In Pt. 2, I described Pirsig's notion of dynamic vs. static quality, which should sound a lot like naturalistic moral intuitionism as discussed in our Hume/Smith episode. All there is is people (or, more widely for Pirsig, any being that is capable of reacting affirmatively or negatively to anything: judging agents, we might want to call them), and morality can only be founded on the moment-to-moment judgments of value that we issue, because there's simply no other available ontological source for a good empiricist. But to avoid this collapsing into a whimsical subjectivism, we have to say that these judgments get ossified into systems, and in many cases, we'll want to listen to the established system instead of our whim. But how do you decide in which cases to do this, and how to you judge between the different established systems? Pirsig proposes a hierarchy of purpose-generating systems to help clarify conflicts (this is from 158-9 of Lila):
What the evolutionary structure of the Metaphysics of Quality shows is that there is not just one moral system. There are many. ...There's the morality called the "laws of nature," by which inorganic patterns triumph over chaos; there is a morality called the "law of the jungle" where biology triumphs over the inorganic forces of starvation and death; there's a morality where social patterns triumph over biology, "the law": and there is an intellectual morality, which is still struggling in its attempts to control society...
What is today conventionally called 'morality' covers only one of those sets of moral codes, the social-biological code. In a subject-object metaphysics this single social-biological code is considered to be a minor, "subjective," physically non-existent part of the universe. But in the Metaphysics of Quality all these sets of morals, plus another Dynamic morality, are not only real, they are the whole thing.
In general, given a choice of two courses to follow and all other things being equal, that choice which is more Dynamic, that is, at a higher level of evolution, is more moral. An example of this is the statement that, "It's more moral for a doctor to kill a germ than to allow the germ to kill his patient." The germ wants to live. The patient wants to live. But the patient has moral precedence because he's at a higher level of evolution... it is absolutely, scientifically moral for a doctor to prefer the patient... It's true for all people at all time... a moral pattern of reality as real as H2O.
So Dynamic Quality is the ultimate arbitrator, but not all moment-to-moment judgments are a matter of authentic Dynamic judgments, where we're really in touch with our surroundings and reacting to them in the Zen-like way he's recommended that we do. We could be, in a given reaction, acting on some static directive from, for example, the biological (instinctual drives) or social (conventional mores) levels.
Why are these more evolved structures morally superior than the older ones? This seems self-evident to Pirsig: he builds it into his definition of "Dynamic," and presumably, he thinks we participate in all of these levels and so have an experiential understanding of the difference between them: we understand that it's better to have a seemingly novel thought than to obey the group or feel pushed along by our urges or be subjected to gravity (i.e. fall). This, then, is the meta-ethical framework that is supposed to decide moral conflicts, even if in some particular circumstance it might be difficult to tell what the source of some motivation is.
This drives Pirsig's analysis of society throughout the book. Conservative morality is Victorian, he says. It had a Hobbesian purpose, and we should acknowledge its moral supremacy over the biological urges which it was designed to keep in check. Intellectuals are right, though, to deny that conventional morality gets the last word: we should analyze specific situations in light of Dynamic Quality. To dredge up my standard test-case example, gay marriage should get a pass for Pirsig, I think: it's not a chaotic removal of all structures to let in barbarism, but merely a recognition that prohibiting a consensual, organized union of this sort doesn't do anyone any good.
Society has a legitimate interest in keeping people in line, and that historically included suppressing ideas that would have led to its downfall. When it tries to beat down a Galileo, though, then society is intruding on the intellectual domain, which is immoral on this view.
Neither of these examples, though, should lead one to reject society's dictates altogether, and this is exactly the overreactive mistake of the hippie movement, according to Pirsig. In rejecting irrational Victorian strictures, hippies rejected both the social and the intellectual, in favor of the biological, i.e. just doing what feels good, which is in fact a lower level than either of the things it's rejecting. The result is anarchy, and the fact that legitimate cultural innovators found themselves in league with common criminals against "the man" during the 60s cultural revolution is evidence that something was going wrong.
One could draw a parallel with to Foucault: yes, society is exerting power on us, but it's not necessarily all illegitimate power. There's an internal logic behind all of the measures society takes here. There are some ready contrasts here, as well, though. For Foucault, social strategies are constantly evolving, and we can't even reduce these movements to what some particular individuals think to be correct; the notion of "political economy" for Foucault points at some complicated social edifice. Pirsig also talks like this sometimes, e.g. in talking about New York City as being like a giant, a field of dynamism that has developed a zeitgeist without anyone in particular intending it. However, he more often seems to talk about the morality of a given society as highly static. More importantly, Pirsig thinks of Dynamic Quality in the individual case, and intellection more generally, as capable a la Plato of piercing through biology and social conditioning to get at truth (albeit a Dynamic truth that can't be characterized rather than some sort of static and eternal Good, which is how he characterizes Plato).
I take it that Foucault would have none of that: we simply can't escape the bounds of culture in this way. However, in any "the culture controls what I think" kind of view, there's still room for innovation, though this is not easy to explain (this is the problem in discussing Foucault that Katie set for herself in her dissertation). You may as well call this sort of innovation intellectual Quality, i.e. good ideas, that we can use to escape domination by the social. Again I'll use gay marriage as the example: society gives us the idea and practice of marriage (stable social groups for a stable society), which, if we understand it (meaning that understand what makes in general for a good marriage and what makes for a bad one), we understand maturity, commitment, love, fulfillment, so it's a matter of logic, more or less, that what's good about this would work just as well for folks who find these things with the same sex, even though same-sex coupling is not part of the idea that society foists on us. This is dialectic: we inherit ideas, but those ideas always carry within them the seeds of their own evolution. You can talk about recognizing these seeds as a matter of intellectual Quality on the part of individual moral innovators, or you can have a view of a more blind/group evolution a la Foucault (or Marx).
This idea of multiple levels of explanation for our motivations, and more generally the idea of emergence deserves multiple podcasts on our part; I'm not going to make much progress on it here. Pirsig doesn't demonstrate recognition of the complexities of his position: How exactly do these levels rise out of each other? What exactly is their relation to our experience (phenomenology)? ...And most evidently, he takes as obvious the position that the "higher" levels are morally superior, and he applies this very literally in some of his comments. The mass of unthoughtful people is not worth much, seemingly; the social institutions we create have greater objective value than mere biology. A philosopher exuding Dynamism is going to be objectively worth more than a person who mostly just reflects his social/biological programming.
But why should later evolutionary developments be by definition better than earlier ones? The primary insight of Darwinism is that while there's a causal explanation for any change, and teleological explanations for some changes, many changes are accidental, and not ONLY good ideas (in any sense) spread (read Dennett for more detail on this line). Nietzsche argues that a lot of our folly is a result of our forgetting our biological and animal origins, that a more sensible approach to ethics and and culture has to take these into account. In the gay marriage example, the missing piece in the moral evolution is fundamentally biological: a society that insists on solely heterosexual couplings is ignoring a biological fact and so is irrational. But realizing this irrationality is intellectual.
I think Freud gives a more instructive picture here in his view of the ongoing conflict between the biological and the social. For Freud, it's just asinine to say that the social is always better than the biological. The social serves a purpose, but since it can never wholly win over the biological, then there is room to optimize the social to better serve biological needs. In fact, you might even see the intellectual as a byproduct of this conflict: society is trying to keep down the inner animal in us, and all that animal energy then gets channeled into thinking. Far from being two steps beyond biology, the intellectual, on this view, is through and through biological, and certainly doesn't reach to some superior intellectual sphere. (This is more Nietzsche.)
So, I think the relation between these three levels is much more complicated than Pirsig thinks, and consequently the attempt to use the hierarchy as a foundation to bridge the is-ought gap and stave off thoroughgoing relativism that Pirsig thinks lead to nihilism just doesn't work.
in this Foucault was running up against the limits of the idea/possibility of either or (remember Kierkegaard) categories (Derrida as we shall see takes this head-on) and soon had to give up on the Romantic possibilities of the Other as a liberating/transcendent force.
These ideas will get more systematic questioning later in post-colonial studies as we come to see how there are no natural (given) divisions (categories) in nature/history but just hybrids (and later cyborgs). Good to keep in mind I think as we look at structuralist attempts to outline the raw and the cooked, purity and contamination, civilized and savage, engineering vs tinkering, etc.
I agree with your comments on emergence and Pirsig’s misleading presentation of the concept. A real emergence exhibits similar forms of two-way causal pathways between each of its varying levels, and so there is no making sense of Pirsig’s strictly progressive evolutionary heirarchy. The physical difference between the biological and the social is only useful where it can be turned in to action, there is no ethical distinction to be made between them. I do hope there are multiple episodes covering emergence in due time, as it couldn’t be more relevant today.
“It’s more moral for a doctor to kill a germ than to allow the germ to kill his patient.” The germ wants to live. The patient wants to live. But the patient has moral precedence because he’s at a higher level of evolution… it is absolutely, scientifically moral for a doctor to prefer the patient… It’s true for all people at all time”
It is moral for the doctor to prefer his patient over the germ only because there is a contract held between them as two people among a society, and not also with the germ. Morality can be founded on the set of rules we employ in forming societies before any qualitative value judgments are ever able to be made. The systems we abide by divide, sometimes violently, different sets of people across state boundaries, city blocks, even neighboring apartment units, they divide everybody among competing social classes, and while they are always an objective part of the world, it is not so easy to declare any one group as simply being absolutely correct as Pirsig would hope to. Presently in America, we are coming to terms with that we can’t know even which person the doctor is morally culpable to treat, let alone defining an ethical relationship with germs.
“gay marriage should get a pass for Pirsig, I think: it’s not a chaotic removal of all structures to let in barbarism, but merely a recognition that prohibiting a consensual, organized union of this sort doesn’t do anyone any good.”
Neither does imposing these sorts of necessary unions. Why is the argument framed in terms of which other potential forms of marriage should receive a pass, rather than doing away altogether with this irrational cavedwelling institution, that only works to withholds benefits from arbitrary sections of society? None of the components you mention: maturity, commitment, love, fulfillment, none of these come in to play in dictating that certain people should be hoisted up well above others with outrageous economic benefits for their alleged ethical superiority. I don’t intend to start a long argument about gay marriage here, I just don’t see how Quality has worked in any way to change the ongoing shape of the debate besides obfuscating it. I see the quality inherent in doing away with the instution moreso than I can see any in choosing to go on abiding by it, but that is only because of how I felt before bringing Quality in to the argument in the first place.
“The result is anarchy, and the fact that legitimate cultural innovators found themselves in league with common criminals against “the man” during the 60s cultural revolution is evidence that something was going wrong.”
I would say this is only evidence of those in standing power today having found so many common enemies among the public. Certainly he does not mean to villainize intellectuals as coming in to direct conflict with those who otherwise behave correctly?
This reminds me of what some PEL commenter once said- something like “I couldn’t possibly take seriously what ANY philosopher has to say about ethics.” And I second his thoughts. In Lila, I think Pirsig committed the same ‘fallacy of excessive abstraction’ with regard to ethics/morals as he criticizes other philosophers of doing with aesthetics in ZAMM.
It is this very judgmental thinking about affective experiences in the world that, in fact, explains the overbearing unaesthetic tone of his second book.
Pirsig’s unacknowledged predecessor, ma’ boy Alfie, described what he saw as clear differential levels of emergence (six, I think), they were not patterns of value from which an ethics emerges as if in some Aristotelian formal causality, but they were merely six different modes of experience found in nature.
On the doctor and the germ-patient thingy, Alfie simply observed that ” Whether or no it be for the general good, life is robbery. It is at this point that with life morals become acute. The robber requires justification.” ANW was pretty silent w/r ethics. He understood that the nature of phenomenological/experiential affect is above all, VERY ambiguous. If there were any teleology to note, it was that our highest attempts in the use of reason are to “live, live well, and live better.”
As for HOW (which is all there is to ethics, right?) Alfie’s bias was for the aesthetics of harmony (he was a Victorian, after all): “Error is the price we pay for progress. The art of progress is to preserve order amid change, and to preserve change amid order.”
Oh, and dogs have affective experiences pretty much like ourselves.
Alfie’s levels were ‘loose, and useful for discussion’, not ‘clear’ as I wrote.
Did I mention how Darwin wrote a book showing how all higher order mammals share the same affective experiences?…
Bruce Adam says
My own understanding of a hierarchy of motives , simply put, builds up from the overriding drive for personal survival. Next in priority is our urge to reproduce, which in turn takes precedence over our will to power. This leaves our instinct for compassion in fourth place. This rough view, though formed from elements of Tantric thought, differs only in detail from Maslow’s Hierarchy, a standard psychological treatment of this field. I’d love to hear this whole idea discussed in depth.
along the same reducio lines of bruce, pirsig’s classic/romantic split is easily taken up in a discussion of right/left brain temperment
The pre-intellectual qualitative pre-selection of what to notice, what to pay attention to objectively does indeed fit left-right brain discussions. Ian McGilchrist’s right-left-right pattern is very interesting and analogous to Kahneman’s System1 – System2 – System1 / fast-slow-fast thinking.
The immediate & intuitive filters inputs & outputs, even to & from our explicitly objective considerations.
ie it’s more helpful to think of it as a process than as a “split”.
David Buchanan says
Broadly speaking, Pirsig’s evolutionary morality paints a picture that’s very different from the portrayal given by these masters of suspicion. (Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, and followers like Foucault.) He isn’t nearly as suspicious of society and his moral hierarchy serves to push back against the reductionist tendency to explain everything in terms of hidden instincts and power structures (or atoms and neurons). One of Pirsig’s reasons for arranging the four levels of static quality the way he did, in fact, is to sort out some issues that have been monstrously confused among 20th century intellectuals. The history of the last century, he says, can largely be explained as a conflict between social and intellectual values. He claims that looking at the recent past in terms of that social-intellectual conflict will give shape and clarity to all sorts of confused notions. It’s an evolutionary reading of history but he doesn’t have enlightenment faith in progress. He thinks it’s a real fight and there are no guarantees.
I should say the distinction itself is far from original. We can see the broad outlines of Pirsig’s biological, social and intellectual levels of value in Plato’s distinction between the lovers of pleasure, the lovers of honor and the lovers of wisdom. The old distinction between mythos and logos is roughly the same line we find between the social and intellectual levels of evolution, to cite another example. We can see this in the emergence of philosophy itself back in ancient Greece. Its very birth is predicated on the ability and willingness to questions the gods and otherwise subject the values of one’s own culture to scrutiny and criticism.
The thing to notice about Pirsig’s portrait of the conflict is the claim that we’re dealing with two distinctly different sets of values or morals. The latter grew out of the former and yet they differ so much that they are even at odds with each in some respects.
Pirsig then wants to ask which set of values is going to dominate the culture. which level is going to be in charge. We see this conflict playing out as a contest with fundamentalism and fascism pitted against science and democracy, etc., using Hitler and Roosevelt as historical examples. It’s quite different to see right and left in a vertical arrangement. As Pirsig sees it, we’re presently living through a reactionary, anti-intellectual neo-Victorian period of regress. Bummer.
Part of the problem, he thinks, is the way intellectuals have tended to scoff at traditional (social level) morality. The hippie doctrine of free love, Margaret Mead’s trip to Samoa and Foucault’s notion of biopower spring to mind here. The religious right has been freaking out about this stuff since the summer of love, at least. The inability to distinguish between revolutionary radicals and common criminals also demonstrates a confusion about the rival sets of values at play. Pirsig thinks we can untangle these things by drawing distinctions between the various levels of value.
Those old social codes shouldn’t be followed blindly, as a fundamentalist might, nor should they be thrown out like so much bathwater. If we pick them up, dust them off and take a careful look, we can see that their main task was to tame the beast and this civilizing force does constrain and mollify the instincts and appetites. We ought not view this simply as oppression because the point and purpose of social level restraints is to liberate us from the laws of the jungle, which are even harsher than a dirty cop. Foucault’s notion of torturing the body in public is a pretty good picture of the social level morality exerting control over biologically motivated transgressions. But, in Pirsig’s picture, the social level isn’t supposed to exert any such control over the intellect. The common criminal (robbery, rape and murder) is defying social level moral codes and the revolutionary is defying social level values (philosophical critique of prisons and sexual mores) but they are motivated by completely different values. The former should be arrested by the proper authorities but the cops have no business telling thinkers what they can or cannot say. This hierarchy doesn’t supply quick or certain answers to every question, of course, but it tells you which way is up and otherwise orients you to the notion that immorality is basically anything that hinders the ongoing process of evolution and growth.
The gay marriage issue fits into this scenario pretty well. The institution itself is probably the most conspicuous example of what it means for social level morality to tame and mollify biology. Marriage was originally society’s way of controlling the nookie supply without violence, if you will. But in our culture, being married is also tied up with all sorts of legal rights and contractual arrangements with lenders and insurers, etc., so that the right to marry or not has become a matter of political and legal equality. Now we’re talking about human rights, not nookie patrol.
This social self is caught in the middle, so to speak, between the animal self and the philosopher self. None of them should be excluded, of course, it’s just a matter of priority. And while there is likely to be some tension, they certainly don’t have to be at war with each other. Health, wealth and truth are not mutually exclusive categories. Like Maslow’s hierarchy or so many other developmental models, each level of achievement opens up new possibilities for even more sophisticated and satisfying achievements, from a full belly to a warm heart, to fast car, etc..
One could view the human intellect as an over-built machine for finding meat and mates and it does seem reasonable to believe that its original purpose was more or less just that. And hey, now we’ve got Match.com and we can grow a million metric tons of corn. But this is part of Pirsig’s critique of our forms of rationality. To the extent that it’s used to meet our basic need for twinkies and porn, or used to exert power and control, it’s ugly and empty and meaningless. So, even though he puts intellect at the top of the static hierarchy, it has problems too.
Beyond all this known historical stuff, beyond the moral codes within the static hierarchy, there is a final moral code in Pirsig’s MOQ. He calls it “the code of art”. That’s where Dynamic Quality really comes into the picture, and that’s really where you want to live, so to speak.
Bruce Adam says
A quality response, thanks, David.
I see the point in recognizing further real distinctions than the very active left/right one people seem to almost singularly sort themselves out by today, but I’m not sure if this is exactly the way to go about it. I could write a series of books on all the connections shared between science and fundamentalism, democracy and fascism, on how fascists have promoted science, and on how fundamentalists have authored our conception of democracy.
Now this is an interesting statement right here. I’ve observed otherwise, the history of wealth has been one which always comes directly in to conflict with health and truth, as those who manage to accumulate it always use it for nothing more than to deny the health of others and misrepresent the truth to them. Besides that, I just want to thank you for working very hard to appropriately publicize Pirsig’s philosophy. It seems like something which he believes could strongly affect the way people lead their lives, though I’m still not sure how much I’ll come around to it right now, that’s exactly the sort of intense passion for their work I’d hope all philosophers conduct themselves by.
Dr. Ginger Cambell’s latest Brain Science Podcast, Pat Churchland, and the nature of morality as studied in neuroscience. Relates to posts above..
thanks for that site link, I see that she interviewed Alva Noe who may be closer to the discussion of whether or not the is something objective like Quality to be experienced.
listening to feenberg now…os he channeling aristotle’s efficient, material, formal and final causes in the heidegger part
Is he channeling aristotle’s efficient, material, formal and final causes in the heidegger part?
sounds good, as the name of the blog suggests than the question of relations gets more complicated when one considers the relations of objects to background/umwelt/surround/history.
postphenomenology and technoscience
The technology talk made me think back to another book contemporary w/ ZAMM – E F Svhumacher’s “Small is Beautiful”. This book resonated w/ P and was all about delivering appropriate scale technologies to the third world (and our own lives). Use of people powered well pumps vs gas generators, etc. It was this book that led me to choosing civil engineering w/ an eye to the peace corps. After a summer volunteer stint in Navajo country doing church building maintenence, I took a nun’s advice to ‘bloom where you are planted’
thanks I’ll check it out, have you read Leviathan and the Air-Pump?
here is some related thoughts by Andy Pickering:
I looked at the wikipedia about Leviathan and the Aor-Pump, but what caught my attention was the paper on ontologies where painting artists and the Army Corp of Engineers were both being discussed – quite a Pirsigian move.
Where do you find all these pertinent and interesting links? You definitely have skills that a good librarian could benefit from.