So what now?
Here’s Joel Marks’s default idea: base your choices—perhaps compassion today, perhaps hedonism tomorrow—on desire.
He calls his position desirism.
At the Catholic First Things website, David Hart explains (and pounces):
Much to his surprise, [Marks] now finds himself in agreement with all those “fundamentalists” who say that without God there can be no morality. Without a “commander,” it turns out, there really can’t be any commandments. And so, convinced atheist that he is, Marks finds himself compelled—just by intellectual honesty—to “embrace amorality.”
Or so he says. He has not, however, simply thrown over his moral principles of old in favor of, say, prudently predatory selfishness; nor has he forsaken compassion for some kind of higher hedonism (like the ridiculous Michel Onfray). He may now believe that what we call morality is merely the residue of evolutionary processes, and that its real “purpose” has been to promote the survival of the species. But, even so, he can still choose compassion, he has decided, because it pleases him to do so; he calls this position “desirism.”
Let’s call David Hart’s counter-position “commanderism.” As Hart emphasizes:
All the polyphony of nature falls mute when asked to produce one substantial imperative, unless one believes (explicitly or tacitly) that the voice of nature has its origin and consummation in the voice of God.
Yes, but I’m still with Marks. If, after all, morality rests in the voice of God, what does God’s voice rest in? If we are seeking rational justification, and not merely a stopping point for our questions, isn’t the problem exactly the same, just set back a step? For example, if God, via one of his “prophets,” says torture is okay (on earth by a magistrate or in hell by God himself) does that make it okay—something you can drop your qualms about, either in your behavior or in God’s?
Who will police the police?
On the other hand, if God is love and the experience of love is such a self-evident good that you will gravitate toward it in any event, then Marks and Hart converge: you’ll do no harm and do as you will precisely because love calls you and is in you.
Jesus, in the Gospel of Luke, called this the kingdom of God inside you, and I think the metaphor is a good one. And maybe it’s not even a metaphor.
My own take is that this planet, for whatever reason, has started, over the past 100,000 years, spitting forth language using conscious beings that experience love. Whether because of God or because of wildly good luck, we are the bearers in the universe of two of Stuart Kauffman’s emergent epiphenomena. Intelligent consciousness and love are the best things that the universe has ever had going for it. And we are the locus for both of them.
I mean, just look around. What’s going that’s better? 13.7 billion years and then—poof!—the extraordinary human mind and love.
By sheer reliance on empiricism—the evidence of our senses—and reason—both deductive and inductive—we should value these two things and orient to them. Maybe we should even see human consciousness and love as transcendent values. Afterall, if you looked around earth just a couple of hundred thousand years ago they basically were transcendent things—they did not exist anywhere. Some animals may have possessed hints of what was to come, but the dawn was not yet.
Now the sun has risen. Human consciousness is here and love is here. And so John Keats, I think, had it right in the last lines of his “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:
Beauty is truth; truth, beauty. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
That’s the right principle upon which to orient one’s life: the beatific vision. And what, after all, is more beautiful, fragile, and worth preserving than sensitive human awareness and love? Think of Dante’s Beatrice (who couldn’t have been far from Keats’s mind when he wrote the above). Keats knew that she awoke love in Dante, and her value was directly apprehended by Dante. For Dante, beauty was truth and truth was beauty. That is what he knew on earth, and what he needed to know.
Beatrice provides the hint; Beatrice leads the way.
On that maybe the Commedia loving Catholic and the Nietzsche-rejecting atheist can find a bit of agreement.
Here’s another Beatrice pointing the way. Notice the particular, and find love deepening in it. You’ll know what to do from there: