Self, Meaning, and the World

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The search for a philosophically satisfying account of the self and meaning is partly the search for knowledge and understanding: knowledge of what there is and how those things are related, as well as understanding the significance of things. When we propose to confer about the search for meaning, we usually have in mind the quite specific project of determining what features of the world depend on us and which do not. This is not quite the same as determining what is subjective and what is objective, even though this is a common way to think about such matters. In this paper, I will trace the outline of one central issue for many concerned with both the search for meaning and the search for objectivity: the status of morals.


The Pre-Socratic philosopher Protagoras famously is to have said that man is the measure of all things. Christian philosophers have resisted the Protagorean position. The source of resistance is not hard to find. At least some things are not up to us; we do not measure them; we do not set their boundaries or scope; we do not have choices in some matters, which perhaps we should were we the measure of all things. Christians maintain that not only the cosmos and its orderings, but also the moral domain is something to which we are answerable, not the other way around.

To begin, note a currently fashionable criticism of religious theoretical frameworks, particularly Christianity. It is alleged that Christianity is an arrogant religion because it puts humanity at the centre of all of creation. Theologically, it is dubious that Christian theology involves any claim regarding the centrality of humans to all of creation. If God created to exhibit divine grace, as claimed in Romans, then creation is more likely for God’s sake, than it is for ours. Exhibiting grace may be one of the reasons for creation, but it need not be even the central reason. Furthermore, even if the prospect of exhibiting magnanimous grace is itself central to God’s creative intentions, it does not yet follow that humans are central to the particular project. For all Romans says, there may be other much more significant exhibitions of divine grace than all of what is extended to us. The story of human redemption need not be even the lion’s share of the story of divine grace. What is more, even if creatures sufficiently like us are necessary components of that creative project, the human race itself is not necessary for that project. We may be, at best, a minor part in the entire creative scheme of things. If there is arrogance in Christianity, it is not to do with the place of humans in creation. We are cosmically insignificant to begin with; we have been ruined by their own hands; and we are saved while undeserving by one under no obligation to save. Those are key components of the Christian message, meaning that one who hears human arrogance in Christian theology is not listening. If there is arrogance afoot, it is in the Protagorean programme and its successors. That is not an argument against the Protagorean programme, merely a plea for truth in advertising. I am interested in the question of arrogance only to show it to be thoroughly unfounded as a criticism of Christian theology and, now, to set it aside. The far more important concern is whether some version of the Protagorean project is tenable.

Protagoras’s programme begins with two components: (1) we measure things and (2) when we do so we are correct in our measurements. You say it’s hot; I say it’s cold. Hot-for-you entails that it is hot; cold-for-me entails that it is cold. Qualities like hot and cold are, then, subjective. Truth, beauty, justice, and virtue are qualities, too. Hot and cold are qualities of ovens, truth and falsity are qualities of beliefs, beauty and ugliness are qualities of art, justice and injustice are qualities of courts, while virtue and vice are qualities of agents. The relativity of hot and cold shows the relativity of qualities, which in turn, entails the relativity of truth, beauty, justice, and virtue. Of this list, we, many generations later, may be content to think that judgements of beauty are judgements of taste and preferences, but few are willing to think of truth, justice, and virtue as merely matters of taste and preference.

Much of the subsequent history of Western philosophy has been consumed with discerning the scope of the objective. The subjectivity of preferences about ice cream might be fine, but both pragmatic and intellectual chaos threaten to ensue, if not only do all do what is right in their own eyes, but even more so if it is right that they do so. Your preference for one kind of ice cream does nothing to delegitimate my ice cream preference, whatever it may be. Likewise, on this development of the Protagorean programme, neither does your assessment of qualities, including moral qualities, delegitimate mine.[1] That all are correct has the apparently happy consequence that none are wrong, but since our correct judgements sometimes conflict, actions cannot be harmonised in any corporate manner. Two people correctly pursuing justice may correctly do all within their powers to thwart the other’s pursuit of “the same” goal. This is neither a recipe for success nor is it a clear marker that we are genuinely pursing the same goal, under our current understandings of ‘same’ in this context.

The history of science is a history of finding what is objective about the cosmos. We developed measuring devices, but the development of such devices enables us to harmonise our judgements about temperature and actions regarding the central heating only if we previously concede that we are not each the measure of all things. If we retain the Protagorean programme, we conclude not that one (or both) of us is wrong in our judgements regarding warmth; we conclude that 17° C. is both hot and cold. The room is 17° C. The room is hot because you judge that it is. The room is cold because I judge that it is. The conclusion follows validly. It is doubtful that there are cogent arguments to move someone from relativism, save showing individual relativists that they are not—not really—relativists about some domain about which they care. If they are not also content to maintain contradiction involving that component of their thought and/or conduct, their advocacy of universal relativism crumbles. If they concede that it crumbles in one domain, it is easier to get it to crumble in others.

Plato, again famously, argued that while there is insufficient objectivity in the physical world of change—and, hence, no knowledge of that world—there is sufficient objectivity in the abstract world of the Forms or Ideas or Ideals. Some theists treated these as somewhat less abstract, even if not physical, by maintaining that this objectivity was located in the mind of God. Not all are content with either solution. David Hume wished to think about morals in a way that provided understanding of how morals are not only objective but also connected with human motivation so that judging something to be right automatically provided one with a reason to advocate or to do that thing (Hume, 1751/1957) (Hume, 1888/1975). The main question for the remainder of this discussion is whether an adequate route to objectivity is open to advocates of the Humean variation of the Protagorean programme.