Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Examples of Moral Phenomenology

In this post, I want to speculate about some connections I've long hinted at, but never fully developed. While I don't suspect that I will develop them in any substantial way on a blog, I do want to say what types of questions and concerns I've been thinking about as of late.

It has come to my attention that to make sense of morality, we have a few options on the table. They go from varying degrees of acceptance of morality to complete skepticism about morality.

1) Moral realism is the thesis that there are moral facts independent of our knowledge of them. The existence of moral facts is our best explanation to make sense of moral practice.

2) Moral anti-realism is the thesis that there are no moral facts, but instead, moral facts are not needed to make sense of moral practice. Our moral judgments are actually statements that issue from our own subjectivity of approval and disapproval.

3) Moral nihilism is the thesis that there are no moral facts at all. With no moral facts at all, one cannot make sense of moral practice.

Now, I do not want to argue for why 2) or 3) are not true. Such a defense is the subject of a book, and not to be taken up lightly here. Instead, I want to develop some intuitions I have as to what 2) and 3) have a hard time explaining. In so doing, I am only putting a challenge to the anti-realist or nihilist. Such a challenge, I think, is not sufficiently developed at the basic level. I don't know if they have well-developed answers for the intuitions I will be sharing in this post.

The problem: In order to make sense of moral practice, I appeal to a set of moral beliefs. These moral beliefs are expressed and revised due to critical reflection and experience following Ross' notion of a prima facie status of moral duties. If I mistakenly hold a belief, then I disregard it because it is not true. My claim is that the presupposition about the truth or falsity of moral judgments enables a wider range of responsiveness than either 2) or 3). Suppose I have come to believe that I should perfect myself at all costs, even to the point that my selfish aims of self-perfection are not mediated in any way to take into account my wife. My wife points out that a planned commitment of marriage is at odds with the aim of uncompromising self-perfection. Moreover, she tells me that not only have I hurt her, but others are hurt by my neglect of them in pursuit of my uncompromising self-perfection. So, in order to make sense of moral experience, the actual phenomenology constitutive of this experience, I am committed to several propositions.

A: Moral judgments are truth-assessable.

B: In being truth-assessable, the judgments are true through the existence of moral facts.

C: Given A and B, human responsiveness is enhanced.

I think A, B, and C might be called the propositions for presumptive realism. However, I want to up the ante. I want to say that presumptive realism is due in a large part to how we experience the world. The experience of morality is revealed in such a way that our phenomenology reveals it as such. We make sense of our beliefs under the supposition of their truth or falsity. Moral nihilists are few and far between. I do not think they have sufficient evidence to say that moral practice has no meaning. The anti-realist can vehemently deny that moral practice can still be made sense in part to how people use language, yet when they talk about the various states of approval and disapproval, they will have to assume cognitivism in order to communicate. In some way, they must assume the intersubjective possibility of communicating their own subjective reports of approval and disapproval. While not a knockdown argument, I do not know how to explain that moral facts or in other words, nihilism and anti-realism can disregard how a) we treat our moral beliefs as truth-assessable and b) the fact that moral facts are present in our phenomenological experience as such.

However, here's the end and finish of the early 20th century moral philosophy. When people make this claim, they do not have any power to gain traction in an appeal to phenomenology. Enter some version of Husserlian thought.

Phenomenological realism is the thesis that moral facts about rightness, wrongness, and agency broadly construed are grounded within our phenomenological experience. The invocation of phenomenology is a return to the popular anti-naturalism found in Prichard, Moore and Ross, and motivated, in principle, by the very fact that morality seems higher-ordered feature of human experience. Being higher-ordered involves reasons for rejecting the metaphysical alternative that would make moral facts into emoting subjective preference states or thinking it a complete sham. Instead, there are aspects of Husserlian thought that can explain this appeal. Let me start by listing some of the areas phenomenological description could start.

Moral facts are context-sensitive, but can be identified by a subject with the appropriate moral intentionality. Moral intentionality could reveal the subject's faculties for moral experience, such as providing a fleshed out conception of practical reasoning derived from our pre-theoretic life that could settle the externalism/internalism debate. Within my intentional experience, phenomenological descriptions could reveal agents and how they achieve a narrative unity about their life. Moreover, certain habitualities form over time, and phenomenological description can help spell out the existence of certain habitualities that could be cultivated as a form of excellence to conform to. If moral properties are detected, then the intuitionism of Husserl might give us a model to think about how I come to know moral beliefs.

In summary, there are ways of bolstering 1) above without thinking 2) or 3) are stronger. One example could be to develop the commitment to what is revealed in our moral experience as a leading clue to what must be true about morality. Now, I know this is broad, and I was a little "all over the place" in this blog post. Some of the ideas in here need more refinement. Secondly, I maintained that human responsiveness is enhanced by thinking that moral claims are truth-assessable. It is to this that I want to briefly turn before ending.

Recall my case of the uncompromising self-perfecting spouse. Is it really the case that anti-realism can make sense of the meaning found in the the opposite spouse's appeal to the fact that if I truly ignore my caring relationships, then I am inconsistent with endorsing the goals of marriage? Moreover, my fictional neglect of any kids or family is also TRUE. These are not simply the effects of my belief, but that in my failure to reason thoroughly, I am wrong. My belief in uncompromising self-perfection is damaging, and has moral significance for that very reason. It is true.

One shortcoming of my account I foresee is one over the conditions under which some moral belief can be said to be true. The claim that human responsiveness is enhanced, as in the previous paragraph, resonates with a certain feel of pragmatism. If that follows, then the power of Husserlian phenomenology and the conceptual schema it offers to make sense of the whole body of claims I want to apply it suffer. I would have to reject elements of Husserl's privileged transcendental position and what work it does in phenomenological description for pragmatic truth. In short, human responsiveness cannot be a reason why I think moral phenomenology better suited to support realism, but simply a benefit of holding the position.

Okay, that's it for now. Philosophers help with applying the dialectical pressure here.

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