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L&FP, 48b: Dallas Willard and the disappearance/ restoration of [authority of] moral knowledge


Knowledge, of course, is best understood as warranted, credibly true [and so, reliable] belief. Where truth is, similarly, accurate description of actual entities, states of affairs etc. Willard, in the closing decades of his life, spoke to the disappearance of moral knowledge (and was writing a book which was completed posthumously in 2018, five years after his passing), as was picked up at 43 in the discussion thread for LF&P 48a:

[DW, in “Where Is Moral Knowledge?,” 2007:] when I speak of the disappearance of moral knowledge, I am not saying that it does not exist, or that it is unattainable. Those are views sometimes maintained in academic circles and by cultural icons who presume to be “in the know” about such things. I cannot take those views up here, but I believe them to be profoundly and clearly mistaken. I am saying, however, that moral knowledge is no longer, as it once was, readily available to persons in the normal course of their lives. That is “the disappearance of moral knowledge.”

We have knowledge of any subject matter when we are capable of representing it as it is on an adequate basis of thought and experience. That is what “knowledge” means in ordinary life, and what you expect of your electrician, auto mechanic, and physician. The subject matter might be the English alphabet, the history of golf, the structure of the hydrogen atom, or others. The “adequate basis” can, sometimes must, include the word of others who have knowledge. We call our knowledge in that case knowledge by “authority”—though the word is more august than the fact. By far the most of what we know we know “by authority,” but that does not mean that it cannot be questioned or, in most cases, that there are no other ways of discovering it or verifying it. Most people who know the multiplication tables have never yet thought out a tiny portion of them to see for sure, and why, they are true. But they do know them, because those tables are given to them in a social context that warrants their acceptance as true. And they are true, and it is possible for a bright and enterprising child to think them out to see that they are true and why they are.

But knowledge can “disappear.” This is because its public presence and availability depends upon the maintenance of a social context with authoritative institutions that sustain, refine and disseminate it. If for whatever reasons social institutions fail to do this, the respective knowledge will “disappear,” cease to be available.

U/D Jan 14, I have found a presentation by Professor Willard. Part 1:

Part 2:


a key snippet from Willard’s handout:

(1). What is the disappearance of moral knowledge? It is the social reality that the knowledge institutions (primarily the universities, but also the “churches”) of our society do not presume to offer knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice to the public. It is not a part of “testable” cognitive content of any recognized area of scholarship or practice . . . .

What is knowledge and what does it do? Knowledge is the capacity to represent something as it is, on an appropriate basis of thought and experience. It and it alone confers the right and perhaps the responsibility to act, direct action, formulate policy and supervise its implementation, and teach. This helps us see what disappears along with “moral knowledge.” [–> sounds familiar?]

(2). How did this disappearance come to be the case?

Not through a discovery of some kind: e.g. that there was no such knowledge.

But through a lengthy historical process of idea change. Some components:

(A). The dismissal of theology from the domain of knowledge [i.e. the study and systematic knowledge of God, cf Rom 1:28 – 32], and the failure to find a secular basis for ethics [–> how can evolutionary materialism found ethics?].
(B). Disappearance of the human self and knowledge of the self from “respectable” knowledge. (The “soul” from Plato on.) [–> the self-moved, rational, responsible, conscience guided significantly free agent]
(C). All cultures come to be regarded as “equal.” None are morally inferior [–> diversity and radical tolerance]. Just “different.” Then there is no moral truth of the matter across cultures. [–> the denial of warranted, generally knowable objective truth on duty to right conduct, virtue etc; which is itself a claimed objective truth regarding duty to right conduct etc; it is thus a claimed objective moral truth that denies the possibility of such. It is self referentially incoherent, so false. (This will of course be hotly denied, but the logic is clear.)]
(D). Moral distinctions and standards viewed as power plays. (Nietzsche, Marx, Freud) [–> might makes right]
(E). Fear or resentment of knowledge itself as oppressive. Colonialism. [–> linked disappearing of logic and truth backed by warrant so of knowledge]
(F). Growth of the idea that it is always wrong to make moral judgments: that only bad or disgusting people do that. [–> the test case of a kidnapped, sexually tortured, murdered child] Pushes moral judgments out of the public domain. [–> marginalisation]
(G). The failure in Philosophy to recover moral knowledge. [–> institutional failure, the mutiny on the good ship civilisation issue]

Food for sober, sobering reflection.

I commented,

Notice his discussion of a body of knowledge, that “[w]e have knowledge of any subject matter when we are capable of representing it as it is on an adequate basis of thought and experience.” We can readily connect that to the more atomic view that knowledge is warranted, credibly true [and so reliable] belief.” Bodies of knowledge are brought together in a coherent whole that facilitates effective learning, practice and advancement. For most users, there is dependence on institutionalised expertise, so that one can be confident that one knows based on cultural support. So, if that breaks down ordinary people are left to fend for themselves, leading to the challenge that for technical matters, few are well equipped to build such a body. Multiply by institutionally dominant messaging that such knowledge does not exist or is even somehow oppressive towards fashionable favoured groups and we begin to see just how far wrong and chaotic things can get.

Hence, needed restoration and hence likelihood of trolling and polarisation.

But morality is so central that we need to address it.

This points to the restoration of moral knowledge thesis, which I tabled at 42:

Given moral yardstick cases and branch on which we sit first principles from Cicero etc, it is not only possible to

(a) be in demonstrable moral error, but also

(b) there is hope that such moral errors can be corrected by appealing to manifestly sound core principles of the natural, built-in moral law. Thus,

(c) we can now see that a core of law is built into moral government of our responsible, rational freedom (through our known, inescapable duties to truth, right reason, prudence [including, warrant], sound conscience, neighbourliness [thus, the golden rule], fairness & justice, etc). On these,

(d) we may frame moral knowledge, moral understanding and so too just civil law as comporting with that built-in law of our morally governed nature, towards upholding and defending the civil peace of justice through sound government (and broader governance).

Where, at 38 I noted:

One of the factors in the institutional lockout on moral knowledge has been the joining of two key blunders. First, the Kantian self referential incoherence of imposing an ugly gulch between our inner perceptions and contemplation and the outer — dare I say, objective — world of things in themselves. Second, undermining the credibility of rational, intelligible and describable self-contemplation so that the empirical “scientist” no longer regards introspection and rational contemplation or its communication as credible evidence. This leads to the self-referentially absurd shoals of relativism, subjectivism, emotivism and solipsism while cutting off retreat to safer waters. Our mutineers on the good ship civilisation first included intellectuals who should have known, thought and taught better. We need to recognise the fatal little errors in the beginning issue pointed out by Aquinas and highlighted in recent times by Mortimer Adler. Then, we can build a due reformation.

Adding (40):

[I]n short I am more confident in my judgement and that of the general run of history that mathematics develops objective knowledge involving a body of credible truths on various abstracta of logic, structure and quantity than any attempted definition that would imply otherwise. So, I reject any such definition, for cause, as fallacious and failed.

That is, mathematics here is a key test case, a known good yardstick. Let us call it yardstick zero.

For morality, in memorial to a brutalised and murdered child, I will similarly assert as moral yardstick 1:

[MY1:] ASSERTION . . . MORAL YARDSTICK 1: it is self-evidently wrong, bad and evil to kidnap, torture, sexually violate and murder a young child [for fun]. Likewise, by corollary: if we come across such a case in progress, it is our duty to try to intervene to save the child from such a monster.

Here, the point is that anyone who denies demonstrates defective conscience and breakdown of moral rationality, and those who evade demonstrate enabling of the morally insane. So, key, yardstick test cases help us establish the circle of responsible rational discussion towards sound knowledge. Knowledge denoting warranted, credibly true [so reliable[ belief. No quarter will be given to newspeak or doubletalk. Likewise to, we ignored this before how dare you raise it again. No, irresponsible objectors do not get a Wilson’s Arte of Rhetorique sidestep veto.

From rational contemplation of key test cases much will follow.

This intellectual strategy will be key to the outline of a road to reformation to be developed DV below in coming days.

Here, the framework is laid out, details will follow. END

PS: 48a being open, no comments, this is headlining to lay out a framework.