Ethics precedes Metaphysics and constitutes Epistemology

The following mediation uses quite a bit of philosophical jargon. It is based on two propositions I have been playing with for a while in my mind, which seek to provide a relation between three major area of philosophy: Ethics (how we act), Metaphysics (what we know about Ultimate Reality), and Epistemology (how we know). I'm not entirely sure what I think about these propositions, or how they relate to my theology as a whole. And the only way to figure it out is to write it out. So, here is attempt #1.

Proposition 1: Ethics precedes Metaphysics and constitutes Epistemology.

Proposition 2: We choose therefore we are, and our choices shape how and what we can know.

What do these propositions mean in regards to Metaphysics (a.k.a. ontology)?

In Christian Metaphysics the act of Divine Love- a moral act- is what fundamentally constitutes the Divine Nature of the Trinity. The Triune Life of God is a continuous willing to give of self for the fulfillment and completion of the Other. This "super-kenosis" within the Eternal Trinity is what is termed "perichoresis": The infinite interpenetration of the Divine Persons within and through each other in an unending "dance" of mutual self-gift.

It is this moral act which constitutes God's Triune essence, and which results in the creative and redemptive acts of the Trinity in the economy of salvation. Thus, the entire structure of being in the universe- the ontology of all creation- is somehow a reflection or a trace of the prior act of Divine Love.

So, not only the structure of existence, but also both the immanent and economic Trinity are the result of an eternal moral action: The moral act of unselfish unconditional unfailing Love.

This is reflected in our own lives: What we practice (morally) we become (ontologically). We can choose ways of living which fundamentally strengthen our identity and essence as human beings, or which fundamentally destroy our human nature.

This is not just a re-hash of "existence precedes essence". For existence (and even experience) can be passive. They can happen to us, without us making a choice of how we will respond. What I am speaking of here is volitional: A moral choice to enhance life or to destroy life, to resist selfishness or to become selfish, to love or to hate.

It is this active, volitional striving which constitutes the Being of God, the structures of existence in our universe, and our own human (or ex-human) nature.

What do these propositions mean in regards to Epistemology?

There can be no true knowledge- and hence no Epistemology- without first a commitment to be a person who is truthful in search of the truth, that is, in search of that which will conform my internal reality of knowledge and experience to the external reality which exists beyond my consciousness.

Whatever else we may say about Epistemology - How we know, what types of data we rely on, how we weigh that data and assess probability, etc. - there must be a prior moral choice to both seek the truth and to be as truthful as possible in that quest. Otherwise knowledge collapses into a hall of mirrors reflecting deception and errors arising from deception. The search for knowledge is rendered null, void, and mute if the moral value of truth is demeaned or denied.

Thus, to employ any of the tools of any form of Epistemology- from Platonist rationalism to Empiricist experimentalism- we must first make the moral choice to be truthful in our use of these tools.

Is ethics then a "first philosophy"?

Given what is written above, one would probably predict that I am trying to advocate for ethics as a kind of "first philosophy", such that, if someone is able to work out their ethical theory, then their metaphysics and epistemology will then flow from it (along with aesthetics, economics, and all other disciplines where moral values shape the kinds of knowledge we claim).

However, this is not what I am claiming. Ethics may precede and in a sense constitute epistemology and metaphysics, but it is not independent apart from them, nor can it speak in its own voice without using the language given to it by epistemology and metaphysics.

Perhaps the meaning of these two propositions is just this: To remember that all of our knowledge claims and knowledge structures are in fact morally charged. We are making a moral choice in adopting any philosophical viewpoint, and we are accountable for that moral choice. Are we choosing that which will enhance human life and increase our potential for beauty, goodness, and truth? Or are we choosing that which diminishes our humanity, and denies potential in ourselves and others?

We must look at our philosophy and theology systemically, and remember that our knowledge claims and knowledge systems do in fact influence us toward full human flourishing, or toward diminishing our humanity.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.