Sunday, January 20, 2008

Suggestions About Morality and the Metaphysics of Quality

Note: This first appeared in the Discussion Group on October 10th, 2002. It is very old. However, it reflects a few things I still agree with about discussion of morals and Pirsig. It has been edited mainly to eliminate direct reference to MD participants, which I thought suitably ossified to be expendable. It is still rhetorically directed to the MD and I have not altered reference to "the MoQ." Some may have noticed how little I otherwise use that particular handle here. That was a conscious rhetorical choice I made a few years ago, referring nowadays instead to "Pirsig's philosophy." Some will know why I do that. (Meta-comment: How many more pre-written sources will I be able to lazily dig from to pile up without much extra effort? Only time will tell.)


What does the MoQ do for morality?

I have predominantly stayed out of such debates because I haven't known quite what to say, at least in relating it to the MoQ. I've always had an uneasiness with the discussions. It's not that our political dispositions inform our readings of the MoQ—that's an obvious truism. I don't think the MoQ has a true political undergarment that is waiting or needs to be discovered. What usually makes me queasy is when conversants start labeling such-and-such country as "biological" and this-other-group-over-here as "intellectual." But why should this make me feel queasy? Isn't this what the MoQ adds to the discussion of morals? Isn't this how the MoQ helps us make informed moral decisions?

The answer is, I think, "Yes, this is what the MoQ adds to the discussion," but the way in which it is typically addressed is why there have been so many heated and passionate exchanges between conversants about what exactly the utility of the MoQ is and what exactly the MoQ says. The problem is that the MoQ doesn't say anything exactly, rather it gives us a new way to contextualize things that will shed new light on the situation.

I've always felt queasy about chauvinistic, Lila thumping moral superiority because I think chauvinistic moral superiority is something to feel chagrined about. But even as we bow our heads, showing a little ironic humility, we shouldn't stop affirming our superiority. I believe this chauvinism comes out of the belief that the MoQ is the One Truth—that there is a True MoQ to be gleaned from the pages of Lila or from Pirsig's head and that once we have it, we will be able to solve the world's problems, once and for all. This, I believe, leads to a lot of pointless arguments about what the One True MoQ is during conversations about morals and politics.

The first problem people run into is the definitions of the levels. It's really not all that clear what the definitions are from Lila. I myself had a problem with this, particularly after I found out that Pirsig advocates only having humans at the social and intellectual levels (see, for instance, Lila’s Child annotation 49). In a past essay, before reading the annotations, I had set the bar with animals at the social level and humans at the intellectual (from "Absurdity and the Meaning of Life"). The problem is that our moral understanding arises from our interpretation of the MoQ. And detractors of the MoQ use the endless bickering that goes on about which interpretation is the true MoQ as a reductio ad absurdum argument for the uselessness of the MoQ as a tool for moral growth.

The problem is that, once we blur the edges of there being a "true" MoQ, we run into the problem of it being a metaphysics. Some think the object of the MoQ is to correctly correspond to reality and that's what some people think gives it its power. The levels of the MoQ are taken to be separate metaphysical kinds, not lines that can be bandied about. They have to be distinctly defined so that no wishy-washiness occurs when we dispense our moral judgments.

As a pragmatist, I don't think the levels in the MoQ are discrete or fixed: I think they should be fuzzy and ad hoc. I think the MoQ gives us a useful narrative into which to contextualize our moral judgments, a new perspective to compare the Middle East and the West, or the Catholics and the Buddhists, or the past with the present. I don't think the MoQ gives us a metaphysics at all. I think it just gives us a new vocabulary with which to frame our thoughts and which, hopefully, helps us make better moral decisions.

So, I have two suggestions, one philosophical, the other practical. The philosophical suggestion is simply my earlier suggestion that we pragmatize and historicize Pirsig (from “Confessions of a Fallen Priest”). That we treat the MoQ as an ad hoc taxonomy that splits the world into useful distinctions, not as a metaphysics that splits the world into discrete ontological kinds. That we use it as a narrative in which to contextualize the topic at hand.

My practical suggestion (and, to me, the more important one) is that, when debating moral and political issues in this forum [the MD], we refrain from argument over who has the MoQ correct. We simply offer our particular narrative on how the issue fits into MoQ terms. Someone can then offer an alternative narrative, perhaps using slightly different definitions. We can then contrast the narratives, see which ones suggest better outcomes or offer up keener insights to the situation.

Simply put, my practical suggestion is this: we suspend debate about the MoQ as a system during moral and political threads. This does not, of course, mean that we suspend debate about the system completely. I'm simply suggesting that we separate threads about moral and political MoQ applications (where we can discuss abortion, the death penalty, and Bush's IQ to our heart's content) from threads about the MoQ as a philosophical system (where we can discuss definitions, our favorite colligation, and the literal word of Pirsig).

To end, I would like to emphasize that these are not suggestions from someone-who-knows, like a teacher suggesting to her students that they refrain from talking during class. I'm not trying push an agenda as if, if everyone followed my lead, then the world would be alright. I'm merely offering a particular perspective from my humble, pragmatist viewpoint.

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