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Philosophy and Literature 29.2 (2005) 379-393

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Love, Self-Deception, and the Moral "Must"

Claremont Graduate University


One significant impact that conceptual relativism has had on current discussions in moral philosophy is the denial of intelligibility to discourses that affirm moral absolutism. The denial is typically based on two allied arguments. The first argument entails that the justification of absolute moral laws and values presupposes the existence of an Archimedean standpoint, but since such viewpoint is unintelligible, a "view from nowhere" as it has been called, then affirming moral absolutism could only be the result of a confused temptation for metaphysical universality and objectivity. The second argument states that since all moral values and concepts are the products of particular cultural-linguistic contexts, it would not make sense to speak of absolute values that have application in other cultural-linguistic contexts.

I sympathize with the critical spirit in which this dual argument is made. The unintelligibility of a neutral standpoint and the obvious contextuality of all moral discourses render meaningless any attempt to affirm metaphysically-based moral absolutes. But what this argument fails to acknowledge is that the ordinary language of moral absoluteness is not only infinitely distant from the metaphysical claims to Olympian grounds but also internally related to the absolute moral judgments and principles it invokes. Furthermore, it is doubtful that one could speak at all of moral discourse as needing metaphysical justification. It would not make sense to speak of moral discourse as either needing or not needing metaphysical backing because both notions ignore the ordinary contexts of moral discourse, where the issue of philosophical justification does not arise. The point here is not simply to reject the [End Page 379] metaphysical need for justifying moral discourse but to question the intelligibility of the attempt itself.1

In what follows I argue that the ordinary claims to moral absoluteness, be it to give moral advice, to justify personal beliefs and actions, or to judge and criticize the conduct of other people, are perfectly intelligible practices that embody ordinary moral judgments and values. I elucidate the intelligibility of these moral claims by discussing Leo Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilych," Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, and Ann Beattie's "Learning to Fall." These works, I argue, portray an ethical notion of "need" that expresses natural, and intelligible, affirmations of moral necessity. The context of this affirmation concerns the ethical call to end all self-deception about one's love life.

Traditionally, the relationship between love and self-deception has been interpreted to suggest that people often deceive themselves about love in order to fulfill a deep need in them to give meaning to their lives. This interpretation is often invoked to explain, on the one hand, why people who are in love might claim otherwise and, on the other hand, why those who are not in love at all convince themselves of the opposite. Although this interpretation is not philosophical in nature and does not necessarily entail the denial of all discourses of moral necessity, the idea that self-deception fulfils a deep need in people is often invoked as a philosophical explanation of the notion of "need." One example of such philosophical explanation is Martha Nussbaum's Love's Knowledge, where she endorses the traditional interpretation of the relation between love and self-deception through a discussion, among other works, of the above mentioned works by Proust and Beattie.

There is no doubt that self-deception, whether in regards to one's love life or other aspects of it, could sometimes arise as a result of a need in people to give their existence some meaningful stability. But this interpretation cannot apply to all cases of love and self deception because the radical plurality of our notions of love prevents such explanatory reductionism. The insistence on this type of reductionism, it seems to me, rests on a common tendency among moral philosophers, Nussbaum included, to read into literature personal ethical views that are not intended by it. The task of the moral philosopher...