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The chain of being and the net of language

May 5, 2016

[Just in time for the feast of the Ascension, some Iris-Murdoch-inspired thoughts about the idea that God is “above us.” Consider this a review, of sorts, of Existentialists and Mystics.]

Evil does not exist. No thing is evil, anyway; only human choices can be evil. A choice is evil not when the thing chosen is evil, but when the choice itself is disordered. These are theological commonplaces.

Disordered means wrongly ordered, suggesting that a disordered choice is one which chooses a lesser good over a greater one. To have greater and lesser goods requires a hierarchy. Enter, in traditional theology, the great chain of being: rocks, trees, dogs, at the bottom, God and his angels on top, human beings in the middle. To choose wrongly means to direct one’s will towards the bottom of the chain rather than the top. This picture has, however, two problems. First, it makes God the top link in the chain, but God is not a thing among other things; he exists prior to the order of things. Second, it does what it was meant to avoid, confusing actions with objects. No one ever faces a choice between thing A and thing B; you face a choice between doing A and doing B. Actions, too, may exist in a hierarchy, but the hierarchy is not obvious, since the set of actions open to you is determined by your particular circumstances.

So choosing wrongly is not so much like going to a buffet and picking dirt instead of God. It’s more like going to a salad bar and taking iceberg lettuce instead of spinach. One isn’t higher on the hierarchy than the other (both are vegetables). One is healthier, but you can’t know which off the top of your head. Choosing properly requires proper knowledge. And I can only have the knowledge in the proper way if I care about being healthy (since it’s not enough to know “spinach is healthy for me,” I have to know “I should eat spinach to be healthy”). If I have this knowledge, I’ll choose the spinach without effort; if I lack this knowledge, the spinach won’t appeal to me at all. Nothing particularly important happens in the “moment of choice.”

The knowledge necessary for health seems at times hierarchical: do A, don’t do B. But it’s not just an ordered list of preferences, A>B>…>Z. It’s a set of interrelations: if I do A, doing B also becomes important; if I don’t do A, B doesn’t matter but C becomes crucial; if I A and B then I better not D but if I only B then D is fine…. This is less a chain of things than a net of words, each word connecting to many others. There’s no “top” or “bottom,” but mixing up the order is still a danger—nets can get knotted as easily as chains. Even worse than knots, though, are holes, blind spots, places where we ought to recognize a connection between two concepts but we just don’t.

A hierarchy of sorts reenters here. The chain of being takes the order it does because the lower rungs are thought to be metaphysically less notable: humans have rational souls, animals have only sensation and locomotion, plants have only the vegetative soul, and minerals have no soul at all. A net of language which captured only bare matter, and could understand nothing of soul, wouldn’t do a very good job at decision-making. The choices themselves wouldn’t necessarily all be evil; a stopped clock is right twice a day, and a materialist can do good deeds even more often.  But they would have no tendency towards good. More important than individual choices, is paying attention to things, and finding the proper language for describing them.

The same problem, though, afflicts that chain-like net which captures only the bare hierarchy. Breadth is needed as well as height. The word “good” is not sufficient for our moral reasoning; we require a whole host of moral concepts, of evaluative words more nuanced than +/-, like courageous, temperate, just, magnanimous…. Metaphysical conceptions matter morally only insofar as they expand or limit, clarify or distort, our list of such terms. It basically never matters for our moral reasoning that angels are “above” us on the great chain of being.  It does matter for our moral reasoning what words were used by Christ, who is human, and so in the middle of the great chain of being, and also God, and so an ideal moral reasoner.


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