Sunday, April 12, 2009

New York Times Op Ed: End of (Moral) Philosophy

The article in question...

Some challenge the independent evaluative nature of normative ethics. They argue that a more naturalistic description of morality and all that it involves -- including the emotions -- is a natural way to proceed. The effect is that there is no science of the Good as traditionally conceived. Ethics is overtaken from the outside by larger descriptive projects. The climate of modern philosophy is to let ontology drive all other divisions in philosophy. Ethics is no exception.

However, a lesson from Husserl (and Nagel of all people) is extremely useful. First, the objective viewpoint of the sciences cannot explain all facets of the human condition. Science is not exhaustive. Husserl reminds us that the natural attitude, the objective viewpoint, can overtake our understanding of the world making us forget how much our subjectivity is involved and structures elements of our awareness. If we attend to these structural elements through the phenomenological reduction, phenomena are illuminated in ways that the sciences cannot see.

The above fairly naive article accepts the truth that morality is a product of the emotions. Evolution directs our cooperative behavior, and this understanding has three benefits. They are a) it emphasizes the social nature of moral intuition, b) a warmer view of evolutionary-based human nature and c) dignity and choice are maintained despite the descriptive explanation implying facts about our decision-making. I'll speak to each of these in turn.

Concerning a), there was never a time in which our moral intuitions weren't social. When ethicists consult intuitions, they are looking at their prima facie reflective judgments that are other-regarding already. Within a Rossian framework, they were always social to begin with. It is not a new insight to the coinage and use of the term.

With respect to b), when we conceive of agency in the moral framework independently of any science, the warm view of humanity's cooperative nature is generally assumed. Morality is usually construed as a set of reason that prohibit or permit a range of behavior. Morality is taken to be overriding my interests when they confict with the larger set of reasons. In this way, a bear minimum of the assumption in ethics already has the warmer view at heart.

It is true that not everyone emphasizes the cooperative nature of human beings. Neo-Hobbesians like David Gauthier argue for a self-interested account that see morality as nothing more than one device among many to instrumentally solve coordination problems. The coordination problems can be very competitive given the implicit Hobbesian views of our moral psychology. But, not all of us are Hobbesians.

As for c), this makes no sense and only conflates the descriptive and the normative projects already. Even if our decisions are explained in great detail from this emotion-based view, it does not follow that the range of the description does not intend to overtake the evaluative parts of our choices. According to the cognitive science view, the more we understand, the more we can predict (unless, I am assuming more than can be fairly attributed to the view of science in question, which I think I am not). The view does impede our conception of free choice because as Kant's third antinomy shows if we construe ourselves as an object of causal understanding, we lose our freedom. If we conceive of ourselves morally, we conceive of ourselves as acting freely beyond the causal nexus of the world. What Kant teaches us, apart from this being an antinomy of pure reason, is how in tension these viewpoints are.

The phenomenological impulse in me thinks Kant had it right. We have a phenomenologically adequate conception of ourselves as agents to initiate action freely and evaluate our own terms of action. Thus, you can see where I stand. Phenomenological descriptions underwrite our claims of the naive natural attitude, and it seems foolish to reject agency for the science that would vitiate how it is that our agential experience of the world occurs.

In summary, a) and b) are anticipated by much of moral philosophy, and Brooks is not entitled to conclude c). Thus, Brooks misrepresents moral philosophy while not observing the history of philosophy, and what current ethics entails. Given the misrepresentation, we cannot conclude that ethics has ended. Moreover, even if Brooks is entitled to the conclusion of c), ethics would lose its evaluative component becoming descriptive. These are just some of the mistakes I see in his article.

Finally, it is not clear how this new conception of morality infers the "challenges the new atheists, who see themselves involved in a war of reason against faith and who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning." Being involved in one dialectic in which the shape and form of morality is at issue bears no direct relation to the metaphysical debate concerning New Atheism. New Atheists are not talking about reason in the practical sphere, but in the theoretical sense.

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