This One Theory Will Make You Moral

Featured Image is Jonah and the Whale, by Carlos Antonio Tavella

What makes such questions as justice and ethics properly philosophical is precisely that there is such widespread disagreement about what kind of reasons are valid, and what the shape of a valid argument looks like. The methods of answering look very different for theists and atheists, reductive materialists and Christians, Romantics, Marxists, Feminists and Nihilists. The differences between them are not empirical disagreements, nor are there a set of axioms to which we can garner universal consent, nor even a process for generating axioms. The reason why philosophy is necessary, the reason why it arose in the first place, is precisely because of this disagreement.

-Andrew Fitzandrew, Does Ethical Theory Still Exist?

A friend recently said “moral philosophy doesn’t know what it’s doing anymore and neither do I.” Andrew’s post, quoted above, has a similar feel to it.

It is entirely legitimate, and possibly correct, to argue that philosophical methods cannot produce truthful knowledge about the world or ourselves, and is at best rationalizations of deeper processes.

It’s hard to escape this conclusion, if morality is expected to be a topic akin to astronomy and produce insights of a similar nature. Andrew does not expect that, but he sees this deviation as the source of a problem. I do not expect it either.

What might it mean for moral philosophy to “know what it’s doing,” when we acknowledge we cannot expect the precision of a scientific answer?

The Art of Living

One well written short story is worth a thousand books of moral philosophy.

(Some might argue I am currently testing this hypothesis by attempting to read a thousand such books)

Morality is neither subjective nor objective; it is immanent in human life. There is no shortcut to learning it, other than to live. There are no guarantees that you will get it right in each case or on the whole, even if you enlist the advice of, or heatedly discuss differing points of view with, a large number of people.

Expanding beyond the narrow confines of your personal experience is only possible through stories. The stories people share about themselves and those they have known are invaluable, but fiction is equally so.

What distinguishes such stories from philosophical thought experiments is the embeddedness enabled by the former. No one really believes themselves to be in a trolley problem, when it is formulated. We think through such things much like we would think through a word problem in math or logic.

But a story with characters has the power to draw us in; to create a world for us. Living vicariously is closer to actually living than the narrow world of a thought experiment allows. When we feel sharply that a main character has done something very wrong, but there is still something fundamentally good about them, we have taken something valuable away from the story which may serve us in more ambiguous circumstances.

So the quick answer to the question of how to do moral theory is: don’t. Read a book, watch a show, talk with your friends and loved ones about events in your life, theirs, and people you know. Write a story yourself. Live your life.


All that said, our articulations of the goods we order our life around have important implications. Avoiding the development of frameworks entirely is simply ceding the task to others, who may not be friends to your way of life.

My argument must wrestle in the arena Andrew, with Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and many others, have identified. When I emphasize the priority of life and art over formal frameworks, this is not a neutral decision. Akiva makes many good points but ultimately there is only so much you can hedge; the fox in reality is a fox of a certain species.

Less metaphorically, there are always bigger meta-frameworks which take priority over the smaller ones we allow to remain in tension. I have seen this explicitly among modern Thomists who seem keen to integrate insights from thinkers that seem, at first glance, utterly at odds with their framework—from Foucault to Marx. But it always goes on implicitly in all pluralist endeavors; even if the result is rife with contradiction.

So my utterly non-neutral claim is this: we must always attend to the phenomena of actually lived life, when we are dealing in moral philosophy. Life, conversation, and artistic portrayal, are primary.

The strength of ethical philosophy as practiced by Aristotle is precisely that he emphasized life and experience above formal theorizing. Ethical theory was worse than useless for children, by his reckoning. And indeed it is the structure of life itself that his framework centers on.

What this adds in practice is not a formula for determining right and wrong, but a lens, or a hermeneutic, through which to view life as you already know it. When Akiva and I debate higher and lower ways of life, my main evidence is not drawn from Aristotle but from life. Aristotle does not provide evidence at all, especially in this era where his authority has all but disappeared. Instead, he provides helpful clarifications, or organizing principles. He certainly doesn’t provide a decision procedure or clear-cut taxonomy.

The longer answer to our question is therefore: live your life, read, write, argue, listen. Read the classics of moral philosophy to get a sense of what terrain has already been explored, and always bring what you have learned back down to Earth, where people actually live.

If you cannot do that, if you find yourself floating in among the clouds in abstraction, then throw your philosophy books in the trash, and move on.


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4 thoughts on “This One Theory Will Make You Moral

  1. “So the quick answer to the question of how to do moral theory is: don’t. Read a book, watch a show, talk with your friends and loved ones about events in your life, theirs, and people you know. Write a story yourself. Live your life.”

    Slick. Like that.

  2. “Less metaphorically, there are always bigger meta-frameworks which take priority over the smaller ones we allow to remain in tension.”

    Right. Exactly. But is the only way to examine minor frameworks practical experience? I’m not sure. I want to argue that there is an a priori derivable system of major axioms that leads to the malleability of minor principles. But I only have a practical example to defend it!

    Philosophically speaking, maybe another time when I had done some hard work to think through a system of meta-preferences in an economic model, or a system of priors organized in a Bayesian mind that recommend lower order priors, or something like that, I’d actually have an a prior explanation for how systems of morals develop in practice.

    But all I can say is that as a person who came from the far, far social justice left, felt disenchanted, found libertarianism, and then found a discriminating university. As that person, the only way I was able to accept that women and minorities are discriminated against in universities, just like rich white conservative men, is that universities operate like a cartel, whose demographic discrimination is blind to those demographics that aren’t already in the cartel.

    This is the best evidence, for me so far, that moral principles — well ok at least axiomatic first principles — are indeed given by and descend from Big Narratives, from first principles, in an ordered way.

    Living at the margins of persuasion, of theoretical reconsideration, might have to be done in practice qua in practice (I just said qua). But those marginal changes in minor beliefs and morals do, I think, almost always descend from meta narratives. To your point, or adding to it a bit, maybe — those meta narratives may be most effectively juggled in hypothetical space, in the conditional tense, in stories and movies and Netflix binges.

    1. I wouldn’t want to say that practical experience is the only way to examine philosophical stuff. Abstract reasoning, logic, and even math are tremendously important. It’s more that—in ethics, and for anything that touches on human experience—practical experience is needed to keep us grounded. We can very quickly drift up into the clouds and away from any connection to anything real.

      However, it should be said there’s an implicit circularity to my argument. I’m drawing on an Aristotelian framework, informed particularly by people like Gadamer and Taylor, in which human practices point toward implicit notions of goodness. “Arguments” about the good can occur at this implicit level, expressed through how we go about our practice, but also at the explicit level, when we articulate rationales and, in the limit, attempt to formulate frameworks. (This is fleshed out more in the “We Participate in Multitudes” post).

      The circularity is this: I feel comfortable saying that we should attend to human experience and art in no small part because of an abstract, explicitly formulated framework. So on the basis (in part) of an explicitly articulated framework, I’m saying explicitly articulated frameworks aren’t that important.

      This is why I brought up the neutrality thing: in asserting that philosophy is lower than life and art, I’m asserting a philosophy.

      It’s not circular in a fallacious sense though; it just needs to be defended. So when you say that we should be able to formulate principles axiomatically, you’re asserting a rival framework which has conflicting implications. (I recognize that you come to a position closer to mine than that—but just wanted to use that as an example! 🙂 )

  3. Daniel Shannon

    Goods tend to be nonmoral, such as health and well-being. Morality indicates characer that we acquire by habit. No theory can make you moral since no theory compels you to act. A decent moral theory can describe or explain moral action and character. That’s about it.

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