Pluriformity and the Shape of Moral Experience

March 10, 2014

What are we to make of all the great plurality of objects, events and viewpoints displayed before us in the world? We are each spectator to an eclectic parade of sometimes wildly differentiated phenomena. The fact we have such textured experience of the world was the stubborn metaphysical perplexity of ancient philosophers. Recall the famous line attributed to Heraclitus (by Plato), “One never steps into the same river twice.”1 The river we step into on Saturday is not the same river on Sunday, at least not in any material sense, and yet it is the same river to the extent that it represents the place the river occupies. His river metaphor illustrates the truth that broad and unrelenting fluctuations to reality are also direct contributors to its ongoing permanence. The river is what it is by virtue of its material flow and its being the location of such flow. For Heraclitus, the plurality of human experience does not represent omnipresent novelty, but rather life’s interconnectedness and unity. What interests him about difference, in other words, is its implicit sameness.

What concerns us, however, is whether this apparent plurality is so extensive it justifies tacit acceptance of pluralism. Clearly the more modern impulse is to answer “yes.” Unable to find unity in diversity, sameness in difference, moderns tend to oversimplify plurality and difference by presuming them intrinsic goods. The great modern value of individuality is itself a cherishing of isolated uniqueness, of doing all one can to make oneself “stand out from the crowd.” Divergence with antiquity is here at its most pronounced, for it isn’t unity that interests the modern, but token plurality, an enshrining of diversity for diversity’s sake. Of course, among the most detrimental consequences of this outlook is pluralism’s drift into moral relativism, from mere observation of pluralities to relativizing the moral truths of those pluralities.

If these comparative sketches between ancient and modern moral experience are accurate, and I think they are, then modern moral pluralism represents a unique challenge to traditional understandings of moral order. Moderns need reminding of what imbues plurality with significant meaning. To this point Oliver O’Donovan offers in Resurrection and Moral Order (hereafter RMO) perhaps the most compelling Christian ethical treatment of pluralism in recent memory. The apparent plurality of moral viewpoints is redressed by the real unity wrought by an original, sustaining and completing Power that renews and orders the moral order. At stake is nothing less than the moral order itself, for if we cannot distinguish a unifying truth to all pluralities then morality itself becomes a socially fragmented sphere of competing interests.

Of special interest to O’Donovan is the agent’s relation to their “moral field.” When confronted by the moral field, agents are invited to interpret that field. The moral field sets a context for free action and thus furnishes the final determination (this side of Judgment) of what the action means. Some of what we encounter will strike us as routine, while some utterly novel. Whether Smith throws a baseball striking a batter out or throws a baseball through a neighbor’s window depends entirely on the context of his pitch. An obvious comparison but nonetheless important—the freedom of an act depends largely on context and its rightness on the form of that context.

Determinacies of the moral field alert us, thinks O’Donovan, to two dominant ways of interpreting and overcoming novelty within the moral field, one by drawing upon experience of the past, and the other by anticipating the future. Before treating them in turn it is worth noting that novelty is undetectable without memories of the past. Every novelty emerges from the past and is, as it were, colored by it. Yet modernity’s chronic historical amnesia leaves agents increasingly prone to ignorance of antecedents. Newness defines the present at every passing moment and thus anxieties wrought by the fragmentariness of our moral experience become all the more perplexing. Under these conditions, claims O’Donovan, even the agent himself becomes a plurality, “a sequence of dissociated roles and responses evoked by the shifting self-transforming meanings of the world.”2

Bearing this in mind we return to the two ways of overcoming novelty in the moral field, either by (i) drawing on experience of the past or (ii) anticipating the future. In the former, agents act as their forbearers have acted and hope that despite their temporal separation some form of continuity is achieved enabling modest management of contingencies. We might loosely call this the “conservative” posture. And yet, although this view has much recommending it, including the illuminating prowess of wisdom, “we are left with the problem that knowledge of the past cannot simply be transformed into knowledge of the present.”3 Which “pasts” will we select, for example, and which criteria will we use to decide between them all? “The only way to tame the unknown is to come to know it,” and conservatism does not adequately bridge the gulf between subject and novelty. But neither does the second approach, for that matter. Without rehearsing the well-understood limitations and self-contradictions of consequentialism, it is enough to say here that the future is eligible for anticipation only if its latent possibilities have been pre-decided and thus no longer really new to us, “for it will be the state of things which we ourselves . . . have chosen.”4

Neither the past nor future is limitless or “open” to interpretation. We reflect upon the past and deliberate upon the future with varying degrees of tentativeness, much like a young child taking his first clumsy steps into ambulation. Actions must be thinkable, and to be thinkable they must be confined to distinct limits immune to openendedness. “Only if we are endowed with a vision of what it is in the world which measures change and so stands beyond it, can we dare to encounter change.”5 The Bible calls this discerning “vision” wisdom, “the perception that every novelty . . . manifests the permanence and stability of the created order, so that, however astonishing and undreamt of it may be, it is not utterly incommensurable with what has gone before.”6 X is similar to and dissimilar to Y because both variables are configured into a wider web of moral intelligibility. Wisdom is what apprehends and then puts that intelligibility to use, making vast pluralities appear more like narrow unities. And on this point O’Donovan is again instructive: “The plurality of situations and events which characterizes the experience of history, the fact that every event is ‘new’ and different from every other, can be seen as a pluriformity in the world-order, which is a capacity for different things to transpire and succeed one another within a total framework of intelligibility which allows for their generic relationships to be understood.”7 Wisdom applied to the moral order transforms incomprehensible plurality into comprehendible pluriformity. And this in part explains why moral pluralism must be false.

Pluriformity describes the manner of reality’s moral presentation, and wisdom facilitates understanding of that presentation. Many of our contemporaries, however, do not see permanence as the necessary site of novelty. Moderns tend not to perceive reality in the Heraclitian sense but as an ever-novel “space” for introducing and reintroducing still greater novelties. There is perhaps no greater illustration to this attitude than the rapid proliferation of technology. It is commonly believed that, from a moral point of view, technology’s “form” is simply what we make of it, becoming what it is by virtue of our invention and use. But this overlooks the pluriform shape technology takes within human affairs. The Internet, for example, is both similar and dissimilar to past technologies. It helps connect people but does so without analogue; it captivates attention and yet endlessly distracts; it is “cyberspace” yet place to conduct one’ daily affairs. Reduction of reality to a sequence of novelties jettisons wisdom in favor of unmitigated “progress” as a moral ideal, the prevailing criterion of modern life. The principal moral question is not “how shall we use technology?” but “what form does technology take among us?”

To complete the idea, let us try to illustrate the usefulness of this concept more vividly. Smith and his wife are informed by physicians that the first phase of fertility treatments is not likely to result in conception. The couple should instead consider either IVF or surrogacy as an alternative. Knowing enough about IVF to be aware of its considerable moral drawbacks, they explore the potential of surrogacy and solicit the “services” of a womb-candidate. Pause here. At this stage many will consider the moral implications of their decision in purely consequentialist terms: Do the ends of our acts justify the means? A biological child is desired above all, therefore methods of implementation do not figure into the deliberations. But if Smith and his wife shared some provisional grasp of reality’s pluriform nature, then their deliberations would instead begin with reflection upon past experience, the significance of life processes, or still other relevant implications. The novelty of surrogacy as a medical technique will not overwhelm their moral sensibilities. Sexuality, conception, pregnancy and childbirth all have a wider, richer logic.

Should one feel a definite lack of the wisdom even to initiate this seemingly complex line of reasoning, they may take solace in the truth that if anyone lacks wisdom, let him ask of God who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him (James 1:5).


1 Surviving fragments of Heraclitus’ writings strongly suggest that the fundamental meaning of his river metaphor is that some things stay the same only by changing.

2 Ibid., 185.

3 Ibid., 186.

4 Ibid., 187.

5 Ibid.,188.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.


Matthew Arbo
Matthew Arbo is Assistant Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Oklahoma Baptist University.