Against the Primacy of Morals

Nietszche recommended a genealogy of morals that was rooted in the psychosocial. There used to be just the strong and the weak, he argued—those who reached, experienced, and took great strides in the world, versus those who retreated, shrank back, and were fearful. The former were life-affirming; the latter negated life by refusing to fully engage in it. Eventually, resentment was born in the weak because when the strong took steps in the world, they intruded on world of the weak. The eagles ate the young lambs. And so, the weak, the sheep, eventually invented the word “evil” and assigned it to those displaying characteristics of strength and nobility, and then reflexively called themselves good. Blessed were the meek, the mild. Cursed were the proud, the merry or the wild (the ones that could not be corralled by duty or social constraints). And so morality was born out of bitterness, out of a profound pettiness.  And it operates to harness greatness of spirit, to turn will against itself through conscience, to domesticate the nobility of being. It is the circus bear. It is the lion that performs tricks. That is what morality has done to us, this ideology of the weak.

I love the cleverness of this idea, but I don’t agree with it. Here is another approach:

I am told that some ancient cultures believed that at night the gods threw a blanket over the earth and the stars were pinpricks behind which heaven could be glimpsed. Today, we believe the stars are isolated balls of burning gas. As such, they are not portals of heaven. They do not represent the continuity of the eternal, the transcendent.

Consider the moments of experience to be like stars within these different paradigms. There are two ways we can think of them, either as singular events (an aesthetic lens) or expressions of the transcendent (a moral lens).

Suppose I experience a moment of love, or joy, or hope. The moral view cannot contemplate these as singular, isolated events, but only as linked to axioms that transcend our experience. They are expressions of the universal. They are temporal manifestations of eternal principles. They exist in our experience only because there is an enduring foundation that supports them.

The accent falls on the heavens, then, not upon the pinpricks of light. We can accept the passing nature of meaning in such moments because we believe they continue to abide beyond our experience of them.

We believe, too, that we can invoke them through dogma and duty. We invent obligation, commitment, promise, and duty because the transcendent is the guarantor, not the moments.  In this way we aspire to manufacture a continuity of moments, to shrink the emptiness between them. Our gaze encompasses the something behind the moment, the something better, something truer, something deeper.

Now we are gods, with power over the universal, over heaven. By performing our duty, by complying with the rules, by invoking and imposing dogma, we either (1) sustain the form of love (or whatever value) in the darkness between our experiences, or (2) we summon it from its glory and are washed anew in its light.

The good and sublime underwrite our experiences, assuring us there is a world of meaning even when it doesn’t erupt in subsequent moments. Even in the darkness between such moments. And so we can create social institutions and mandate them to last, just as love lasts. We make promises and ask for promises because moral duty requires continuity, just as the heaven after which they are fashioned has continuity.

Meaning. Purpose. Love—isolated stars cannot sustain these things, but heaven can.



Moral imperatives are the imprints left of meaning, the derivatives of meaning, not the heralds of it. They are the smoke, not the fire. What burns bright and hot is not the eternal but the sheer beauty of the fleeting. The fragile. The temporary. They do not reflect some universal “thing” etched in the invisible foundations of experience.

Instead, the journey into infinitude is not a horizontal one, but a vertical one. It is about plumbing the impossible depths of moments. It is indwelling this “now” and submerging oneself in its winter or its summer. Each moment implies a universe, a past and a future, our no longer being possible. Each moment is suffused with beauty before cascading into oblivion, into forgetfulness. This is the narrative of our lives, and it is impossibly deep and inexpressibly beautiful.

Moral imperatives, on the other hand, are the engineered scaffolds upon which we hang our longing. Too often they require contortions of spirit, demanding that we comport ourselves to that which cannot be experienced. We must supplant immanence with transcendence, the transient with the eternal, and see ourselves in the mirrors of perfection.

Of this particular beauty or that, there is only contempt, for no particular beauty remains. And if all things fade, how can it birth meaning?

Precisely, I think, because it fades.

What matters is

I am weary, she wrote, in an open letter in a purple sky. With coniferous pens and craggy ink. With a thick blue brush and creatures that bled the borders.

I am weary, she murmured, in chirrups and soft-bellied grunts. In staccato on a canopy of green and in grating shale.

I am weary and alone.

On Epistemic Humility

There are so many frameworks and meta-frameworks that discuss what we know and why we know it (epistemology)—they are usually extraordinary assemblies of language and intellect.

But at the heart of epistemology lies an assumption that there is a relationship between what we know and what rational beings do, such that the former should guide the latter. We don’t want knowledge for its own sake; we want it because it will guide us in our actions. It will help us to make decisions, whether practical ones, like whether to carry an umbrella, or social ones, such as whether a friend will prove reliable, or public ones, such as policy decisions to remediate poverty, or ethical or spiritual ones, such as “how shall I live?” Knowledge is the hymnbook for rational beings, even if the songs are relativistic or nihilistic.

This is important because it means that there is an implicit imperative to conform our actions to whatever we believe to be true. Knowledge is not just a tool, it is the golden calf that summons us to coherent action. We invest authority into the artifacts of our knowledge, the workings of our intellect. They are our guides; they tell us how we should act. If we do not comply with what we know or believe to be true, do we not become fools or hypocrites? Do we not experience dissonance, anxiety, and the need for repair? In this way axiology insinuates itself into epistemology and give birth to ideology.

What is ideology, after all, but bloated epistemology? Bloated claims about what is known and bloated demands of compliance? Ideology is a kind of cancerous epistemology—a swelling of claims that crowd out others, and a swelling of expectations around compliance. It becomes worse when we make values or norms the objects of knowledge. In this way, the “right-thinking” of epistemology is merely the cub we feed while ideology is the feral beast that grows to devour us.

But perhaps there is something we can do to curb the growth of ideology. Advancing knowledge seems to be about convincing people to see the world as one does. Rather than saying: do you see the world as I see it?, we say: do you see the world rightly, as I do? In this way, trading in knowledge is different from trading in art. With the latter, we indulge anxiety and uncertainty. With the former, we annihilate them in our arrogance and insist upon using our own intellectual currency.

What would happen if we began at a different starting point? What if we adopted an attitude of epistemic humility, an attitude that acknowledged that there are good reasons to think a great many different things, even if we don’t personally find the reasons or conclusions compelling. Maybe we don’t have the necessary experiences or skills or imagination or embodiment to understand them. This isn’t an argument for relativism or quietism. It doesn’t end the conversation; it actually makes one possible. It means that at the conclusion of a satisfactory or unsatisfactory conversation, both interlocutors shrug their shoulders and say “who knows what is really the case, but this is what I am going to personally believe for now. I may be wrong. I probably am. But then, we are probably both wrong.”

In the same way that curiosity is the antidote to judgment, humility inoculates us from ideology. If one remains open to being wrong, to being fallible, if one remains curious about the many ways of thinking and knowing and being in the world, one can practice epistemology without being conscripted into ideology. A little humility acknowledges that we are all puttering about in the dark. We are fumblers. We are all trying to find a basis to personal action because the stakes are so high. We are trying to figure out how our world works because we have an unquenchable curiosity. Because our lives matter.

Epistemic humility invites us to explore any question and to forward any claim we like, so long as it is an offering, a personal gesture, and not a demand. A humble epistemology is about the joy of inquiry, not inquisition. It is about the solidarity of imperfection and longing that lies beneath the asking.

On Beauty

I’d like to suggest that beauty is a primary human experience and that our ethical and religious sensibilities are derivatives of it. If beauty is primary it means that cruel and malicious acts are fundamentally offensive because they are ugly things—not because they contravene natural, moral, juridical or divine laws.

Consider a man who viciously beats his dog. Why does our gorge rise? Is it because the act is illegal? Or because God is said to love all His creatures? Or because the act brings more suffering than good to the world? Or because there is a breach of fiduciary duty? No. Those explanations come afterwards when we try to understand our reaction. In the moment, we experience the act as grotesque. Foul. Monstrous. It leeches all beauty from the space around it. We no longer see the greenery of the trees, the vibrancy of being, the great oneness. It is as though a vacuum has sucked them out of existence and we are abruptly alone and contaminated just by bearing witness.

If beauty is primary it means that we do not shrink from hatred and prejudice because they offend our moral sensibilities but because they score the world with serrated and poisoned edges. Because they are reckless and destructive and leave in their wake things sullied, broken, and lost. Because it hurts to look at life being profaned and despoiled–including the poor soul who wears his anger as a shield against the world.

What is ugly? In broad terms, it is all that diminishes us and that strips us of our nobility. All that degrades being and mocks life. All that fractures and divides us. All that submerges, eviscerates, blasphemes, or annihilates being. Today, we refer to such actions as evil or immoral. But before we learned that they were evil or immoral we knew them as simply ugly things. The desecration of being elicited revulsion in us. Horror. Disgust. It was not something we learned at the feet of priests and philosophers. It was, however, something we sought to understand, and with our understanding, control. We are given languages to explicate our revulsion–but they are new languages, not rudimentary ones, not etched in the wetness of our being.

The genealogy of morals begins with beauty; it emerges from our need to understand, mimic, invoke or subjugate beauty. Beauty is a formidable force in the world. It makes the recovery of self and world possible because it affirms us. It invites us to partake in the holy, to reclaim wholeness, to participate in the great connectedness. Imagine a wilderness vista lit in purple light, a stunning work of art, an act of compassion, a timid smile, a piece of music that catches us unawares and cuts to the heart—these are the portals which transport us to the sacred and sublime. Dogma is not the vehicle. Nor ideology. Nor beliefs. Nor observance of rules. Beauty.

Kierkegaard talked about the maturation of being as leading from preoccupation with the material world (aesthetic), to striving to be good (ethical), to devotion to God (religious). Our absolute duty to God outstripped our duty to the ethical, and the ethical, the universal, was greater than the puerile pursuits of individuals.

Yet even in the Christian narrative the first act is an aesthetic one: the creation of the world. Construing this event as something other than a divine aesthetic impulse—such as the fulfillment of some moral imperative or divine nature—stretches credibility. Before sentient creation becomes cognizant of right or wrong, before the tree of knowledge of good and evil, before there is an understanding of proscription or prohibition, of purity or duty, there is a recognition of the beautiful: and God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good (Genesis 1:31). An aesthetic judgment suited for an exquisitely aesthetic act.

Is it a surprise, then, that when first we learn of sin we are told it is a taint, blemish, pollution, stain or flaw? A corruption? We reach deep into the stores of our aesthetic grammar to understand the nature of sin.

The abstracted and incautious movement to the ethical and religious does not signal maturation but rather regression because they are about predictability and control. While beauty is immanent, suffusing the personal in moments of infinite depth and quality, rules and beliefs are about encasing moments in amber, in something lasting and eternal. They are about transcending experience so that the personal becomes trivial, so that something enduring can be exchanged for impermanence. Something purportedly greater. Something that grips beauty in a cold hand and promises to bend it to our will or safeguard us against it.

After all, beauty is not to be confused with something dainty or gentle. It can be merciless when it cuts us. It can smash and grind and buffet us. Anyone who has watched a loved one slip away knows this to be true. Anyone who has succumbed to grief or sadness or tragedy knows that beauty is reborn from our vulnerability, a birthing that can bring us to our knees. It is sometimes easier to hide our eyes, to be guided away with jeweled words. It can be the hardest thing in the world to stay open to beauty, especially when it is a torrent and we are weary.

The craft of ideology and axiology is vivisection. Or perhaps husbandry of a different sort. They apply their tools to beauty in order to learn how to conjure and/or preserve it. To summon it at will. To capture it. To cultivate it. To guarantee continuity. To extract a promise from it as though granite could be extracted from water. And when that fails, its task is to enfeeble or vitiate beauty because beauty is expressed in our vulnerability. It is coiled about our deepest striving. It speaks our summons, over and over again. It makes no promises but overwhelms us all the same with hope. Because it is feral.

Although the mechanical invocation of ethics or religion is beautiful because it speaks our need, our hope, our desperation, what answers the invocation is rarely beautiful. More often, it is harsh, unforgiving and demanding. It is the imperial and disembodied voice which says that to recover beauty, one must do something. One must believe such and such, or perform in just such a way. One must be deserving.

But beauty is the abundant gift that cannot be summoned. It pours into our awareness when we are open. Vulnerable. Curious. Present. Still. And it is transformative. Where laws break or bend us, beauty summons us to our lives. It whispers hope. It affirms our worthiness, the worthiness of being, and shows us how to hallow and how to love.