Three Observations About Moral Philosophy Today


Below are three features of contemporary moral philosophy that I’ve observed, and that may be worth discussing. I present them largely without judgment, except to say here that each seems like a mixed bag. Feel free to discuss, evaluate, elaborate, etc.  These aren’t the only observations I have about moral philosophy today, but they are ones that recent events have brought to mind. You’re of course welcome to note other aspects of contemporary moral philosophy you think are worth drawing attention to.

1. There has been an extraordinary proliferation of philosophical expertise over the past couple of decades (at least), by which I mean a noticeable increase in the both the sophistication of philosophical argument on, and facility with the empirical facts regarding, very specific morally significant phenomena. In other words, there are formidable ethical experts on particular types of actions and events and conditions who are more knowledgeable of and skillful at philosophizing about them than very smart and talented general ethicists.

2. It appears that moral philosophers have a high degree of confidence in “commonsense morality.” Moral judgments that conform with common moral “intuitions” are often taken to be obviously correct (either because they themselves are fixed anchor points in one’s moral reasoning, or because they follow from one’s more general moral outlook). Whether philosophers are exhibiting more or less of this philosophical conservatism compared to earlier periods is hard to ascertain. It seems like more, but that may be a product of comparing the relatively few philosophers of the past who’ve survived the filter of history (at least some, in part, for the distinctiveness of their views), with the unfiltered mass of today’s philosophers.

3. Moral philosophers seem very concerned with the negative pragmatic effects of the expression of philosophical views and arguments. That the expression of some ideas (in various contexts ranging from private to public) may cause harm, or reinforce undesirable attitudes, or in some other way be dangerous, is regularly a part of the discussion of those ideas. Additionally, the negative effects of misinterpretations of philosophical ideas by laypersons (who might be unfamiliar with philosophical terms of art, or who might ignore subtle but important distinctions) are also brought to bear on discussions of these ideas. There seems to be less discussion of positive pragmatic effects.

Stuart Davis, “Egg Beater No.4”

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Knot
Knot
4 years ago

This is satire, correct? Your first item must be read as sarcasm, lest one think that you truly believe that the complexity revealed by recent research in moral sciences and philosophy manifests expertise rather than ignorance.Report

Knot
Knot
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
4 years ago

So that’s your joke, right?Report

Urstoff
Urstoff
4 years ago

Point 2 should probably be amended: not just commonsense morality, but the commonsense morality of a certain type of person: educated, well-off, urban, etc. All the qualities typical of a professor. I would like to know how much the commonsense morality of a philosophy professor differs from the commonsense morality of people with vastly different backgrounds, occupations, incomes, educations levels, etc.

Also, the conservatism you highlight in Point 3 seems to me to detract from philosophical argumentation in general. After all, reacting to an argument with moral indignation rather than counter-argument is itself a form of begging the question. Examples abound, with the latest being responses to this: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/03/opinion/who-is-the-victim-in-the-anna-stubblefield-case.htmlReport

Charles Justice
Reply to  Urstoff
4 years ago

Morality is by its nature common. There are no actual moral authorities. No Supreme Court of Morality. Everyone knows what is right and wrong, and the disputes almost always center on interpretations of moral situations, not on the principles themselves. We all agree it is wrong to kill. The disputes are over the exceptions: is war wrong? Is abortion killing? Ignorance of moral rules, excepting children and mentally ill, is not an excuse. That’s because everyone learns right and wrong in the process of growing up. It appeared to me, that most of the responses to the NYT Singer article were not from philosophers.Report

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
4 years ago

One motivation for 2 is just humility: the sense that moral philosophers don’t have greater moral insight, especially about particular cases, than other people and should check that their intuitions are shared before building theories upon them. Or it’s a conciliatory view about peer disagreement plus the view that non-philosophers are, on certain moral questions, philosophers’ epistemic peers.Report

Heath White
Heath White
4 years ago

Examples would help on all of these points. For instance, the examples I can think of regarding #3, concern for the pragmatic effects of expressing views/arguments, are all on the PC left. But maybe there are other examples you have in mind.

There could be an interaction between #1 and #2. That is, a lot of extreme social/economic/political views look plausible if you abstract away from the facts on the ground. The more familiar one gets with nitty-gritty details, the more likely it is that “common sense morality” has evolved a pretty good answer to your question.Report

John Schwenkler
Reply to  Heath White
4 years ago

Heath, I don’t mean to be snide, but is concern that a form of argument will have the pragmatic effect of (say) encouraging or being seen as a way to justify or rationalize rape or abuse or killing of the disabled really the province of “the PC left”? (The correct answer is ‘No’.)Report

Matt McAdam
Matt McAdam
Reply to  John Schwenkler
4 years ago

The “(say)” is doing a lot of work here, no?, given that Heath didn’t say anything about that case.Report

John Schwenkler
Reply to  Matt McAdam
4 years ago

I thought it fair to assume that the example of this phenomenon that had been prominently exemplified at Daily Nous just yesterday was likely one of the examples that Heath could think of.Report

Heath White
Heath White
Reply to  Heath White
4 years ago

Thanks to Justin and John for mentioning examples. I take it John was referring to the Belgian lecture on abortion resulting in the professor’s suspension.

I agree that there is a lot more of this pragmatic-consequences objecting than there used to be. I’m more skeptical that it’s coming from *moral philosophers* taken as a group. (I’m sure we could find a few.) I will take correction from those better-informed than myself on this point, however.Report

Oliver Traldi
Oliver Traldi
Reply to  Heath White
4 years ago

It is rather strange because “pragmatic-consequences” criticisms do not, as a rule, come from consequentialists. It comes more often from people who say things like “This theory is accurately called ‘racist’ because the historical circumstances in which it was originated led to it being applied in a racist manner.”Report

John Schwenkler
Reply to  Heath White
4 years ago

Hi Heath, sorry if I was obscure. I was referring to the discussion of the Singer and McMahan op-ed.

I think you are entirely right on the last point.Report

Oliver Traldi
Oliver Traldi
4 years ago

Following your numbering, it’s true that there are certainly a lot of philosophers these days who are (1) good at coming up with convoluted arguments as to (2) why they should be so certain that (3) their run-of-the-mill identity politics activism is urgent and justified. I agree with you that this is a mixed bag.Report

Marcus Arvan
4 years ago

It is not epistemically humble to defer presumptively to moral “commonsense.” It is epistemically problematic, running a serious risk of conferring undue presumptive epistemic value on popular prejudices of a given time, particularly if those prejudices are widely held (or widely held among academic philosophers). Prevailing methods in moral philosophy (reflective equilibrium, intuitions about reasons, testing theories against cases, etc.) lack any independent means of distinguishing what is actually morally true from what an investigator or groups of investigators might merely want to be morally true (viz. confirmation bias). Real epistemic humility requires far stricter epistemic standards than this–standards like those in the hard sciences that are specifically designed to prevent confirmation bias.Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  Marcus Arvan
4 years ago

What’s the alternative method that enables us to find out what’s actually morally true in an unprejudiced way?Report

Marcus Arvan
Reply to  David Mathers
4 years ago

Funny you should ask. I argue in my 2016 book (see link below) that the proper method is seven principles of theory-selection adopted directly from the hard-sciences, each of which is subsumed under a principle of ‘Firm Foundations’ which requires basing moral and political theorizing on the rapidly emerging science of moral cognition and motivation.

I cannot rehearse the entire argument here for obvious reasons, but in brief I argue that G.E.M. Anscombe had it mostly right in 1958 when she wrote in her seminal article ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’: ‘…it is not profitable for us at present to do moral philosophy; that should be laid aside at any rate until we have an adequate philosophy of psychology, in which we are conspicuously lacking.”

Fortunately, it is no longer 1958. We now have an increasingly well-confirmed picture of moral psychology than back then (also second link below), and (or so I argue) basing moral theorizing and argument on firm empirical bases has a far stronger claim to truth than alternative approaches.

http://www.bookmetrix.com/detail/chapter/b86c55e5-0d77-4ccb-b39f-d212be55f60a#citations

http://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/blog/2017/02/empirical-underpinnings-of-moral-judgment-and-motivation.htmlReport

Marcus Arvan
Reply to  Marcus Arvan
4 years ago

To preclude the (inevitable?) objection “you cannot derive oughts from what is” (i.e. from science), see my reply to Pendaran in the comments section here: http://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/blog/2017/03/ndpr-rightness-as-fairness.html

You very much can derive an ought from an is: all you need to do is get the semantics right.Report

Tim
Tim
Reply to  Marcus Arvan
4 years ago

“All you need to do is get the semantics right.”

This is probably the single most widely applicable and useful thing I will take with me from my philosophy education. Of course, the “All you need to do” part makes it sound easier than it (normally) is…Report

Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

“…2. It appears that moral philosophers have a high degree of confidence in “commonsense morality.” Moral judgments that conform with common moral “intuitions” are often taken to be obviously correct…”

As a mere student of the subject in general, I share this particular observation, and find it to be extremely frustrating. As someone who has always thought that the goal of philosophy was to get at the underlying “why” of things, I’ve always found philosophers of ethics — even general ethicists like Peter Singer — to be too focused on selling a particular “what” that they prefer, and not enough interested in finding a “why” for it. Rather than keep digging, philosophers seem to want to find some vacant piece of arbitrary sand into which they can stick their own “Here Be Value” flag. Even Kant did this, in the end.

But maybe it’s just because I’m some random 95-IQ on the internet, that the obviousness of these things isn’t so obvious to me…Report

Carnap
Carnap
4 years ago
Greg Gauthier
Reply to  Carnap
4 years ago

The problem here, is that philosophers are playing with a black box, fundamentally. One of them walks up to it, and kicks it, and flowers pop out. Another walks up to it, smacks it on the top, and 500 miles away an infant dies of neglect. Yet another walks up to it, strokes it along the side, and somewhere in Africa, thousands of little girls get their clitoris cut out. Then another walks up to it, and yells at it, and a big basket of candy pops out.

There’s no telling what’s next. Morality is the warp-engine that drives human behaviour. Until we are able to reverse-engineer the alien technology of this black box, it makes sense to me why we’d be a little worried about what it might do, to just pick a spot and smack it.Report

Urstoff
Urstoff
Reply to  Carnap
4 years ago

Indeed, and as with most accusations of its kind, there no evidence is cited in support of the claim “Vulnerable people will be harmed as a result of this defense.” And, of course, “harm” in this sense may simply be begging the question if it’s the kind of harm that Singer and McMahan said didn’t occur in that case. What happened to philosophy when the first response is no longer to try to argue against a position? [okay, that’s never really been the case, but it seems particularly not the case these days, especially in social/moral philosophy]Report

Wesley Buckwalter
Wesley Buckwalter
4 years ago

It seems to me that moral philosophers are genearlly uninterested in commonsense morality, i.e. moral psychology, much beyond lip service and are often dismissive of efforts uncovering how it works. But my experiences may not be representative so genuinely curious to learn the thinking otherwise.Report

Marcus Arvan
Reply to  Wesley Buckwalter
4 years ago

Wesley: why do you think there is any close connection between commonsense morality and moral psychology? As I read the emerging empirical literature, there is precious little connection between what we know scientifically about moral psychology and what people (both philosophers and everyday people) take “commonsense morality” to be. Or is that your point?Report

Rob
Rob
4 years ago

Hi Justin,

It would be very interesting if you could point us (or just me if you don’t want to make it public) to some examples of (1). Some paper or book that you found particularly well empirically informed and sophisticated. You made me curious!Report