Moral Beauty and Moral Realism

Loose-associating during a terribly busy week…

I have a friend—a self-described atheist—with whom I renew arguments on a regular basis.  We don’t just argue, but we do argue.  He thinks I’m delusional.  I counter that he’s in denial.  (See Romans 1:18.)  He’s very concerned to live a moral life, and believes (as do I) that he does.   He’s does not attempt to suppress or apologize for outrage over moral failings, and he applies his judgments fairly consistently.  He’s a man of the left (he’d vigorously object to that, but it’s true), I’m a conservative (meaning:  a knee-walking, knuckle-dragging troglodyte).  We agree about more than you might think.  But he can’t explain why an apparently open-minded, rational person like me would disagree with him, except to understand me as a misguided medievalist (his terminology, not mine).  Fair to a point—I am sort of a Thomist, interested in a natural law approach to things, after all.

I appeal to worldview, for one—where we start determines whence we can reason—and I suppose I need to walk him through the limits of reason in achieving moral agreement.  (I hear you, Dr. Englehardt.)   I also try to be a good “natural lawyer” and reason with him.  (Forgive me, Dr. Englehardt.)  That gets one only so far, of course.

Something else is going on, though.  I think my friend is an example of what I call a “modern moral realist.”  (He might disagree, but go with it for the sake of argument.)  The modern moral realist, as I understand him, thinks that when we say “x is morally wrong (or right),” we are stating a true fact about the world.  But that is, as it were, an “observed” fact—not a physical property, but one that supervenes on physical states of affairs.  We can differ about how we recognize these moral facts, but we do.  This is preferable to appealing, for example, to moral laws, which tend to entail something religious or like it.

The details vary, but I don’t find the perspective convincing, because to recognize a moral fact requires the existence of some sort of prior moral precept, it seems to me.  (I take this to be entailed in C.S. Lewis’s argument, for example, in The Abolition of Man, or J. Budziesziewski’s concerns about what he calls “the second tablet project.”)

But then there is this:  in preparation for our men’s retreat this weekend, the men of my congregation have been tasked to read and pray through Psalm 119.  A note to that psalm in my ESV Study Bible says, in part, that “[t]he psalm speaks the language of one ravished with moral beauty, to which there is only one fitting response—to try to reproduce this beauty, as much as possible, in one’s daily life.”

“Moral beauty?”  Should we think in terms of an aesthetic of ethics? Although Psalm 119 repeatedly uses words like “precepts” and “rules,” apprehending moral beauty sounds like something not quite the same as reasoning from first precepts.  It’s not exactly “virtue ethics,” and it’s not exactly the same as recognizing the dictates of conscience—deep or otherwise.  It sounds like something that doesn’t exactly fit analytic philosophy.

Maybe these are distinctions without differences.   As I said at the outset, I’m loose-associating today.  But maybe the notion of moral beauty should make me more sympathetic with the modern moral realist.  Then again, it does require that we learn how to see.

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