The American Moral Philosophy

Monday, April 6, 2009

Edwarsean revivalism was one way of solving the problem of how to generate and ensure virtue in the new American republic in the 18th century. It was not, however, the only way. The Enlightenment had won too many converts to deism, and there were too many routine ordinary protestants who were reluctant to embrace revivalism. However, there was an alternative, that laid remarkably close to the Scottish common sense philosophy, which we already saw how it influenced America before the Revolution at Princeton under John Witherspoon. It also had done so to a lesser degree at Yale, but it was really Witherspoon who gathered most of the credit for introducing Scottish thinking into America.

Using Scottish Epistemology

It hadn’t really been the purpose of the Scottish philosophy to engineer a republic. The real purpose of Scottish philosophy was to produce a realist epistemology that would reassure people about the reality of the external world, and the reliability of the mind’s perceptions of it. In so doing, rescue the Enlightenment from the death end of skepticism.

On the other hand, epistemology is never far removed from ethics. If you cannot be sure what or how you know something, then certainly you aren’t going to be sure about what you ought to do. And so, in short order, the chief labor of the common sense philosophy became the formation of a workable republican brand of ethics. This was not as easy as it sounds. Newtonian science taught to find in physical nature not the personal interventions of God, but repeatable and dependable laws of nature. What about human nature? Did human nature functioned the same way as physical nature?

The same reasoning that erased intelligence and purpose from physical nature, and reduced it all to laws, could just as easily erase intelligence and purpose from the human soul, and reduce everything we think of as unique to human behavior to some kind of psychological determinism. The effects of this kind of skepticism on science would be bewildering. On ethics, they will be fatal.

This did not necessarily troubled some of the American founders. Alexander Hamilton cheerfully accepted the notion that self-interest rather than virtue was the basic engine of human action. Little wonder that the Federalist Papers described the Constitution as a natural system that could work purely by checks and balances, rather than by virtue. But for many others, the disappearance of virtue was an intellectual disaster. It was the Scottish philosophy which became the second means of restoring virtue to public life.

In American colleges before the Civil War, just about every major collegiate intellectual was an enthusiastic disciple of Scottish common sense realism. Thomas Clap, Nathaniel William Taylor, Noah Porter; all preached to the undergraduates at Yale college.

These ethicists or moral philosophers were not content merely with using the Scottish philosophy to establish a certain epistemology, they wanted that epistemology to pay them the added dividend of articulating a public ethic that would serve as the foundation for public virtue and moral order in this new secular republic. They proposed to do this in three steps.

The Three Steps to Establish A New Moral Code

First of all, they proposed to establish a realist epistemology. An epistemology that would guarantee that human life was not passive, nor mistaken in its apprehension of a real external world. There was a real world exterior to the mind, filled with real objects, and the mind had real connections, real direct apprehensions of this world.

The second step was to erect, on that epistemological foundation, the proposition that purpose and intelligence in the universe also had to be real. If all the objects out there are real, and we have direct apprehensions of them, then we have to include perceptions of intelligence and purpose as real, because our perceptions of intelligence and purpose are the undeniable default position of human consciousness.

We look outside ourselves and see objects, the objects are really there and we have direct apprehensions of them. But we also look out at the external world and we see cause and effect. We don’t see cause and effect in the same way we might see a chair or a table, but nevertheless it is the default position of human consciousness, therefore cause and effect should be understood to be as real as those chairs. And not only we see cause and effect, when we see cause and effect, we also have to see a causer, and that means we have to see intelligence and purpose. When we see those things in such an elemental fashion, then we ought to understand that intelligence and purpose in the universe are qualities fully as real as all the other qualities that your mind perceives in things or objects exterior to yourself.

The third step comes when you invite the student to shift attention from physical nature to human nature. Ask whether the same intelligence and purpose cannot also be perceived in human nature as well as physical nature. Then you calculate form the nature of that intelligence and purpose what the contents of a real moral code ought to be. You do it not as though this moral code was based on religious doctrine or the product of religious teachings, but as an induction from the observed facts of human nature, fully as scientific in its method as Newtonian physics.

On that basis, such a code of ethics could be embraced by all the citizens of the republic: Christians, deists or otherwise; because it was simply a scientific realization of the moral facts hard-wired into human nature. Moral philosophy, will thus become what Yale’s Noah Porter called the science of duty. Was there a science of physics? Sure, because we have direct apprehensions of physical operations in the universe. Was there a science of duty? Sure, because we have direct apprehensions in human nature of intelligence and purpose.

The Moral Science

Fitting ethics and morality into the same clothes of science required that the moral philosophers produced a hermeneutical or interpretative principle, which would allow them to transfer the patterns of intelligence and purpose that they saw in physical nature to the human soul. That principle was the principle of analogy. Analogy worked like this: by the epistemological rules of the common sense realist philosophy, everybody experiences inescapable intuitions about the existence of facts. Facts are there. You cannot avoid coming to conclusions about facts. Facts are all around you. You have direct apprehensions of them. You can’t hide under the desk to get away from the reality that is all around you. The existence of facts is inescapable.

One of the most basic of those facts is that change operates in a law-like fashion. Certain things exist and certain changes are taking place in them, and this we know because we cannot avoid knowing them. But when we know it we also know that these changes don’t take place at random. Not only it is inescapable that you have intuitions about facts external to yourself, but you also know that those facts change and that the change follows a law-like pattern.

All laws can, according to the moral philosophers, be shown to have a single pattern. If they didn’t, then we couldn’t talk about a law at all, because every motion and every substance in the universe will then be a law by itself, and the result would be universal ruin.

If the mind could really know the exterior world, and knew it to be governed by laws, then one should expect the interior world of human consciousness to be governed by the same lawfulness. There should, in other words, be a striking ground of analogy between the laws of things, which command and put forth the force uniformly; and the laws of persons, which make certain ethical choices obligatory. “No man was ever known to exist who in any sense could be called a developed human being who did not recognize certain ethical distinctions as real and esteem them of supreme importance”, wrote Noah Porter. “We take them as we know them, whether civilized or savage”.

You see, morality or virtue is not merely a cultural accident. It is not merely a social convention. It is not just an illusion. It is a conscious component of the mind. Unlike the physical laws of science, it instructs people in the laws of character development, of social relationships, of politics, of economics and spiritual duties to God.

The Foundation for Public Virtue

This common sense morality was the perfect prescription for a secular republic in which both Thomas Jefferson and John Witherspoon had to live together. It yielded moral laws without compelling people to embrace protestant Christian theology, but it allowed protestant Christians to slip the fundamentals of Christian morality into public affairs without having to name Edwarsean revivalism. Thus, it allowed a kind of low-level evangelism to operate on the republican masses.

For instance, “the analogy of the human soul furnishes a decisive argument in favor of the conclusion that the Creator and Thinker is one being”. In saying that, Porter was not actually proselytizing anybody, he was simply making an inductive statement of ethical fact. But the result of that thinking would very likely be some form of Christian behavior. It was through this carefully scientized methodology that the moral philosophers were able to rebuild the structure of Christian public ethics in the half-century after the American Revolution, and offer it as a guide to national virtue without braking over Jefferson’s wall of separation, and without needing the furies of revivalism.