Where Does Morality Come From Anyway? Research Time, 19/01/2018

That’s one hell of a question to start with, and I’m not going to say the few hundred words I write here will be definitive. Too many people in the world and human history speak definitively about morality. So I’m just going to riff.

What am I riffing on? An essay in that collection of Deleuze scholars discussing his influences. This one is about the ideas of David Hume that made it into his thinking.

David Hume once described matter as moving with the necessity of
balls across a table when they're smacked with a cue. Yet he also
said that we could never know if an event was truly necessary, no
matter how often we saw it repeat. And it's just as likely that no
one even started playing snooker in the first place.
The influence of Hume on Deleuze is an interesting little avenue, first of all. Deleuze’s first book was Empiricism and Subjectivity, a small book about Hume’s philosophical ideas. But Deleuze didn’t publish another work that size until his book on Nietzsche, which moved in some very different directions.

Deleuze referred to the eight years between those books as lost, of a sort. He was teaching high school and college down in Lyon. A lifelong Parisian, with all the attitudes that implies, Deleuze was bored as shit down south. In terms of his thinking, he ended up moving in totally different directions after that near-decade of research and reconsideration.

His first source of concepts to build a revolutionized empiricism was Hume, the modern-period philosopher best-identified with the term ‘empiricism.’ But it turned out to be a bit of a dead end. Deleuze’s future would lie in much stranger territory.

That wasn’t to say that Deleuze’s engagement with Hume wouldn’t produce some interesting ideas on its own. One example is a really valuable distinction to defend thorough materialist thinking from charges of moral relativism. It’s a distinction between the ground of a principle and its scope.

Here’s how the charge typically goes.
• • •
Start from the presumption that anything that arises contingently in history – it could have not happened after all – can’t be universal. The universal has to be rooted in the necessary. So if moral principles are universal, they must be necessary.

There need never have been a human species. There need never have
been galaxies, stars, planets, or anything other than distant, isolated
fields and minute fluxes of energy. That's okay. We are actually
all here now.
The ground of that necessity can’t be human thought, because human thought – just like human existence – is contingent. We could have never existed at all, had it not been for quadrillions upon quadrillions of events over billions of years. So humans can’t generate principles whose ground is universal. At most, we can discover them.

So universal moral principles would be like mathematical principles and relationships – necessary aspects of the universe itself.

If you’re going to push materialist, empiricist thinking as far as their principles go, you end up with a moral constructivism. We create moral systems as a function of our social life. Any set of moral principles would be able to avoid self-destructing as long as they could keep a society in some minimal degree of solidarity.

There’s a lot of flexibility in those minimal conditions. Can't exactly stand on any universal ground. Morality’s existence and character becomes entirely contingent. Humans are of such a nature as organisms that their society’s survival has these particular conditions.

There’s nothing necessary about that, so it can’t produce universal morality.
• • •
That whole argument confuses ground and scope. It doesn’t make moral truths any less important than they are already if you take them to emerge from contingent activity.

There need never have been humans or moralities. But can there be
other kinds of creatures that need moralities to live? Meeting
them will be the biggest challenge to what moral principles we
consider the genuine universals.
If there were no organisms that were able to develop moral principles, then there would be no moral truths in that world. Same goes for a world that never developed stars – there would be no truths about stars in a universe not dense enough to develop them.

If the universe never developed moral creatures, there would be no truths about morality. But that contingency doesn’t affect the scope of those principles when they actually exist.

A moral truth – at its most profound level – is a moral principle that’s true for all systems of morality worthy of the name. They’d be the truths that apply – somehow – across all the variations that fall within those minimal conditions of moralities that won’t self-destruct.*

* Eventually. I say self-destruct because their principles literally contain their own potential destruction – vicious contraries, explosively direct contradictions.

Moral principles of that sort would have a scope of application that is genuinely universal. For all systems of morality, these conditions and principles apply.

Truths don’t need to be built into the fabric of the universe itself to be universal. They need only apply without exception throughout their scope of application. Bloody difficult enough to figure out what those are.

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