Internalizing Existentialism

by G Gordon Worley III 2 min read18th Nov 20193 comments


NB: Originally published on Map and Territory on Medium. This is an old post originally published on 2016-09-18. It was never previously cross-posted or linked on LessWrong, so I'm adding it now for posterity. It's old enough that I can no longer confidently endorse it, and I won't bother trying to defend it if you find something wrong, but it might still be interesting.

Over the last couple months, due to reading Daoist philosophical texts, I’ve come to deeply internalize something I’ve known for a long time: morality doesn’t exist “out there” in reality and is instead a construct of our preferences and the dialectic between different people’s preferences.

If you stumbled upon this and didn’t realize morality wasn’t essential, well, um, I’m not going to try to convince you of that. Probably a not terrible reading recommendation is the Less Wrong series on metaethics.

I started down the path to giving up an internal sense of essential morality when meditating on the Daoist position that there is fundamentally no differentiation. For example, chapter 41 of the Daodejing reads in part:

Thus it is said:
The path into the light seems dark,
the path forward seems to go back,
the direct path seems long,
true power seems weak,
true purity seems tarnished,
true steadfastness seems changeable,
true clarity seems obscure,
the greatest are seems unsophisticated,
the greatest love seems indifferent,
the greatest wisdom seems childish.

And in chapter 20 we find:

Stop thinking, and end your problems.
What difference between yes and no?
What difference between success and failure?
Must you value what others value,
avoid what others avoid?
How ridiculous!

And in both the texts of Zhuangzi and Liezi we are given multiple stories where beauty and good acts do not lead to happiness and ugliness and wickedness do not hinder virtue. On the surface we are given contradictions, but by looking deeper the contradictions dissolve if we perceive that the dichotomy is false.

Even speaking of virtue is itself an interesting case. The word used in Chinese, 德 or de, means virtue with a moralistic component in normal use just as is found in English, but de also has a meaning of step and shares with virtue’s Latin roots in meaning strength or capacity. So even here we find, when it looks as though we are being given moral advice, it only seems that way if we take it to be that: take away the perception of morality and we are given possible steps along the path.

With this in mind, I set out to experiment with removing my use of moralistic language. We tend to say things are good or bad when really what we mean is that we like them or we don’t. And if I want to find out if morality really does not exist as an essential property of the universe, it’s worthwhile to try to take it out of my language and see if it comes up missing.

So I have tried to do this. I try to no longer say things are good or bad, and instead try to say I like or dislike things, or I want more or less of things. And aside from having a hard time breaking the habit of using common phrases that happen to contain “good” or “bad” like saying “this tastes good” to mean “I like how this tastes”, it’s proven very straight forward and thrown into contrast those times when I was projecting my own preferences onto the universe.

This projection happens through the turn of phrase. If I think what my friend is wearing is ugly and and I say to them “that looks bad”, I’m implicitly suggesting their appearance goes against an external measure of style. But if I say “I don’t like what you’re wearing”, I have to be the owner of the preference, and I know it’s not living out in the universe apart from me. And if we look deeper, there’s no sense in which something can “look good” if there is no observer to assess the quality, so it seems through language we casually mistake preferences for essences.

And so I have now more internalized the existential nature of morality I have long intellectually known.