Our modern moral metaphysic: My basic set of questions

In the past weeks, I have been investigating the main assumptions that underlie our modern moral metaphysic. So far, I have examined arguments 4 and 3 (in that order).

1.) Because the world is lost and fallen, it needs to be changed or ultimately saved.

2.) Because the world is broken or out-of-order, it needs to be fixed or restored.

3.) Constituted by problems, the world requires solutions.

4.) In virtue of our being inherently weak and prone to suffering, we human beings yearn to be helped.

5.) Because the human mind, like the human body, tends to be sickly and ill, it seeks healing or cures.

In my investigations of these interlocking arguments, my theses are (i) that this metaphysic is quite pervasive (that is, many people believe these things whether they know it or not), (ii) that a certain ‘style’ of ethics is born out of a certain ‘style’ of metaphysics (if human beings are like this and the world is like that, then this is how we best treat each other), and (iii) that the picture is ‘decadent’–in Nietzsche’s term of art–as well as false.

Before I begin investigating the other three arguments, I believe it is time to articulate what my most basic questions are.

1. Nietzschean. How is the modern picture tantamount to life-and-world-denying? How is it degrading of persons? How is it a sign of cultural weakness? Nietzsche calls all cultures that cannot begin in affirmation decadent.  This Nietzschean question will lead onto the Daoist question.

2. Wittgensteinian; or, Ordinary Language. First, some ways of thinking are based on category mistakes. ‘Where is my mind?’ is one such. Second, some of our concepts we are better off without since they pick out nothing actual in the world: ‘mental illness’ and ‘stress’ are concepts without actuality. Consequently, we will need to learn to stop using them and to stop thinking with them. Third, there are concepts that have ‘grown beyond’ their proper linguistic setting. The point is to bring them back home. After we no longer believe that the world is full of problems in need of creative solutions, then what are the proper uses to which (e.g.) the concept problem can be put? Where is a concept’s ‘linguistic home’?

3. Daoist. How is it possible to affirm the world when it is understood in a three-fold sense as non-being (infinity), being (totality), and beings (finitude)? That is to say, how will it be possible to affirm the world first as good as well as beautiful in respects A, B, and C but also thoroughgoingly? And how, therefore, to put oneself in tune with this properly intuited good and beautiful world? 

4. Neoplatonic or Aristotelian. Somewhere or other, I will have to find a place for the concrete particulars that we call bad. Here, I will need to give an account of how bad things emerge in their particularity, in their particular instantiation. One path to take would be that of deprivation. Neoplatonists hold that bad (or evil) is lack: it is not or, more accurately, bad: not. Bad is a withdrawal from the good. The other path is Aristotle’s. I incline Aristotelian: that whatever goes beyond the bounds of ‘proper measure’ or ‘proper force’ or ‘appropriateness’ ends up manifesting itself as e.g., greed, poverty, sorrow, ecstasy, lethargy, crime, etc.

‘Full of problems, the world requires solutions’

My thesis is that there is a reigning conception of the world that is held, consciously or not, by ecologists, political activists, designers, entrepreneurs, academics, NGO workers, as well as by those in the caring professions. And it is made explicit in the following set of assumptions, conceptions, and conclusions:

1.) Because the world is lost and fallen, it needs to be changed or ultimately saved.

2.) Because the world is broken or out-of-order, it needs to be fixed or restored.

3.) Constituted by problems, the world requires solutions.

4.) In virtue of our being inherently weak and prone to suffering, we human beings yearn to be helped.

5.) Because the human mind, like the human body, tends to be sickly and ill, it seeks healing or cures.

My interest lies in investigating all of these in turn, following them to their conclusions as a propaedeutic–that is, a preliminary exercise–to coming to radiance. For all of these assumptions foreclose the possibility that the world qua world is good, affirmable, beautiful. The sense of wonder experienced in the presence of the affirmed world, in the emphatic sense that ‘life is good,’ is utterly foreclosed. Wonderment, fascination, awe, appreciation, gratitude, praise: these experiences will be at most fleeting instants scarcely noticeable by modern human beings who hold fast to the deep-seeded assumption that the world is bad.


I have already begun tracing out a line of thought leading from number 4 to the conclusions that there are victims, there are witnesses to the pain experienced by these victims, and there is, in the final analysis, a sense of utter agentlessness and utter helplessness. Hence, the phenomenon experienced as ‘a welling up of feeling bad for the being who is trapped beyond help, rescue, or relief.’ That phenomenon is sometimes called ’empathy,’ but it could just as well go by other names. My concern is with this common phenomenon, not sensu stricto with what it is called.

I gather that it is not surprising, then, that I should select number 3 as the next subject of investigation. For the world being a ‘problem to solve’ seems to be the contrary of the world’s consisting of victims and witnesses. From one vantage point, we make the error of ‘actively listening’: sharing, listening, consoling, feeling bad or feeling sorry for. From the other vantage point, we make the error of believing that we can do away with something on behalf of another for good (e.g., a problem with his boss at work).

In the case of problem solving, something can be done; in the case of being empathetic, nothing can be done. Yet in both, something is demanded to be done. I wonder: what is going on?


To get started on this inquiry into the world as a problem to be solved, it is enough to pose the question: ‘What assumptions underlie the claims that the world consists of problems and demands or requires solutions?’ In asking this question, I have yet to inquire into the meaning of the claims above; that question shall be answered in the following post. The assumptions first:

1.) The world as it is experienced or as such is bad. (In the sense that it cannot be affirmed in experience or as it is.)

2.) The world is not as it ought to be. (Cf. Kant on is/ought)

3.) Something has to be (needs to be, must be, ought to be, demands to be, etc.) done about the world’s being bad.

4.) But then the world as it is experienced primordially consists of actions (human, institutional, etc.) and inactions.

5.) Good actions solve problems; bad actions or no actions leave them unsolved.

Primordially, therefore, we stand in the world as beings who negate it. In light of this, we are tasked with the onus of doing something about this. We first negate it, then ‘remake’ it. Soon enough, we shall find that ‘solving the world’s problems’ implies a particular kind of negating–that is, doing away with–what is bad and this doing away is a doing away with for all time. All that is an odd thing to say and believe. Odder still to live this way.

Bewilderment and the art of inquiry

For the foreseeable future, the focus of my philosophical practice and my work with organizations will be on the art of inquiry. One aim of the art of inquiry is to lead the inquirer into a state of mental confusion (aporia) or bewilderment. The bewilderment implies that the inquirer can no longer say for sure what is true, right, useful, or necessary to do. The pain is the pain of not-knowing.

Before, the organization was sure (or sure enough) where things were headed, what was to be done, what was worthy of thinking, what vision it subscribed to. At this stage, one hears from individuals at organizations:

  • This is how we do things, have done things here.
  • We have adopted this set of procedures, subscribe to this approach, apply this method, follow this script.
  • There is no question but that we ‘must’, ‘have to,’ ‘need to’ follow through with this.

Questions tend to be ‘technical’ in genre: how to do something or other, how to bring about a particular effect, what steps are to be taken if the desired outcome is to be reached.

A good inquiry may call into question any or all of the following: whether this is the right or best way of doing things; whether there are irresolvable problems built into the very structure of the organizations, problems that will compel the organization to collapse in time; whether the highest aim is actually worth aiming at; whether this theory or approach is open to devastating anomalies, exceptions, and counterexamples; whether the vision makes sense and can be affirmed; whether the words ‘must’ and ‘have to’ are covering up important questions of a broader nature; whether–and this in the most general sense–many of these statements are actually unformulated  philosophical questions.

After a good guided inquiry, one notices that fellow inquirers are confused and bewildered, recognizing that what they thought they knew is not actually the case but not knowing what really is the case. This state of confusion ‘purifies’ things and opens the inquirers up to the possibility of asking a novel question: “After the most important things have been shown not to be the most important and have thus fallen away, what now?” Now, we inquire in earnest, in search of greater clarity.