Mysticism, perhaps for good reason, is something of a dirty word in philosophy, but I think that something that has gone by this name is necessary for ethics or moral philosophy. My goal in this paper is to explain this thesis, clarifying what I mean by ‘mysticism’, and exploring some of the advantages and disadvantages of mysticism in ethics. Not surprisingly, mysticism is associated with religious views on ethical issues, and these are often conservative. One danger of appeals to the mystical is that they can seem to justify the irrational and evil prejudices of people on the right wing. Another danger is that they might seem to justify nothing at all, or perhaps anything whatever. But I should first define mysticism.
In her essay on “Contraception and Chastity,” Elizabeth Anscombe claims that the sense that casual sex dishonors the body is a mystical perception. She also says that the sense that leaving dead bodies out with the trash shows a lack of proper respect is mystical too. It seems to me that Leon Kass has exactly the same kind of perception in mind when he talks about the “wisdom of repugnance.” He asks rhetorically in his essay on that subject: “Can anyone really give an argument fully adequate to the horror which is father-daughter incest (even with consent), or having sex with animals, or mutilating a corpse, or eating human flesh, or even just (just!) raping or murdering another human being?”
I do not know whether Kass really means to imply that having sex with animals is worse than rape and murder as he might seem to (I doubt it), but my goal is not to defend the specific values that Anscombe (a Catholic) and Kass (a one-time member of George W. Bush’s government) support. Rather, I am interested in the limits of rational argument that Kass points out. These limits can be seen by liberal and progressive thinkers as well as conservative ones. I would argue, for instance, that the idea that human beings have natural rights is a mystical one. The same might be said about the very idea of a moral law.
This kind of “mystical perception” or “wisdom of repugnance” obviously depends on a certain kind of emotional response, but it is not thereby non-rational. Indeed, someone who put his dead or dying mother out with the rubbish would be regarded as highly irrational, precisely because (or insofar as) he saw nothing wrong with doing so. Moral reasoning typically begins from certain data, such as the badness of pain, the value of human life, the desirability of autonomy, and so on. Our perception that such things are indeed good or bad, however, is hard to justify empirically or logically. Instead it rests on a kind of emotional response. People who lack this kind of basic emotional orientation to the world would strike us as alien and hard, if not impossible, to reason with. In this sense reason and emotion are intertwined.
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
This is an abstract I'm working on for a conference paper. A previous version of it was unsuccessful, so I've revised it, but perhaps not enough. I'm working with a 500-word limit, so I can't add anything unless I also take something else away. Any suggestions, though, would be welcome.