Fantasizing the Mundane
In his classic book Why Not Socialism? the Marxist philosopher G.A Cohen famously argued for a system of collective ownership on ideal grounds on the basis of the virtues of solidarity and generosity. In a utopian framework, we would dispense with private property, which merely reflects a selfish desire to accumulate resources and benefit ourselves without regard for others. In his contemporary response Why Not Capitalism?, libertarian philosopher Jason Brennan has replied that Cohen’s conception of private property in utopia devalues the positive aspects of individual initiative, which reflect differing visions of the good life, as well as ways in which people are able to create as diverse forms of personal authenticity and self-worth. Utopia is capitalist, because even if we were generous and beneficent, we would want to live in a multiplicity of ways and pursue different projects that hold meaning for each of us.
Cohen and Brennan are engaging in ideal theory. That is, they discuss the systems which would be just in an ultimate sense, achievable if we were perfect moral agents. For them, the demands of justice rise higher than the limitations that real-world systems impose, since non-ideal theories are merely accommodations to a less than fully moral universe. In an ideal ethical world, justice would demand a system that takes advantage of our ability to fulfill its real obligations, not simply the ones we seem to be up to meeting.
It might seem like an idealized conception of morality is unhelpful, since an imaginary world would be based on a mix of characteristics dissimilar to our own. The notion of utopia is emergent from our general experience of the world as imperfect. It is ”no place”. Utopia is not a true destination, and thus not a helpful guide. We need to solve problems with realistic models. Another way of making this point is by saying, moral thought operates as an extrapolation from the meaningful intuitions that help ensure real harmony and cooperation. Morality’s main function is as a social glue for building societies, emergent from our encounters with historical experience. Alexander Schaefer has argued something like this to me in conversation:*
Me: ”Does purely ideal theory have any value? Do we learn anything about ourselves or how we ought to act as moral agents?”
Alex: ”Depends what moral theory is supposed to do. It also depends on the kinds of idealizations. Moral theory solves cooperation problems. If the idealizations eliminate the conditions that make cooperation necessary or difficult (e.g. scarcity) then they change the problem moral/political philosophy needs to solve and the questions it needs to answer, making it useless.”
Or as David Schmidtz writes in ‘’After Solipsism’’:
“We do not need to know whether moral institutions work necessarily, work perfectly, or are legally guaranteed to work. We don’t need to know what would work under imaginary conditions if only we had no need to confront the strategic reality of life among agents who decide for themselves.”
Jacob Levy puts it even more clearly, exhibiting characteristic sharpness and depth.
“In the realm of political philosophy, or of theorizing about justice, there is no such thing as ideal theory. The idea of a categorical distinction—the kind that could allow for a sequencing of stages of theorizing—is misconceived. The idea of normative political theory that is ideal in some absolute sense is a conceptual mistake, the equivalent of taking the simplifying models of introductory physics (“frictionless movement in a vacuum”) and trying to develop an ideal theory of aerodynamics. Like aerodynamics, political life is about friction; no friction, no politics or justice. Or, to take an analogy closer to our disciplinary home: ideal normative political theory is not like introductory microeconomics with its assumptions of perfect competition and perfect information, radically simplifying assumptions that can be useful in important ways. It is rather like introductory microeconomics with an added assumption of superabundance and the impossibility of scarcity in material goods. Plausible ideal theories necessarily smuggle in non-ideal premises in order to justify the need for politics and justice altogether. Those that fail to do so also fail to be plausible, collapsing into an ungrounded moral theory that lies across an unbridged gap from an articulation of political ideals of justice.”
What is Morality For?
I think there is much to be said for this view. Morality is in large part a framework for navigating our social interactions so as to create beneficial norms for cooperation. Political and ethical theories that fail to take this into account are highly problematic, to say the least. However, I also see significant problems. Morality is more than simply a set of informal ”rules of the game”. It also functions as an avenue to personal transcendence, a way to instill meaning into the world around us. One part of morality is social, built around sustaining interpersonal relationships. Another is highly personal, focused on evaluating what would add to a shared experience of life, built on individual discoveries of what is important or valuable. In other words, morality also functions as a kind of existential discovery process, where morality is interlocked with ‘’the good, the true, and the beautiful”. The trouble with seeing morality entirely in terms of a coordination problem is that it either presupposes or ignores broader implicit notions of meaning and value built into the fabric of cooperation.
This is a problem found frequently in the work of pure rational choice contractarians, among others. Among other issues, contractarian instrumentalists divorce the question of morality from an existential one, and replace it with simply a question of aligning incentives to allow for mutually beneficial private gain.
In The Order of Public Reason, Gerald Gaus argues that we should distinguish between “social morality”, and morality writ large.
“It is important to stress that social morality is but one aspect of morality, or the realm of the ethical. P. F. Strawson certainly understood the plurality of our moral practices. In his important (though underappreciated) paper, “Social Morality and Individual Ideal,” he distinguished the broad “region of the ethical” – which includes visions of what makes life worth living and what constitutes a noble or virtuous life – from a system of moral rules that structures social interaction. As Strawson saw it, individuals are devoted to a vast array of individual ideals: “self obliterating devotion to duty or to service to others; of personal honour and magnanimity; of asceticism, contemplation, retreat; of action, dominance and power; of the cultivation of ‘an exquisite sense of the luxurious’; of simple human solidarity and cooperative endeavour; of a refined complexity of social existence.” Pursuit and achievement of these ideals, Strawson argued, presupposes an organized social life, and for such a life there must be a system of shared expectations about what must and must not be done in our interactions with each other.”
From Norms to Reasons
It’s important to stress the value of the view that puts a premium on social morality, or morality as a means to solve the enduring issue of cooperation and collective action. Not merely because of the robust evidence demonstrating this function, but also because our reasons for being moral might be said to be derivative of it.
Sam Hammond says:
“…ethics lies not in formally consistent logical arguments, but the public recognition of norms. Where norms vary so does public reason. To the extent that some norms are more universal than others, it’s because discourse and other cultural evolutionary biases create normative convergence. Those convergent forces trace an outline of a more general logic behind certain norms that you can call transcendental, in the sense of being abstracted from human particularity.”
When we reason about why we should following rules and social conventions, a large part of it comes out of thinking about ourselves within a program of figuring out a means to achieve our individual goals. However, as Gaus notes, social morality is but a component of the far broader project of creating meaning within the universe we inhabit. A conception of morality that restrains it to coordination of interests gets at only some of morality’s more implicit functions. The project of defining institutions that correspond to particular ideal behaviours asks if our conception of morality as a set of cooperative signals acknowledges why we think such cooperation is truly important. In this way we arrive at the realm of reasons for action. However, there are different ways to think about the giving of reasons. At a summer seminar I attended a little while back with the Institute for Humane Studies, Andrew I. Cohen argued that reasons can be more properly understood as things of normative weight to consider in the evaluation of a course of action, not just logical steps in an argument. The justice of a situation, on this view, is but one consideration within a broader scheme of reason-giving. Following Cohen, we can see concerns about cooperation, or social morality, as but a reason within the array of concerns we have about the way our lives might be.
Sam’s argument that morality is emergent from interactive public norms, while plausible, nonetheless belies the point that to be moral is not merely a coordination game. It’s not just about the golden rule, or playing a tit for tat variant of an iterated prisoner’s dilemma. When we say we want to ‘’be better’’, that y is a ‘’good person,’’ or that people generally have dignity and are owed respect, they aren’t merely talking about obeying custom, giving people space, or cooperating. They rather allude to the sacred idea at the heart of economics- that of value creation, for oneself and others. We don’t give charity, create great works of art or do hundreds of other things merely to get ourselves or the tribe clothed and fed. We do it because it makes life worth living, far more than in a world without it. Any account of morality that fails to take into account the broader role that meaning plays in our lives is thus missing the boat. A theory of utopian virtues that imagines such a world tells us where we have left to climb, but not how to get there. Our reasons for acting come not only from the world we inhabit, but from our personal attempts to live within it.
This is because when I act morally, I transcend myself in favour of a something larger. An ideal picture of virtue asks what sort of person I would like to be. Theorizing from this picture gives us a model of what values are embedded. Brennan provides an example modified from one by the philosopher David Estlund (my emphases):
‘’Suppose we go out for a picnic. On a hill in the distance, we see the perfect spot. We can tell from here that this picnic spot is better than any other. It’s much better than our current spot. However, suppose it is difficult, impossible, or just too costly to get there. Suppose for instance, that to get to that spot, we would have to cross a deep ravine, a briar patch, and a swamp filled with alligators. Suppose there’s also a magical fog surrounding the hill. This fog transforms morally imperfect people like you & me into murderous zombies, though it has no effect on perfectly virtuous people. Faced with such obstacles, we should not try to reach the perfect picnic spot. Yet, none of these obstacles make the picnic spot on the hill any less perfect or desirable in itself. The picnic spot, in itself, is still better than any spot we will reach. If we could get to that better spot, without having to suffer the costs of doing so, we would.’’
(The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes– Neil Gaiman)
Morality as Myth
One way to think about this is to understand morality is not purely as sets of theses, but as stories we tell about ourselves. As Adam Gurri (channeling Deirdre McCloskey) has argued, it’s all about persuasion. Behaving ethically is intimately tied in with how we conceive of our lives, and our experiences within them. Our models are thus reflective of a narrative. Imagined ideals are “mythologies” of how we could be and what our lives reflect. Thus, any elimination or addition of a characteristic must to take into account the necessary depth to the tale we are trying to get across. An overly altruistic moral theory removes the important positive elements from personal initiative that add value to the world. An overly individualistic one ignores the necessity of solidarity and support of others as a reflection of duty stemming from the recognition of value. Brennan imagines the maintenance of selfish values alongside the expansion of virtuous behaviour. Ultimately, both of them implicitly ask: what kind of story should we tell?
Stories matter, because stories are how we tell each other, and ourselves, about who we are, and the broader “morality game” we are playing. Consider a classic episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled “Darmok”. Here, the crew of The Enterprise is at a loss when they encounter a new species who communicate entirely through metaphors and narrative allusions. Eventually, Captain Picard discovers that cultural bridging can only occur through parallel narrative storytelling, as seen here:
In the end, what ‘”Darmok” shows us is that language is sewn from the fabric of reasons for being. Moral language isn’t just about asking, how should I treat others, but also- who do I want to be? What is life all about?
The methodology of story allows us to begin to integrate these dual elements, by pairing them within a context, or overarching world, rather than as competing aspirations or sets of duties. Story telling isn’t a form of falsehood. Stories, or myths, come in two forms. The first, with a lower-case ‘m’, implies a fantasy with no bearing on reality. The second, with a capital ‘M’, implies a broader landscape of self-understanding. It is in fact, a way to think about reasons. Ideal theory can’t tell us how to live our lives, any more than a myth can. What is can do is help explain to us how to discover what our lives might be for.
From the Existential to the Just: “From The Right Way To Be to The Right Thing To Do’’
David Schmidtz, Jacob Levy, and my friend (and soon to be awesome philosopher) Alexander Schaefer all say ethics has to be practical. I say- true, but it also needs to be meaningful. Analysis of norms commonly function externally, without taking into account the reasons for which they emerge. This brings us back to our two protagonists- Cohen and Brennan. Cohen’s challenge, Brennan reminds us, is to point out that practical criticisms of feasibility do little to answer the question of which economic system and society is actually more desirable from an ethical point of view. This desirability criteria itself requires an account of desirability. Such an account can only happen in relation to a meaningful self-conception. To do this, we need a way to bridge the two worlds, to have Darmok and Jalad meet at Tanagra. This might allow us to think more clearly about what political project we truly want, and unify the real with the ideal. In the end, to counter-paraphrase Kierkegaard, “I dip my finger into existence….it smells…. of something.’’
*This post is indebted to my dialogues with Alex as pointers toward important material and in helping to flesh out or challenge ideas. Any mistakes are mine.