Appearance, Reality, and the Good



Appearance, Reality, and the Good


Once we have adopted the simile of the sun, epistemological questions about the good become pressing.[1] If the good is like the sun, is it known in the same way, or to the same extent, as the sun? The sun is both well known and not well known: we see and feel it (but don’t hear or smell it) every day and feel ourselves to be on intimate terms with it, but it presents a false appearance and has a hidden nature. It is that big bright disc in the sky with a characteristic diurnal trajectory, but it is much further away than we imagine, is a sphere not a disc, doesn’t move (the earth moves), is much larger than it looks, and has all sorts of properties not visible to the naked eye. Thus we make errors about the sun and are ignorant of much of its nature (or were till science advanced to the point it is at today—and there is still a lot we don’t know). The appearance of the sun does not exhaust its reality and is in many ways misleading. But we know enough about it to negotiate it quite well and benefit from its presence: we have practical knowledge of the sun that serves our purposes (like many animals). Is our knowledge of the good the same—a complicated mixture of knowledge, error, and ignorance? Now that we have adopted a reistic[2] view of the good, regarding it as a Thing of nature, what should we expect its epistemology to look like, and does it look that way? It is characteristic of natural existing things—matter, space, time, and consciousness—to exhibit this kind of epistemological profile, so does goodness exhibit it too? Is it partly known, sometimes falsely perceived, and largely an area of ignorance? Is reism about the good matched by its actual epistemology?

            I think it would be agreed that the good is partly known: it is not a complete mystery, not like dark matter. We have two kinds of knowledge of it: which things belong to it (participate in or possess it) and what it is in itself—just as we know which things are illuminated by the sun and what the sun is in itself (hot and a source of light). Thus we know that certain traits of humans are good (we call these the virtues), that certain acts are good (they are called right), and that certain states of mind are good (we call these desirable). We also know that the good is connected to things we call obligations or duties, and that we ought to pursue the good; it has an internal connection to action (as well as emotion and desire). We are also cognizant of the fact that good contrasts with evil (as falsity contrasts with truth). So we have a decent working knowledge of the distribution of the good and of its more obvious internal properties (especially as they relate to normativity). This resembles our commonsense knowledge of the sun: just as the sun presents itself in a certain way to our senses and intellect, so does the good—which, remember, is a Thing of nature (a res) not a human construct. And just like the sun we can make mistakes about it, both practical and theoretical: we can be wrong about which things are good and wrong about the intrinsic nature of the good. The good permits of false belief (unlike the conscious mind). We used to think that execution for heresy was good, for example, but now we realize that, sorry, we were wrong about that; and we used to identify the good with various “natural” properties such as evolutionary success or pleasure or obedience to God. The essential nature of the good is by no means apparent to us—just as the essential nature of the sun is not—so it is easy to make mistakes about it. Moore thought the good was indefinable so all attempts to define it were bound to be in error. As to simple ignorance without actual false belief, opinions might differ, but we can surely make sense of the idea that the good has a nature that escapes our cognitive efforts—presently, for the foreseeable future, or permanently. We might not know everything about it: its distribution might be subject to facts that elude us (is it wrong to kill insects?), and its nature might have aspects that defy our methods of knowledge acquisition. It might even be that the most central core facts about the good are not evident to us; the good is an objective natural thing so it might well not present its full nature to our minds. When Moore said it was indefinable did he mean indefinable tout court or indefinable for us? And how strong was the modality in “indefinable”? The good might be indefinable for us as we are now but nevertheless possess an objective essence that another being might grasp, or it might be a natural primitive like the basic constituents of matter. If we insist that the good is a human construct, or a product of the will, we will be closed to this possibility of ignorance; but if we are open to a realist reism about the good, we shall be prepared to countenance all manner of possible areas of ignorance, remediable or otherwise. Plato’s strongly realist view of the Form of the Good certainly envisages deep ignorance about this res—it might be at best glimpsed by the human mind. The sun might be an open book by comparison. In any case, degrees of ignorance will attach to the good construed reistically. We should try to find room for this possibility in our imagination, limited as that faculty is: epistemic humility (itself part of the good) recommends accepting that the good might have a nature that has not been disclosed to us. The universe (Nature) is a big place with some remarkable things in it; the good might be one of these, not reducible to human practices or human constructs. In fact, it seems clear to me that it is thus transcendent, given our limited success in grasping its extension and nature: it has been historically difficult to determine what things are good, and we have not had much success defining what the good itself is (we have done much better with knowledge, say). As Iris Murdoch says: “Good is mysterious because of human frailty, because of the immense distance which is involved. If there were angels they might be able to define the good but we would not understand the definition. We are largely mechanical creatures, the slaves of relentlessly strong selfish forces the nature of which we scarcely comprehend.”[3] Here she is suggesting that our understanding of the good might be limited both by our inherent intellectual capacities and by our innate selfishness: we would need greater virtue to apprehend the good as well as more conceptual firepower. An interesting suggestion, but at any rate the “genuine mysteriousness” of which she speaks seems apt to the case. Of course, this kind of perspective is alien to contemporary moral philosophy, and indeed to all post-Kantian moral philosophy, but it is natural to conceptions closer to Plato’s, in which the good is viewed in a highly reified manner. Suppose he was right that the good is the very foundation of all reality, the ultimate level of being: wouldn’t we then be right to discern enormous ignorance in our conception of it? It is only by reducing the good in the direction of the human, and viewing the human through a limited lens (roughly, classical empiricism), that we can indulge the fantasy that the good is fully open to view—that “nothing is hidden” regarding the good. We really need a radical reimagining of the good, at least as an attempt to enlarge the philosophical possibilities. Here the simile of the sun can help, as a beginning anyway. What is nowadays called “moral realism” is actually rather insipid compared to what Plato had to offer. Even religious morality fails to come to grips with a more radical view of the good (it doesn’t escape the legislative model, which us confiningly human). The good is not just a thing; it is a big thing—capacious, majestic, and oceanic.

            It is hard to find an appealing analogy for the case of the good in another area of philosophy, though space and time have their attractions; the best I can find is the case of necessity. We have a decent working knowledge of necessity: we can make a fair stab at its distribution and we have theories of its nature (truth in all possible worlds, a higher-order primitive property). But it is easy to make mistakes about it (witness positivism) and it strikes us as remarkably elusive. What exactly are we thinking of when we think about necessity? Where is the impression (as Hume would ask)? Is it somehow an aspect of meaning? Is it an objective feature of reality or a mental projection? Maybe it has a nature that exceeds its appearance; maybe we grasp it only glancingly. What would Plato say about necessity—about the Form of the Necessary? What if we boldly reified it and became modal reists, regarding it as a Thing? We might then invent the Simile of the Earth: the Necessary is like the Earth in that it possesses the analogue of a crust and a molten core—a calm exterior but a raging interior. On the surface the Necessary holds objects rigidly, so that they can’t swap properties, but this results from an underlying force that compels objects to obey its commands—“You must be an even number!” Necessity looks static but underneath it might be dynamic (after all it necessitates). Who knows what such similes might suggest to us? Then we would start to think of necessity as a Thing with a hidden reality, not just as a human projection. We might become not just modal realists in the manner of possible worlds realism but realist reists insisting that necessity is a Thing with a deep hidden nature. It has no more to do with language (or even thought) than the good—just like matter, space, and time. The necessary and the good would be mind-independent realities, thing-like, substantial, not exhausted by human conceptions of them—much like the earth and the sun. Can such ideas be ruled out? Isn’t their invisibility in the philosophical landscape a result of a relentless and insidious humanism, a prejudice in favor of the human way of seeing things? Real realists want to know why the necessary and the good shouldn’t be viewed a la Plato, or some modern descendant of Plato—as mind-independent things equipped with a mode of being of their own. Doesn’t this give a better picture of the true epistemological situation?

            Every reality has an appearance (at least potentially), which may or may not correspond to the full extent of the reality. The appearance is a function of an interaction between the reality and the viewpoint of an observer, and is therefore relative to that observer. We should not think of it as the real face of the reality, as if it has that face no matter who looks at it. It is always tempting to collapse the reality into the appearance. This applies also to the case of the good: the good is how the good appears (to us). But we should make a firm distinction between reality and appearance even in the case of the good (perhaps especially in that case). The good far exceeds its appearance to us, unless (per impossibile) we miraculously grasp the full nature of what seems so elusive. We do know a fair bit about the good but we easily make mistakes about it, and in all probability are deeply ignorant of its real nature. Its appearance tells us something, to be sure, though this appearance can be misleading; but its appearance doesn’t reveal its complete reality—just like the sun, in fact.

[1] See my “The Sun and the Good”.

[2] The term does already exist in philosophy: the doctrine called “reism” holds that everything is a thing (an individual, a concrete particular). I am adopting the term not the doctrine: reism about the good is the view that the good is a thing, i.e. an entity with a nature of which predications may be made. It is the view that is generally rejected with the pejorative term “reify”: the good is what is truly reified, according to reism. Plato then is a reifying realist reist about the good. Subsequent Western philosophy is a reaction against this.

[3] The Sovereignty of Good (1970), pp.96-7. I think many readers of Murdoch’s book have not appreciated its metaphysical extravagance (which I do, in both senses of “appreciate”). And remember she was writing in an Oxford context in which ordinary language philosophy (especially in ethics) was not yet dead. Gutsy! She even toys with mysterianism about the good. The book was way beyond what people were thinking then, or even now. 

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