To SJ Thomason: Why Ontology Really Matters.

(A response to her essay: Moral Values and Duties are Universal, Objective, and Grounded in a Benevolent God)

Thomason attempts to argue there is an objective and universal moral law given to us by the Christian god. This is an ontological assertion that must first be clarified before moving to its descriptions or conclusions. She does give a nod to that requirement at the beginning, which I will explore in detail, then moves on to a very long and superficial overview of writers and schools of though of varying degrees of importance, all of which could have been omitted and won’t be detailed here, and closes with  a claim for Aquinas’s Medieval Scholastic notion of Christian Synderesis. I think her argument would have been tighter had she skipped the meandering overviews and moved directly from an ontological inquiry to the conclusion for Synderesis, but would still have failed from its fundamental flaw, which she shares with almost every writer on morality that has come before here: an inauthentic ontological grounding of morality.

Ontology is the question of Being. Arguably the greatest thinker of Being, Martin Heidegger, was asked toward the end of his life why he had never written anything about morality, to which he answered that we don’t yet even know the right questions to ask. As Heidegger showed more forcefully than anyone, it is only with the right questions in mind that we have any hope of penetrating Being. Past writers on morality, with the possible exception of David Hume, have failed in that initial effort and as a result moral philosophy has been a continuous story of failure. Instead of any real inquiry into being, which implies the essence of morality and man within Being, past attempts have skirted the question by either facile metaphysical assertion of a god, or by ontic/technological and thereby superficial classifications and measurements. Religious writers have generally been among the former, while Utilitarians and Consequentialists have been among the latter, and both cases evaded the ontological question, rendering the ontological grounding that some claimed merely illusory. But then, if even Heidegger didn’t know the questions to ask, we could hardly expect them to either. Sadly, they also lacked Heidegger’s scruples about remaining silent before that which cannot be spoken.

As Thomason approaches this essential question, she gives a naïve and incomplete description of ontology:

“Moral ontology refers to whether moral values and duties objectively exist independently of people and are to be discovered by people. Ontology is defined as a branch of metaphysics that covers the nature of being. Moral ontology focuses on whether a standard of good and bad values or right and wrong duties exists.”

Her presuppositions in the above statement are what doom her analysis and conclusions. Before getting to the question of moral ontology, let’s remind ourselves of what ontology is to begin with: Why does anything exist at all? From that yet unanswerable question we move to particular things encountered in the world and question the if and how of their existence. For our purposes here, the question is morality unqualified: does it exist and if so how? The how includes its nature, meaning to us, and how it is grounded in Being itself. Thomason begins with the fallacy of bifurcation by reducing the question to morality as objectively existing or invented by man. She errs again in that last sentence by limiting the possibility of morality to a standard and duties, which she does to detour us onto the path leading to objective laws. Since we are at the beginning of our journey, however, any presumption of objectivity or formality of law is worse than merely premature; it closes off any possibility of finding the right path, i.e. the danger of asking the wrong questions.  

By skipping the necessary thinking of the essense of morality she merely asserts an objective moral law grounded in the god of the bible. This is the sort of metaphysical flight of fancy we were to have overcome by now but persists to this day among supernaturalists. To this metaphysical invention she merges the superficial discoveries of the ontic/scientific theories of social scientists through the notion of Christian Synderesis, which she borrows from Zollo, Pellegrini and Ciappei (2017):

“Despite the different sophistications of the utilitarian approach, a common element of all these theories is that the agent is rational and able to evaluate the situation and its outcome. Definitely, such requisites are not met by talking about intuition, especially the ability to forecast and choose the preferable outcomes. Conversely, universalism imposes that every act is performed according to general and transcendental moral principles (Kant, Foundations of the metaphysics of morals, ed. orig. 1785; 1959)” (Zollo et al., 2017, p. 695).

The authors used an influential Christian moral social doctrine, synderesis, to bridge the gap between the two viewpoints. Synderesis is “an innate human habit that fosters moral judgment and triggers the virtue of practical reason” (Zollo et al., 2017, p. 682). Synderesis is the “correct habit that regulates intuition due to its innate nature and it is present in every individual.” (Zollo, Pellegrini and Ciappei, 2017, p. 690). It is our conscience.

In other words, morality is a synthesis of innate moral principles and cultural interpretation from these principles. At no point, however, was there any real thinking about the if and how of these principles, but merely assumed on the observation that all societies have the same basic moral values but interpreted differently. We could assume from that there would be closer and lesser interpretations of this objective and immovable law among the different cultures, although no such laws were ever really shown to exist. The variability of interpretation among cultures could yet arise as something other than variation from a law – an open question since we never really discovered the if and how of morality, and thus know nothing of its grounding. Instead, Thomason merely reasserts a metaphysical claim for which we have no knowledge. We see this error play out as she concludes:

These findings support the assertion that we have a conscience and a moral compass, which direct us to goodness. It follows that the source of our conscience is a benevolent, transcendent moral lawgiver. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul stated the following in Romans (2:15): “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.”

Her conclusion is a perfect encapsulation of the failure of moral thought through the present as the failure to ask the right questions. So, what might the right questions look like?

What in the essence of man would give rise to morality? This question is critical because we can only judge morality for man from our own nature. If we had the nature of a crocodile our sense of morality would derive from something quite different.

Is man as an evolving being in possession of evolved feelings that in adapting him for survival have the effect of what we feel as morality?

How would that faculty of morality actually work and why would it be susceptible to varying interpretations over time and place? What does the discernable arc of morality over the time from Leviticus and Deuteronomy to apparent greater value of individuality, tolerance and forgiveness reveal to us about the nature of morality and man?

And most fundamental and difficult of all, what in Being grounds this morality? Is there intention in Being toward which we evolve, and if so, what does that imply about genes themselves? Nobody yet has fathomed this genetic mystery as an expression of the essential nature of existence.

It would be so much more interesting to see apologists such as Thomason grapple with these questions first, and if not, then remain silent before what is not yet revealed in Being.

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