Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Bernard Williams and Moral Phenomenology

“Ethical experience” can cover many things. There could be a way of doing moral philosophy that started from the ways we experience our ethical life. Such a philosophy would reflect on what we believe, feel, take for granted; the ways in which we confront obligations and recognize responsibility; the sentiments guilt and shame. It would involve a phenomenology of the ethical life. This could be good philosophy, but it would be unlikely to to yield an ethical theory. Ethical theories, with their concerns for tests, tend to start from just one aspect of ethical experience, beliefs. The natural understanding of an ethical theory theory takes it as a structure of propositions, which, like a scientific theory, in part provides a groundwork for our beliefs, in part criticizes or revises them. So it stars from our beliefs, though it may replace them (Williams, Bernard. Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Cambridge, MA: Harvard U P, 1985, p. 93, italics mine)

This quote has been on my mind for a few days now. Williams agrees that my proposal for a moral phenomenology, as far as I made PhD applications this year, "would be good philosophy." However, I am finding central disagreement with his very point of a moral phenomenology not delivering on the merits of ethical theory. Let me explain.

It is common in moral philosophy generally to proceed on two strategies of disagreement. Let there be two ethical theories X and Y with corresponding adherents. As the opponent of ethical theory Y, X can claim:

(1) Y is counter-intuitive leading to an absurd moral intuition as exemplified in a thought experiment of X.


(2) Y is incongruent with our ethical life; X matches up more with our ethical life.

Depending on how 1 and 2 are carved up, these can look like two separate claims whereas I just think that 1 is a general instance of the claim 2. Some moral theorists might try to keep 2 separate due to the feature of Y's incongruent nature. However, for my purposes, it doesn't matter how 1 and/or 2 are divided. There is a disingenuous and irresponsible move in our theorizing to make these types of criticisms without first looking to the phenomenology of our moral life. It is precisely on these grounds that ethical theories always fall short in some other capacity in relation to each other because various ethical theories, as Williams said, focus on different aspects of our moral life. For Williams this is the realm of moral beliefs, and those beliefs can be about many different things in our ethical life. This amounts to Williams acknowledging that a phenomenology couldn't deliver a normative ethical theory, though it would be beneficial for understanding how these elements of our moral life fit together. Why the tension?

The reason why a moral phenomenology is seen as falling short of ethical theory is that theorizing here still means delivering principles and clear cut rules for action-guidance. It is still largely just about answering the question of our obligations, and nothing more. A fuller and richer experience with the philosophy of morality would exemplify how it is that various elements of our moral life fit together: guilt, our care for intimates, the split between motives and reasons and so on. These elements, as I call them, constitute the possibility of being moral, and hence take a certain priority over the action-guidance criterion for ethical theorizing.

Recent explorations in virtue theory of ethics have led me to conclude that the fetishizing of rules and principles that so much of deontology and utilitarianism revere cannot encapsulate our moral life. Instead, the virtue ethicist asks two central questions demanded of ethical theory. First, what I ought to do? But, more importantly what kind of person ought I to be? The virtue ethicist is in touch with those traits that lead to a flourishing life, that is, what I would call the moral life. Now, the picture is far from complete, but the intuitions being pumped in virtue ethics parallel my suspicions of Kantian-based and consequential theories that solely seek to answer the first question without ever addressing the overwhelming concerns of the "elements of our moral life."

Going back to resolving the tension, a phenomenology looks at phenomena as they appear to consciousness while at the same time bracketing -- putting out of play -- our presuppositions we maintain of the world already. This is what Husserl called the epoche. Phenomenology, in this way, is a descriptive effort to see what undergirds the claims we make about the world. These descriptions often conflict with people who think that the mind-independent structures posited by science should be privileged as "all that matters." By extension, moral philosophers would put out of play their respective normative theories, and look at the particular instances of, say, guilt and shame. If a moral theory implies or states a conclusion about guilt and shame outside of what is revealed in lived experience of these elements, then the phenomenology could yield not an ethical theory, as Williams observed, but a check of applicability. For, if a moral theory is inapplicable in experience but noble in theory, then such a moral theory will have to be discarded since a developed moral phenomenology can inform us of a theory's inapplicability. From this, it follows that moral philosophers have an obligation first and foremost to develop a phenomenology of all those concepts they employ for normative understanding as to ensure the demands they claim about our ethical life truly supports how it is that we experience the ethical life.

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