Moral, Believing Animals

smithQ’s: What is morality? Is morality real? Is there a basis for morality? How do we make sense of & justify moral & ethical claims & assessments?

Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture by Christian Smith, PhD. Abstract:

What kind of animals are human beings? And how do our visions of the human shape our theories of social action and institutions? This book offers answers to these and other fundamental questions in sociological, cultural, and religious theories. The research for this book is based on the assumption (unfashionable in certain circles) that human beings have an identifiable and peculiar set of capacities and proclivities that distinguishes them significantly from other animals on this planet. It argues that all people are at bottom believers, whose lives, actions, and institutions are constituted, motivated, and governed by narrative traditions and moral orders on which they inescapably depend. Despite the vast differences in humanity between cultures and across history, no matter how differently people narrate their lives and histories, there remains an underlying structure of human personhood that helps to order human culture, history, and narration. Drawing on recent insights in moral philosophy, epistemology, and narrative studies, the book argues that humans are animals who have an inescapable moral and spiritual dimension. They cannot avoid a fundamental moral orientation in life and this, the book says, has profound consequences for how sociology must study human beings.

For centuries, many Western thinkers have tried to identify a universal and certain foundation for human knowledge. Various movements within the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century “Enlightenment” in particular sought to specify an authoritative foundation of knowledge not based on the revelation, faith, and tradition of Christianity. Instead this project sought to identify a strong foundation for knowledge that would be secular (non-theistic), universal (applicable to all people despite their differences), and indubitable (irrefutable and certain). One way to understand philosophical epistemology since Rene Descartes is a story of repeated unsuccessful attempts to identify this kind of foundation of human knowledge. Like the would-be champions who sought to become the first to be able to draw the fabled sword from the stone and so become king, many philosophers have ventured to identify this prized strong foundation of knowledge on which the rational, universal, modern social order could be built. In each case, however, other philosophers always stepped forward to demonstrate why their attempts at this secular, universal, indubitable epistemology did not work. Strong foundationalism is dead. Its quest has come up empty-handed. There is no secular, universal, indubitable foundation of knowledge available to us humans. What we have come to see is that, at bottom, we are all really believers. The lives that we live and knowledge we possess are based crucially on sets of basic assumptions and beliefs, about which three characteristics deserve note. First, our elemental assumptions and beliefs themselves cannot be empirically verified or established with certainty. They are starting points, trusted premises, postulated axioms, presuppositions, — “below” which there is no deeper or more final justification, proof, or verification establishing them. In philosophical terms, these beliefs and commitments may be “justified,” but they are not “justifiable”. Rather, they themselves provide the suppositional grounds on which any sense of justification, proof, or verification for a given knowledge system are built.


Author: Justin Detmers

Instructor & PhD Candidate in Teacher Education Michigan State University

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