Moral Ontology vs. Objective Morality

The following is a response to a Twitter discussion concerning epistemological and ontological issues in the theist claim of an objective moral law. I am responding here to a theist’s criticism of my view of evolving morality which he does by means of a metaphysical argument derived from Aquinas’s metaphysical assertion of actus assendi and a questioning of Heidegger and Kant. You can see his presentation here:

Mr. Claramunt, I think you might be attributing certain positions in Sein und Zeit to me which I don’t hold. If Heidegger had only written Sein und Zeit and Was ist Metaphysic we wouldn’t still be reading him. His important work began with Holzwege, and to resolve the conflicts you claimed I will stay within the later Heidegger. Also, I take major aspects of Heidegger as a starting point for my own thinking, but develop along my own path and it may be necessary at times to distinguish between Heidegger’s thought and mine. I don’t think we need to revisit Kant at this point. I only brought him up to establish the idea of correspondence as a justification of ontic analysis, but it’s the ontological that’s at issue here. As for impenetrable hermeneutics, I think that issue is somewhat exaggerated, but it is important to appreciate that both Kant and Heidegger were stretching existing language or creating new language to bring into view new things for which we had no pre-existing language. I believe Heidegger was far more successful in that endeavor but as a result he can only be understood in German, which I assume you read.

You describe a contradiction between Sein existing only in Dasein’s understanding of Sein and the impossibility of Dasein preceding Sein. That certainly is a contradiction, but not what Heidegger proposed. It seems to me you are conflating Being and World as thought by Heidegger.

Sein precedes Dasein and was always existent. Dasein occurs in Being and as a part of Being as the being that is conscious of being-there. We as Dasein and part of Being are tasked to be the consciousness of Being – Being in self-regard and self-experience. As such our most authentic activity is appreciation of what Being reveals to us as a revelation which itself is grounded in Being.  Being exists, as is its nature, whether we provide its consciousness or not, but the World doesn’t, and it is this worlding of the world that you conflate with Being in your contradiction. The world is an Ereignis, something that cannot be understood in translation in the Heideggerian sense, but combines connotations of authenticity, ownership, and occurrence. Man participates in this occurrence of World as one of four essential elements (das Geviert): Erde, Himmel, die Göttlichen and die Sterblichen.  Dasein is the mortal and limited being whose dwelling is limited to the earth for a while but intimates in Being’s revelations the eternality of the sky and the godhead which form the core of Being and ground of all things. The godhead does not consist of sentient gods but non-sentient striving from its own nature, much like Nietzsche’s Wille. Through us, however, it develops consciousness and speaks through us when we speak poetically. This brings us to your introduction of Aquinas’s actus essendi.

The key to understanding the difference between Being and actus essendi is to keep in mind Heidegger’s insistence on steadfastly not retreating to metaphysics, which is always ungrounded as a product of imagination rather an authentic thinking of Being in the world.  Instead, we are to remain silent before the unknowable/unspeakable rather than jumping to metaphysical assertions. This is difficult for followers of Medieval Scholastic philosophy, which is expressly metaphysical in its approach. Aquinas tried to explain individuation of essence observed in the things of the phenomenal world through the imposition of a metaphysical actor (God) who bestowed physical existence of his possession of perfect essence of things as a separate act for each individuated occurrence. Thus, there is one perfect essence of man, for example, but each man in the world of substance is an individuated instance of this perfect essence. Due to the imperfection of the substantial world, each differs from the other to some degree, but all are effects of the willful act of the metaphysical god and representations of the undifferentiated perfect essence.

You are right that Heidegger refrains from thinking of Being as God, and for the obvious reason that it would be a step backwards into the false clarity of metaphysics. To posit the essence of Being as a metaphysical essence and assign to it characteristics would be to speak where we should remain silent since we would be speaking inauthentically about what we cannot know. Being exists only in this physical realm as a manifold which we perceive piecemeal, authentically (poetically) as things as they are revealed in our encounter, or inauthentically as objects of ontic (metaphysical) understanding. When we experience the thing authentically, we do so absent the metaphysical error of essence/existence. When we inauthentically look at the object in ontic analysis we obliterate essence entirely. Science and technology tether themselves to this ontic analysis while theology separates essence from Being and mislocates it to a metaphysical illusion which ironically leads us inevitably to the technological reduction of modernity.

Heidegger sees pre-Socratic philosophers as the last of authentic thinkers in the West, who rightly understand logos as word experienced in the resonance of poetry. These thinkers were betrayed by later philosophers who subverted poetic thinking by removing the poetry and focusing instead on reason, thereby turning logos into logic. The first fatal step to metaphysics occurred around the time of Socrates which changed the ontological understanding of A is A to A=A, the latter turning A into an object without essence that can be individuated over and over. Instead of this tree in its being and that tree in its own being, we have a metaphysical perfect essence of trees that can be thought of as equal and additive. It is the occurrence of this error in Aquinas for which Heidegger provides the remedy.

The illusion of objective morality is an artifact of this obsolete metaphysics. There is no metaphysical moral perfection. Essence, which is the only ground of truth, is a manifold physical existence in constant alteration. Since only essence can ground truth and essence only exists physically as Being, to know morality requires a new thinking into our own nature as an integral part of Being itself. It is there for us to encounter if we open ourselves to its revelations. Hints are in the holy commune of family gatherings, the kindness we show others, etc. It is common among all humans as we all participate in the same Being. It is a metaphysical error to interpret that commonality as something objective outside our consciousness. The only path forward is to understand it as it appears in the worlding of this world. We only do that poetically through the recovery of the fullest meaning of logos. Meanwhile, Being seems to be having its own way without our notice. Since historicity is an element of World, we can trace a direction in our understanding of morality over the millennia which appears to evolve toward more inclusion, empathy, respect for individuality and freedom. There are setbacks and fitful advances, but over time the trajectory reveals itself.

2 thoughts on “Moral Ontology vs. Objective Morality

  1. This is deep stuff Jeffrey. Very interesting, and it provides fodder for me to read up on more stuff. When dealing with the German philosophers, I just know the Hegelian technique by way of Marx and Engels, and some Nietzsche. I get occasional insights through Existential Comics.

    Liked by 1 person

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