Thursday, March 11, 2021

Moral Philosophy and Moral Life

Review of Moral Philosophy and Moral Life by Anne-Marie S√łndergaard Christensen, Oxford University Press, 2020


I was hoping that someone would ask me to review this book, but they didn’t, so I’m just reviewing it for my own sake. If I read a book without writing about it, it tends to go in one ear and out the other. I’d like this one to stay in my head.

Roughly speaking, the book is a kind of synthesis of all the best work (e.g. by Iris Murdoch, John McDowell, Alice Crary, Bernard Williams, Martha Nussbaum, Stanley Cavell, and Cora Diamond) that has been done in the last seventy years or so on what moral philosophy (aka ethics) is and should be.  This makes it sound like a compilation, which in a way it is, but only in the sense that the great pyramids are piles of rocks. Christensen seems to have read everything worth reading on the subject (which is a lot), understood it all (which is rare), and seen how best to fit it all together, including where to make necessary cuts, additions and adjustments. Respect for Christensen (and myself) requires critical engagement with her ideas and arguments, so I’ll try not simply to agree with everything she says, but I can’t muster much disagreement. In what follows I’ll try to provide a sense of what the book is about by questing, Quixote-style, for something to take issue with. Or, to put it perhaps less absurdly, I will try to apply some Cartesian acid of doubt and see what remains. The bottom line is that it is very acid-resistant. The second to bottom line is that I am going to get very nit-picky at times, but you should remember if you read on that my attempts to find fault all fail. In short, it’s a very good book indeed.

The nature of the work is reflected in the cover, which shows what I think is EgonSchiele’s “House with Shingles”. The house looks as though it has been added to over time, perhaps by different owners, so that there is a sense of the work of construction’s having been done collectively and not all at once. It is a large and appealing house. Similarly, Christensen’s work brings together ideas and arguments from various philosophers, mostly from recent years but going back as far as Aristotle. She combines them to create a capacious and attractive account of what moral philosophy should be, and how it can relate to our moral lives.

Christensen’s goal, which is in some ways more modest than her title might suggest, is “to present a suggestion for a renewed conception of moral philosophy that is valuable in its own right and may also influence debates about the role of moral theories and moral philosophy in relation to our moral lives.” (p. 3) What her book is responding to, without necessarily claiming to provide a complete response, is: “The challenge […] to present a substantial alternative that can replace the twentieth-century view of moral philosophy as a theory-developing science. “ (p. 6)

Instead of telling us what to do, or providing some sort of mechanism for producing such instruction, moral philosophy should be descriptive, she argues. This might seem disappointingly unhelpful, but she offers a nice description of how moral philosophy could be useful even while being purely descriptive and (in some sense) leaving everything as it is:

philosophy works on our attention, to give us a clearer view of moral life but also to bring us to notice what we tend to overlook, or what we have never before noticed as being of moral importance. Moral philosophy aids our orientation in moral life in a way that is somewhat similar to the way that for example maps, roads signs, aerial photographs and written descriptions may help our orientation in a landscape, and a descriptive approach is in this way meant to enable an understanding of moral life that reveals its many different features and their vital importance to us. (p. 10)

Later she says that “there are at least three ways in which descriptive moral philosophy is practical, namely in furthering our moral orientation, our moral attention, and our moral development” (p. 201) Such description is not neutral, as might be thought. It is itself a moral task, requiring a sense of what matters to moral thinking and moral life.

Her argument for rejecting the idea of moral philosophy as (nothing but) normative theory begins with the fact that both Iris Murdoch and Elizabeth Anscombe posed serious challenges to this conception of moral philosophy in the 1950s (specifically Murdoch’s “Vision and Choice” in 1956 and Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy” in 1958). Summarizing what she sees as the key points of these papers, at least as far as her immediate project goes, Christensen notes that:

both Murdoch and Anscombe criticise contemporary moral philosophers for being unduly generalising, for reacting to the lack of an authoritative moral framework by seeking a foundation where no foundation is available and for simply dressing up their own favourite moral prejudices and conventions as moral theories. These criticisms have resounded through moral philosophy since the two pioneering articles were published (p. 19)

The fact that criticisms have been made does not mean much on its own, of course, but the response has not been sufficiently impressive. Martha Nussbaum’s defence of moral theory, or moral philosophy as moral theory, for instance, fails to address some criticisms of moral theory, instead focusing on what would amount to criticisms only of bad theory. Or so Christensen argues. For instance, Nussbaum mentions the criticism that moral theory offers crude guidance, which Christensen seems to take to mean that theory allegedly gives bad advice, which it sort of does, but I think maybe Nussbaum’s idea, or the idea she is trying to capture and defend theory against, is that theory gives overly simple or insufficiently nuanced advice, such as never lie or always return weapons you have borrowed to their legal owner. Some critics of moral theory think it is in the nature of a moral theory that it will always be liable to problems of this sort, which involve undesirable inflexibility in response to the details of particular circumstances. In this sense, allegedly, even the best moral theory—not only a bad one—will give crude advice. (Whereas Christensen writes that: “Nussbaum says that moral theory is criticised for giving ‘crude guidance’, but it seems unlikely that this point would be raised by theory-critics; it is rather a point of criticism that a proponent of one theory would raise against another, different and competing theory” (p.33.)) So it is possible that Christensen has misconstrued Nussbaum’s point here—though also possible that she hasn’t (it might just as well be me who is misconstruing Christensen)—but Christensen has much more to say against Nussbaum’s defence of theory, and she takes up (and defends) precisely this kind of concern about inflexibility later in the book. In other words, if she is wrong here then it doesn’t matter in the end.

The strongest pro-theory kind of view “allows theory to require revisions in our moral understanding if such an understanding does not correspond to the theory’s requirements” (p. 37) Against this view, Christensen draws on the work of Bernard Williams, who:

opposes the strong view of the authority of moral theory on the grounds that we cannot provide a universally justified foundation of theory that would authorise a revision of our moral convictions, to which he adds the stronger point that the aim of moral thought is not to live up to certain theoretical requirements, for example that of internal consistency, but to allow us to build a framework for a liveable life. (p. 37)

To this she adds a point from Julia Annas:

we should be very sceptical of any conception of morality according to which what is required of us morally is that we should act or think in accordance with standards imposed on us from outside. This idea is problematic because it misconstrues a basic feature of the moral, namely that we always ourselves bear responsibility for making our own judgements, and thus it seems likely to impede the development of our own abilities of moral discernment, judgement, and critique. (p. 37)

I wasn’t immediately sure that I agreed with Annas about this. It’s true that we are responsible for making our own judgments, but must we be very skeptical of conceptions of morality that see standards as being imposed on us from outside? For instance, as being commanded by God? Or as being required by what we might call the nature of things? Where, for instance, does the idea come from that I must not thwart your will for the sake of my own? Perhaps ‘nowhere’ is the right answer (we shouldn’t be looking for a place if we want to understand the source of ethics), but ‘from our community’ or ‘from your reality as a fellow being’ seem like reasonable attempts at an answer. Christensen shows considerable sympathy for the former of these answers (‘from our community’), at least, so once again I don’t think I’m seriously disagreeing with her here. A lot probably depends on exactly what meaning, or what weight, we put on the words ‘standards’ and ‘imposed’. To the extent that I adopt a standard, I don’t get to use the excuse that it was imposed on me by my parents or society (or God). And, even more in Annas’s and Christensen’s favor, Annas is talking about the kind of moral theory that offers a decision procedure to tell you what to do. (See Annas p.33, here.) So it’s a particular kind of standard imposed from outside that she is arguing against (or a particular sense of ‘outside’, one enabling the shifting of blame or shirking of responsibility, that is problematic), and this is the very kind of thing that Christensen is arguing against too. So, once again, there is nothing to disagree with here after all.

Another point I wondered about is Christensen’s use of Lars Hertzberg’s argument against moral expertise:

a moral question—Hertzberg’s example is that of a woman considering whether she should have an abortion—is always a question for a particular person in a particular situation, and the answer will always have to consider this context. In the example, the woman’s answer will have to take into account her specific moral commitments and her particular situation, and her decision should be shaped by the way she relates to this type of moral question as well as her commitments and values. This also means that even if the woman finds that she has reached the right decision about what to do, we will find it understandable if she is still reluctant to claim that her reasons are valid or authoritative for other women facing a similar choice. Even if another person finds that the woman’s decision is the right one, she may still not be able to make the same decision, to integrate it into her own life, to live that kind of life. (p. 39)

I agree that, “Because of the normative character of moral questions, the answers to such questions are to be judged by moral standards, for example whether our answers express something that we are seriously committed to and that we have integrated into our moral lives.” (p. 39). And the idea that a moral question is always a particular question for a particular person sounds right. But can’t we, nevertheless, oppose all actions of a certain kind (slavery, torture, etc.)? At least in advance of finding ourselves in some especially terrible situation that makes us question even our most basic moral commitments? For instance, isn’t it possibly commendable for someone to be committed to the Ten Commandments in a way that resists adding anything to them about context?

Take the examples of being committed never to lie and being committed never to discriminate against a member of a disadvantaged minority on the grounds of race. (See, e.g., Roger Teichmann here.) It is true that exactly what one does will always take into account the particular situation one is in. How could it not? But if we were to add words like “always taking the specific context into account” to these commitments the effect would seem to be either nothing at all (in which case why add them?) or else a dilution of the commitment itself, as if an excuse for breaching it were being built in. Which is not to say that either Hertzberg or Christensen is wrong, but it is to say something about how I think their points ought to be taken. We need to contextualize contextualization, perhaps, or at least not take arguments for considering things in context out of the context in which those arguments occur.

With that in mind, maybe I should address the original example of abortion. I have introduced other examples because I agree with Hertzberg and Christensen when it comes to abortion. But I think this means that I disagree morally with pro-life people on this issue, not that they are missing some general, purely philosophical, point about the importance of context.      

Still, I agree with Hertzberg’s and Christensen’s larger point that, “The idea of moral expertise seems attractive to us, because it allows us to engage in a form of moral escapism by offering us a way in which we can avoid confronting our fundamental moral responsibility for our decisions.” (p. 39) And since the example of the woman wondering about having an abortion was brought up precisely in order to support this idea about moral expertise, I don’t think I count as really disagreeing with what Christensen is saying here at all.

She has more to say about general moral principles later in the book: “Even if general principles play a role in coming to the right moral understanding of a situation and thus to the right moral decision, the application of moral principles will always rely on some form of judgement of the particular case at hand.” (p. 77) It is clear that she does not at all deny that general principles have a role to play. Her point is much more that they alone are not enough. And that seems right.

But this is a difficult kind of truth to handle without doing damage, I think, so I want to say a bit more about it. (I don’t think I will be contradicting Christensen here, but the discussion might show what she is doing in a non-obvious and therefore possibly useful light.) What she says about general moral principles makes me think of two examples from Elizabeth Anscombe. One is her saying that “if someone really thinks, in advance, that it is open to question whether such an action as procuring the judicial execution of the innocent should be quite excluded from consideration—I do not want to argue with him; he shows a corrupt mind.” (“Modern Moral Philosophy”) The other is the story that Rosalind Hurtshouse relates about Anscombe describing a real-life case of a woman hiding Jewish people from the Nazis when the SS came to the door. “Clearly, she must not lie,” Anscombe says, shockingly. (The woman feigned madness so as to embarrass the young SS officer, thereby saving her guests and avoiding the sin of lying. See my Anscombe’s Moral Philosophy pp. 21-22 for more.) 

So does Christensen come too close to showing a corrupt mind by saying that “the application of moral principles will always rely on some form of judgement of the particular case at hand”? Does her saying this somehow undermine, if only a little bit, the impressive force of Anscombe’s “Clearly, she must not lie”? (In saying that I think there is impressive force in what Anscombe says I don’t mean that I agree with her. For better or worse, it isn’t clear to me that one must not lie to the SS in those circumstances. But I certainly don’t want to rule out a view like Anscombe’s as somehow illegitimate either morally or philosophically.)

Anscombe’s idea seems to be that a morally healthy mind will not only be guided by certain principles, such as “Thou shalt not bear false witness” and “it is disgraceful to choose an unjust action” (another example from “Modern Moral Philosophy”), but also that it will rely on such ideas as what we might call primary guides. A person with such a mind will not only find that general principles play a role in their moral thinking, albeit one that is informed by personal judgments about particular cases. These principles will likely be the first things that come to mind when she faces a moral problem, and they will be regarded as beyond doubt. They are authoritative, understood as either the literal command of God or at least something analogous to it. Any suggestion that the agent’s own judgment might play a role or that the details of each situation will need to be taken into account, however true the suggestion might be, could be regarded as likely to have a corrupting influence, if only on the philosophically unsophisticated. The uneducated and the insufficiently ethical might be best kept away from any suggestion that God’s commandments are not enough to guarantee right action. This is the kind of truth that Averroes thought best kept to philosophers.

But philosophers are the audience that Christensen is addressing, so I think she is not guilty of the charge of corruption that I am considering here. In fact, Anscombe’s story about how to deal with the SS without lying might be exactly the kind of imaginative thinking in context that Christensen is pointing to when she says that “the application of moral principles will always rely on some form of judgement of the particular case at hand”.    

The point of this detour, apart from helping me think things through, is to bring out the fact that Christensen’s work itself needs to be understood in a certain context and as an intervention in, or contribution to, a particular debate rather than as a flat statement of a-contextual truths. Her skepticism about general principles is skepticism about over-emphasis on the importance of general principles in moral philosophy. It is not primarily about the use of such principles in moral life. And to the extent that it is about such use (I don’t know her views on this), Christensen would admit that this is a moral view of hers, not something that is delivered up by neutral, objective, impartial philosophical reasoning.     

Let’s move on to see if there is anything else one might reasonably disagree with. Christensen says that, “According to Kant, theory has authority over our moral commitments only insofar it explicates what we in fact already adhere to. This means that moral theory cannot test or correct moral practice” (p. 40) But if a theory designed to explicate what we already adhere to finds—or rather, reveals, to our satisfaction—one of our commitments to be out of step with the others, couldn’t this at least suggest that we might reconsider that one commitment? Isn’t this part of the idea of reflective equilibrium, which Christensen endorses early in the book? It turns out that the answer is Yes.

On reflective equilibrium, she goes on to say: “the method of reflective equilibrium is not a method for awarding any kind of impersonal authority to anything, instead, it must begin from authorities I already recognise, and it only awards the result the authority that I reached this result by a process of reflection (a process of reflection that other people might or might not acknowledge to be authoritative for them)” (p. 42)  This seems right to me.

Another question I had concerns this claim, in chapter 4: “For moral reasoning to be successful, we need a comprehensive understanding of the good life of human beings, as stressed by Aristotle and McDowell…” (p. 89) Maybe we need some vague idea of the good life in order to engage in moral reasoning, but do we really need a comprehensive understanding? Well, to answer my own question, what do we (want to) mean by ‘successful’? And by ‘moral reasoning’? What about the person who does not go in for philosophy but thinks that it cannot be anything but shameful to prefer an unjust course of action to a just one? He will therefore do what (he believes) is just, even if it might have bad consequences. Whether this counts as successful will depend at least in part on whether we agree with his choice of action. Which will depend on us and on the particular situation he is in. But we might also say that this does not count as moral reasoning, because he in a sense rejects the idea of reasoning about what to do in this (kind of) case. He does think a bit, but perhaps not enough for what he does to count as moral reasoning.

Once again, I think there will only seem to be a problem here—if there does seem to be a problem—if we take this quotation out of context. What Christensen is doing is making a list of features that the ideal moral reasoner will have. The list includes an understanding of the good life for a human being, the ability to perceive without prejudice or selfishness, and imagination. She does not imply that no one could ever think well about a given ethical question unless they had all of these desirable qualities to the highest possible degree. 

She has a lot more to say about all this, though, and it is worth looking at some of it here:

We require of sound and reflective moral reasoning that it arises from a coherent understanding of how to live to which the person in question is implicitly or explicitly committed. It is however important not to confuse the criteria for consistency with those of coherence. Where consistency requires generalisation and complete uniformity, coherence can allow for gradations and context-dependence, and moral reasoning can involve descriptions, narratives, metaphors, exemplary experiences, and so on, as that which establishes the coherence of a view of life. The criteria for sound moral reflection are not formal or theoretical, but rather themselves moral, and standards not just of the coherence but also of the sensitivity and conscientiousness of the judgements which flow from this form of reflection. Moreover, as these criteria concern a person’s ‘understanding of how to live a moral life’, they also allow for considerable individual variety with regard to what is given weight in moral reflection... (pp. 92-93)

My first reaction to this is to ask, do we require this? That sounds a bit demanding. But then “arises from” allows for some wiggle room. And to be implicitly committed to an understanding of how to live also allows for some interpretative maneuvering or difference of understanding. There’s something slightly mercurial here, but I think maybe she’s right, and that getting the truth right here just does inevitably involve a kind of oscillating movement that might seem deceptive to unsympathetic or insufficiently careful readers. We do require coherent understanding of some kind, at least in the sense that incoherence and misunderstanding are certainly undesirable. What might seem evasive is perhaps just a recognition of what exactly this means—partly, of how little it means. It isn’t nothing, but it doesn’t involve the onerous commitment that it might sound as though it brings. As Christensen says, the criteria are themselves moral, so they are no more demanding than morality itself. And there isn’t some neutral, objective thing called philosophy that dictates what they are or ought to be

This subtle, dialectical motion between something that sounds rigorous or demanding and recognition of flexibility and variety is something that Christensen is explicit about, and it is reflected in the way she writes. She often uses the first person singular, but she also uses the plural, and often writes in an impersonal way (e.g. “The work done in this chapter is in line with this criticism, but the main aim is to move beyond criticism and provide a sketch of how and to what extent particular features of our moral lives take on moral importance,” p. 103). This could no doubt be solely for the sake of variety, but it also reflects what she calls “the Wittgensteinian idea that moral philosophy develops in a movement back and forth between the general and theoretical on the one hand and the particular and concrete on the other” (p. 105). There is the work, there is our work, and there is Christensen’s work, each of which is the same project, but seen from different points of view. The reader is invited to join in, as happens in Plato’s, Descartes’s, and Wittgenstein’s work, albeit with little chance of going off in a different direction. That’s books for you, of course, but it’s also because the argument is a very strong current to swim against.

Even so, surely I disagree with Christensen when she disagrees with me? Here’s where that happens:

In a conversation with the Vienna circle, Wittgenstein commented on his own ‘A Lecture on Ethics’: ‘At the end of my lecture on ethics I spoke in the first person. I think that this is something very essential. Here is nothing to be stated anymore; all I can do is to step forward as an individual and speak in the first person’ (WVC 117). Some interpreters have taken this remark as a rejection of the possibility of doing philosophical work with regard to the moral, but this conclusion is premature.[footnote] What Wittgenstein is saying is rather that when we leave moral philosophy, that is, the philosophical activity of trying to describe morally relevant ways of talking, which he is doing for most of the lecture, it is important to change perspective from the third to the first person, because we then turn to an exploration of actual moral importance that is tied to the positions of actual human beings. (p. 112)

The footnote mentions me as an example of such an interpreter.

In my defence, when Wittgenstein engages in the philosophical activity of trying to describe morally relevant ways of talking he concludes that it can’t be done, or perhaps rather that morally relevant ways of talking are all nonsensical. To try to talk ethics is to talk nonsense, he says, and to talk about ethics is to point this out. He might be wrong, and his later self might have disagreed with what he said here, but I don’t think the author of the Lecture on Ethics thought there was anything more to be said about ethics. There’s no sense in that lecture that if only he had more time he could say a lot more. At least it doesn’t seem so to me.

But I agree with the last sentence quoted above. He has been doing moral philosophy for most of the lecture, diagnosing ethical talk (or whatever we want to call it) as nonsense. And then he talks in the first person. He does not consider this to be doing philosophy. Perhaps he should, but he doesn’t. So then I think the disagreement is that I have said that nothing can be said about ethics, that no moral philosophy can be done, according to the author of the Lecture on Ethics, and Christensen is pointing out that the lecture itself is surely intended to be a work of moral philosophy. And I think I have to agree with that.       

Most of her argument is presented by way of other people’s views, carefully explained and quoted, (she even presents some of her own ideas by way of a discussion of Oskari Kuusela’s similar thinking), but she also offers criticisms of her own of people she largely disagrees with (e.g. Onora O’Neill and Martha Nussbaum on theory) and people she mostly agrees with (e.g. Margaret Urban Walker).

One of the people she mostly, but not entirely, agrees with is Raimond Gaita. In a discussion about how a slave owner might some to see a slave as fully human (rightly correcting Gaita’s apparent overlooking of this possibility), Christensen says that the slave owner’s wife might become jealous (the owner has raped the slave) and her jealousy could “open the slave owner’s eyes to how the slave is indeed an intelligible object of love and thus an intelligible object of jealousy” (p. 164). The idea seems to be that the slave owner thinks something like: if my wife is jealous of the slave I have been raping then that slave must be an intelligible object of love. This does seem possible. And that is all that Christensen claims.

But, if I can respond to what I think she might seem to be implying, I don’t think the possibility of jealousy necessarily implies the possibility of love. The slave owner and his wife might agree that of course he could never love the slave, and yet the slave owner’s wife might still feel jealous. She might dimly sense some possibility of love even while denying this possibility. Or she might think that some feeling that is not quite love could exist between them, this feeling being too close to real love for her comfort. Still, as I say, to say this is not to contradict what Christensen actually says. And it pales into complete insignificance against the achievement of improving on work as good as Gaita’s. (Stanley Cavell gets similar treatment too.)

Christensen says at the end of the book that she feels unable to summarize what she has done in it, and I sympathize. It’s a very careful thinking through of a large body of already very thoughtful work, a thinking through that combines synthesis, criticism, and construction. It’s very hard to disagree with any of it, but it also isn’t really the kind of thing you can just agree with and then leave behind. It’s a work that delivers not results so much (e.g. proven theories) as a clearer vision of what moral philosophy ought to be, what it means to live a moral life, and how the two relate to each other. Agreeing with it means henceforth going on in a certain kind of way when one does ethics and attempts to live ethically. We’ll see how that goes.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021


If you like podcasts, here are some that look very good (on Raimond Gaita, Veena Das, Cora Diamond and James Conant, for instance): Philosophy Voiced 

And James Conant has a new book out, which is reviewed here by Rosanna Wannberg.

Finally, here's the very nicely designed website of the Seoul Philosophy Club, which has stuff (quotes, thoughts) on Wittgenstein, Cavell, and many others.