German philosopher, mathematician and man of affairs (i.e. businessman), Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz always said that he found no book so bad that he could get nothing from it. He was referring to serious works of non-fiction and meant that he could glean a few bits of worthwhile material from any book he read. There is a more powerful way to think about bad books. The fact that they are obviously wrong helps you to clarify your own thinking. (Perhaps Leibniz had this in mind as well.) You can view your own notions in the light of the wrong ideas in the bad book, make comparisons, and work out arguments to knock down what you are reading. I make a habit of reading books (not necessarily bad ones!) that present views opposed to my own.

Portrait of German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz

Philosophers such as Leibniz work out entire philosophical systems. Ordinary people settle for a set of personal values. (Image: wpclipart.com)

There is a vital clue to being an intellectual in this.

French philosopher and spiritual writer Antonin Sertillanges claimed, “The source of knowledge is not in books, it is in reality, and in our thought. Books are signposts; the road is older, and no one can make the journey to truth for us.”

Values and the emotionally important ideas from which they come are entirely personal. Each of us develops a unique way of looking at the world when we are small half-conscious children, and this means the journey to truth must accompany the three-stage journey of self-discovery, self-acceptance, and self-realization. Truth is not absolute; it is the worldview that is right for us based on that unique set of subjectively formed guiding principles laid down, by our genes interacting with our environment, when we were young. Any “truth” that does not sit well with the self (our set of most potent emotionally important ideas) will fail to convince. We must resist the temptation to adopt values we do not genuinely believe in. This will build a false persona without, in the end, significantly affecting our behaviour.

The only objective “truth” (really facts) lies in the realm of science, and where the evidence is in, we must accept these objective facts. However, this seldom presents a problem since the truths most people search for are not of a scientific nature, but lie instead in the less-well-defined moral, ethical, and philosophical realms. In other words, what we are looking for is subjective. This raises the question of whether there is some systematic way of seeking subjective truth. Perhaps unexpectedly, people were better at this in the past than we are today.

Sertillanges was a Catholic priest as well as an intellectual. He believed, “Prayer is the expression of desire; its value comes from our inward aspirations, from their tenor and their strength.” When it comes to seeking subjective truths, we are wise to have a plan of attack. In the past, religion made people into natural goal setters as they prayed for whatever they felt they needed, including wisdom and guidance, as the need arose. They were naturally always on the lookout for God pointing the way. Nowadays many of us struggle to avoid aimlessness. The chaotic nature of our modern lives reveals what we have lost by believing there is no one to rely on but ourselves. It does not occur to us to look for guidance “twenty-four-seven” as we once did. We are not as open to constant moral and ethical learning as we once were.

Unbelievers may substitute goal setting for the older habit of praying for what we want. Goal setting is like prayer in that we should make sure our goals are things we really want and not just things we think we want. Setting goals to seek for truth is akin to the older habit of praying for divine guidance or illumination. The key point here, the one so many of us have lost sight of, is the constancy mentioned above.

Sertillanges thought, “We ought always to pray is the same as saying: we must always desire eternal things which serve the eternal, our daily bread of every kind and for every need, life in all its fullness earthly and heavenly.” Sertillanges is less clear on this point so I will elaborate. For our modern purposes, he means that we should always have some clear objective in mind, no matter how important or how trivial what we are doing may be. We must always be open to learning more about ourselves as well as how we see and judge the world.

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6 thoughts on “The Search for Personal Moral and Ethical Truth

  1. I love how you separate bad books from those you do not agree with. When every book you do not agree with is a bad book, you have cut off your ability to learn from them.

    This post is especially interesting to me. I am still, after 5 years, looking to replace religious practices with those more akin to modern scientific thinking. I have always been a rotten goal setter, but am finding I’m not so bad at moral wisdom when I put my mind to it. This, I credit to my parents, but also to my openness to learn new ideas about the world and myself.

    I’m sure there are more thoughts that will come to me as I think about what you have posted here . . . I am someone who needs to mull things over before I can finally say what I have learned from a thing.

  2. My head makes a clicking noise like a deficient computer, fizzes a bit,and the terms ‘monad’ and ‘Pre Established Harmony’ come to mind from my student days, but nothing about morality. I was intrigued by a comment from Robbie Burns, that there is no need at all to call on spiritual principles in normal life, a sense of honour should be adequate.

  3. I share your problem with conscious goal setting, Jean, but substitute nicely with authentic obsession! Moral and ethical questions have preoccupied me all my life and I pursue answers in these areas as a matter of long ingrained habit. What’s more, I do this everywhere, all of the time: while watching the news on television, reading lighter novels, viewing those English mysteries and dramas on PBS and the local Knowledge Network, wading through weighty non-fiction works, following politics, or simply interacting with others. The practice is a fundamental part of my way of life and built into my worldview. For the past eight months, this blog has become the centrepiece of my obsession, as I share my thinking and some of what I have learned. Find out what preoccupies you, Jean, and bring it into sharper focus.

  4. Leibniz did not write a major work about ethics, per se, but he was religious and saw theology as a kind of system of law, much as the Muslims see the Koran as the basis for sharia law. He was, as so many philosophers have been, interested in the “problem of evil” and how God may somehow be implicated.

    I wonder what Robbie Burns would make of the recent outbreak of “honour killings” in the West as Muslims murder daughters, and even ex-wives, for dating Western men. Burns was obviously referring to the gentlemanly code of honour then in vogue in his own time and place.

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