I do not think that in the common relations of life it makes much difference whether one moral system or another is adopted. The feelings toward each other of husbands and wives, parents and children, relations, friends, neighbors, members of the same profession, business connections, members of the same nation, and so forth, grow up by themselves. Moral systems have to account for and more or less to regulate them, but human life forms the starting point of all systems worth having.
— James Fitzjames Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity
I remember being pleasantly surprised, and a little amused, to encounter this passage in Stephen’s book. Most Western conservatives tend to be pessimistic about the possibility of a sturdy morality independent of Christian dogma and practices. But according to Saul Frampton, Montaigne was similarly sanguine:
The answer he gives is a moral rather than a tactical one, however: that rebuilding morality involves restoring the proxemic beholdenness of men. At the heart of Montaigne’s morality is something that the ‘great and tedious debates about the best form of society’ and the ideal polities ‘feigned by art’ invariably tend to ignore:
“…that the society of men will hold and bind itself together, at whatsoever cost. In whatever position they are placed, they pile up and arrange themselves by moving and shuffling about, just as a group of objects thrown into a bag find their own way to join and fit together, often better than they could have been arranged deliberately.”
A certain ‘necessity reconciles and brings men together’. We are more beholden to each other than we know. Our language and our theories may seek to escape this, in attempting to find a mooring beyond ourselves, but we risk losing hold of what lies in front of us.
Currently, it’s fashionable in certain circles to criticize “moralistic therapeutic deism” for being “metaphysically thin.” (Some of us would say all metaphysics is thin by definition.) These are mostly the same people anticipating the imminent end of liberalism (it’s not always clear whether in eagerness or trepidation). I tend to think that intellectual theorizing, of both the revolutionary and reactionary variety, is myopic and full of manure. It’s nice to occasionally find myself in such august company.