Making Sense of Morality: A Brief Assessment of Critical Theory

Various ethics terms
Image by Mary Pahlke from Pixabay

What then should we think of critical theory (CT) and its shaping influences in these other views? I’ll consider some strengths and weaknesses.

Strengths

First, proponents rightly point out many injustices that should be addressed. They are right that too often, people in power abuse it to oppress people, which is wrong. Second, they rightly note that (for example) racial injustices can be embedded in systems, even if there are no individuals’ racist intentions. Third, reasoning morally in abstract ways can blind us to oppression and harms. We need to attend to peoples’ particular, embodied, social-historical factors in our policies, for they have to live with their good and bad effects. Fourth, people should be treated with justice, dignity, and equality.

Reality

CT proponents tend to adopt materialism and nominalism. Now, we saw with Daniel Dennett how without essences, everything becomes interpretation, yet without a way to get started and know anything. Also, with nominalism, while focuses our attention on particulars, it also undermines reality. But this end undermines all for which CT advocates have labored, for there is no real oppression or liberation, no rights or wrongs, or anything else. What they rely on to give their views strength (i.e., nominalism) actually destroys them.

Yet, if we don’t come to grips with the end result of nominalism, we can seduce ourselves to think everything is what it is in name only — due to how we have conceived of it. So, both these views lead us to think that what exists is our construct. Yet, to be consistent, that means oppression (as well as liberation) is just some particular group’s construct. Justice, dignity, and equality, all of which are good moral values, end up being just the way a particular group has constructed their morals. But that result is anything but what critical theorists want. They argue for their views as the way things really are, and the way things should be for all people. Yet, based on their own theory’s bases, they cannot be such. Indeed, they are just a particular group’s constructs, and if they try to universalize them, they actually could be imperialistic and oppressive.

Knowledge

Earlier, I explored how Kant’s epistemology led to an inability to know anything, since we cannot traverse the series of appearances that “stand between” us and something as it really is. A similar problem resurfaces with historicism. Here, we cannot access reality directly; we can know it only insofar as we interpret it. Now, there is a very good point to be made here: what we experience we do need to interpret. It is one thing for me to see an animal in my yard; it is another for me to see it as one of our pets and act accordingly.

Similarly, the strength of CT claims depends upon our ability to see real people in real conditions, and see them as unjust. But, can we do this on historicism? I do not think so. Since we can never access something real as it is in itself, apart from our interpretation, it seems we only access our interpretation (call it I1) thereof. But, now a new regress appears. I1 is real, but, per the theory, I cannot access it as it really is, but only as I interpret it (I2). But then that same repetition occurs with I3, I4, and so on, without a way to ever get started. Knowledge becomes impossible on historicism. (Moreover, how can we even form an interpretation if we cannot access something as it really is, even if we do not know it exhaustively?)

Ethics

So, justice, dignity, and equality are nothing but our constructs, and they cannot be preserved due to the reasons above. Plus, since they are just “up to us,” it is possible (conceivable) that their moral goodness could have turned out otherwise.

Further, the fundamental duty on CT (that we are to liberate the oppressed from the oppressors) seems to lead to never-ending violence. Since there are only two groups, once the oppressed have been liberated, now they are the oppressors, and they and the former oppressors have switched places. But, now the cycle must repeat endlessly, with wanton violence.

Though CT identifies real injustices and oppression, it cannot hope to be an adequate basis to address them.

Professor of ethics, philosophy of religion @ Biola's MA Christian Apologetics. Interests: ethics, knowledge, nominalism, & how Christians have been naturalized