Voices September 10, 2018
Tao offers objective moral knowledge across cultures
Science studies facts, and everything that it can’t study is just subjective opinion? The realm of moral values has no objective basis?
You have probably heard these crazy ideas before. But even if you have never heard someone say such incoherent things out loud, you should realize how deeply such relativism has penetrated our educational system.
Emeritus UBC Professor Dennis Danielson has written a book about how educators today are asked to implement moral relativism as a foundation for their teaching. But in The Tao of Right and Wrong: Rediscovering Humanity’s Moral Foundations (Regent College Publishing, 2018) he shows how contradictory that demand is.
The problem is deeply enshrined, which Danielson demonstrates by quoting from official documents. Bullying and smashing school furniture, for example, are condemned by school administrations, but never with a straightforward moral vocabulary.
Instead, such behaviour is deemed “challenging” or “inappropriate.” Yet if anyone were to inquire why the behaviour is challenging or inappropriate, they would not be told that it is wrong. Consequently, the main moral inference that a child will draw is simply that institutional power arbitrarily punishes certain kinds of behaviors.
Danielson writes at length how disastrous this lesson is for children
Danielson writes at length how disastrous this lesson is for children. They learn not that there are reasons why some behaviours are wrong, but rather that power is the only brake on behaviour. The unspoken lesson is therefore that one should acquire power, in order to actualize one’s will.
It’s a profoundly immoral lesson. So, how did we arrive at this point?
Danielson rightly points out that the enshrinement of relativism in moral education occurred with good intentions. It served to function as a kind of philosophical shorthand for making open-mindedness and tolerance into an official educational and administrative philosophy.
But Danielson also rightly points out that while such attitudes are virtues, they are virtues of a secondary sort. There are more primary virtues that need to be learned by children, at least if they are to mature properly as happy human beings.
When the secondary virtues are inflated into a dogmatic relativism that eclipses all other virtues, we have a problem. Hence Danielson turns for help to C.S. Lewis’s classic book on objective morality, The Abolition of Man.
Lewis’ book is 75 years old this year, but the appendix Lewis provides in that book contains perennial wisdom. In order to show that the principles of morality are not relative, but instead transcend time and place and culture, Lewis collects texts from Chinese culture that bear witness to what it calls “the Tao,” the path of human flourishing that is rooted in the existence of objective moral norms.
Moral norms lie at the heart of moral reasoning as first principles
Danielson recognizes that these moral norms have to lie at the heart of moral reasoning as first principles. In his book, he calls them “axioms” or “ultimate sacred postulates.”
In the appendix to his own book, he includes Lewis’s collection of texts that bear witness to the Tao, but Danielson updates the translations wherever necessary, and brings the references and quotations in line with the latest scholarship.
Danielson also expands Lewis’ collection of evidence, adding texts from Buddhist, Islamic, and Sikh traditions. The result is to put on display a transcultural moral consensus concerning the objectively knowable first principles of morality.
Unlike the useless platitudes found in the official documents of modern educational bureaucracies, what Danielson provides with his book is solid common ground for recognizing the primary virtues that children need to learn.
This repository of wisdom, which allows one to “stand in the Tao” (i.e., act in harmony with the first principles of morality), includes transcultural precepts about: general and special beneficence (duties to all of humanity as well as to country); duties to parents, elders, and ancestors; duties to children and posterity; sexual justice; honesty; justice in court; good faith and veracity; mercy and magnanimity.
Danielson’s book is best read in tandem with The Abolition of Man
Danielson’s book is best read in tandem with Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, which is now available in an excellent electronic critical edition for study, curated by Michael Ward of Oxford University. His edition has a helpful introduction, excellent annotations and commentary, and questions for individual or group reflection.
After educators read Lewis and Danielson, they will want to read good books on virtue ethics, perhaps starting with Josef Pieper. But to best address the problem Danielson discusses about children becoming “humans without hearts,” there is no better philosophical resource than Dietrich von Hildebrand’s The Heart: An Analysis of Human and Divine Affectivity.
Danielson’s The Tao of Right and Wrong, however, succeeds admirably with its modest goal of offering a vigorous primer on moral realism. Morality is not relative, but objectively knowable and expressible in transcultural moral truths – just as Chinese thinkers realized by meditating on “the Tao.”
The Inklings Institute of Canada is hosting an evening of discussion about The Tao of Right and Wrong and The Abolition of Man at Trinity Western University’s Fosmark Graduate Collegium Oct. 10 at 7 p.m. Regent College is also hosting a book launch with Dennis Danielson Sept. 12 at 7:30 p.m.
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