We live in an age that has a hyper-materialized conception of being. In other words, we live in a time that generally limits what we believe exists, or has being, to what can be observed/sensed in the material world. Though there have been many consequences, positive and negative, that have accompanied the wide acceptance of this ontological view of reality, I want to focus on its effect on the conceptions and practice of virtue and morality in particular.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this hyper-materialized ontology increasingly began to influence scholars, especially in continental Western Europe. Since hyper-materialism has no place for abstract ideas such as “the Good,” virtue, and even God, this encouraged these scholars to seek new answers to old questions about humanity (society and culture) and the individual (body, mind, and soul) through the scientific method – which is the primary, and in some cases only, tool of inquiry for hyper-materialists (See Scientism). Hence, the emergence of the disciplines of psychology and sociology through the work of Wilhelm Wundt and Auguste Comte respectively. They and their students asked, like countless philosophers and theologians before them, why a person acted the way they did, and what made actions right or wrong/good or bad?
The work of sociologist, Max Weber, and psychologist, Sigmund Freud, among others, lead to an entirely materialistic bio-psycho-social conception of the conditioning of a person. In other words, a person was the sum of their desires, experiences, and interactions. For example, a child who was beaten by his parents would be conditioned with different views about power, relationships, and authority, than a child who was not. Both children would then be subject to live out their lives according to their conditioning unless somehow it was altered again. Thus, in order to produce a properly functioning individual for society, the bio-psycho-social conditioning must be perfect, and imperfections could only be corrected through medication and/or counseling and/or societal reform – leaving no room for abstractions that could inform an individual’s Reason and be used to govern the Will accordingly. These assertions resulted in the formation of what I shall call a hyper-materialist predeterminism.
Hyper-materialist predeterminism, as stipulated through bio-psycho-social conceptions of being, usurps the role of Reason and the Will in tempering desires, thoughts, and actions, and reduces every action to merely a matter of conditioning. In other words, according to hyper-materialist predeterminism, people cannot be faulted for their actions because they are simply living out their bio-psycho-social conditioning. In this hyper-materialist ontological view, there is no possibility for a person to govern their actions through Reason and the Will in spite of their bio-psycho-social conditioning. Every person is predetermined to an action based on their conditioning and cannot be expected to perform another action unless reconditioned.
A perfect example of this mentality being employed can be found in the modern conception of justice which sees all societal and individual deviance as a matter of mal-conditioning rather than a fault in the culture or person’s ability to Reason and Will themselves to cultivate virtue and act morally. Thus, the proclivity of the justice system towards rehabilitation rather than punishment. After all, if a person cannot help but live out their conditioning, how can we punish them? In such an ontology there is no room or need for virtue and morality because Reason and the Will have no power in affecting the actions of an individual. Therefore, abstractions such as “the Good,” virtue, and God, that have guided humanity for thousands of years, can be cast to the side without further consideration.
For this reason, it is wrong to say we live in an immoral age because the ontological viewpoint of the age is such that being is experienced and lived out in an amoral fashion. After all, a person who cannot control themselves cannot be subject to moral judgment. As a consequence, hyper-materialist predeterminism has reduced the contemporary conception of the Soul to a mere animater of the physical rather than the part of the self that uses Reason and Will to govern the actions of the individual. This ultimately debases humanity because it removes what makes us unique from any other living animal and enslaves us to our bio-psycho-social conditioning which ultimately reflects our desires. In other words, being is replaced by mere existence within a predetermined system – a tragedy we are only beginning to see the fruit of.