Monday, July 25, 2016

Moral Solipsism: A Fugitive and Cloistered Virtue

My mother has often said that, given how she and my father raised me, I’m at a peculiar disadvantage. Both of them raised me to challenge and question preconceptions; in particular, not to merely accept that something is ethically right or wrong, but to ask why with an almost ruthless impartiality. The disadvantage here is that it’s not the way most folks engage in ethical conversation – and indeed, there are far too many who are simply not used to such engagement to begin with.

This seems a major reason why we’re presently seeing such polarized views. One group will assert that some version of divine law should be the basis for guiding our decisions and actions; others point to more general core values, and a desire to reduce suffering and expand happiness. Of course, there are those who equate the latter with the former, and who heed the prophetic call to “come let us reason together” for common solutions.

And then, there are the moral solipsists.

These are the folks who make their ethical views through the limited filter of their own life experience and internal dialogue. Their logic tends to run along the following:
  1. My experience and/or emotional response to a given issue X is value Y.
    • Positive example: My experience of Christianity has been wonderful.
    • Negative example: The idea of eating raw fish disgusts me.
  2. The value of X must therefore be Y.
    • Christianity must be wonderful.
    • Eating raw fish must be disgusting
  3. Universal moral action towards X must therefore conform with Y.
    • Everyone should become a Christian.
    • No one should eat raw fish, or serve it to other people.
  4. The fact that others view X is Y confirms this; any divergent opinion regarding X is erroneous and to be discounted.
    • I’m surrounded by other people who also love Christ and the Church, so it is wonderful; all of these naysayers have simply been led astray by Satan, or not willing to open their hearts.
    • I know plenty of people who tried raw fish and hated it, so it is disgusting; those people who say otherwise are either liars, ignorant, or just weird sickos.
Moral solipsism thus goes beyond listening to one’s experience and emotions, and universalizes them to the near-automatic exclusion of other views. It is egoism and subjectivism taken to extremes. This is not to say that personal experience and emotional response ought not to guide us. It’s certainly valid for helping to determine personal preferences. But before we universalize them or make them permanent, they need to be compared to the experiences of others, and tested by reason and evidence.

The problem is that, once someone falls into the trap of moral solipsism, it’s very hard to get out. Thus we observe Americans of European descent who, because they universalize their experience of white privilege, angrily reject the ugly realities being exposed by Black Lives Matter and other groups. We may witness folks who embrace the atheist label purely because of their painful upbringing in one religious group, and never move beyond that. We may know of people who find the idea of providing erotic services for money so personally repellant that they refuse to listen to anyone who has found fulfilment doing so, and surround themselves only with those who share their views, crusading without question to “rescue” sex workers whether they want it or not.

We see the seeds of this in much of how we engage in ethical and political discourse, particularly the emphasis on personal experience and narrative. These are persuasive tools, but by relying too much on them, we risk confusing them with broader examinations of reality – and may even open ourselves up to being deceiving by another Somaly Mam or Chong Kim. We must always remember that one individual’s story is but a glimpse of the larger picture, and even several similar stories may only allow us to see but a pale reflection, when we must endeavor to see the whole more clearly.

The real danger in moral solipsism is its refusal to be tested. At best, it leads to fragmentation and paralysis, with claimants competing for followers. At worst, when one such claimant rises to authority, it leads to tyranny and suffering, all for the sake of an illusion of purity. But as John Milton pointed out centuries ago, purity is never obtained by closing oneself off to questions and challenges:
I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary.

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