"Man is a creature who makes pictures of himself, and then comes to resemble that picture" - Iris Murdoch

Thursday 22 December 2016

Beauteous Markets That Have Such Morals In Them

By William Hogarth - 1. The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.2., Public Domain, Link
The crash of 2007-8 strengthened an old critique about the troubled relationship between markets and morals.  This critique found its way into the discussion during the Bank of England's Open Session a year ago, which is (indirectly) how I came across the paper I am going to write about, Marion Fourcade and Kieran Healy's "Moral Views of Market Society".  You can find it here.

Fourcade and Healy guide us through economic sociologists' (and others') investigation of this question, and point us to one approach in particular, which I will focus on.  But my interest in their review goes wider than the question of markets.  My initial post about Owen Flanagan's recent book noted that he brings together cross-cultural philosophy, anthropology and psychology, but doesn't have the space to add consideration of "macro-structures" which might affect ethics, through disciplines like sociology, political science and macroeconomics.  So I wanted to pause my blogging of The Geography of Morals, and get at least part of this picture in view.

Fourcade and Healy frame the paper as a revisiting of Albert Hirschman's classic 1982 paper "Rival Interpretations of Market Society".  They use Hirschman's history of interpretations—the doux-commerce thesis that markets soften and civilise morals, the self-destruction thesis that they undermine them, and a combination of the "feudal shackles" and "feudal blessings" thesis that existing moral customs either help or hinder the market—as a map of the more recent work they review.  They label their categories the "liberal dream", the "commodified nightmare", and the "feeble markets" views (the last being dominant in economic sociology).  But they then look at a fourth emerging literature which sees markets and morals as more closely intertwined, the "moralized markets" view.

The paper is a wonderful and clear guide to the literature.  If I try to review a review paper like this one, I'll end up having to reproduce most of it.  Instead, at the end of this post I will include a quick signposting of what happens in those first three sections.  I will use the rest of my post to talk about the moralized markets view, which struck me (as it does the authors) as particularly creative and promising.

Thursday 15 December 2016

Escape Route

This is the second in a series of 12 posts going through the chapters of Owen Flanagan's book The Geography of Morals.

In my last post, I wrote about the first chapter of Flanagan's book, where he argued that moral philosophers should break out of standard ways of thinking by engaging with anthropology and cross-cultural philosophy.  In his second introductory chapter, "Moral Psychologies and Moral Ecologies", he lays out a few foundations for the path ahead.

Flanagan does three things in this chapter.  He sets out a general framework for fitting psychology, anthropology and ethics together in a scientific picture.  He then describes and assesses a few stages in the history of moral psychology, which clarifies how it will help set our direction.  Finally, he discusses whether science leaves anything left for ethics to do: once we have explained actual moral thought and practice, is that it, is there any space for "oughts", or have we reached a dead end?

Flanagan is a committed naturalist: humans are animals, and our account of human nature must be consistent with evolutionary theory.  There should be two sides to the account.  On the one side, there is the human being, an organism with an evolutionary lineage, a long natural history.  On the other, there is the ecology, the setting in which the organism lives.

An important feature of this picture is that there is variation on both sides.  Strictly speaking, no two individuals share an exact ecology.  The circumstances faced by individuals will vary, within a country, because they live in different towns; within a town, because they live on different streets; within a family, because at each stage of its life, each child faces differently aged parents and a different set of sibling interactions to the ones its siblings did; and so on.  (Flanagan talks of ecologies, microecologies, and micro-microecologies.)  As is hopefully clear, there is a social dimension to ecologies.

Saturday 10 December 2016

Prison Break

This is the first in a series of 12 posts going through the chapters of Owen Flanagan's book The Geography of Morals, published in late November.  The first chapter is available to read here.

There have been some exciting moves recently to bring the resources of moral philosophy to bear on some of the shared challenges we face as a society and planet.  In its 2014 Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) included a chapter on ethical, social and economic concepts and methods, with two moral philosophers amongst the authors.  2014 also saw the publication of this book edited by Nicholas Morris and David Vines, bringing together academics from different disciplines (including philosophy) to discuss how to restore an ethic of responsibilty and trust in financial services.

Both of these are very important pieces of work and I'm not going to do them any justice here—they deserve full discussion in their own right.  But I wanted to mention an uneasiness they both brought up, a sense that the full potential of moral philosophy—the potential to help reshape our institutions and customs and the way we think, see and imagine—was being undersold.  We are being held back in bringing philosophy, social science and policy together by certain worn out ways of phrasing the problems and questions—maximising good outcomes, how to perform right actions, what it is to be a virtuous agent.

To steal a phrase from Elizabeth Anscombe in a slightly different context, "the teeth don't come together in a proper bite": if the intellectual energy of moral philosophy had set in a slightly different shape, then it would line up better with what the social scientists and policymakers are trying to do.  But I don't know how much to blame the philosophers for this.  Sometimes we can be trapped by the teeth we have.

Owen Flanagan, a philosopher of ethics and psychology, does want to blame the philosophers—or to put it more positively, to show that we are not trapped.  The opening chapter of his new book takes its title, "On Being 'Imprisoned By One's Upbringing'", from a criticism by Alasdair MacIntyre of the direction in which moral philosophers channel that intellectual energy.  Why, asks MacIntyre, are philosophers of physics expected to learn some physics, and philosophers of law some law, but moral philosophers are not expected to study actual moralities, the practices of morality (and their variety) we find out there in the world, using the work done by empirical disciplines such as social and cultural anthropology, history, sociology and psychology, as well as literature?