Morality and Reality: Duty, Not Convenience

On reflection, I would suggest that virtue (morality and ethics in action) imposes on us a first order duty to embrace and engage with reality whenever we make or recommend decisions. Holding up standards is one part of moral conduct, but it is insufficient action when we seek to have others support our thinking or to effect events.

Virtue’s engagement with reality is not a best practice only; it is a higher calling: a duty.

Morality and ethics, if divorced from consideration of reality, can’t bring virtue to life.

Virtue and reality are a pair – a duality. They relate one with the other through dialogue. And through dialectic – positing a thesis, contrasting that with an antithesis and ending up with a considered judgment – a synthesis.

The contemporary German philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, posited that we humans live simultaneously in two very different realms of what, to us, appear to be realities. One is the realm of normativity – ideas, ideals, words, concepts, mental constructions, spaced only in our heads and resonating selfishly with our psyche. The other reality is the realm of facticity – the realm of time and space and all of the material cosmos which takes up space and exists through time.

By being present in both realms at once, we can transition from one reality to the other, from the internal to the external and from the external to the internal. We can take inner realities from normativity and apply them through effort to facticity. We can also take experiences in the realm of facticity and use them to modify what we have in the realm of normativity.

A rather superficial example I use of how facticity can change our normative reality is the first experience of a child with a lit candle. Fascinated by the flame, the child touches it with a finger. Being burned, the child learns and so comes to understand mentally that touching a flame has a hurtful consequence. The child has mediated between facticity and normativity, changing normativity to align better with facticity.

Our creaturely facility is to serve as a feedback loop between normativity and facticity. In Christian terms, we can be “in” the world (facticity) and yet still not be wholly “of” the world (normativity). As Jesus said, “Man does not live by bread alone.”

We are most helped when living in and between both normativity and facticity by choosing a course of moderation, a middle way between opposing states of experience. This, of course, was the advice given by Aristotle, by the Buddha in his first sermon and by the Chinese text, The Doctrine of the Mean. It is also the guidance we receive in Qur’an, which is to keep the balance (Mizan).

If there is no mediation between normativity and facticity, then we become too immersed in one or the other. If we live mostly in normativity, we become subjective, solipsistic. Narcissism and hubris take over. We succumb to illusions and delusions. What we then seek to impose on others or on the world most likely runs contrary to what “is.”

In normativity, we build our own idols, investing too much of our personal authenticity in false gods, whatever we might choose them to be. We may overvalue having power over others, accumulating money, even the importance of the self. Here, in our personal realm of normativity is where ideologies and tyrannies, large and small, originate.

None of this leads us to virtue.

Papal encyclicals call this state of mind “anthropocentric,” making idols of ourselves and what we create to our own order.

The reality of facticity is not intuitively evident, nor is it self-evident. People differ in their perceptions, their measurements, their calculations. Yet, facticity is not social constructs. There is something to reality more transcendent than ideas we form in our own minds. What transcends social or personal constructs is factuality, like a flame on a candle.

But it is normativity that assists us in discovering what is reliably factual, what we can name and what we can process as being “out there.”

Virtue thrives where constructs mesh constructively with factuality and the constructs sustain themselves over time without our insisting and demanding that they are “so” in the realm of facticity. I think this is what the Buddha had in mind when he described the Dharma.