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

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?

One of the themes of Flanagan's book is encouraging philosophers (and others) to engage with anthropology, in the way they have been doing with psychology, and to explore the variety of moral traditions that can be found across the world and across history.  Three broad purposes of this engagement emerge from the chapter.

One is to help us face the fact that we are living in an interconnected world, and often in multicultural and multiethnic societies.  I am glad that the IPCC mentions ethical traditions outside the West, but we (rather urgently) need more than this—how exactly should the existence of these traditions shape how we live (and decide) together?  Can anthropology, the structured investigation of different ways of living in the world, help?  And how, as Flanagan raises, do we address issues around disagreement, oppression and exclusion?  All of this applies too to differences in moral outlook arising from class, gender and social role.

Second, this is an opportunity.  Flanagan repeatedly uses the phrase "possibility space" through the chapter—being aware of different moral outlooks expands the ways we, here and now, can reshape our lives.  Over the course of the book, Flanagan will spend time discussing Buddhism, the Chinese philosophers Mencius and Xunxi, Korean neo-Confucian thought, Stoicism and Daoism, as well as considering the moral outlook of the Crow Indians of the northwest United States, moral vocabularies in Egypt and amongst the Ifaluk of the Caroline Islands in the Pacific, the approach to truth and reconciliation in South Africa, and many other examples.

The final purpose is to help us understand human nature and the nature of 'goods', the things we value, properly.  To think that we can understand these things without considering history and culture is "transcendentally pretentious".  Echoing a similar criticism of economics, Flanagan attacks the idea of the moral agent as a singleton who examines and evaluates moral situations alone, and one by one—life just isn't like that.  Psychological realism means recognising that our inner lives are complex, deep and rich, not just a matter of weighing up beliefs, desires and reasons.  Social realism means recognising that we are part of social worlds which have long histories and traditions.

We cannot do ethics without a proper picture of human nature, and we also need a proper picture of goods.  Goods are often internal to people's practices and traditions, and need to be understood in this context—a context which is itself complicated, given how these practices and traditions are interlinked.

All of this points to a different picture of ethics and what matters for human excellence.  The emphasis should not be on how to solve moral dilemmas, which rarely arise; are atypical of moral life; and are often matters of public policy, law and politics and hence raise their own special issues.  Instead, the main task of moral philosophy is helping us fit into our "relational ecologies", the network of practices and traditions and relationships we are embedded in.  Moral philosophy should help us be more loving, attentive, honest, conscientious; help us stop projecting onto others, control our reactive emotions, deflate our egos, and cultivate ourselves.  This will do a lot of work needed for preparing us for those dilemmas when they do arise.

Flanagan finishes the chapter by responding to possible objections from those worried about an emphasis on anthropology.  For reasons of space, I won't go through all these, though would be happy to discuss in comments.

I'll just raise one question of my own for now.  Flanagan's emphasis here is clearly on how moral philosophy can help us live better lives, including how we interact with those we interact with day to day.  But I started this post bringing up big problems of public policy and politics.  And many of are living, now in 2016, in a time when there seem to be other big problems of public policy and politics.  How relevant is Flanagan's approach here?

My feeling is that there is more promise here than perhaps Flanagan indicates (though, as mentioned above, he does indicate some).  The ecologies we are embedded in—those practices and traditions and networks—scale up.  Culture matters, and our moral agency matters, for the big problems too.  But the scaling up is not straightforward—it is not that national and global politics are just superpractices composed out of the everyday practices which compose our lives.  Only so much can be done in a book, and Flanagan does not have space to discuss macro-structures using sociology, political science and macroeconomics.  Still, these questions will be in my mind as we proceed through the rest of the book.

Finally, one of the lovely features of the book is that it has bibliographical essays every few chapters, explaining how Flanagan discovered new literatures and suggesting further sources for readers to effect their own prison breaks out of standard ways of thinking.  (Incidentally, "prison breaks" is my term, not Flanagan's.)  There are also good footnotes.  So I thought, at the end of each post, I would aim to suggest 4 sources or so that looked particularly interesting (though it is hard to choose!).  Here are my four for today:
  • Clifford Geertz's The Interpretation of Cultures (1973) introduced the idea of thick description from philosophy to anthropology as a method of understanding others' ways of life.  The opening essay is a nice introduction to what Geertz sees as anthropology's task, and can be read here.
  • Kwame Anthony Appiah's 2006 book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers argues for a global ethics and tackles the challenges of finding commonalities across different cultures.
  • Richard Shweder's Thinking Through Cultures (1991) is a defence of cultural psychology (that thinking is partly constituted by culture) and also a comparative moral psychology using the examples of India and the US.  (Philosophers use the term 'moral psychology' to refer to the philosophical study of psychology to draw implications for ethics.)
  • Michelle Moody-Adams' 1997 Fieldwork in Familiar Places: Morality, Culture and Philosophy  might be the one that caught my eye most vividly.  It challenges the idea of moral relativism by exploring how cultures interact with each other, and also argues that moral enquiry is really a kind of interpretative ethnography, which emphasises how closely moral philosophy and anthropology are intertwined (or should be).


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