Truth, Goodness, and Beauty

John Cottingham

In a very good, new article in the Times of London, “Philosophers are finding fresh meanings in truth, beauty and goodness,” philosopher John Cottingham (University of Reading) discusses the fact that the absurdities of what has dominated philosophy and the bulk of intellectual and political culture for at least two hundred years are increasingly in ruins for anyone honest enough to look. This change has occurred as a result of the seminal work of such scholars as Alvin Plantinga.

Although originally based in pre-Socratic views that were subsequently refuted by Aristotle and Plato, moral and epistemological relativism was reborn and became pervasive in elite intellectual circles during the “Enlightenment” of the 18th and 19th centuries when natural law was abandoned for the subjectivism inherent in naturalism. Virtually every field of knowledge has since been undermined by this myopic view, including law, economics, history, philosophy, psychology, biology, art, literature, theology, etc., with some more damaged than others and some fields such as sociology being based entirely on such a fallacy. Fortunately, the ambiguity and utter confusion of such a monist worldview could not endure because it is fundamentally unworkable and self-refuting. For example, if all knowledge is entirely relative or subjectivist (based solely on instincts and emotions), as both modernists and post-modernists have claimed, then this would also hold for such a theory itself, leaving it as self-refuting. Indeed, no science or field of rational inference could be possible because all human cognition would allegedly be the determined product of physical laws—no scientific enterprise could independently assess anything for which the views of the scientists involved were not themselves also dependent.

As Cottingham’s discusses:

Are values (for example moral values) grounded in something real and objective or are they just a way of talking about whatever we may personally happen to approve of? There has been a remarkable shift in philosophical views about this since I was an undergraduate. Back in the Sixties, when we were all still under the shadow of logical positivism, moral beliefs (“value judgments”, as we often pejoratively called them) were dismissed as subjective—mere expressions of emotion, mere grunts of approval or disapproval. Notions such as goodness were no more than pseudo-properties, masking our personal desires and preferences. Later on, with the rise of postmodernism, even truth became suspect, and was downgraded to no more than an honorific label that a given culture bestows on its favoured assertions.

But it is very striking how the popularity of these subjectivist creeds has faded in more recent times. Relativistic views of truth turned out to be self- defeating; while in ethics, subjectivism ran into a host of logical difficulties and is now on the wane, eclipsed by a growing number of neo-objectivist theories. To everyone’s surprise, the increasing consensus among philosophers today is that some kind of objectivism of truth and of value is correct.

This is a result that every religious believer ought to welcome. Of course the objectivity of value does not prove the existence of God—there may be other explanations (though to my mind those so far on offer are not very promising). But the objectivity of value and truth would at least be strikingly consistent with the traditional view of God. For the God who is the object of worship in the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions is conceived of as the objective, independent reality who is the sole fountainhead of truth, beauty and goodness—the giver (as the Epistle of James puts it) of “every good and every perfect gift”.

The idea of a unitary source of truth, beauty and goodness is also found in Ancient Greek philosophy, well before Christ. Plato famously argued that we should struggle out of the dark cave that is our normal human environment towards an eternal realm of value he called the Forms, a unified realm with a single supreme Form of the Good at its apex. Later, René Descartes, following Plato (via St. Augustine), made the closest possible link between the good and the true. The nature of truth and of goodness is such that, once we clearly perceive them, they both constrain our judgment (to assent to the true, to desire the good). In both cases, says Descartes, “a great light in the intellect generates a great propensity in the will”.

. . . .

The fact remains, however, that there are certain remarkable properties that truth, beauty and goodness all share. In the first place, they are all what philosophers call normative concepts—they carry with them the sense of a requirement or a demand. The true is that which is worthy of belief—“to be believed”; the beautiful is that which is worthy of admiration; and the good is that which is worthy of choice. They all therefore seem to be rather “ queer” properties (as the late Oxford philosopher John Mackie once put it). They have this odd, magnetic aspect—they somehow have “to-be-pursuedness” built into them.

Why is this odd? Well, it is a feature that seems incompatible with any purely naturalistic or scientific account of these properties: for it is not easy to see how a purely natural or empirically definable item could have this strange “normativity” or choice-worthiness somehow packed into it. So it starts to look as if thinking about these normative concepts is going to take us beyond the purely natural or empirical domain. . . .

Many scholars have been working to point this out now for decades. And the lesson holds for conservatives, liberals, and libertarians, too many of whom have erroneously embraced naturalistic tenets, believing that somehow this was coherently grounded for understanding reality and making informed decisions about morality and the human condition. The irony is that the moral relativism of naturalism has wrought a cultural narcissism and a neo-barbarism of invasive war, collectivism and statism in the modern world as truth, goodness, and beauty have all been shoved aside for endless improvisations from utilitarianism.

There are many, many excellent volumes now on this subject, but I will again recommend C. S. Lewis‘s short but brilliant, prescient and beautifully written book, The Abolition of Man.

HT: Robert Higgs

David J. Theroux is Founder, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Independent Institute.
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