Metaphysics and Moral Value

Thus spake Nietzsche: Courageous enough to admit what morality without metaphysics entails.

One of the fundamental claims of most forms of religion is that Metaphysics-- the Ultimate Reality that grounds and upholds physical reality-- is somehow necessary for moral values to really exist. The claim is often made that without Metaphysics, moral statements become mere statements of personal preference. This is a hard claim for many to understand, so I wrote this to help.

Let me attempt to demonstrate the problem of deriving moral value (ought-ness, or should-ness) from the physical world without any reference to metaphysics. I will start by differentiating between statements of moral value and personal preference:

Moral Value: We OUGHT to do or not to do something BECAUSE it is good or bad in a universal sense.

Personal Preference: We OUGHT to do or not do something BECAUSE I (or we) enjoy it or not.

Most people want to clearly distinguish the two. Most people want FIRM GROUND to say that we ought not to murder or steal, or we ought to have compassion or do justice, AND this is not just preference, but it is universally binding for all sentient beings.

If you do not want to differentiate the two, and you are willing to say that "Morality = Preference", then you have no need for a metaphysical, universal grounding for morality. But beware of the world you create: In your moral world, statements like "We ought not to murder babies for fun" is the same kind of statement as "We ought not to eat Mexican food again tonight". "We ought to have compassion on the needy" becomes the same kind of statement as "we ought to buy blue jeans on July 1st".

The prophetic philosopher Nietzsche was courageous enough to fully embrace this as the "transvaluation of all values". He could see that IF all metaphysics is denied-- if God is dead, and humans only live as "ghosts" haunting this physical universe-- THEN we live in a world where moral values are merely personal preferences, and what is right and wrong is determined by the power wielded by the people who hold opinions. His technical phrase for this is "The Will to Power".

For Nietzsche, right and wrong are determined and defined by whatever person or group has the power to enforce their personal preferences on others. If I want to murder and eat babies-- or oppress gays, or outlaw religion, or make people worship Mexican food, or declare the color green to be evil-- and I have the power to enforce my will over others, then my will IS moral goodness, and whatever opposes my will is moral evil. Unless of course someone is more powerful than me, and can bend ME to their will (or eliminate me). Either way, there is no such thing as a universal moral value. Only preferences enforced by power.

Now, the common retort to this is that moral values are somehow bred into us by biology. We "ought" to do whatever leads to individual survival and social health. And since values such as altruism, love, and compassion tend toward such health-- as well as behaviors such as truth telling, property rights, etc.-- then we ought to do those things. But that raises three kinds of questions that are irresolvable if there is no metaphysical Reality:

1. What about all the predatory species-- from parasites to primates-- who make themselves healthy by constant competition, predation, theft, and biological deception (i.e. the ability of a species to cloak itself)? Species that exhibit the precise OPPOSITE of compassion and honesty seem to also thrive and prosper. On what moral basis do we choose biological adaptations which seem more "altruistic" or "compassionate" over and above biological adaptations which seem more "selfish" or "predatory"? Is it just personal preference or taste that leads us to choose one or the other? Or is there something BEYOND biology and physics that gives us the insight that one is good and the other is bad?

2. If we grant that something like altruism, teamwork, justice, and compassion causes life and health for many types of organisms and species, on what basis do we call this "good"? Why is death, sickness, and suffering "bad"? After all, 100% of organisms suffer and die. So where does the intuition of the "wrongness" or "ought-not-ness" of suffering and death come from? Why should we choose life? Why choose health? After all, sociopaths, masochists and sadists exist: People who enjoy their own pain and suffering, as well as the pain and suffering of others. On what basis is this "bad" or "evil"? To say "because it does not lead to health and life" is insufficient, because it assumes that health and life have real value. Why? Why not value death and pain and suffering more?

We have evolved to the point that we can question our own inbred evolutionary programming. We do not HAVE to follow our instincts. We can "will to power" and choose otherwise. Even if millions of years of biological programming have made us desire to survive and thrive, we can say "NO" to that programming, and transcend our programming. Even if nature programs us toward some type of altruism and compassion, we can say NO to it. So why not say no? Why value life and health? If we are left with nothing but a physical universe, with no universal metaphysical value, then saying "We ought to pursue life and health" is the same kind of statement as saying "we ought to wear long socks" or even "we ought to torture our parents to death".

This is because all "ought" statements imply a goal, an intended result, a "because". The question is, what do we posit as our "because"? Take the following statements: "We ought to value life because___" or "We ought nor to murder babies because___". What do we put in the blank after "because". If we put "because we evolved this way" or "because biology has hard wired us this way", this are clearly insufficient, because we can simply question and dispose of these values. We no longer have to be programmed simply because we have been for the last million years. If we put "because I enjoy life" or "because I would not like to be killed", these are also insufficient. Again, these are statements of personal preference. If someone enjoys hurting themselves, or hurting others, and they have the power to pull it off, then they become "right" and you become "wrong".

Another way of saying this is that you have to assume a "because" in order to get from "is" to "ought". You may observe that it IS the case that certain kinds of behavior lead to survival and health, while other behaviors do not. This does not mean you "ought" to do those behaviors, unless you assume "because I want to survive and be healthy". But, if you assume "because I enjoy pain and suffering" as a masochist would, then the observed "is" would imply "ought not". For instance: "I ought not to do things which bring about survival and health, because I enjoy pain and suffering". It all comes back to the question: Why do you assume that health and survival is a GOOD thing anyway?

3. Let's say that for whatever reason you decide that the life and health bred into you by evolution does have some moral value. You don't know why. You cannot explain why it is more than mere personal preference. But you say "We ought to pursue health and life, both as a species and as individuals". You still are not out of the woods. Because if you merely posit species survival and health as your highest moral value, you can wind up affirming many intuitively immoral, evil acts.

For instance, what survival value is there to keeping the very old, the terminally sick, or the handicapped alive? What about those convicted of acts that endanger species survival? All of these types of people take up resources which could be used for the health and survival of lots of other more viable members of the species. Why not kill them all, quickly and efficiently? In fact, why mourn for the dead at all, and expend any resources to "memorialize" their deaths? All of the resources that go toward funerals for anyone could be better spent increasing the health and survival of the species. If we truly hold up survival and health as the top moral values, we should merely eliminate those who are too old, too sick, or too antisocial, get rid of the bodies as efficiently as possible, and divert the resources to human thriving.

For that matter, why spend time on anything that diverts from survival? Why paint pictures, make sculptures, write novels, perform music, take photos, have Facebook pages? Why be concerned with "beauty" at all, or design, or aesthetics? If species survival is the highest moral value, then all non-instrumental human activities should be avoided. Any kind of interest in the arts-- or most hobbies for that matter-- simply take resources away from pure survival. Why not divert all those lost resources to more efficient survival mechanisms?

To go even further, we know that group cohesion and survival can be increased by focusing the animosity and negative feelings of the group on a "scapegoat", who becomes the focal point for community fears and anxiety. By torturing and killing the scapegoat, the whole group is brought closer, and peace is restored. We can see this behavior in many advanced primates. Since it increases survival, why don't we create a ritual where we regularly select the least desirable members of the species to be scapegoats, and torture and slaughter them, for the purpose of group cohesion?

The answer most often given is "Well all of that is wrong!" But why? All of the behaviors listed above have CLEAR value for species health and survival. Is it just your personal preference they are evil? What is your "because..." that comes after "we ought not to..."?

If there is not metaphysical, universal source of value, it is clear that species survival and health are merely personal preferences at best, and at worst they are a clear invitation to do a whole host of things that most societies across human history would consider reprehensible.

Are all of those societies fundamentally in error, and actually all of the behaviors listed above are morally neutral? Are all religious moral insights fundamentally in error, and at the base of everything is merely a radical personal preference and will to power? Is it all just relativism: What is moral for you is what you like, and what is moral for me is what I like?

If this is the case, again I tell you to be prepared for the kind of world you are inviting: A world where might does make right; A world where justice does come from the barrel of a gun; A world where you cannot complain about injustice or unfairness or evil, simply because you do not have the power to stop what you do not like.

Or is there a fundamental and universal "oughtness" which comes to us from beyond the physical universe, and which has inspired us with this odd, counter-intuitive sense that all life is sacred, all life deserves dignity, and that we "ought" to protect all forms of sentient life and help it flourish, no matter how young or old, small or large, male or female, gay or straight, brown or white, capable or handicapped, sick or healthy, innocent or guilty they are? Such a metaphysical "oughtness" is not explainable by strict evolution, since it promotes values which allocate resources differently than we would for mere survival. And yet, such metaphysical "oughtness" would allow us to say certain things are objectively right and wrong, and not merely personal preference, biological programming, or "will to power".

However, pursuing the justice this "oughtness" often entails means doing things we don't enjoy, which are painful, and that may even lead to shortening our own existence, or the existence of our group. It might mean diving into a raging river to save an elderly, handicapped, ethnic, gay, female, ex-felon from downing. It might mean devoting one's life to helping the sick, poor and needy, when one might have been able to make much more money and have access to better health care and nutrition if they had chosen a more selfish profession. It might mean joining a movement for civil rights with no clear hope of success, and standing against an overwhelmingly powerful, oppressive and unjust system.

So, if there is such a metaphysical value beyond the physical universe, what is the "because" that makes actions right and wrong, and not merely preference? Is it "because God wills it, and God will punish those who disobey, and reward those who obey"? This is certainly the reason offered by many religious believers. But this merely moves the "Will to Power" up the food chain, so to speak, and makes God the ultimate one who chooses what God enjoys, and forces us to obey or suffer. God could have just as easily willed that selfishness and predation is "good" while altruism and compassion is "evil". God is no help if "God" is merely a cosmic-sized Nietzsche.

But there is another religious view of metaphysical value which is at least as old as Divine "Will to Power", and describes how morality functions in many spiritual traditions, from versions of Hinduism and Buddhism, to versions of Christianity and Sufi islam.  For this view, the "because..." which follows the "ought..." is all about participating in what is ultimately Real behind reality: "We OUGHT to pursue altruism, compassion and justice BECAUSE by doing so we participate in the life of the One who altruistically gives existence to all beings at all times in every place." In this view, the metaphysical Reality that grounds physical reality is Ultimately pure Gift, pure Love, pure compassion, who grants all things reality constantly, whether they deserve it or not, and in so doing makes all life sacred and gives every sentient being dignity.

In this view, the Divine does not so much "reward" or "punish" anyone. Rather, by natural consequence certain kinds of acts participate in Divine Life, and so make persons more fully "alive" (even if they physically die in the process), while other acts inherently separate us from Divine Life, and so begin to kill off the potential within persons (even if they physically live longer because of it). So, the Divine does not "command" good and evil through a "Will to Power" which includes rewards and punishments. Neither is the Divine bound by good or evil which is different from, or beyond, the Divine. Rather, the Divine reveals to sentient beings that it is an Ultimate Reality of pure Gift and pure Love. And this Divine "IS" implies the "OUGHT" that if we want to participate in this undying Life, we will do certain things, and become certain kinds of people.

From a broad perspective, all major, enduring world religions have made the discovery of this kind of metaphysical Moral Value, and all these religions have versions which teach this "morality of participation" (even if they also have other versions that teach the "morality" of Divine command, reward, and punishment too). Different world religions characterize the Divine in different ways under different names. Sometimes the Divine is a transcendent personal Being. Other times it is an eternal Principle. Other times it is an immanent Energy. Nevertheless, this many-faceted Divine always transcends merely physical reality as a Metaphysical Value, through which we participate in undying Life, by manifesting altruism, compassion, and justice.

If this insight into metaphysical moral value exists in so many cultures, across so many religions, throughout so much time, then perhaps it is a pointer to a Real Source of Value which has been discovered by many spiritual geniuses across history. Perhaps.


Post Script: For a different view on whether a person has to believe in God to be moral, check out my essay on "God and Adult Morality". I fully believe that an atheist can be a "good" person, perhaps even better than many religious believers. I have in fact seen it happen. It's just that I believe that the atheist has a fundamentally flawed theory of what good is, and in fact has to import "goodness" from metaphysics, often without admitting where they are getting moral value from. So they are good in practice, without knowing good in theory. And in all honesty, I would rather be around someone who does good without knowing it, instead of knowing good without doing it.
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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.