Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The philosopher's role is just to point out contradictions and entailments

Thanks to Tommi Uschanov I recently read Catherine Wilson's "On Some Alleged Limitations to Moral Endeavor." The title of this post comes from it, as Wilson imagines what Peter Singer would have said to critics who claimed that he ignores the importance of what we care about and is too demanding when he says we should forego many of our pleasures in order to give more to the needy. Roughly speaking (and I have sat on this post long enough that I'm starting to forget the article) Wilson wants to find some alternative to Singer's non-motivating altruism and Thomas Nagel's possibly-seeming complacency.

The single thing that has stuck with me the most from this paper is Nagel's reference to our wanting to spend money on, among other things, stemware. I own wineglasses, but this still tended to push me toward Singer's camp. It's one thing to resist changing your whole way of life in order to give to the poor, but what kind of way of life centrally involves not just using but shopping for stemware? And if we concede this point, if we accept that Nagel has strayed too far from Singer (even if we don't agree with Singer), what else might have to go?

Wilson recommends "letting the lives of people who do not shop, or travel, or enjoy professional entertainment, make their own impression on us" so that "the perception of a gulf between the private and the public sphere is altered and the superstition that one's own good fortune is either morally deserved, or a highly improbable but lucky accident, undermined." This seems like good advice, but it might be easier said than done. Rich people can't just go and make poor friends, after all. There is journalism, though, and fiction, if real-life contact is not an option.

If we do let the lives of the poor make an impression on us, then what? If we can do what Wilson suggests, presumably by informing ourselves about how the other half lives (or belonging to that half) and keeping these people in mind long enough and often enough to influence our thinking about the world (or at least politics) more generally, then we won't want these people to suffer. We probably don't want them to suffer anyway.

Which means that we might not have to change what we care about or stop caring about stemware or anything else in order to behave decently. What we need to do, or so I would like to think, is to bring our various concerns together and, roughly speaking, to rank them. To get them in order. We don't want other people to live miserable or restricted lives. We don't want to be callous. We don't want to be hypocritical. We do want nice stemware (perhaps). OK. Now let's think about (and find out about) how these and other facts relate to each other. Can we have all the things we want? If not, what must go?

This line of thinking is likely to push us in Singer's direction, I think, but it isn't pure Singer or pure utilitarianism. It might lead to nothing more in practice than support for a political party that promotes greater equality. But at least it isn't purely defeatist or positively celebratory of the lifestyle of the comfortable shopper. The danger of my view, or one danger at any rate, is that it is essentially the same as Nagel's. But I don't think it can be, since I agree with Wilson, who rejects Nagel's position. So perhaps the danger is that I'm just too far from Singer. But I am far from Singer, and it's hard for me to believe that this is a bad thing. I'm not just far from him in terms of where we end up but also in terms of where we start from and how we go on from there.

Well, this blog is in danger of withering on the vine if I let other things and a desire not to post rubbish get in the way, so I'm going to hit 'publish.' Next up, G. A. Cohen.

4 comments:

  1. I was glad to have my attention drawn to Catherine Wilson’s rich and thought-provoking article, bringing to the fore issues concerning the relation between moral psychology and normative ethics.

    You ask: ”Can we have all the things we want? If not, what must go?” I believe we are all of us intrigued by questions like these from time to time. So I think you raise important issues.

    The urge to ask questions like these seems to be connected with our inclination to regard morality as a matter of following certain rules or principles. Just as a law-abiding citizen may lead a legally impeccable life, so, it is thought, one may lead a morally impeccable life by adhering to the principles of morality. Hence we are worried by the question what is demanded of us in the face of the misery of the earth. We wish that someone would draw a line indicating what can be expected of us. Can I be impeccable and still go on enjoying the comforts of my upper middle-class life?

    However, I would argue – and I guess you may well agree – that this conception of morality, though highly tempting and widely held, is deeply flawed. Morality is not a system telling us what to do, rather we have to assume responsibility for our decisions every step of the way. There is no ready-made formula for handling the challenges that life poses from all directions.

    In answer to the lawyer’s question “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10: 25-37), Christ narrates the story of the Good Samaritan, ending by asking “Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” The lawyer replies, ”The one who showed mercy on him.” Christ’s point, as I understand it, is that in a context like this nothing much hangs on definitions: what matters is what we make of the situation that confronts us.

    I should like to suggest that questions like, “Who is my neighbour?”, “Can I be impeccable and still go on enjoying the comforts of my upper middle-class life?”, “Is it permissible to x, y or z?” are to be understood as rhetorical: expecting someone else to answer them for you is a form of moral escapism. This of course doesn’t mean that dialogue may not be helpful, even crucial for gaining clarity.

    (As it happens, I am just now reading Craig Taylor’s discussion of these issues in the chapter “Overwheening Morality” in his book *Moralism*, which deals with these issues.)

    One might add that, as a matter of political realism, while donations may be a help in connection with natural disasters and refugee problems, the removal of trade barriers abroad and a policy of more equitable distribution of wealth in our own countries are more likely to be of genuine use.

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    1. Thanks, Lars.

      You say: "However, I would argue – and I guess you may well agree – that this conception of morality, though highly tempting and widely held, is deeply flawed. Morality is not a system telling us what to do, rather we have to assume responsibility for our decisions every step of the way. There is no ready-made formula for handling the challenges that life poses from all directions."

      I completely agree. When I asked "What must go?" I meant this as a question each of us has to ask and answer, in some sense, alone. As you say, dialogue may be helpful or even essential, but it is one's own priorities that need to be put in order, as far as this is possible. And although I mentioned ranking preferences that isn't really quite what I mean. There is a kind of weighing in the heart, I think, that one has to do. This is similar to what Wilson means when she talks about letting people's lives make their own impression on us. It involves paying attention to people (and animals, etc.) and to one's own evaluations of them, and one's own behavior. I can't see there being any formula for doing this properly, and doing it provides no guarantee that one will be impeccable. Nor will any two people necessarily respond in the same way.

      Perhaps all I'm saying is that one should be informed, thoughtful, and not heartless. Another word for this might be 'responsible.' And no one can be responsible for anyone else's decisions. Nor, once made, are these decisions over. The need for thoughtfulness does not go away.

      I'll have to keep thinking about this though. I don't want to say that whatever one's preferences are is just fine so long as they are in some sense coherent. But perhaps that's the best we can do, the most we can reasonably ask of ourselves.

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    2. That’s right. Morally speaking we can do no better than we find it in ourselves to do. (Someone might threaten us or pay us to do worthwhile things, but then of course our action would not be an expression of our moral stature.)
      On the other hand, what we find it in ourselves to do often isn’t immediately apparent to us. We may embark on a course of action and then be struck by its being neglectful of someone, or unfair, etc. Or someone else may make us see this.
      We should note too that there are limits to what kinds of attitudes can intelligibly be attributed to a person. If someone didn’t see that an action being neglectful or unfair counted against doing it, we would probably conclude that she didn’t know what the words meant. But then again, there may be variations in what people consider neglectful or unfair (and besides, people may be knowingly neglectful or unfair – but then, would they not have to have a guilty conscience?).

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    3. That all sounds right. Thank you.

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