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.