Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals – Part 1


It’s kind of hard to know where to start with penning my thoughts on Robert Pirsig’s sequel Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals. I’ve read it like someone given water after wandering through the desert. It is perhaps fitting that my last post on this blog was on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and my thoughts here will simply be a continuation.

You will remember that I was disappointed that Pirsig mentioned little about morals in his first book. While this book certainly tackled those questions, it also appeared to be an elaboration on Pirsig’s philosophy, dubbed the “Metaphysics of Quality”.  I have chosen to organize my thoughts into three posts as I did last time, since each has a different purpose.

Metaphysics of Quality

Pirsig rejects the positivist school that seeks to create value-free sciences. Adopting the positivist approach has hampered the progress of studies like anthropology and social sciences that have spun around in circles and continued to contradict each other.  The simple reason is that positivism does not solve the metaphysical conundrum of dualisms: the objective and the subjective, the romantic and the classical, reason and values.

Pirsig’s newly minted philosophy, the Metaphysics of Quality, claims that values are not outside empirical experience, but part of those experiences. Values are in fact more empirical than subjects and objects themselves because it is needed a priori to understand subjects and objects. We do not pursue the study of objects and subjects unless we attach value to understanding them – that we find Quality in studying them. Therefore, you cannot empiricize values or morals by locating them in the brain, in the physical, as Descartes once tried to do.

For Pirsig, there is no distinction between Quality and morality. Quality is morality. Morality is thus the primary reality of world and the world is primarily a moral order. This conception thus allows for more than one set of truths or morals to exist.

Quality & its many names

Pirsig tackles four different concepts that are platypuses or platypi when it comes to understanding our reality: metaphysics, scientific reality, causation and substance. These are concepts that do not fall neatly within the realm of experience.

Pirsig has already tackled the platypus of metaphysics by noting Quality precedes all cognizance and perceptions of reality. He also debunks the “scientific reality” myth by saying that if it were true, no one but the scientists, physicists, chemists, etc. would know what reality is – which is an absurd conclusion. He notes that scientists are describing a static set of patterns of value concerning reality, but the patterns are not the whole of the reality that they describe.

He uses the Metaphysics of Quality to replace the word “causality” used by the sciences with “value”, preferring induction to deduction when studying the world. Absolute causes are simply very consistent patterns of value. Saying “A causes B” is the same as saying “B values precondition A”.

As for substance, we can only ever observe data, since substance stripped of properties calls nothing to mind. Substance is something continuous in time even if it has no observable properties. Substance is a subspecies of value, a pattern of inorganic values.  Since subatomic particles make up the whole universe and they are deemed substance, then they are also deemed a static pattern of value.

Thinking of causation and substance as synonymous with value allows the crossover application to other fields of knowledge that also involve value, albeit much more dynamic patterns of value.  In this way, the Metaphysics of Quality is able to provide much simpler, better explanations of patterns of value.

The discrete moral orders

Science is a study of stable inorganic and biological patterns of value. Anthropology and the social sciences study a network of social patterns of value. Political science is the study of intellectual patterns of value.

All life and everything in the world is an ethical activity for Pirsig, but these are governed by a hierarchy of orders of morality or “betterness”. Inorganic patterns are governed by the Laws of Nature – physics & chemistry. Biological patterns seeks to triumph over the inorganic and is governed by survival of the fittest. Social patterns rise above the biological and are governed by social institutions such as criminal law and the family. Intellectual patterns that seek to contain society are governed by philosophy and Dynamic Quality.

Therefore, “it’s more moral for a social pattern to devour a biological pattern than for a biological pattern to devour a social pattern” (p.252).

What about the age-old dilemma that asks whether one person should die for the good of society? Pirsig says the man is not just a biological creature, but also a source of thought, and therefore intellect and ideas. This is a case of intellectual moral versus social morals, where it is more ethical for an idea to kill a society (evolution) than for a society to kill an idea (devolution).

In modern society, the most common conflict between the hierarchy of moral orders are social versus intellectual. However, Pirsig notes that the intellectual moral order cannot control the biological moral order – only the social moral order can do so. In the instance of crime, it is not possible for philosophers to think crime out of existence, but rather have police officers, soldiers and/or social workers deal directly with biological crime.

Applications to personal life

I have been struggling of late with intellectual beasts and I have found myself utterly alone in such battles. The high country of my mind is as much a part of me as any part of my body. I love him with all my heart and I do my best to share everything I have and am with him. But in the realm of philosophy, he is not able to follow me down roads he does not fully understand. In his words, they “go over his head”.

There was a line in the book that struck me as I was wrestling with this problem after the scene where Phaedrus and Lila make love: “the way their bodies paid no attention to all their social and intellectual differences and had gone on in as if these ‘people’ that ‘owned’ them didn’t exist at all”.

No person is an island. He grounds me in a way that is necessary to my understanding of life, not just from the intellectual point of view, but also the biological, the social and the artistic. When you’re wandering in the high country of the mind, it is so easy to get lost. You spend so much time looking at the stars that you forget you’re firmly rooted to the Earth. Then, you come back to civilization and you are bitter about ever having to leave the rugged beauty and mystery of the philosopher’s world.

He is something to come back to. He is a noun, like the Good. He is neither subjective nor objective, neither classic nor romantic, neither static nor dynamic. He simply is and all those dualisms are bound up in him.

Qui es veritas?

Throughout the book, Pirsig is obsessed with the notion of Dynamic Good. But Dynamic Good is not the same as Dynamic Quality. Dynamic Quality is some combination of Dynamic good and static good. Dynamic good cannot achieve a high level without being grounded in static good, through static latching as moral evolution progresses. Static patterns and static goods provide a necessary stabilizing force to protect leaps made through Dynamic Good (Dynamic Quality) from degeneration.

Going back to the original intent of the blog, perhaps the real question for this blog should not be “What is Truth?” but “What is Quality?” – and Quality as such cannot be defined, it precedes thought, we just know what it is a priori. As he notes: “Truth is a static intellectual pattern within a larger entity called “Quality” (p.416). “Value” is more direct, more everyday experience – the primary empirical experience (p.418). In whatever field of knowledge we are invested in, we have to ask “What is the Quality of this idea?”

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