Comparison, not perfection, is primary

In an earlier post, I discuss Montaigne’s idea that morality is essentially comparative in nature. There is no perfect, only better. Our moral law demands that we be better than we are — not because as it happens we fail to meet the standard, but because “better than we are” is the standard. If we were ever to reach the state which we now imagine to be perfection (though we can hardly pretend that we even imagine it clearly or distinctly; it’s an inherently unclear concept), we would invent new, higher standards for ourselves and set to work pursuing those.

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But doesn’t “higher” mean “closer to the top” — to perfection? Can one moral law be considered “higher” than another in the absence of any transcendent standard of perfection by which to judge them?

Yes, it can — in much the same way that one integer can be judged higher than another without any clear concept of numerical infinity (to which neither integer can really be considered “closer” anyway). Things are judged “higher” in altitude not because they are closer to some hypothetical heaven of heavens, but because they are farther from the ground — so many meters above sea level. Things are judged “older” because they began farther from the present, not closer to the beginning of time. The same goes for morality and everything else. No standard of perfection is really necessary; once you have the concepts of zero and one, everything else falls into place.

(This is Locke’s theory of degrees of perfection, which contradicts Aquinas’s. Locke was right, and Aquinas was wrong. See my discussion of Aquinas’s “fourth way” here.)

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For all scalar attributes — those which admit of degrees — comparison is primary. The idea of good is derived from the idea of better, not vice versa.

When I was a teenager I used to tinker with artificial languages of my own construction — a “secret vice” which I picked up from Tolkien and which was reinforced by my involvement with the Esperanto movement. I remember one such language in which all adjectives were derived from verbs, and most of those verbs were transitive. Thus, there was no word for “tall,” only for “be-taller-than.” The nearest equivalent in this language to the sentence John is tall would be literally translated as “John is noticeably taller than the average man” (not as wordy as it sounds, because this language had monosyllabic prefixes meaning “to a noticeable degree” and “the average”). That language had the right idea, and it’s a pity that Aquinas never spoke it.

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Also relevant is Spinoza’s definition of joy as “a man’s passage from a lesser to a greater perfection” — not the static eudaimonia of Aristotle, but a dynamic betterdaimonia. (I don’t have the Greek to coin a less barbarous term, and anyway no one would have understood it if I had.)

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The Mormons define heaven as “eternal progression” — a paradox, because if you continue progressing forever, it means you can never reach your goal. “Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” It sounds like a definition of futility, not happiness. But maybe that’s the wrong way to look at it. Maybe goal is a completely wrongheaded idea when applied to life itself. What life needs in order to be meaningful is not so much a goal as a direction — and you can have a direction to run in without needing to have a finish line.

That’s not really satisfying, though. The paradox still rankles. A quest with no possible end still seems futile and meaningless by definition. But a quest with as end is equally problematic: once you reach the finish line — then what?

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Comparison, not perfection, is primary

  1. On this scheme – How do you measure morality quantitatively?

    (If you can’t do this, your analogy makes no sense.)

    On what grounds, by what variable, is something morally-better than another?

    (I predict that your answer will be one or another version of utilitarianism: some measure of pleasure-pain.)

  2. If you’re questioning whether morality is really quantitative — whether it really admits of degrees of “more” and “less” — well, yes, it is and it does. That’s just part of everyone’s common sense. You can’t have the idea of morality without also having the idea that some actions are more moral than others and that it would be possible for you to be more or less moral than you currently are. As long as morality exists and admits of degrees, the analogy makes sense.

    I don’t have a neat little theory of metaethics, and I’m suspicious of that whole field of thought. I strongly suspect that morality is something primary, not reducible to anything else or definable in any other terms. You know, the is-ought gap and all that.

    Utilitarianism is an obvious dead-end, nothing more than a clever way of simulating some aspects of morality in a roundabout way while actually excluding morality itself from the picture. Epicycles. Anyone who thinks pleasure and pain are the answer only shows that he doesn’t understand the question.

    • Well, TRADITIONAL morality (based on absolutes, rules, laws, supernatural and divine etc) certainly is quantitative and much of it is indeed common sense/ natural law – but that is precisely what you are denying.

      You need to show that non-traditional morality is indeed quantitative and indeed measurable – but not utilitarian.

      Good luck – but it can’t be done.

      People have been trying to do this for a few centuries and we are now in a situation when secular morality is neither commonsensical nor quantitative, nor even moral.

      Think of the typical PC scandal – some kind of utterly trivial remark (often indeed invented, misheard, misreported, or perhaps a truthful and appropriate remark, not immoral at all) leads to open-ended international vilification, scandal and punishment up to and including jail and the encouragement of vigilante violence.

      There is no correlation between the scale of transgression (or even the valence of it) and the moral evaluation – for example when (in the media and among the intellectual elite) mass murder/ terrorism is excused by vague (or false) allegations of racism.

  3. I’m not denying traditional rules and standards; I’m just saying that they’re not all there is to morality. If a person obeyed every single commandment in the Bible, would that person be morally perfect, incapable of further improvement, incapable of Spinozan joy? Human nature rebels at such an idea.

    The exchange in Matthew 19 illustrates this. A young man asks what to do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus says to keep the commandments. He says he already keeps them all, and then — instead of going away satisfied — he asks, “What lack I yet?” Jesus never said the young man lacked anything; the young man instinctively knew that one always, by definition, lacks something morally — that there is always a higher standard to be discovered or invented. Jesus also recognizes it and makes up a new commandment specially for this man: sell everything, give it to the poor, and follow me.

    If the young man had gone and done as commanded, there’s no doubt in my mind that he would have presented himself again to Jesus and said, “I’ve sold what I have and given to the poor, and I’m following you. What lack I yet?” And Jesus, no doubt, would have come up with some new standard for him to strive to meet.

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