Changing How the World Thinks

An online magazine of big ideas


Living in an Ethical Multiverse

What if morality were founded on imagination rather than rationality?
Chris Bateman
He was using his power to get sex. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

The idea that Britain is a multicultural society is now so deeply embedded in our consciousness that the only time we ever really encounter a challenge to it is when groups that we perceive as racist begin to stir up trouble for ‘immigrants’. Of course, our ancestors were all immigrants at some point – we sometimes forget that the question of immigration is about time more than it is about space; about who got here first and what that might plausibly mean. But beyond this, the ideal of toleration that leads to a multicultural society permits different groups of people to live together, but at a vast cost: it requires us to accept a wilful ignorance about who they are. Britain is a multicultural society only in so much as we are willing to tolerate different beliefs – which is to say, that we are willing to ignore differences except when they deviate from certain ideals we hold above this one. Within multicultural Britain, all cultures are far from equal.

The mythos of ‘multiculturalism’ is something that liberally minded individuals – such as myself – tend to take for granted. In the United States, where my wife is from, liberals can become pathological in their defence of it. But if we take up the floorboards of this idea, as Mary Midgley suggests is a philosopher’s task, we’d have fewer reasons to celebrate our ‘tolerance’, since the unacknowledged baggage of a multicultural society is an arrogant faith in our own correctness. It is only because we have faith in rational truths that everyone is obligated to accept that we graciously allow others to have their own beliefs. Beneath the warm mask of compassion that multiculturalism likes to wear is a vast and condescending gulf. We are proud to share Britain with Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists – as long as they accept the rational restraints we put upon them.

Since at least the time of Kant, and arguably as far back as Aristotle, the foundation of morality has been envisioned as rationality. It was Kant who developed this idea along rigorous lines that led, eventually, to the creation of Human Rights statues at the end of World War II. The terming of these ground-breaking statutes as ‘Universal’ in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights is thoroughly rooted in Kant’s idea that rationality can legislate universal laws of morality – conceptual statutes that are universal precisely because they are rational, and thus binding for all rational beings. Along parallel historical lines, Kant also gave us the split into objectivity and subjectivity – and along with it the division of academic subjects into sciences and arts. Indeed, it is only because of a faith in objective perspective, a debt Western philosophy owes to Plato, that universal law is in any way plausible: if there were not objective standards of right and wrong, how could we possibly legislate anything with a claim to universality?

Yet there are at least two major problems with conceptualising morality as being built upon rationality. Firstly, as ethologist Marc Bekoff has consistently stressed, we find moral behaviour in many other animals that we do not consider ‘rational’. Secondly, when we look at human behaviour it is rather difficult to judge our species rational. If we were rational, would we (or rather, our allies) send robotic drones to assassinate individual terrorists by blowing them up along with countless innocents, thus stirring up greater support for – and greater fury among – our enemies? If we were rational would we deal with the inability for cars to solve the travel problems of cities by trying to build more roads? For that matter, if we were rational would we be so relaxed about driving cars at all when all the information we have marks them as our most murderous technology? (In the United States, cars result in as many deaths as guns – many more, if suicides are excluded). I find myself unable to see humanity as a rational species. We are capable of rational thought, we can conduct mathematics and logic, we can reason from premise to conclusion. But we do not live by these standards – despite our continual insistence that we both do and must.

Recognising that other animals have morality opens the door to another way of thinking. What if rationality were not the foundation of ethics, but merely a way of performing it? What if the ultimate foundation of ethical life was imagination, a capacity we do indeed share with the other moral animals. Those versed in moral philosophy may feel a certain vertiginous queasiness in facing this – or perhaps more likely, a dismissive anger at what will seem like the blasphemy of relativism, which rejects moral truth and shatters ethics into myriad disconnected fragments. Yet the alternative to a single moral truth is not an infinite array of falsehood – this fear grows out of Nietzsche’s relentless digging into the dark corners, epitomised by his remark “there are no facts, only interpretations”. We should not buy into this panic prematurely.

Let me illustrate Nietzsche’s point by suggesting that if the idea of “no facts, only interpretations” were entirely correct, there could be no sciences, only humanities. This also highlights that our current extolling of rationality is like claiming only the sciences acquire knowledge, while the humanities cannot. Both positions are ridiculous. Both the sciences and the humanities are practices that have and create knowledge, and a world of purely scientific knowledge is utterly clueless about history, sports, literature and more besides.

This is a point that expatriate Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has stressed – there can be different forms of rationality, sustained by different practices. Importantly, this does not destroy objectivity. As British aesthetician Peter Lamarque has explicated (building upon Wittgenstein) a practice has its own internal objectivity. Consider the game of chess: the value of the queen is objective within the rules of chess. Anyone who thought a pawn was more valuable than a queen in chess has made an error. In the same way, practices create their own local objectivities – and some such truths may even transcend a single practice and apply in other contexts.

In the early twentieth century, the British philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead suggested that we had muddled our sciences by buying into a strange idea of matter as the foundation of reality. Against this, he suggested that reality wasn’t about finding a smallest element but about the relations between entities – that reality is founded upon experience. For living beings, that experience is necessarily an imagined experience. We tend to think that we know the truth, but we only ever imagine it. A few years earlier on the other side of the Atlantic, the pragmatist William James similarly suggested that the concept of universe as the “all-form” of reality was deeply problematic, and proposed instead an “each-form” of reality – a multiverse, an idea that also emerges independently from British existential novelist Michael Moorcock (from whom the term was eventually borrowed for a certain metaphysical viewpoint in quantum physics). James insisted these two ways of viewing reality – universe or multiverse – made “pragmatically different ethical appeals”.

We do not live in an ethical universe, and we must give up the appeal to universal law that gave Kant his foundation to morality. But we do not have to give up Kant’s project, nor its fruits –such as human rights. Our nations made promises to one another about these rights and these promises are objective because the practice of promising makes them objective, just like the queen in chess is objectively the most powerful piece. When we break these promises – or sit back while our allies do – we have acted immorally. If we imagine otherwise, we have made an error – and the more we think about ethics as a single truth to be applied, the more we will make this error.

This recognition also reveals the problem with multiculturalism – because behind it still lies the master appeal to a universal truth that shall not be violated. We have not made other cultures in Britain equal, we have made them subordinate in a manner that could be compared to the situation of Jews and Christians under Ottoman rule: religious freedom, but as inferior subjects. If we truly value other cultures, we have to learn to make our practices integrate with theirs and not just demand that their practices integrate with ours – and this is not an easy task.

However, this is a challenge that Kant already anticipated. For although at bottom Kant saw morality as founded upon the universal, at its pinnacle Kant envisioned a ‘Realm of Ends’, where the diverse purposes of individuals would co-exist. He admitted this would not be easy, suggesting it was “merely possible” – but yet he still affirmed that it was indeed a possibility. Although, for Kant, the Realm of Ends was an ideal founded on universal reason, it is also an ideal that can help us live in an ethical multiverse, by tasking us to find new ways of living together that honour our diversity, rather than forcing others to conform to our narrow, rational ideals. Living in an ethical multiverse will not be easy – but it will be better than pretending that we do not live in one.



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Ed Gibney on 17/01/2015 12:17pm

That's a lot of rational argument for the fact that we are irrational...

The problem of discovering an objective morality has just received a published answer. Check out "Bridging the Is-Ought Divide" in the 2015 edition of the journal for the Association for the Study of Ethical Behaviour and Evolutionary Biology in Literature:

topaz on 15/01/2015 10:45pm

A culture that allows 10 year old girls to be held down by their mothers and grandmothers while their fathers, without anesthesia, mutilate their vaginas needs to be not only subordinate, but destroyed.

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