Key Theses

Truths to hang onto in a post-truth world.

(1) There is such a thing as right and wrong.

This sounds obvious — like something we’d all want to be true.

Yet when it comes down to the details of messy real-world situations, we see that we often can’t agree on right vs wrong.

Indeed, I’d argue most issues in our society start out as subtle disagreements over right and wrong, which then balloon into massive problems. We get the initial angle off by just 1 degree — but then we go 1000 miles and end up in Asia instead of Europe.

Because we disagree on the value of life, we get into nation-wide conflicts over abortion. Because we disagree on matters of individual freedom, we fail to take collective action to prevent climate change, pandemics, etc. Because we disagree on the definition of “equal opportunity,” we can’t agree on what to do about poverty, homelessness, minimum wage, etc. Because we disagree on the meaning of free speech, we can’t figure out what to do about fake news.

Indeed, the biggest road-blocks to solving many of our problems, is agreeing (1) that they’re even problems, and (2) that we should solve them.

“Maybe climate change isn’t the type of problem we’re supposed to solve,” one might say. “If it’s going to require individual sacrifice, or reduce corporate profits, maybe it’s not the place of government to take away this freedom. Maybe this is just another chapter of evolution on Earth, where the fit will survive and the weak won’t.”

This Darwinian morality may have descriptive truth, but it lacks any normative direction. It abstains from commenting on right vs. wrong.

Which brings us to:

(2) There is such a thing as helpful vs. harmful speech.

If we accept (1) above, and sign on for the quest for moral truth, then we can begin to distinguish helpful discourse (that which helps us clarify right from wrong), from harmful discourse (that which obfuscates this difference, blurs the line, or denies there’s a difference at all).

More generally, helpful discourse:

  1. Illuminates the general principle of right and wrong,
  2. Aids us in perceiving the specific situation we’re in,
  3. and translates between the two (i.e. helps us apply our general ethical principles to a specific situation).

On the other hand, harmful discourse:

  1. Obfuscates the general principle of right and wrong,
  2. Prevents us from perceiving the specific situation we’re in, or
  3. Interferes with the translation between the two.

Helpful discourse brings us closer to taking right action; harmful discourse brings us further.

Post-Truth

We talk about being in a post-truth world. I agree, but think the problem is much deeper than people think. Because we’ve not only abandoned factual truth — we’ve also abandoned moral truth.

Indeed, these happened through the same process, namely, attacking our epistemology: the process by which we establish what’s true. Once that happens, we lose our compass both for establishing facts both in the physical world and in the ethical world.

When you give up on morals, you become convinced that the truth doesn’t matter. You give up on speaking the truth, and you stop refining your apparatus for even determining truth.

In short, when we lose moral truth, we lose factual truth — and if we want to restore facts, we first need to restore morality.

There’s something circular here. If you have morality, then your morals will tell you that morality matters. But if you have no morality, you will believe morality doesn’t matter. Does morality only exist, and matter, if you believe it does? Is morality self-constructed? Whichever side one wishes to take, there is no escaping the fact that these are both moral positions, and to make either statement (i.e. that morality exists and matters, or that morality does not exist or matter) is to make a moral statement. [3]

So, at the risk of committing naïve realism, I want to point to the possibility that there is a moral reality. Which, if true, means there’s also a reality as to whether a given conversation is getting us closer to or further from that truth.

I’ve been blessed with moral uncertainty.

It is perhaps a blessing that I’ve been deeply concerned about finding a moral path to take. While this has led to intense difficulty making certain decisions, it’s led me to ask a whole series of intense questions that are beginning to firm up my resolve as to what I really want in life. For some people, these choices are easy to the point of being automatic. They want simple things (money, free time, etc.), and it’s just a process of figuring out how to best achieve them. For me, the choices have been hard. I don’t really know what I want, and the things I want conflict. I don’t know what’s right in this world.

But having these difficulties has forced me to look deeper. Both reflecting deeper into myself, but also searching for fundamental truth. Searching for clear answers to my ethical questions — a philosophy to live by. This has led me to a set of questions and pursuits, spanning religion, philosophy, the humanities and social sciences — that not only relieve the suffering of confusion — but have in fact been a joy and pleasure to investigate.

:)

[1] Of course, there are more steps. Even with a general definition of right choice, it will take work to translate that definition into specific contexts. So there are many aspects of helpful discourse, ranging from sense-making (accurately perceiving a situation and what it means) to choice-making (deducing right action in-context).

[2] Similarly, this is not the only way for discourse to be harmful. Harmful discourse can:

  1. Obfuscate the general principle of right and wrong
  2. Prevent us from perceiving the specific situation we’re in
  3. Interfere with the translation between the two (i.e. the process of applying general ethical principles to a specific situation).

[3] Taking this all the way, we might land with something like the Buddhist Catuṣkoṭi (i.e., the “indivisible quaternity”):

(1)

  • Morality is real
  • Morality is not real
  • Morality is both real and non-real
  • Morality is neither real nor non-real

(2)

  • Morality matters.
  • Morality does not matter.
  • Morality both matters and does not matter.
  • Morality neither matters nor does not matter.

(3)

  • Morality does not matter.
  • Morality does not not matter.
  • Morality does not both matter and not matter.
  • Morality does not neither matter nor not matter.

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