Tuesday, October 22, 2013

On the Intrinsic Value of Moral Reflection

Here's a hypothetical, not too far removed from reality: What if I discovered, to my satisfaction, that moral reflection -- the kind of intellectual thinking about ethical issues that is near the center of moral philosophy -- tended to lead people toward less true (or, if you prefer, more noxious) moral views than they started with? And what if, because of that, it tended also to lead people toward somewhat worse moral behavior overall? And suppose I saw no reason to think myself likely to be an exception to that tendency. Should I abandon moral reflection?

What is the point of moral reflection?

If the point is to discover what is really morally the case -- well, there's reason to doubt that philosophical styles of moral reflection are highly effective at achieving that goal. Philosophers' moral theories are often simplistic, problematic, totalizing -- too rigid in some places, too flexible in others, recruitable for clever justifications of noxious behavior, from sexual harassment to Nazism to sadistic parenting choices. Uncle Irv, who never read Kant or Mill and has little patience for the sorts of intellectual exercises we philosophers love, might have much better moral knowledge than most philosophers; and you and I might have had better moral knowledge than we do, had we shared his skepticism about philosophy.

If the point of philosophical moral reflection is to transform oneself into a morally better person -- well, there are reasons to doubt it has that effect, too.

But I would not give it up. I would not give it up, even at some moderate cost to my moral knowledge and moral behavior. Uncle Irv is missing something. And a world of Uncle Irvs would be a world vastly worse than this world, in a way I care about -- much as, perhaps, a world without metaphysical speculation would be worse than this world, even if metaphysical speculation is mostly bunk, or a world without bad art would be worse than this world or a world of a hundred billion contented cows would be worse than this world.

If I think about what I want in a world, I want people struggling to think through morality, even if they mostly fail -- even if that struggle rather more often brings them down than up.

15 comments:

Marinus Ferreira said...

The argument for the harmfulness of ethical reflection moves a *bit* quick, I thought. There are many types of ethical theory and theorists that (a) try their damndest to *stop* people having reductive, totalising theories, and (b) see a large part of the point of ethical theory as *stopping* people with doing casuistry for their obnoxious behaviours. Basically everybody except (not even all) consequentialists, hard-nosed decision theorists and some kinds of contractualists or deontologists are going to count under (a), and the ranks of (b) include people like Kant and Anscombe. The Jack Smarts of moral philosophy are the minority! And the Jack Smart-types will not grant you that their totalising, revisionist theories are harmful, of course.

Nietzsche said...

Pereat mundus, fiat philosophia, fiat philosophus, fiam! [http://bit.ly/1h6mlo4]

Anonymous said...

Kieran Setiya's "Does Moral Theory Corrupt the Youth?" discusses related problems (although not the question you're posing, I think...):

http://www.pitt.edu/~kis23/Theory.pdf

The closing line: "We can then accept what is at least the evidence of my experience, that philosophers are not much better at knowing how to live than anyone else."

Callan S. said...

tended to lead people toward less true (or, if you prefer, more noxious) moral views than they started with?

Are you sure those noxious views weren't just there all along, and you're just now becoming aware (but it instead seems like your moving toward noxious views, when really its just obscuring clouds moving away?)?

What's an example of a practice that was one way prior to any serious philosophical endevour, and what is practised now? Used to be vegan but now you eat big greasy hamburgers, specifically avoiding any freerange ones? Recycle less? (though Penn & Teller did do a show indicating recycling is perhaps pure bunk, so that's a tricky one to measure by...)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

Marinus: I agree that an important class of ethical theorists fall into your classes (a) and (b). I am not defending the view in that paragraph but posing a hypothetical and then pointing to some ways in which it could be fleshed out so that it seems not vastly implausible. It would partly depend on the empirical question of the ratio of (a) and (b)-ers to other types. And arguably, avoiding (a) can sometimes give flexibility for the kind of rationalization that can worsen the problem highlighted by your (b).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Nietzsche: Always ready with the apt quote, you are, Freddy!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Oct 22: Wow, that paper looks right up my alley! I'm surprised I hadn't noticed it before. I must read it straightaway. Thanks!

Callan: These things are hard to disentangle, since the philosophical reflection and the behavioral change will tend to intertwine over time, but one plausible type of case, I think, is the philosophical justification of sadistic uses of one's authority over students and children.

Callan S. said...

Eric, I'm not sure what uses of authority you are refering to, but students and children come latter in life. Might have just done these things even without philosophy - though granted, using philosophy to make up justifications might make one even more pigheaded about continuing with such uses of authority than in the other case. To that degree I pay your point - but hey, maybe you can wrangle up some funds to run a more scientific test of a sample group or such? Right now I feel were working out the draft for an experiment, rather than able to come to a conclusion.

Michel Clasquin-Johnson said...

Uncle Irv is a happier man than you, but like Voltaire's good Brahmin, it is a happiness you do not want?

http://www.online-literature.com/voltaire/4411/

But, to the case:

"What if I discovered, to my satisfaction, that moral reflection -- the kind of intellectual thinking about ethical issues that is near the center of moral philosophy -- tended to lead people toward less true (or, if you prefer, more noxious) moral views than they started with? And what if, because of that, it tended also to lead people toward somewhat worse moral behavior overall? And suppose I saw no reason to think myself likely to be an exception to that tendency. Should I abandon moral reflection?"

Then you will have established conclusively that moral reflection has moral results in the real world, which is a damn sight more than moralists have managed in the last three thousand years or so. Congratulations, I'll put you up for a Nobel prize as soon as I can figure out the appropriate category.

Oh, it's not the RIGHT kind of result? well, maybe you're not doing the right kind of reflection. No matter, from here on in, it's a matter of fine-tuning. It's an engineering problem now, no longer a conceptual one.

We remember Isaac Newton's towering scientific discoveries and quietly ignore his deep fascination with alchemy an Rosicrucian mysticism. In the same way, people will remember Schwitzgebel's discovery of the societal effect of moral reflection and will ignore the fact that he started out doing it the wrong way round.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Ah, Michel, now the hypothetical is getting too remote!

Scott Bakker said...

This is something that requires serious research. Given Haidt's stuff, you could hazard that ingroup status is the adaptive problem-ecology of 'moral metacognition' generally. Theoretical moral metacognition, I would guess, is the reason so many philosophers get divorced! I have to admit, I find the very idea preposterous anymore, analogous to herding cats...

Has anyone done any work on the way moral problems generated by new technologies eventually get socially sorted? Because it could be the case the theoretical moral reflection is useless at the individual level, but plays an important orthogonal role in forging social-moral consensus on unprecedented issues.




John Vespasian said...

To the argumentation line in the article, I would like to add that the main purpose of ethical reflection is to improve the future. Guilt and disappointment would be the result of moral reflection solely focused on the past. The whole point of philosophy is discovering what is right and doing it consistently.

Badda Being said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Scott: Yes, lots of hazards of theoretical moral metacognition -- not least of which, I think, is the risk of discovering that you don't care as much about morality as you thought you did. I'm not quite getting the problem-ecology comment though; your expression is just a bit too compressed, I think.

Interesting thought about the moral problems of new technologies. There are certainly people who work directly on the issues of the moral dimensions of new technologies (esp in medical ethics) but I don't know of any empirical studies of how those moral dimensions get sorted out. I bet there some interesting stuff out there that I'm missing, though, maybe in sociology of science....

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

John: The view you express is the thought I find most natural. Part of what I have been exploring recently, including in this post, is countercurrents to that thought -- ways in which that natural thought might not be the whole story. So I don't really disagree, unless you intend a strong and strict reading of "whole point". It's not quite, I think, the *whole* point.