February 18

Thinking about Morality

I read Robert Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; Lila) for mainly heuristic purposes: he makes me think.  While I thoroughly enjoy his analyses of various subjects, I stop short when it comes to his attempts to come up with his own philosophical solution to life’s problems and enigmas. 

Gleaning from his arguments in Lila, I have been thinking about morality: its facets and bases.  His construct is something he calls “The Metaphysics of Quality,” a concept that I find less than compelling or adequate.  (It borrows heavily from Plato’s notions of the “Good” and “Forms.”)  My own belief is that the Christian scriptures are both sufficient and necessary for a comprehensible, comprehensive, and practical governance of life.


What is morality?  Robert Pirsig sees it as multifaceted, consisting of four unrelated types.  The first and most basic is Inorganic Morality, which is largely made up of what we call the “laws of nature.”  The patterns of inorganic nature – weather, plate tectonics, gravity, physics in general – make up this category.

A second and higher form is Biological Morality, which Pirsig likens to the “law of the jungle.”  This includes the survival of the fittest, reproduction of both fauna and flora, and life and death.

Third is Social Morality.  This involves the norms determined by each society, the laws that maintain a semblance of order and productivity necessary for the functioning of the culture.

Fourth, there is Intellectual Morality.  This involves what “should be” rather than just what is or what works.  Its basis may be in the philosophical conclusions of intellectuals or the sacred writings of various cultures.  Intellectual Morality, ideally, trumps all other forms of morality.

Pirsig, who is spiritual but not Christian, states that Intellectual Morality “still struggles in its attempts to control society.”  I would argue to the contrary that Intellectual Morality has governed various societies in the past but is now being abandoned for a lesser morality (in terms of universal application and what is true to human existence).  The lesser forms may be philosophical (i.e., an inadequate Intellectual Morality), based on esoteric or fantasized belief, or societal morality.  The latter is especially true in the United States where the sole contribution to the sphere of philosophy – Pragmatism – guides and directs us far too frequently.

Applying his own version of Intellectual Morality – for which he uses the synonymous phrase “evolutionary morality” – to the issue of capital punishment, Pirsig writes:

[I]f an established social structure is not seriously threatened by a criminal, then an evolutionary morality would argue that there is no moral justification for killing him.

What makes killing him immoral is that a criminal is not just a biological organism.  He is not even just a defective unit of society.  Whenever you kill a human being you are killing a source of thought too.  A human being is a collection of ideas, and these ideas take moral precedence over a society.  Ideas are patterns of value.  They are at a higher level of evolution than social patterns of value.  Just as it is more moral for a doctor to kill a germ than a patient, so it is more moral for an idea to kill a society than it is for a society to kill an idea.

What Pirsig does not explain is just how “serious” a threat would have to be to warrant killing the criminal.  How is that determined?  More critically, who decides what constitutes sufficient warrant?  Lacking an absolute standard or explanation of morality and values, Intellectually Morality becomes a potentially dangerous weapon in the hands of those who possess sufficient power.

It is at this point that the value of God’s revelation of his moral will – given in the Bible – becomes supra-moral or supra-valuable: Scripture is the Ultimate Metaphysic, resting as it does on the character and nature of God.  An unassailable, external determination and foundation for moral decision making is required if Intellectual Morality is to be anything other than a standard that changes according to the ebb and flow of the intellectual elite – i.e., those who are either in power (as with Plato’s philosopher kings) or have the ears and imaginations of those who wield power (as with Hitler’s utilization of Nietzsche for his pogroms).

In the case of what warrants capital punishment, the Christian Scriptures are essentially clear.  The principles of the Old Testament as expanded and tempered by the teachings of the New Testament provide sufficient and necessary standards that can be followed and applied to the issue of capital punishment as well as all others.  And the same standard that governs capital punishment also provides instruction on related matters such as abortion: if the individual presents an actual (not merely potential) threat to the biological life of another, then capital punishment is warranted.

If Christianity is going to be once again considered as a viable basis for morality and ethics, however, it will first need to be made intellectually acceptable to those who are not believers.  The intrinsic superiority of a Christian Intellectual Morality will have to be argued and demonstrated on various fronts.  Preceding that, though, is the necessary elimination or significant reduction of the present campaigns, crusades, and foci that tend to make Christianity appear irrelevant, archaic, punitive, and distasteful.  I think the former will be far easier to accomplish than the latter.

But that is another post for another time.

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