasionally this can be directly observed in the form of a cat whose tail is lashing but who is purring at the same time.

This last example raises the issue of how far fragmentation of meaning is attributable to the observer and how far to the object of observation: it might be claimed that it is the human observer who experiences fragmentation of meaning in the cat’s ambiguous behaviour. It is generally assumed by dualism that this question must be resolved (even though the attempted resolution is inconclusive) before we can investigate such a matter further: so we have to distinguish issues of feline behaviour from matters of human psychology. But it is this very assumption that forces a fragmentation of meaning: in order to study feline behaviour “objectively” I have to ignore my own responses to the ambiguity of the object, which then gains two sorts of meaning, “scientific” and “subjective”. The alternative to this fragmentation is to accept our ignorance of the precise division between the cat and myself (without denying that there may be an independent cat) and simply draw conclusions about the ambiguity of the signs of the cat and myself. The apparent fragmentation of meaning in the cat may be attributable only to me, so the best I can do is theorise about the distinction without drawing premature conclusions, arguing that the fragmentation of meaning can be recognised and addressed in both its apparently subjective and its apparently objective forms, but only in relation to one another. The provisional attribution of independent egos to other beings will be justified only insofar as it may aid this process of integration: for example, if it appears that the cat shows an independent ambiguity in its behaviour it may help me to separate these instances from occasions when the ambiguity may be projected (such as when I begin to believe that genuine affection is mixed with its desire for food as it rubs itself against me at feeding time).

In our subjective experience, one of the most obvious manifestations of the fragmentation of meaning has become clearer as a result of the development of psychoanalysis from Freud onwards: namely the symbolism of dreams. The very fact that we find dreams disturbing, ambiguous and difficult to interpret is an indication of the rejection of their meaning on the part of the ego. The attempt to gain control of the meaning of dreams through fixed canons of interpretation is an ancient art, but one that, as Jung realised, vainly attempts to impose rationality on a medium of expression that is already outside a rational framework. As Jung wrote:

It is far wiser in practice not to regard dream-symbols semiotically, i.e. as signs or symptoms of a fixed character, but as true symbols, i.e. as expressions of a content not yet consciously recognised or conceptually formulated. In addition, they must be considered in relation to the dreamer’s immediate state of consciousness. I say this procedure is advisable in practice because in theory relatively fixed symbols do exist whose meaning must on no account be referred to anything known and formulable as a concept. If there were no such relatively fixed symbols it would be impossible to determine the structure of the unconscious, for there would be nothing that could in any way be laid hold of or described.[20]

Jung here recognises that although not rationally reducible, dreams are not wholly to be rejected as meaningless. Rather the process of understanding their meanings is a process of extending the defeasibility context with which we begin. Meaning in this case cannot be defined in terms of a single rational framework, but must extend beyond it, being understood in relation to the desires which the defeasibility context of dream symbology expresses rather than in relation to a coherent set of representations.

But how can we understand the meaning of a desire other than through representations? Only through feeling it. Here then, we encounter the inextricable relationship between the frustration of desire and the fragmentation of meaning, as between the integration of both desire and meaning. We can only understand the meaning of the symbology used by our subjugated psyche in dreams by actually feeling the desires which gave rise to that symbology. If we were to adopt a purely dualistic approach here, we would conclude that integrating the psyche and understanding dream-symbology are equally impossible, but again here we need to question the dualistic certainties and consult our experience of incremental progress in interrelated areas.

The fragmentation of meaning does not only reveal itself in dreams or other instances of unconscious behaviour, but perhaps more importantly in our incapacity to understand the signs of others. This can manifest itself in a spectrum of ways from my blindness to a vital point subtly suggested in conversation by a person I know well, to my complete incomprehension when listening to a conversation in a foreign language. In each of these cases, the extensions of the signs used or understood by myself and by others are different in more subtle or in more obvious ways, and extension of meaning on my part could potentially (though not necessarily) enable me to understand what other people are saying.

Here differences in defeasibility context must be (inexactly) distinguished from differences in language. Often the two are coterminous, but they can also cut across each other (British astrophysicists may understand Russian astrophysicists better than some of their compatriots). Understanding of another language may not require much extension of my defeasibility context at all, because I may use that language to comprehend or communicate with people with a very similar defeasibility context to my own. Understanding people of a different social class, gender, sexuality, character type, profession or academic specialism may be much more challenging in requiring me to extend the range of what I consider meaningful. In some cases the cause of fragmentation here will be largely cognitive, in that I do not understand the terms of a language, the understanding of which would actually enable me to provide a tool for the satisfaction of desires which have hitherto remained unrecognised. In other cases it will be more clearly affective: I will understand the extension of the signs but have no interest in (or even a prejudice against) what is being communicated and will thus not apply my breadth of experience to it.

The fragmentation of meaning is thus the psychological correlate to themes which are often dealt with sociologically, such as conflict and prejudice, but where the grounds of the moral judgements applied are not made clear or are left implicitly dualistic. On this psychological account, prejudice can be understood as due to failure in breadth of experience, where this term covers both cognitive and affective elements of the comprehension of others. The pejorative connotations of the term “prejudice” need to be supported, not by an inconsistent relativism, but by a recognition of the way in which prejudice manifests fragmentation of meaning, which itself perpetuates the lack of integration. In most cases prejudice is not the manifestation of a belief which is opposed to moral objectivity, since beliefs cannot be opposed unless on grounds of shared meaning, but rather on the egoistic restriction of meaning to a particular sphere or defeasibility context. That they simply do not understand the objects of their prejudice accounts for the inability of the prejudiced to realise their prejudice.

Perhaps no institution illustrates the fragmentation of meaning so well as the modern university. Divided not only into faculties, departments, and subjects, but also into schools of thought and specialist areas of research, it is the result of a rigorous pursuit of ever-more detailed knowledge leading to ever-greater specialisation. Whilst on some occasions different specialists remain within a similar defeasibility context, pursuing research which is based merely on differing premises, on many other occasions specialism has advanced so far that the specialists lose sight of the meaningfulness of other types of pursuit. Their cognitive advances in making increasingly accurate theorisations in narrowly-defined fields of representational meaning thus barely extend meaning at all due to neglect of its affective aspects. Philosophy, a subject uniquely placed to maintain a single broad defeasibility context and to counteract this tendency, is instead itself often divided into warring schools separated not merely by mutually-accepted differing premises, but by the prejudicial rejection of other approaches.

Dualist theory in general can be associated with the fragmentation of meaning as we encounter it in “dry” or “thin” terminology. In eternalism this is associated with the language of absolutes: the moral instruction which has no effect on the audience because it relates only to a narrowly rational sphere of meaning used by the ego (in a bored or frustrated audience, not even this). It is scientism, however, which has perhaps done most to promote it, firstly through its promotion of over-specialisation (as instrumental to knowledge as a thing of value in itself), and secondly through the myth of neutrality with its attempt to purge language of all subjectivity, embodied most fully in bureaucratic formalism. Such fragmentation of meaning is clearly a component of alienation as I have already described it[21].


iii) The integration of meaning


As with the integration of desire, the integration of meaning may seem at first to be an impossibly large and open-ended ideal. Once it is recognised that it involves not only the task usually allocated to psychotherapy (i.e. of bringing our disintegrated psyches to a “healthy” level), and not only the spheres of concern conventionally thought to be “private”, but the whole sphere of our experience, including our whole attitude to others, such integration may begin to seem like the alienated absolute of eternalism, beyond our reach. But the requirement is incremental and does not imply the alienated attempt to understand everybody and everything. As with the integration of desire, it is important to see the integration of meaning as happening to particular beings situated in time and space.

As a situated being, my experiences of encounters with meanings beyond my defeasibility context are limited, and my mental capacity to extend meanings is also limited. My extension of meaning will thus be prioritised to be of maximum relevance to my experience, and to make the most effective use of my mental energies and capacities. If I am a highly rationalistic scientist with a teenaged son who is deeply inspired by myth as he encounters it in fantasy novels and role-playing games, I will probably achieve little by way of the integration of meaning if I continue to reject my son’s interests as a waste of time, but learn Russian so as to be able to communicate easily with Russian scientists a few times a year. A large area of meaning which I prejudicially reject will remain outside my defeasibility context, with that rejection frequently reinforced by daily encounters, whilst learning Russian may not challenge my defeasibility context much at all.

This example can also be used to illustrate the relationship between apparently “private” encounters with areas of meaning and encounters with others whose defeasibility context includes those areas of meaning. As a rationalistic scientist, I could extend my defeasibility context through a “private” encounter with myth (although this would probably involve indirect communication, such as the use of books), or by attempting to understand and share the source of my son’s inspiration through communication with him. As long as I didn’t actually try to conceal the “private” encounter, the results of either approach would probably be similar, as in either case a shared defeasibility context would develop based on the expressive meaningfulness of mythic language. This might well be the case even if my beliefs about myth remained quite different from those of my son, so long as these beliefs were not merely rationalisations for a failure to extend meaning.

Such integration of meaning often appears critical to our personal relationships, where neglect of the affective aspects of meaning often seems to result in an inability to listen. The integration of the meanings of another into ones defeasibility context again does not necessarily imply agreement with their beliefs, but does create a harmony between the tools being used to fulfil our distinct desires. As in the example of the integration of dream-symbology in the previous subsection, such integration of meaning cannot occur without a simultaneous parallel integration of desires. If I succeed in extending meaning sufficiently to participate in the defeasibility context of the other person, whether representational or expressive, I am adopting their desires to the same extent.

It is as though, encountering a man chopping wood with an axe and having no comprehension of why he should want to do such a thing, I accept his invitation to pick up the axe and try it for myself. In using the same tool I feel the flexing of the same muscles and experience all the same bodily sensations. If I persisted over a period of time, I would even develop the same musculature, skills and strength of the wood-chopper, provided it lay within my capacity. At first, then, my degree of participation in what it means to chop wood like that man would be weak, because my previous conditioning would dispose me to reject the value of an activity in which I was not skilled: but as I continued, I would enter more and more into the meaning and also into the desires associated with that activity. Not only would I probably feel similarly with the man as to what was enjoyable or irksome about it, but a detailed discussion as to the relative merits of different chopping strategies with different types of wood, previously of no interest to me or perhaps even incomprehensible, would become of great interest.

In this example, as in others possible ones, there are obvious limitations to the extent to which meaning is extended as I share in that activity. Furthermore, since I need to condition myself into comprehending it, it will take time, which I may not have available. There are mental, physical and economic limitations as to how far I could extend and integrate meaning through this method. A person whose meaning is relatively integrated, then, is not necessarily a polymath who can speak many languages and become expert in many disciplines. Her circumstances may lead her to work in quite a concentrated way in one specialisation, which may provide the most effective way of applying her energies. Nevertheless, she will be open to the meanings of all the main defeasibility contexts encountered in her experience: whether these be (for example) in dreams, art, the stories of children, the alternative specialisms of colleagues, or the talk of people from other social contexts. Even in her specialised work this integration is reflected in her attitudes to its interaction with others beyond this specialisation: for example, if she works in a specialised area of technology she might also be interested in the interaction between her technological devices and the people who use them.

The relative integration of meaning will also affect the way in which she applies herself to all these encounters. They will be meaningful: rich with significance which arises from the correlative integration of desires and thence the unification of energies channelled into each way of interpreting experience through signs. She will have the artist’s or the poet’s sense of the significance of her experiences, in which every event is rich with symbolic resonance, reflecting its relationship with alternative modes of apprehending it within the psyche, as well as an appreciation of its causal significance in the rationally-ordered world of the ego. Ambiguities are not removed so much as accepted and encompassed. Such meaningfulness deepens awareness and enables her to operate in much greater fulfilment of her potential as a human being than would be the case in a more constricted experience.



[17] This strategy of analysing experience atomically in order to counteract egoism is also found in traditional Buddhism in the form of the Abhidhamma. Such a recourse is effective only so long as the atomisation remains provisional and does not itself become the object of egoistic identification and an associated metaphysics, as seems to have happened in the development of the Abhidhamma in early Buddhism.

[19] See 5.b.i

[20] Jung (1966) p.339

[21] See 3.b.iv