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Moral Philosophy and Moral Life
 0198866690, 9780198866695

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Moral Philosophy and Moral Life




Great Clarendon Street, Oxford, OX2 6DP, United Kingdom Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford. It furthers the University’s objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide. Oxford is a registered trade mark of Oxford University Press in the UK and in certain other countries © Anne-Marie Søndergaard Christensen 2021 The moral rights of the author have been asserted First Edition published in 2021 Impression: 1 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of Oxford University Press, or as expressly permitted by law, by licence or under terms agreed with the appropriate reprographics rights organization. Enquiries concerning reproduction outside the scope of the above should be sent to the Rights Department, Oxford University Press, at the address above You must not circulate this work in any other form and you must impose this same condition on any acquirer Published in the United States of America by Oxford University Press 198 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016, United States of America British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data Data available Library of Congress Control Number: 2020941868 ISBN 978–0–19–886669–5 DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198866695.001.0001 Printed and bound in Great Britain by Clays Ltd, Elcograf S.p.A. Links to third party websites are provided by Oxford in good faith and for information only. Oxford disclaims any responsibility for the materials contained in any third party website referenced in this work.

To my mother


Contents Preface Acknowledgements Abbreviations of Works by Wittgenstein

ix xi xiii

P A R T I . R E V I S I N G MORAL THE ORI E S 1. The Question of Moral Philosophy 1.1 Background 1.2 Clarifications 1.3 Overview

2. The Critique of Moral Theories 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6

In the Beginning: The Rise of the Critique of Moral Theories A Motley Crew: Questioning Moral Theories Nussbaum’s Account of Moral Theory Missing the Point: Williams’ Two Challenges to Moral Theory The Authority of Moral Theory? Looking Forward

3. Descriptive Moral Theories 3.1 Possible Understandings of Descriptive Moral Theory 3.2 Wittgenstein on Grammar: Two Possible Interpretations 3.3 Moral Theories as Descriptions of ‘The Grammar of Our Language’ 3.4 Moral Theories as Descriptions of ‘A Particular Way of Seeing Things’ 3.5 The Need for a ‘Perspicuous Overview’ of the Moral

3 4 6 12

15 15 19 25 32 36 44

45 46 53 60 63 70

P A R T I I . P A R T I CU L A R ITI E S I N M ORAL LI F E 4. Generality and Particularity in Moral Thought 4.1 The Practical Question within an Aristotelian Framework 4.2 O’Neill’s Two Arguments for the Indispensability of Principles in Moral Thought 4.3 The Importance of Moral Development for Moral Reasoning 4.4 The Role of Discernment—Moral Reasoning Continued 4.5 Generality and Particularity in Moral Reflection 4.6 Particularity and Moral Objectivity

75 76 79 82 85 91 95



 4.7 The Question of Moral Universality 4.8 Moral Thought and Moral Philosophy

5. Particularities of Moral Lives: Moral Positions

99 102


5.1 Particularities of Moral Life—the Very Idea 5.2 Getting Started: Agent-Relative Reasons and Strong Moral Self-Definitions 5.3 ‘An Ethical Proposition Is a Personal Act’ 5.4 Moral Position and Moral Thought 5.5 ‘Carried by the Whole House’ 5.6 Understanding Others and Understanding Ourselves 5.7 Moving On


6. Particularities of Moral Contexts: The Embedded Moral Self


6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5

The Moral Subject, Moral Context, and Moral Responsibility The Case of Language: Restricted and Distorted Thoughts The Dual Responsibility of Language Use The Case of Practice: Unthinkable Thoughts? Double-Sided Responsibility Revisited

105 111 115 122 128 131 133 137 145 152 158

P A R T I I I. MO R A L P H I L O S O P H Y 7. Literature and Moral Philosophy 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5

The Company We Keep The Reminders of Literature Literature and Moral Development Exploration, Critique, and Moral Change And Back to Moral Philosophy

8. Descriptive Moral Philosophy 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 8.6

A Clarificatory Understanding of the Moral In a Realistic Spirit: Descriptive Moral Philosophy The Activity of Description The Practicality of Moral Philosophy The Moral Dimension of Moral Philosophy Cutting a Long Story Short

References Index

165 165 169 173 176 183

185 185 192 197 199 205 207

211 223

Preface It is almost impossible for me to identify when work on this book began. In one sense, I have worked on the topics explored here since I became interested in moral philosophy. In another sense, it is possible to date the origin of this book back to 2013, when I decided to work my reflections into this book. During this time, I have come to owe gratitude to many people, and prominent among these are three philosophers who each in their own way (but by no fault of their own) have become guiding influences for my work—Jørgen Husted, Hans Fink, and Lars Hertzberg. Generous and inspiring people have taken the time and effort to read substantial parts of this work and have offered me invaluable comments: Cecilie Eriksen, Ed Dain, Reshef Agam-Segal, Karsten Schoellner, Søren Harnow Klausen, Piergiorgio Donatelli, Alice Crary, and, again, Hans Fink. I also want to extend this gratitude to the two anonymous reviewers for Oxford University Press who offered exceptionally insightful and constructive comments to my manuscript. I also want to thank anyone who through our discussions has played an important part in shaping the thoughts presented here. Among these, I owe a special gratitude to Alice Crary for welcoming me at the New School, to Jim Conant for doing the same at the University of Chicago, and to Piergiorgio Donatelli for our discussions and for co-organising the conference Alternative Contemporary Ethics at the Danish Academy in Rome and Sapienza University. Other forbearing people who have taken time to discuss the present work with me are Joel Backström, Anna Boncompagni, David Cerbone, Anniken Greve, Nora Hämäläinen, Phil Hutchinson, Camilla Kronqvist, Merete Mazzarella, Yrsa Neuman, Carsten Fogh Nielsen, Hannes Nykänen, Alois Pichler, Rupert Read, Robert Stern, Patrik Kjærsdam Telléus, Thomas Wallgren, and some who also offered me the special privilege of presenting parts of it at various research seminars: Martin Gustafsson at Åbo Academy; Raffaele Rodogno at University of Aarhus; Niklas Forsberg at the Centre of Ethics, University of Pardubice; Oskari Kuusela at the Wittgenstein Workshop, University of East Anglia; Silver Bronzo at HSE International Speaker Series at the Higher School of Economics Moscow; and Katrin Hjorth at POL, Peter Simonsen at Welfare Narratives, and Rita



Felski at Uses of Literature, the last three at my home university, University of Southern Denmark (SDU). I have been very fortunate to receive the support and time necessary to develop this book, especially from the Head of Studies in Philosophy at most of the time of my writing, Caroline Schaffalitzky de Muckadell, and the coordinator of our local philosophy research group Søren Harnow Klausen. I am grateful to you both and to my other colleagues at SDU for an inspiring and gracious research environment. My greatest debt of gratitude, however, is to my family. To my husband, Tony, for his love and unwavering encouragement and support, for ongoing discussion about the issues presented here and for reading through the whole damn thing, in some cases several times, helping me develop my thoughts more clearly. I also want to thank my sons, Marcus and Tristan, for their tolerance towards my lengthy, philosophical outbursts, and for being so perfect and inspiring themselves, and my mother and father for their support and for never questioning my odd choice of life professions. In 2013, my mother fell ill and died. Writing this book was one part of my attempt to come to terms with the fact that she is no longer here, and in this way, this work has become interwoven with my sorrow over her absence and my gratitude towards her. Mom, I still try, the best I can on my own, to continue our conversation. This book is dedicated to you.

Acknowledgements A version of this manuscript was submitted for consideration for the title of doctor philosophiæ (DrPhil) at the Faculty of Humanities, University of Southern Denmark, February 2018. The degree was awarded on 26 April 2019. My work has been supported by funding from The Carlsberg Foundation, The Danish Academy in Rome, Ragna Rask-Nielsen’s Research Foundation, Danish National Research Foundation, DNRF127, and the University of Southern Denmark. I wish to thank Routledge for allowing the reprinting of parts of the article ‘“What is Ethical Cannot be Taught”—Moral Theories as Descriptions of Grammar’, which was originally published in Wittgenstein’s Moral Thought edited by Edward Dain and Reshef Agam-Segal (Routledge 2018), and which are integrated into chapters 2 and 3 of the current work.

Abbreviations of Works by Wittgenstein Full details of other works refereed to can be found in the bibliography at the end. AWL BT CV Nachlass LE LWPP I



Wittgenstein’s Lectures. Cambridge 1932–1935, A. Ambrose (ed.). Oxford: Blackwell, 1979. ‘The Big Typescript’, C.G. Luckhardt & M.A.E. Aue (eds.). Oxford: Blackwell, 2005. Culture and Value, G.H. von Wright (ed.), rev. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998. Wittgenstein’s Nachlass. The Bergen Electronic Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. ‘A Lecture on Ethics’, The Philosophical Review 74/1: 3–12, 1965. Last Writings on the Philosophy of Psychology: Volume I. Preliminary Studies for Part II of Philosophical Investigations MSS 137–138. Oxford: Blackwell, 1982. Über Gewissheit. On Certainty, G.E.M Anscombe & G.H. von Wright (eds.), Oxford: Blackwell, 1975. Philosophical Investigations/Philosophische Untersuchungen, revised 3rd ed., Oxford: Blackwell, 1953/2001. Private and Public Occasions. J.C. Klagge & A. Nordmann (eds.). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003. Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough/Bemerkungen über Frazers Golden Bough, in J.C. Klagge & A. Nordmann (eds.): Philosophical Occasions, 1912–1951. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993. Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics. Oxford: Blackwell, 3rd ed., 2001. Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, Vol I. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1980. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. London: Routledge, 1961. Zettel. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1967. Wittgenstein’s Lectures. Cambridge 1930–1932, D. Lee (ed.). Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1979. Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1979.




1 The Question of Moral Philosophy This is a book on moral philosophy. It is motivated by the thought that we face a growing need to reflect on our own activity in moral philosophy. During much of the twentieth century, there was a widespread consensus that the main aim of moral philosophy was to develop moral theories that serve as a foundation and comprehensive justification of morality and work as guidelines for determining right action. However, in the last decades, this project has come under pressure, mainly because of the critique of moral theory raised within a growing number of positions. The lack of a coherent answer to questions concerning the role and the status of moral philosophy and the theories it develops is arguably the most important obstacle for doing work in moral philosophy today, because the status of such work depends on how we answer questions about what we are doing, about the activities of moral philosophy, its field of interest and its aims. In this book, I try to contribute to an answer to these questions by presenting a renewed understanding of moral philosophy, the role of moral theory, and the relation between moral philosophy and moral life. In this way, the book may seem overly ambitious, as it must deal with something like ‘moral philosophy’ on the one hand and ‘moral life’ on the other. The scope is necessary, however, in order to get the central question of the relationship between the two into view. In another way, however, the book is much less ambitious because it does not pretend to offer a full answer to the question about the status of moral philosophy. The intention is simply to present a suggestion for a renewed conception of moral philosophy that is valuable in its own right and may also influence debates about the role of moral theories and moral philosophy in relation to our moral lives. The aim of this chapter is to provide the background and motivation for this project, to clarify some of its central concerns, and in closing to present a short overview of the book.

Moral Philosophy and Moral Life. Anne-Marie Søndergaard Christensen, Oxford University Press (2021). © Anne-Marie Søndergaard Christensen. DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198866695.003.0001


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1.1 Background Philosophy is essentially a reflective and self-reflective activity. Of course this is already one reason why we should reflect on the activity of doing moral philosophy, a reason as old as philosophy itself. Moreover, moral philosophy can be seen as a suitable place for the activity of a shared reflection on moral life, and this brings with it an obligation to account for the role and status of the outcome of this reflection. Both these reasons are completely general, and the attempt to answer them has always been an important part of the work done in moral philosophy. However this book is also written from the conviction that this need for reflection is even more pressing than usual in contemporary moral philosophy. One reason for the present importance of the question of the role and status of moral philosophy is that the conception of moral philosophy dominant in the twentieth century has come under tremendous stress. It is hardly controversial to say that it has been considered one of the main aims of moral philosophy to produce moral theories intended to provide both an adequate account of the foundation of the moral and some sort of guidelines that could serve to determine right action. Moral philosophers have considered the development of moral theories to be central to developing an understanding of moral philosophy as an academic and scientific discipline that escapes suspicions of moralism or dogmatism.¹ Because of this, many moral philosophers still hold a conception of moral life according to which it ‘makes room for, and requires, the existence of moral theory, conceived as a discipline which seeks to formulate acceptable principles of conduct’, and a conception of moral philosophy as concerned with the topic ‘of right conduct, and the nature and justification of principles of behaviour’ (McDowell 1979, 331). That is, moral philosophy has been considered an activity that addresses a pressing, practical need for theories that may offer us some sort of actionguidance. In the last decades, however, the theory-based understanding of moral philosophy has come under a wide range of criticisms from various positions such as virtue ethics, particularism, anti-theory and Wittgensteinian moral philosophy. We will return to these criticisms in Chapter 2, but at present, we should simply note that even if they stem from different positions, address different features of moral theory, and do not constitute a coherent whole,

¹ See e.g. Walker 1995.

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their existence still means that a conception of moral philosophy revolving around moral theory can no longer be taken as uncontroversial or as our default understanding of moral philosophy, and this accentuates the need for a renewed understanding of this discipline. A further reason to focus on the question of the role and status of moral philosophy is that the various positions growing out of the critique of moral theory have become influential philosophical positions in their own right. We could say that they have reached a state of maturity in which they face the need for a comprehensive process of self-reflection. Despite their differences, philosophers working within Wittgensteinian ethics, virtue ethics, and so on, seem to agree that philosophers should give up the attempt to develop highly abstract and simple moral theories and should instead go on to practise moral philosophy in some other way. However, suggestions for this ‘some other way’ need to be discussed and developed. In one sense, the present work is a response to a challenge raised thirty years ago by Annette Baier, who wrote that moral philosophers ‘should be looking for new and better ways both of designing our own role and of conducting our reflection on and examination of the moral practices of our time’ (Baier 1989, 40). The aim of this book is to contribute to other or better ways of doing moral philosophy. If we accept the critique of the understanding of moral philosophy as a theory-producing discipline, we then face the question of how to conceive of moral philosophy, and what forms of activity we should see as central to it. To contribute to the development of an alternative understanding of moral philosophy, we need, among other things, to untangle the various criticisms of the dominant view of moral philosophy as the provider of moral theories and the challenges to the explanatory, foundational, authoritative, and actionguiding role of these theories. Which of these objections are tenable and how damaging are they for the idea of moral theory? What follows from these criticisms? We also need to reconsider how we are to understand influential positions such as utilitarianism and Kantianism that have hitherto been considered as moral theories (at least on one, widespread understanding of them). Are we simply to discard these positions as mistaken attempts at theorising, should we develop an alternative understanding of moral theory, or should we rather revise the way we understand these positions, that is, conceive of them as something altogether different from theory? This set of questions is addressed here in the first part of this book. The discussion of what form of moral theory—if any—can be a fruitful part of moral philosophy leads us to another set of concerns. The most influential objections raised against moral theories are that general theories inevitably


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distort the character of moral thinking and moral life, which are essentially tied to concrete personal and contextual particularities. This raises various questions about how we are to understand the moral importance of the particular, that is, how we adequately present the particular within philosophy, how we understand the relation between the particular and the general, and whether accepting that particularities play a role in moral life poses a threat to the idea of moral universality. This requires us to investigate the nature of the particularities relevant for an understanding of moral life. One set of particular moral considerations that critics of moral theories often draw attention to concern the subject, her character, individual commitments, and moral position. Another set of morally relevant particularities are tied to the context of the subject, her moral community, such as the dominant forms of moral thought found there and the moral concepts and resources of the language available for her. These questions concerning the role and nature of moral particularities are the subject of the second part of the book. Finally, the attempt to renew our understanding of moral philosophy confronts us with the wider task of answering what a re-evaluation of our conception of moral theories as well as an affirmation of the value of the particular mean for our conception of moral philosophy. The challenge is to present a substantial alternative that can replace the twentieth-century view of moral philosophy as a theory-developing science. We need to offer new suggestions concerning what it is to do moral philosophy, what forms of activity it includes, and what sorts of outcomes it yields, if it does not provide us with a foundation of moral thought or forms of action guidance. The criticisms of a theory-based understanding of moral philosophy point towards a pluralistic view of moral philosophy in terms of its activities and its outcomes, but what forms of activities and outcomes? How are we to understand such a pluralistic approach to moral philosophy? We turn to these and related questions in the third and final part of this book.

1.2 Clarifications Before I give a more detailed overview of the book, I need to clarify several points central to this project. The first concerns the context of the discussion, which is that of contemporary analytical moral philosophy, broadly conceived.² At ² Unfortunately, this also means that the following does not include a discussion of contemporary moral philosophy within the continental tradition.

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different times in the history of philosophy, moral philosophers have had different questions about the role of moral philosophy, the conception of moral theory and the relation between theories and moral life, and they have found different ways to answer these questions. Here I engage with the contemporary discussion of these questions, especially because most of the difficulties addressed in this book are provoked by a contemporary conception of moral philosophy and moral theory. This means that discussion of positions from the classical canon (such as the positions of Kant or Aristotle) will concern the role that these positions have been given in contemporary philosophy. In cases where the aim is to bring out a contrast between a classical philosopher’s own views (of moral philosophy for example) with how we now conceive these views, this will be explicitly noted. The second point of clarification concerns the terms marking the central categories of the book: those of moral philosophy and moral life. These terms have been chosen because of a formal consideration which is in no way unique to the present investigation, but which is of special importance here. It concerns the fact that the English word ‘ethics’ (like the German word ‘Ethik’ and the word ‘etik’ used in both Danish and Swedish) has two main meanings. On the one hand, we use the word ‘ethics’ to mean what we look at in moral philosophy, ethics as it shows in our actual uses of words, our considerations, actions, decisions, practices and societies, ethics as our ideals, virtues, values, principles, and so on. On the other hand, we also use ‘ethics’ to mean moral philosophy itself, the philosophical discipline that investigates matters of ethical concern. These two meanings are nicely characterised in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Here the first entry under ‘ethics’ presents ethics as ‘the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation’, which includes moral philosophy, while the second entry presents a group of meanings of ethics such as ‘a set of moral principles’, ‘the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group’ and ‘a consciousness of moral importance’.³ This duality is nicely summed up with even more brevity in the entry under ‘ethics’ in the Cambridge Dictionaries Online which states that ethics is ‘the study of what is morally right and wrong, or a set of beliefs about what is morally right and wrong’.⁴ We can contrast this with the case of epistemology, where we have two clearly distinct words for the subject matter of the philosophical investigation (knowledge) and the philosophical discipline investigating this subject matter ³ ⁴


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(epistemology). In this case, we always automatically distinguish between the philosophical investigation and its subject matter, but with regard to moral philosophy, this distinction is often much less transparent. We can, of course, say that moral philosophy is the investigation of moral life—but we can just as well say that moral philosophy is the investigation of ethics, or that ethics is the investigation of moral life. Or we can indeed say that ethics is the investigation of ethics. In the present context, it is however important to keep moral philosophy and what it investigates separate. It is important, not because I want to make any claim about the fundamental difference between moral philosophy and moral life (in fact, it is a central idea of this book that the two interact in intimate ways and that doing moral philosophy is never completely neutral and thus never completely separate from moral life), but because I want to be able to distinguish between moral philosophy and moral life. If this distinction were left unclear, then points or observations about one activity (for example that moral philosophy really is theoretical, descriptive, or elucidatory etc.) might be ascribed to the other form of activity (implying that the moral really is theoretical, descriptive, or elucidatory etc.). It is especially important to avoid such ambiguity in the present work because if we are to examine the relationship between moral philosophy and moral life, it needs to be transparent which of the two we are talking about. At this point, I therefore simply choose to stipulate some terminology: I will be using the phrase ‘moral philosophy’ (not ‘ethics’) for the philosophical investigation and ‘moral life’ (not ‘ethics’) for the phenomena that it investigates. Moreover, I will simply refrain from using the term ‘ethics’ in the following, apart from places where it enters naturally because it is used by one of the philosophers discussed. Another reason for the choice of the notion of moral life is that it is meant to encompass the moral aspects of what Ludwig Wittgenstein calls the ‘everyday’⁵ and what is now—following Stanley Cavell—often called ‘the ordinary’. The notions of the everyday and the ordinary do not refer to some form of consensus or common sense, but rather point to our shared notion of the familiar and the exemplary, and to the philosophical task ‘of placing the words and experiences with which philosophers have always begun in alignment with human beings in particular circumstances who can be imagined to be having those experiences and saying and meaning those words’ (Cavell 2002b, 270).⁶ So the notion of ⁵ See e.g. PI §116, §235, §412 and II.xi p. 171. ⁶ As Toril Moi notes, the ordinary does not mean ‘unreflective, conventional common sense’, but rather ‘the exemplary, the public, the shared’ (Moi 2017, 6), what Richard Fleming describes as the ‘necessary order of our common existence’ (Fleming 2004, 115).

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moral life is meant to emphasise how human life cannot—in advance, so to speak—be carved out in sharply delineated areas ready for the attention of different philosophical disciplines. When we look at ‘human beings in particular circumstances’, at their background, their moral community, and their practices, at what they experience and what they say and do, their lives make up a whole, which means that philosophical distinctions must be justified with reference to this whole. Practice, experience, morality, knowledge, and language are, as the later Wittgenstein emphasises again and again, not distinct entities but different patterns ‘in the weave of our lives’ (PI II.xi, 194)—here investigated with a particular focus on our moral lives. Finally, connecting the notion of moral life with those of the everyday and the ordinary is meant to remind us of Wittgenstein’s constant warning against thinking that the everyday is in any way obvious or transparent to us: ‘The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something—because it is always before one’s eyes)’ (PI §129). The most ordinary parts of our lives may be hard for us to see, precisely because they are such an integrated part of everything we do or say or think. The third and fourth points of clarification connect to one of the main sources of inspiration of the present work, namely the conception of philosophy found in the later writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Philosophers sometimes highlight the foreignness or outright strangeness of Wittgenstein’s view of philosophy and in doing so set a stark contrast with more influential understandings of philosophy. There are, however, good reasons to question the claim that Wittgenstein’s view of philosophy cannot be made to interact with other traditions in philosophy. One reason is that Wittgenstein’s presentation of his conception of philosophy is characterised by a lack of any specialised conceptual apparatus or any substantial theoretical constructions, which means that it is indeed very suited as an aid in the investigation of the relationships between several different positions in philosophy—in this case in moral philosophy. Another reason is that Wittgenstein’s conception of philosophy is self-reflective through and through, and it can thus provide tools of philosophical self-reflection essential for a project such as this that seeks to make explicit an emerging self-understanding of moral philosophy. The philosophical approach of this work finds its point of departure in Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, in Wittgenstein’s methodological idea that ‘[p]hilosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it’, and that philosophy in this sense ‘leaves everything as it is’ (PI §124). The role of moral philosophy is not that of being prescriptive, of establishing guidelines for how we are to act or live, rather through

10      descriptions of various kinds philosophy works on our attention, to give us a clearer view of moral life but also to bring us to notice what we tend to overlook, or what we have never before noticed as being of moral importance. Moral philosophy aids our orientation in moral life in a way that is somewhat similar to the way that for example maps, roads signs, aerial photographs and written descriptions may help our orientation in a landscape, and a descriptive approach is in this way meant to enable an understanding of moral life that reveals its many different features and their vital importance to us. It will furthermore be argued that to do justice to the complexity of moral life, the descriptions offered by moral philosophy will possibly have to be even more diverse than those needed for orientation in the physical world—a point that I will return to at several places in this book. The descriptive approach to moral philosophy is also in part influenced by two ideas fundamental to the work of Iris Murdoch, that ‘[t]o attend is to care’ (1992, 179), and that work on our moral attention is also at the same time work on our concepts in order for them to be able to do justice to moral experience. However, the question of what descriptive moral philosophy is and how it is to be done more precisely will first be developed fully through the course of this work. This leads me to the final point of clarification. There is another sense in which this book can be said to be Wittgensteinian, as its basic outline is modelled on an understanding of philosophical activity that I find is fundamental in Wittgenstein’s later writings on philosophy, especially in the dialogical structure of the Philosophical Investigations. Here we are presented with a view of doing philosophy that encompasses two interconnected movements, pulling in two different directions. One is a theoretical and generalising movement, whereby Wittgenstein proposes general descriptions of the concepts under consideration, for example when he argues that for us to be able to communicate in language, we need not just agreement in definitions, but in judgements (cf. PI §242). This appears to be a form of theoretical observation (and many commentators have treated is as such), but for Wittgenstein the important point is that we should never rest content with such abstractions and never take them to be relevant to every possible philosophical problem. In fact, such abstractions are only reminders, bringing out particular features of the phenomena under investigation, and we should therefore move on to explore examples where a generalisation such as this does not apply. Accordingly, one of the many resources we find in Wittgenstein’s way of doing and writing philosophy as well as in his discussions of the methods of philosophy is various therapies that may help us overcome the inherent philosophical temptation to hypostasise our findings. In this way, Wittgenstein’s investigations return to the

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ordinary, the complicated ‘hurly-burly of human actions and the background against which we see any action’ (Zettel §567) to explore the importance of the particular in philosophy. This may again give rise to a need to move towards generality in order to make the most pertinent features of the investigated concepts and phenomena stand out, and so on. In this way, Wittgensteinian investigations proceed in a gentle pendulating movement, now in the direction of a more general and theoretical claim, now towards the particular and contextual. As Wittgenstein remarks in a discussion of our use of pictures, ‘Can there be a collision between picture and application? There can, inasmuch as the picture makes us expect a different use, because people in general apply this picture like this. I want to say: we have here a normal case, and abnormal cases’ (PI §141). When doing philosophy, we tend to focus on the normal case or even on the general structure we expect to find behind it. Wittgenstein allows for the importance of doing this as long as we also return to describe and consider the abnormal case, the unusual, that which challenges absolute generalisations. We can see Wittgenstein’s philosophical method as internalising a movement that Iris Murdoch attributes to philosophy in general, namely ‘a two-way movement in philosophy, a movement towards the building of theories, and a move back again towards the consideration of simple and obvious facts. McTaggart says that time is unreal, Moore replies that he has just eaten his breakfast’ (Murdoch 2001, 1).⁷ I find this illuminating as a description of the method of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy. The interpretation of Wittgenstein’s method in the Philosophical Investigation as a continuous pendulation between the general and theoretical and the particular and contextual offers a way to resolve the tension of that work and explain the many, often conflicting interpretations of Wittgenstein’s understanding of philosophy. However, whether this is the right interpretation of the Philosophical Investigations is not crucial for my present purposes, as this is not a book on Wittgenstein’s philosophy either directly or indirectly. Instead, this way of understanding Wittgenstein’s view of philosophy is important for me because it offers a way of understanding the current critique of moral theory and the move towards particularity within moral philosophy of the last half decade as indeed a necessary reaction to the overly generalising

⁷ And, as Forsberg argues, the quote can also be considered a key to understanding Murdoch’s own way of doing philosophy: ‘Murdoch is not carving out two separate ways of doing philosophy here, as I understand her. I want to say that what Murdoch captures here are two movements of thought that tend to characterize the philosophical activity. [ . . . ] Philosophy, as Murdoch conceives it, consists of this play—between particularity and essence, between the real and the ideal, the philosophical and the ordinary’ (Forsberg 2013, 10).

12      and theorising tendencies of moral philosophy in the twentieth century. It is also important because it can help us develop a new way of understanding the activity of moral philosophy and new ways of doing work here. This Wittgensteinian understanding of the activity of doing philosophy will serve as a model of moral philosophy in the present book, and it will also guide its basic structure. The book presents two such major movements, one theoretical in nature, the other particularist. The first is developed here in the first part where I—after diagnosing the essential forms of criticism against a traditional conception of moral theory—offer an alternative way of understanding this generalising movement in philosophy. The second is unfolded in Part II where the aim is to show why and how generalising tendencies in moral philosophy must continuously be countered by a move towards the particulars of moral life. The two movements will be tied together in Part III where I argue that the two movements are interdependent, and that they together offer a comprehensive understanding of a way of doing moral philosophy that is self-reflectively attentive towards both the role of moral theories and the particulars of moral life. That is, even if this is not a book on Wittgenstein’s view of philosophy or a book aspiring to develop a specifically Wittgensteinian view of moral philosophy, the influence of Wittgenstein’s philosophy is still pervasive, mostly implicitly, but at times also explicitly.

1.3 Overview With the above points in mind, we can now turn to a short overview of the main parts of the book. As noted above, the current call for critical selfreflection in moral philosophy provides the starting point of the present work, and it is here addressed as arising from two conflicting insights. The first is the insight of the critics of moral theory into the failures of the dominant conception of moral theory. The other is the insight into the relevance that we still attribute to the positions traditionally conceived to be moral theories, such as for example Kantianism and utilitarianism. This first aim of the book is to resolve this conflict by providing an alternative view of moral theories in moral philosophy. Chapter 2, ‘The Critique of Moral Theories’, will provide an overview of the present state of theory critique by presenting the central and most damaging points of criticism raised against the dominant conception of moral theories, which are that theories cannot provide a foundation for our moral lives and that they do not have the authority necessary for them to determine right action. From this, the aim is

    


to show how the absence of relevant answers to these points means that we face a need to revise our understanding of moral theories. Chapter 3, ‘Descriptive Moral Theories’, is therefore devoted to the task of developing an alternative conception of the role and status of moral theories. It presents, first, a review of two suggestions for how to understand moral theories as essentially descriptive tools. Where these suggestions are found wanting, they will be revised and extended through an engagement with the philosophical notion of grammar found in Wittgenstein’s later work. The aim is to develop an understanding of moral theories as descriptions of the possible normative structures exhibited in moral language and thought, which will here be called moral grammars. According to this view of moral theories as descriptive and heuristic, we must give up the ideas that theories can determine right action, and that they are mutually exclusive, and we must instead allow for a plurality of moral theories describing a plurality of moral grammars present in moral life. Finally, it will be shown how on this conception moral theories alone cannot address the problems that we address in moral philosophy, as we also must take into account the particularity of such problems as well as the perspective or interest of the moral philosopher who investigates them. The aim of the second part of the book is to investigate how moral reflection involves particular considerations arising both from our particular moral commitments and positions as well as from the particulars of our moral context. The first half of Chapter 4, ‘Generality and Particularity in Moral Thought’, is an engagement with Onora O’Neill’s idea of the indispensability of general principles in moral thought that will help us to understand how far such generalities, such as those provided by descriptive moral theories, can help us in moral philosophy. The point made here is that thinking that involves only particulars can be important in moral philosophy. The aim of the second half is to sketch an understanding of moral thought that provides us with a description of the role of the general and the particular in moral life and helps us to see how particulars enters moral thought. The subsequent chapters address the forms of particularity most important to morality. First, in Chapter 5, ‘Particularities of Moral Lives: Moral Positions’, it is shown how some particularities tied to the subject are morally essential, such as her character, her particular commitments and, more fundamentally, her moral position. In Chapter 6, ‘Particularities of Moral Contexts: The Embedded Moral Self ’, we explore the importance of the particularities of the contexts in which the moral subject finds herself, especially the moral resources available in her language and practices, with the aim to show how moral context may indeed constrain moral reflection in certain crucial respects. Of interest is

14      also the question whether, how and to what degree inhibitions in a moral context influence our moral responsibility, and it will be shown that our uses of words themselves are subject to moral responsibility. This leads to the third and last part of the book. The aim here is, on the basis of the understanding developed here of the interplay between general and particular features of moral life and moral thought, to develop a heterogeneous view of moral philosophy as consisting of a diversity of descriptive activities, and to thereby return to the larger question of the role of moral philosophy and its relation to moral life. The motivation behind Chapter 7, ‘Literature and Moral Philosophy’, is the thought that philosophy needs to move outside of itself to gain knowledge and understanding of the particularities of moral life, and the chapter explores one way in which it can do so, namely through the engagement with literature, focussing specifically on how this engagement can help us develop and even change our moral concepts and with them the resources available to us in moral life. In the final chapter, ‘Descriptive Moral Philosophy’, I offer a form of conclusion by drawing together the conception of moral philosophy presented in the book, according to which the aim of moral philosophy is not that of telling us how we ought to act or think or what we ought to become, morally, but rather of that of describing and elucidating the many ways in what we do in fact act and think, and what we can in fact become, morally, in a way that aids our orientation within and choice between the available alternatives of moral life. By readdressing the question of the practicality of moral philosophy, I propose that this form of philosophy offers suggestions for our moral attention and for possible moral change, and that moral philosophy is itself an activity characterised by moral responsibility. The chapter thus addresses the question of the relation between moral life and the conception of moral philosophy developed here and, in this way, concludes the project of the book.

2 The Critique of Moral Theories It has been a part of the conception of moral philosophy in the twentieth century that moral philosophy aims to develop moral theories intended to provide, ideally, substantial action-guidance as well as a foundation for moral thinking, but from the middle of the twentieth century and onwards this conception has come under a lot of pressure. The aim of this chapter is to discuss this conception of moral theory and the criticism it faces. It opens with a presentation of some of the most prominent groups of critics of moral theory and their main objections, and this critique will be contrasted with a substantial ideal of moral theory presented in the work of Martha Nussbaum. The discussion of this criticism as well as Nussbaum’s responses to it will allow us to identify the central and most damaging objections to moral theory. These objections, here presented in the form they take in the work of Bernard Williams, are that theories cannot provide a foundation for moral practice, and that they do not possess the authority necessary for them to serve as action-guiding in any substantial sense. In the final part of the chapter, I will consider whether Nussbaum or other proponents of the dominant understanding of moral theory have convincing answers to these objections; and furthermore how the absence of such answers indicates a need to re-evaluate our understanding of both the role and the form of moral theories.

2.1 In the Beginning: The Rise of the Critique of Moral Theories Where do we turn when we do not know what we ought to do? An answer that predominates in much contemporary moral philosophy is that we should turn, not just to moral philosophy, but to moral theories, because such theories reveal the true nature of morality and the demands it places upon us. Moral theories should be rigorously tested against moral practice, of course, but when we have done so, and subsequently developed the best moral theory possible, it will help us solve the moral problems that we encounter in moral life. We find an argument of this variety fleshed out in R.M. Hare’s attempt to Moral Philosophy and Moral Life. Anne-Marie Søndergaard Christensen, Oxford University Press (2021). © Anne-Marie Søndergaard Christensen. DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198866695.003.0002

16      show the mutual benefits of applied ethics for moral philosophy and moral practice. When theory is confronted with practice, its basic assumptions will be put to the test, Hare claims, and he continues: ‘That is the benefit for the theory. The benefit for practice is that, having provisionally, in Popperian style, tested the theory, we can go on using it in trying to solve the problems that remain’ (Hare 1989, 12). In this way, Hare illustrates the initial attraction of moral theory, the hope that if we can find a theory strong enough to survive the encounter with moral practice, we have also found a theory that can help us overcome our moral problems. There are many sources of the attraction of this model of moral theory, especially the fact that the model mirrors a popular conception of the role of theory in other fields of life. If we want to build a bridge and make sure that the bridge does not fall down, we turn to theories of the load-carrying capacity of bridges built with different materials and different structures, theories that are vigorously tested in practice, of course, and we use these theories to find the right way to construct a bridge that will serve our practical purposes. This is, in many cases, how theories help us solve practical problems. Of course, in morality we do not construct bridges, but we have many other, practical problems, and this may prompt us to think that theories may aid us in a similar way. We may therefore, in the spirit of Hare, come to assume that what we need is to construct theories that provide us with action-guidance, establish a secure foundation for moral practice, and provide tests for when common sense morality is confused or outright corrupt.¹ We will return to this dominant model of moral theory below, but before we do so, we need to develop an overview of the many objections that have been raised against it in the last half century. There are many ways to tell the story of how moral theory has come under critical scrutiny. According to one version, the story opens with two groundbreaking articles from the 1950s, Iris Murdoch’s ‘Vision and Choice in Morality’ from 1956 and Elizabeth Anscombe’s ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ from 1958. In ‘Vision and Choice’, Murdoch takes as her starting point a critique of what she labels ‘the current view’ in moral philosophy which, according to her, exhibits a lack of understanding of our inner and moral lives as anything more than ‘a series of overt choices which take place in a

¹ Walker 1995 presents a thorough investigation of how the model of theory used as an ideal in early understandings of the natural sciences has shaped the understanding of moral theory in twentiethcentury moral philosophy (discussed below).

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series of specifiable situations’ (Murdoch 1956, 34). Against this, she argues that we need an understanding of moral life that takes into account the moral importance of our feelings and attitudes and the way they come together in what she calls ‘the texture of a man’s being or the nature of his personal vision’ (ibid. 39). However, such a wider vision of life raises two problems for the current view as understood by Murdoch. The first problem is that the understanding of moral agency championed by the current view is too crude and too focused on action to consider the role of moral vision in our lives, of what we see as morally important and what we do not. The other problem regards the current view’s aspiration to develop moral theories that are general in character, which is challenged by the personal character of such visions. What we need instead, according to Murdoch, are moral theories that take seriously the fact that our inner lives, and our moral visions, differ from person to person, so that we can come to understand something as morally salient for a particular person without attempting to give this salience the form of a general rule. This challenges the aspiration to develop not just a general, but also a simple moral theory. As Murdoch puts it, ‘Philosophers have been misled, not only by a rationalistic desire for unity, but also by certain simplified and generalised moral attitudes current in our society, into seeking a single philosophical definition of morality’ (ibid. 57). What moral philosophers should do instead is to come to terms with the fact that there are many different models of morality besides the ‘ “universal rules” model’ (ibid. 45), and that these models are themselves influenced by, or infused with, moral attitudes. In this manner, Murdoch poses several challenges to the philosophers’ attempts to develop moral theory. One challenge is to get the facts right and not work from too narrow an understanding of persons and their moral lives, to see that morality concerns not just choices and actions, but the quality of our moral vision as well, which means that moral differences may concern not just ‘differences of choice’, but also ‘differences of vision’ (ibid. 40). However, Murdoch also presents a more fundamental challenge to the current view’s understanding of the form of moral theory by questioning whether it is possible to develop one consistent and all-encompassing theory. A moral theory should take into account the particularities of our moral outlooks, and these will involve different understandings of both moral relevance and morality itself. Moral theories are themselves moral and are so in different ways. This means that Murdoch, ultimately, challenges what we can call the foundational aspiration in moral philosophy, that is, the idea that one moral

18      theory can provide a foundation for sound moral judgement and thinking which will be binding for all.² Even though Murdoch presents a stark criticism of specific ways of doing moral theory, she does not problematise all forms of theories, but an even more radical challenge to moral theory is found in Elizabeth Anscombe’s celebrated ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’. Anscombe takes as her main targets the Kantian and utilitarian theories dominant in moral philosophy in the middle of the twentieth century, and she raises two main objections against them: that they work from a flawed and deficient understanding of philosophical psychology, and that their central concepts, such as moral obligation and moral duty, have in fact become empty. In this context, her analysis of the conception of moral theory dominant in her time is especially relevant. According to Anscombe, the discussion of moral philosophers unfolds within a shared conception of the form of morality, which they have inherited from the law conception of ethics found in natural law theories. On this conception, morality is considered something established independently of moral life and external to it, something which limits what we may legitimately do but which we are nonetheless obliged to obey. Moral obligation takes the form of law, and judgements about what to do are modelled on the rulings of a court, where particular actions are judged according to whether they can be said to follow a finite set of universal principles (Anscombe 1958, 6). In this way, a law conception of morality can account for how morality gives rise to moral obligations that bind us against our will—in moral life, we are bound by morality in the same way as we in society are bound by laws, whether we choose to be or not. However, this understanding of morality is also deeply dependent on the notion of a law-giver, traditionally in the form of God, and having given up any such reference to God, moral philosophers are left with the task of finding a replacement for a divine legislator that can ensure both a valid and stable understanding of the norms by which we judge moral action and a clear understanding of moral obligation. Anscombe’s point is that moral philosophers have not begun to do this, and if they did, they would discover that the most promising candidate to replace divine authority is an understanding of human life similar to the one found in the writings of Aristotle. This would, however, radically change our understanding of the moral, forcing us to give up the law-model, since the moral

² Hurka gives a helpful overview of different attempts to provide foundations for morality in moral philosophy from John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice onwards and the problems related to these attempts (2004, 254–61).

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would then be tied, not to what is commanded of us, but to norms arising from an adequate understanding of human nature. Moreover, Anscombe observes that this is not an easy road to travel because currently we have no such understanding of human nature, of our moral psychology and our moral lives. Anscombe therefore recommends that we give up the concept of obligation and related notions and instead begin a number of more fundamental studies of for example human action and intention before once more venturing into ‘some study of ethics’ and attempting to develop new moral theories (Anscombe 1958, 15).³ What Anscombe suggests is that moral philosophers—at least for a time—give up the pretence of doing moral theory, especially because philosophers without a religious framework or substantial knowledge about human nature have nothing ‘with which to revolt against the conventional standards of their sort of people’ (ibid. 13). In this way, both Murdoch and Anscombe criticise contemporary moral philosophers for being unduly generalising, for reacting to the lack of an authoritative moral framework by seeking a foundation where no foundation is available and for simply dressing up their own favourite moral prejudices and conventions as moral theories. These criticisms have resounded through moral philosophy since the two pioneering articles were published, spurring many critical reappraisals of contemporary moral theory, and we now turn to an overview of the present state of these criticisms.

2.2 A Motley Crew: Questioning Moral Theories The point of the following is not to provide a historical guide through the developments in the critique of theory within the last half century, but rather to present a systematic overview of the critical challenges posed to the dominant understanding of moral theory in contemporary moral philosophy by what are arguably the three dominant groups of theory critics. These are first the particularists found within contemporary virtue ethics; second moral philosophers basing their writings on Wittgenstein’s philosophy; and finally a smaller group of philosophers sometimes placed together under the heading of anti-theory. ³ This marks an important difference between Murdoch’s and Anscombe’s positions. In Diamond’s words, ‘Murdoch’s conception of moral psychology implies that one can’t set aside moral philosophy for a while in order to get moral psychology straight first. Philosophical reflection about action, intention, motive, desire and similar topics does not fall in a branch of philosophy of its own, separate from moral philosophy’ (Diamond 2010, 78).

20      The first group of critics, now often referred to as particularists, have two main sources of inspiration.⁴ One is Wittgenstein’s writings on rule-following and his attempt to rid us of the false assumption that in order for an act to be rational, it must be guided by something explicable in terms of universal principles. What Wittgenstein shows is that following a rule—for example in applying a moral concept—arises out of our shared interests and responses, our form of life.⁵ Ultimately, the rationality of concept use does not hinge on explicit rules; instead we should allow for rational capacities based for example on discernment. The second source is an Aristotelian form of virtue ethics which ties together moral judgements and an understanding of the good life or eudaimonia. Against this twofold background, John McDowell has argued for the uncodifiability of moral judgements; as such judgements involve a complicated understanding of the good life, they cannot be coded in explicit and general principles, but are instead primarily a product of an individually developed and experience-based form of practical reason.⁶ Imposing generality on moral thinking distorts its form, so we must give up the demand for generality, even if this means giving up the idea that moral theory can offer general recommendations for practice.⁷ Other philosophers have come to similar conclusions through their engagement with virtue ethics, such as Julia Annas, who points out that since any exercise of virtue must be guided by practical reason and involves abilities to respond appropriately to situations that are essentially uncodifiable, this means that moral theories cannot determine right action, even if they can describe the exercise of practical reason and virtue.⁸ The criticism of moral theory found within virtue ethical particularism is thus directed primarily at the idea that moral theories can serve as action-guiding, which is rejected in favour of a conception of practical reason that involves fine-tuned abilities of moral judgement as well as a nuanced sensitivity towards reality.⁹ The second group of critics of moral theory find their inspiration in Wittgenstein’s view of philosophical method, and they are critical of the ⁴ For the label ‘particularism’, see e.g. Hooker and Little 2000 or Lance and Little 2006. However, some forms of contemporary Aristotelian virtue ethics do not embrace particularism. The prominent virtue ethicist Rosalind Hursthouse has no objections against the development of general, actionguiding moral theories, but argues that the dominant theories of the twentieth century, Kantianism and utilitarianism, should be replaced with that of virtue ethics where right action is defined from an adequate notion of the virtues and the good life of human beings (see Hursthouse 1999). ⁵ Cf. PI §138-§242. ⁶ McDowell 1981; see also 1979, 1995 and Garfield 2000. ⁷ For other particularist understandings of virtue ethics, see also Annas 2001, 2011; Hacker-Wright 2010; and Svensson 2010, 2011. ⁸ Annas 2011; for a particularist understanding of virtue ethics, see also Annas 2001 and Svensson 2010, 2011. ⁹ We will return to the question of particularism in Chapter 4.

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authority of normative theories and the idea of a single moral domain. We find this conception of moral philosophy in the writings of, for example, Peter Winch, D.Z. Phillips, Cora Diamond, and Stanley Cavell¹⁰, and philosophers such as Alice Crary and James Conant have developed it further.¹¹ These thinkers hold that we cannot explain and justify actual moral reasoning in isolation from concrete contexts, and that no philosophical theory is able to unify the diversity of moral contexts and thus of moral experience. Thus, it is impossible to delineate the moral; there is no such thing as ‘the moral domain’, rather, the moral is a dimension that may be relevant for any part of our lives. This means that moral philosophy cannot settle the question of what it is relevant to ‘look at’ before and independently of a specific philosophical investigation, and in deciding what we ‘look at’ such investigations themselves become forms of moral activity. Instead of trying to establish moral theories, philosophers should instead turn their attention towards the detailed description of the many ways in which moral considerations arise in human life, which would also reveal to us the gap between the simple picture of moral thinking offered by moral theories and the startling complexity of the considerations and perspectives involved in actual moral practice. These philosophers of course still consider morality to be a rational endeavour, but they reject the idea that it exhibits a form of rationality that can be modelled on generalised judgement,¹² and this has led some moral philosophers within this Wittgensteinian tradition to take a critical stance towards all forms of moral theory.¹³ This smaller group of Wittgensteinians is now often presented under the label of anti-theory;¹⁴ a label also used to describe philosophers such as Annette Baier and Bernard Williams, who are not directly influenced by Wittgenstein’s thinking but nonetheless challenge the idea that moral theories have a neutral and authoritative status in relation to moral practice. Baier attacks the idea that the production of theory is a morally neutral activity, free of moral implications, an attack which is followed by a strong plea for descriptive moral philosophy.¹⁵ Williams points out that even if there is a real demand for reflection in ethics, this is a practical, not a theoretical demand, and he therefore questions the idea that moral theory has the ¹⁰ See e.g. Winch 1972, 1987; Phillips 1989, 1992a; Diamond 1982, 1983, 1985, 2003; and Cavell 1979. ¹¹ See e.g. Crary 2007a, 2016; Conant 2005. ¹² See especially Crary 2007a. ¹³ The Wittgensteinian tradition in moral philosophy will take centre stage in the understanding of moral philosophy offered in Chapter 8. For a critical discussion of this approach in moral philosophy, see e.g. O’Neill 1986, also discussed in Chapter 4. ¹⁴ For the label ‘anti-theory’, see Lance and Little 2006. ¹⁵ Baier 1989, see also 1985.

22      authority to demand revisions of our deeply rooted moral convictions, that is, he questions whether we should be committed to ‘the view that philosophy can determine, either positively or negatively, how we should think in ethics’ (Williams 1985, 74). For Williams, it is doubtful whether moral theory really has any special authority and neutrality that would allow it to work as a standard of the correctness of our moral lives. Drawing on the work of Wittgenstein, D.Z. Phillips has criticised Baier and Williams for not seeing that the problems connected to the authority of moral theories bring with them problems for the idea of the authority of philosophical thinking in general. Even if Williams abandons the idea of the authority of moral theory, he still argues that philosophy can show us how critical reflection must allow for ethical diversity (cf. Williams 1985, 159). In contrast, Phillips is critical of the very idea that philosophy can have any form of authority with regard to the moral. On this view, Williams’ plea for diversity represent a possible moral position, but Phillips rejects the idea that philosophy can be used to support this or any other view of critical reflection. ‘There may be critical reflection within diverse perspectives. Philosophical reflection notes this diversity. It is not itself a form of critical reflection which underpins any one of these reflective perspectives’ (Phillips 1989, 13), Phillips notes and continues: ‘What is objectionable is the suggestion that philosophical or intellectual reflection itself endorses this ideal, and the abstracting of the ideal from the viewpoint to which belongs being used as an intellectual critical norm by which other practices are to be assessed’ (ibid. 16). In this way, Phillips develops the critique of the authority of moral theories into a general critique of the authority of moral philosophy by rejecting the assumption moral philosophy has a standpoint from which to make any form of normative demand on our actual commitments or our forms of moral thought.¹⁶ Besides the already mentioned groups of critics, at least three other groups have played a vital role in the questioning of normative moral theory. Feminist moral philosophers have challenged the idea both that moral theories can adequately represent moral life, and that they can be action-guiding.¹⁷ Another group shares an engagement with the work of Iris Murdoch, especially the above-mentioned emphasis on the role of attention and perception in moral life, and is critical of attempts to develop universalising moral

¹⁶ Cf. Phillips 1992a. ¹⁷ For the first point, see e.g. Held 1987 or Kittay 1999. The most prominent proponent for the second point might be Annette Baier, but a similar point is made e.g. by Margaret Urban Walker (2003). Walker’s work will be discussed in Chapter 5.

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theories.¹⁸ And yet another group has roots in the philosophy of Emmanuel Lévinas and is guided by his idea that even if we, in moral philosophy, can identify the source of morality as the responsibility arising from the other, any concrete normative demand is determined in concrete situations: a point that rules out the possibility of action-guiding moral theories.¹⁹ These traditions contribute to theory critique by offering alternative ways to problematise the notion of normative moral theory, but they will nonetheless only play a minor role in the following.²⁰ This overview of different ways to question and challenge moral theory has no pretension to completeness. Moreover, it is important to emphasise that the divisions between the various groups are somewhat artificial, and that the groups are far from homogenous. It is nonetheless possible to argue that all the above-mentioned philosophers would agree with the following claims (to some degree or other): first, the claim that moral philosophy can be fruitful only if it remains attentive and faithful to the details of moral phenomena and moral life, and the related claim that the use of overly narrow understandings of moral life or overly narrow sets of examples in moral philosophy will disfigure moral understanding—in line with Wittgenstein’s warning about ‘A main cause of philosophical disease—a unbalanced diet: one nourishes one’s thinking with only one kind of example’ (PI §593). The challenge is whether we can develop an understanding of moral theory that can take the richness of moral life into account. The second claim is that moral philosophy—at least partially, but maybe even primarily or exclusively—faces a descriptive task. The underlying argument is that in moral philosophy, description comes first because we must acquire an adequate understanding of our moral lives before we can begin to develop any form of moral theory. Some critics take this to entail that we should reverse the order in which work is traditionally done in moral philosophy; that we should not begin with our favourite theory and from there work to show how much of our lives this theory can cover, but rather begin with attention to moral life, working to see whether patterns emerge that can

¹⁸ See e.g. Clarke 2012, Driver 2012, Forsberg 2013. ¹⁹ These ideas are presented among other places in Lévinas 1961 and 1989. For a view informed by the writings of Lévinas and critical of moral theory, see e.g. Critchley 2007. ²⁰ One reason for this is that latter two above-mentioned positions involve substantial metaphysical assumptions. Murdoch’s thinking revolves around a metaphysical conception of the good (Murdoch 2001), and for Lévinas, the fundamental moral demand is established through our being confronted with the otherness of the other through a fundamental metaphysical desire (Lévinas 1961, chapter I.A). This makes the problem of reconciling their contributions with that of other three groups of moral theory critics much more fraught.

24      form the basis of well-founded moral theory that does not distort our pre-philosophical understanding of the moral.²¹ Other critics of moral theory support the more radical claim that the very activity of moral philosophy is descriptive and aims to provide an overview of the wilderness of moral life. What these philosophers agree on is that the activity of doing moral philosophy has a form and aim very different from that of theory-developing sciences. Finally, the philosophers identified above are united in their critique of the dominant conception of moral theory according to which theory can provide foundations for morality and from there establish something like prescriptive action-guidance. Still, there are different variants of this critique of theory. Some reject the idea that moral philosophy can provide theories that determine right action, while they also hold that philosophers can develop other forms of theories, for example particularist accounts of practical reason. Others question the idea that moral theory can provide foundations for the moral and, like Murdoch, maintain that we will have to work with a diverse array of theories if we are to do justice to the diversity of moral life. In contrast, others again are critical of moral theories tout court and claim that moral philosophy is itself a moral endeavour, helping us understand the normativity inherent in the moral, but that it does so without having any special authority to tell us how to act when faced with this normativity. According to the last group, the development of all forms of theory should be abandoned in favour of other ways of doing moral philosophy, for example that of providing philosophical descriptions of moral experiences, offering tools of shared moral reflection and critique, or turning to the activity of moral philosophy itself as forms of moral exercise. The last idea has been worked out in most detail by Pierre Hadot, who takes ancient philosophy, especially the Stoics, as his main source of inspiration and finds there an invitation to see philosophy as ‘a conversion, a transformation of one’s way of being, and a quest for wisdom’ (Hadot 1995, 275).²² One way to proceed from here would be to attempt a systematic account of the various forms of critique presented by these groups, trying to work them into a more coherent whole, but to do this, one would have to disregard vital differences between these views. Another way to proceed would be to applaud

²¹ Hurka argues that this is the methodological point of the persistent reference to common sense in the work of early analytical philosophers such as G.E. Moore and W.D. Ross. By analysing and systematising common sense, they aimed inductively to arrive at fundamental principles, and from these derive some form of limited action-guidance. See Hurka 2004. ²² Some philosophers within the Wittgensteinian tradition also work in this direction, see e.g. Hosseini 2015.

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the plurality of critical voices—a happy state of affairs for someone inclined towards critique of theory and descriptive and particularist work in moral philosophy—and then proceed to do some moral philosophy that does not involve theorising; an endeavour that has become increasingly popular with the spreading acknowledgement of the problems connected to the established conception of moral theory. I choose a different route. In the introductory chapter, I argue that if we take seriously the critique of moral theory and the related critique of the current focus in conventional, analytical moral philosophy, we may see this as leading us to an alternative understanding of the activity of moral philosophy, one not aimed at developing simple and actionguiding theories, and to a new understanding of what we have hitherto understood as moral theories in the sense criticised above, namely the accounts of morality provided in contemporary moral philosophy as well as in the work of thinkers such as Aristotle, Kant, and Mill. In the remaining part of this chapter and the next, I will make a modest contribution to this development by rethinking the role and status of moral theories. In doing so, it is important to keep in mind, of course, that moral theories do not make up all moral philosophy, and that the development of moral theories may not even be moral philosophy’s primary aim. This means that the revised understanding of moral theories and of their relation to moral philosophy offered here is presented as just one of the possible aims of moral philosophy.

2.3 Nussbaum’s Account of Moral Theory In order to discuss and assess the objections raised against moral theory, we first need an adequate understanding of its target. This is no easy task, however, as many defenders of moral theory are more occupied developing new theories or refuting objections against theory than spelling out a comprehensive account of their own conception of theory. One admirable exception to this rule is Martha Nussbaum, and in the following discussion we will therefore take as our starting point Nussbaum’s description and defence of moral theory.²³

²³ Nussbaum herself argues for ethical theory, as she distinguishes between moral theory, which involves a division between moral and non-moral values, and ethical theory, which implies no such distinctions (Nussbaum 1990, 168, footnote 2). The question of the possibility of demarcating the moral will be treated in the next chapter. Here, the use of ‘moral theory’ does not imply a stark distinction between moral and non-moral values, and we will prefer the adjective ‘moral’ for the reasons outlined in Chapter 1.

26      The critique of moral theory is of special concern for Martha Nussbaum. This is not, as some commentators have suspected, because her arguments for an integration of literature into moral philosophy and for the necessity of finetuned moral sensitivity for moral deliberation means that she herself is critical of moral theory.²⁴ Quite the contrary: in ‘Why Practice Need Ethical Theory’, Nussbaum argues that moral theory plays an indispensable role in moral thinking by providing a critique of unfounded or corrupt practices. She supports this claim by developing a description and justification of moral theory which has the advantage of being explicit, clear, and intended to accommodate the most influential points of criticism raised against such theory. What Nussbaum does is to list six criteria that any moral theory must be able to meet. The first two criteria concern the aim and status of moral theory, and these will be of special interest in the following. According to these criteria, moral theory should provide us with ‘recommendations about practical problems’ as well as showing us ‘how to test correctness of beliefs, rules and principles’ (Nussbaum 2000, 234; italics in the original).²⁵ Moral theory should be able to offer guidance for moral practice in order to allow for moral progress, while also providing us with tools for critique of our moral convictions and principles in the form of a test of such constitutive elements of moral practice—Nussbaum suggests that a test could be developed from the example of Rawls’ reflective equilibrium. The next two criteria that she presents primarily concern the form which moral theories should take; they are to ‘systematize and extend belief ’ and have ‘some degree of abstractness and generality’ (ibid.); one aim of moral theory is thus to bring some order and coherence to the complexities of moral life. The requirements of generality and abstraction are justified with reference to the first two criteria, that is, they are presented as necessary if moral theory is to be able to offer practical guidance, because if theory is overly complex or specific, we will not be able to know

²⁴ Nussbaum appears to hold an ambiguous position on this point. In Love’s Knowledge, she defends a ‘view of deliberation, which holds that it is, first and foremost, a matter of intuitive perception and improvisatory response’ (Nussbaum 1990, 141). This view of deliberation seems to leave only little room for the intervention of general, moral theory (and is in line with the view of deliberation defended in Chapter 4 of this book). This line of thought in Nussbaum’s work is presented and criticised in Harcourt 2015. ²⁵ This defence of action-guiding theories also appears to be in tension with some of Nussbaum’s earlier writings. In Love’s Knowledge, she writes: ‘Because of the priority of the particular, we can give [ . . . ] no general account of the techniques and procedures of good deliberation, that would suffice to discriminate good from defective choice in advance of a confrontation with the matter of the case’ (Nussbaum 1990, 93). Nussbaum could try to avoid this tension by adding that the recommendations and tests offered by theories are relevant to principles used in deliberations, but this does not solve the problem, because if the deliberating subject’s understanding of the case at hand is decisive, it also has to be decisive with regard to the principles invoked.

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what it requires of us. The same justification is provided for another of Nussbaum’s criteria, that moral theory must be explicit, because only in this case, do we know what guidelines it will yield in practice. According to the final criterion, moral theory must be ‘universalisable’ for us to avoid our understanding of practice collapsing into a form of cultural relativism.²⁶ Here, Nussbaum makes a small concession to particularism by adding the qualification that any notion of universalisability should also involve ‘an account of relevant similarities and differences’ of situations, relationships, and persons (ibid. 235). That moral theory should offer action-guidance and a test for moral beliefs and should be characterised by systematisation, generalisation, explicitness, and universality sums up the six criteria and constitutes Nussbaum’s standard for a sufficient normative moral theory. To understand Nussbaum’s justification for this account, we should note that even if the criteria are presented in the form of a list, the first two criteria are given a central role. As we have seen, many theory critics would disagree with the claim that morality can be adequately described by a theory that is systematic, general, and explicit. However, Nussbaum justifies these requirements by referring to the purpose of theory as expressed in her two first criteria: if moral theory is to provide action-guidance and a test for correct moral beliefs and principles, it will have to be systematic, general, and explicit. This purpose of action-guidance thus provides the justification for the form that moral theory will have to take. Nussbaum’s primary task is therefore to justify the claims that moral theory can indeed provide actual action-guidance as well as a test for correct moral beliefs. Nussbaum does this by discussing what she finds is a common misunderstanding regarding moral theories, namely that they merely present systems of rules. Her point is that there are several crucial differences between theories and systems of rules. While moral rules simply state that something is to be done or avoided and thus provide us with prescriptions, moral theories offer an answer to the question of the aims and justification of a certain set of rules. Moral theories therefore also enlighten us about what we should morally demand of ourselves and others in terms of our motives and character, and they can illuminate cases where there are reasons to make exceptions to standard rules. Thus, in contrast to a set of rules, moral theory provides us with tools of justification and critical reflection. It is unclear who, on

²⁶ This criterion of universalisability will not be discussed further in this chapter, as most moral philosophers, also those critical of moral theory, will agree that moral thought aspires to universality. Instead, we will return to the question of universality in Chapter 4.

28      Nussbaum’s view, is considered to be defending the conflation of moral theory with a system of rules, but her discussion is instructive, because she here introduces a threefold—and to her apparently exhaustive—distinction between three possible ‘levels’ of the moral, namely ‘our concrete ethical practice, rules of conduct of various types and moral theories’ (ibid. 235). According to Nussbaum, if our attempt to develop moral theory fails, then we are simply left with dogmatic systems of rules and unaided moral practice. This is what constitutes her argument for the necessity and justification of moral theory and its authority to ‘to test correctness of beliefs, rules and principles’. Nussbaum’s justification rests on two implicit assumptions that deserve our attention. The first assumption follows from the idea that without moral theory, moral philosophy disintegrates into systems of rules, which implies that moral philosophy cannot offer critical or reflective interventions into practice other than theories. In general, it is notable that Nussbaum’s discussion does not seem to have room for any notion of moral philosophy as distinct from moral theory. The only place where she explicitly uses this distinction is in a footnote discussing the views of Bernard Williams, but once again moral philosophy disappears from consideration when Nussbaum notes that ‘Williams conveys the strong impression of thinking that when we do away with theory we will be left with people like Bernard Williams: they will lack philosophical theory, but they will still be energetically critical and selfcritical’ (ibid. 248). Nussbaum seems to think that if we do not have moral theory, we will be left only with the (potentially rather feeble) critical abilities of isolated individuals in moral practice.²⁷ Later, she continues: ‘If we remain at the level of untheoretical critical discourse and practice, as the anti-theorists recommend, we will always be left, as Kant plausibly claims in the Groundwork,

²⁷ Nussbaum makes a similar conflation between moral theory and moral philosophy when she identifies contemporary attacks on moral theory with historical attacks on moral philosophy, a rather dubious identification of very different targets of criticism (see Nussbaum 2000, 227–32). However, Nussbaum’s reduction of moral philosophy to forms of moral theory sits awkwardly with other parts of her writings, for example the way she distinguishes between ethical theory and moral philosophy in Love’s Knowledge. Here Nussbaum writes: ‘Moral philosophy is a general and inclusive rubric covering, in principle, many different types of ethical investigations, of which one sort is the theoretically study of substantive ethical positions, or ethical (moral) theory’ (Nussbaum 1990, 167, footnote 2). It also seems to conflict with Nussbaum’s claim that certain works of literature are in themselves forms of moral philosophy, insofar as such literary works are certainly not candidates to be considered forms of moral theory (see e.g. Nussbaum 1983). When Nussbaum in the context of this debate suggests that we should ‘broaden our conception of moral philosophy in order to include those [literary] texts inside’ (ibid. ix), one could add that such a broad understanding of moral philosophy could equally include tools of critical moral reflection besides those offered by moral theory.

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with some good thought, corrupted by selfishness, aggressiveness, and urges to dominate’ (ibid. 252). Nussbaum reasonably insists on the need for critical tools that can help us question and improve commonsense morality, but by drawing up a triadic understanding of the moral as consisting of moral practice, systems of rules and moral theories (and leaving out moral philosophy), the only candidate left to take on any critical role is moral theory. Without moral theory, nothing seems to be left of moral philosophy. This leads us to the second, implicit assumption of her discussion, namely that philosophy can only qualify moral practice and thinking though the construction of action-guiding moral theory. Why Nussbaum holds this assumption is not clear. It is, however, a vital part of her argument, because if moral theory (or something like moral philosophy) could qualify practice in other ways, this would reopen the question of whether offering action-guiding theories is the best way for philosophy to aid or support moral practice. Three critical points are thus in order. The first is that Nussbaum never offers a justification for the very possibility of constructing truly actionguiding moral theory. The fact that we may wish for action-guiding theories does not in and of itself establish that they are actually available to us. We may wish for many things—absolute certainty or the love of God for example—but this alone does not suffice to demonstrate that such things are in fact achievable. Second, the implicit assumption guiding Nussbaum’s defence of moral theory, namely that theory is the only alternative to unfounded and obtuse systems of rules, and the only form of philosophical activity that may serve to critically question practice, is not one she offers any argument for. In fact, there does not seem to be anything on Nussbaum’s list of criteria of a moral theory—that it is action-guiding, can test moral beliefs, is systematic, general and explicit—that definitively distinguishes such a theory from a system of rules; we could construct a system that lived up to all these criteria.²⁸ This once again shows the need for a form of critical moral thinking that is not specifically tied to practice, but also does not take the form of a system in the way theory does on Nussbaum’s account, for example the form of thinking offered by moral philosophy more broadly. My current objective is to evaluate Nussbaum’s view of moral theory, but before I do so, it is worth considering whether it is representative of the understanding presented by other defenders of moral theory. Of course, there are many possible conceptions of moral theory, but, as we noted earlier, ²⁸ I owe this point to an anonymous reviewer for Oxford University Press.

30      few are made explicit in ways that allow for critical scrutiny. One exception is found in the work of Robert B. Louden, to whom Nussbaum herself refers. However, the relationship between Nussbaum’s and Louden’s conceptions of moral theory is complicated. Louden also presents a list of characteristics commonly ascribed to moral theory, and his list does indeed feature the characteristics central to Nussbaum’s understanding of theory such as the ability to solve practical problems and to test moral beliefs, explicitness, universality, and systematic hierarchy (Louden 1990, 95–8). In this way, Louden’s list offers support for Nussbaum’s claim that this is the dominant understanding of moral theory in contemporary moral philosophy, but his own view is that this is a problematic conception of moral theory, and one that is not representative of the conception of theory present in the work of some of the greatest moral thinkers, namely Aristotle and Kant (Louden 1992, ch. 6).²⁹ Louden therefore argues that we should revise our current understanding of moral theory, and in particular that we should give up the idea that normative theory can provide us with solutions to problems and test of beliefs in favour of an understanding where normative moral justification is approached through ‘a descriptive account of the moral agent’s actual moral views’ (ibid. 136). In other words, Louden is critical of the exact two features that make up the core of Nussbaum’s account of moral theory. His conception of theory should rightly be placed somewhere between the view of Nussbaum and that of the anti-theorists and is in fact akin to the conceptions of descriptive moral theory discussed in the next chapter. A more straightforward ally of Nussbaum is Michael Slote, who opens his book Morals from Motives with a wholehearted defence of moral theory. His argument for the need for theory is related to that of Nussbaum, ‘that our ordinary intuitive moral thought is not just complex, but subject to paradox and internal incoherence, and this is a far less acceptable situation than what the antitheorists imagine to be the case. In fact, it is what makes moral theory both necessary and desirable’ (Slote 2001, 11). We need theory to inform our intuitive moral thoughts and develop a coherent conception of morality because moral theory can ‘ground claims about right and wrong action’, and such claims can ‘be used to test the validity or reasonableness of [the theory’s] grounding assumptions’ (ibid. 18). Thus, Slote and Nussbaum agree on a conception of moral theory according to which a theory must be relatively ²⁹ Annette Baier agrees with Louden that Aristotle does not develop an action-guiding theory. She considers Aristotle’s moral philosophy similar in this way to David Hume’s (Baier 1989, 33). Baier however does consider Kant a normative thinker. Below I will argue, in line with Louden, that Kant’s theory is normative only in a very moderate sense.

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simple for it to provide us with adequate action-guidance as well as a foundation for practice. Moreover, they agree that this form of theory is necessary if we are to become able to clear up the messiness, inconsistencies, and corruption of our moral practice.³⁰ Nussbaum’s and Slote’s description of moral theory accords with descriptions of moral theory provided by theory critics. Thus for example Baier describes the dominant view of moral theory as a ‘fairly tightly systematic account of a fairly large area of morality with a keystone supporting all the rest’ (Baier 1985, 55), and Walker notes that what moral philosophers within the dominant tradition in moral philosophy want is ‘a fairly compact system of very general but directly action-guiding principles or procedures’ (Walker 2003, 71). Other prominent philosophers who defend moral theory and advocate similar views of theory are John Rawls (1972), R.M. Hare (1981), Jürgen Habermas (2009), and, directly addressing theory critics, Brad Hooker (2000, 2001) and Onora O’Neill (1986).³¹ Moreover, such views of moral theory also guide a vast number of contemporary discussions for example about whether consequences, intentions or virtues are fundamental to morality or whether theories developed from any one of these foundations are in fact able to provide us with adequate action-guidance. In the very illuminating article, ‘Where Do Moral Theories Come From?’, Margaret Urban Walker analyses this view of moral theory and argues that it is informed by the ideal of theory developed in the early stages of the establishment of modern natural science and shaped by the aspiration to make simple theories that enable specific forms of manipulations.³² This has resulted in what Walker calls the theoretical-juridical model of moral theory according to which theory is conceived as ‘a consistent (and usually very compact) set of law-like moral principles or procedures for decision which is by deduction or instantiation (with the support of adequate collateral information) some determinate judgement for an agent in a given situation about what it is right, or at least morally justifiable, to do’ (Walker 1995, 248). The model ties together the ideas that

³⁰ Griffin gives a striking and critical description of the motivation behind Nussbaum’s and Slote’s call for theory: ‘Ethics is not the creation of philosophers, despite what most of them assume. Many, perhaps most, philosophers see their role in ethics in Cartesian terms: deconstruct a society’s raw ethics, pass its elements in critical review, reject the faulty ones, and add abstraction and system, then reassemble the pieces into something altogether sounder’ (Griffin 2015, 96). ³¹ O’Neill’s view will be discussed in Chapter 4. See also the introduction to Fotion 2014 for an overview of defenders of moral theory. ³² Griffin makes similar points; that philosophers ‘are interested in the possibility of an algorithm for ethics—say, the utilitarian algorithm’, and that ‘Talk of “theory” of normative ethics too much suggests theories of the sort that one finds paradigmatically in the natural sciences’ (Griffin 2015, 84). See also Chappell 2009a, 191–5 for a helpful discussion of this issue.

32      morality essentially consists of knowledge, that moral knowledge is primarily theoretical, and that such knowledge ‘serves to tell us what to do’ (Walker 2003, 90). Walker finds this model of moral theory exemplified in the work of for example Henry Sidgwick, and to this list we can now add Nussbaum, Slote and the moral philosophers mentioned above. Despite the subtleties involved in distinguishing different descriptions of moral theory, it is fair to say that Nussbaum’s demanding conception of theory is representative of at least one prominent grouping of thinkers within contemporary moral philosophy. What Nussbaum makes clear is that the hope for action-guidance and for a test for moral beliefs is what motivates the requirement that moral philosophy should present us with something like a theory, something that is simple, unified, and explicit. However, as we saw above, Nussbaum does not provide us with a justification of moral theories’ alleged potential for action-guidance and their critical moral potential. Whether such a justification can be developed is the question to which we now turn.

2.4 Missing the Point: Williams’ Two Challenges to Moral Theory In light of Nussbaum’s inability to provide us with an argument for the actionguiding potential of moral theory, we need to retrace our steps, and one way to do this is to consider whether Nussbaum actually manages to address the critique of moral theory raised by Bernard Williams. In this section and the following, we will therefore consider Williams’ argument against the authority of theory and its implications for Nussbaum’s idea that theories can offer substantial action-guidance. This will eventually enable us to delineate three possible views of the authority of moral theory and summarise the challenges facing them. In her discussion of the position of Williams and other theory-critics, Nussbaum claims that their position is ambiguous and unclear with regard to both the definition of moral theory and the points of critique raised, and this is why she thinks it is necessary to provide the list of criteria for adequate moral theory presented above, and why she, in another central section of the paper, sets out to explicate and investigate what she calls ‘the six primary charges’ (Nussbaum 2000, 242) brought forward against moral theory. According to Nussbaum, these charges are that theories ‘neglect an agent’s own particular projects and her special relationship to them’, ‘ignore moral psychology’, ‘neglect the plurality of goods’, are overly intellectualising, ‘give

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crude guidance’, and are unable ‘to persuade bad people’ (ibid. 242–8; italics in the original). Nussbaum’s list seems accurate at least insofar as the first four points do figure in the introduction of criticisms of moral theories presented above,³³ but we should also note that some important points of criticism seem to be missing from the list. It is notable how Nussbaum only mentions points of critique that could be raised against a moral theory for being a bad theory, for being insensitive to or outright negligent of crucial features of moral life—it seems obvious that any adequate theory should be able to consider our personal lives, our psychology, and value pluralism and that they should not be unjustifiably rationalistic. The fifth point is different. Nussbaum says that moral theory is criticised for giving ‘crude guidance’, but it seems like unlikely that this point would be raised by theory-critics; it is rather a point of criticism that a proponent of one theory would raise against another, different and competing theory. What Nussbaum omits are points of criticism that question the very possibility of developing simple moral theory, theory with the authority to guide and test practice, that is, the very possibility of action-guiding theory, just as she omits points of criticism directed at the possibility of developing moral theory tout court. This means that the list allows Nussbaum to argue that simple and action-guiding moral theory is indeed possible, because if we develop a good theory, it will take into account all the points on her list. To accept this argument, we would have to accept that the critique of moral theory only amounts to the claim that existing theories are crude, narrow, and unconvincing. Here I simply want to show that this is incorrect, which we can see by looking at the points of critique raised by Bernard Williams in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. Williams does indeed argue that the first point on Nussbaum’s list, the need to incorporate a first-person perspective on one’s life and one’s projects, poses a challenge for moral theory.³⁴ He also questions the possibility of offering a theory that could live up to Nussbaum’s criteria of being systematic and having some degree of generality. As Williams notes, ‘If there is such a thing as the truth about the subject matter of ethics [ . . . ] why is there any expectation that it should be simple? In particular, why should it be

³³ We will not spend time on the point that moral theories are unable to persuade bad people. As Nussbaum notes, no theory may persuade everyone, however sound and convincing, but it is not obvious who she thinks would argue for the opposite. ³⁴ Williams discusses what he calls ethical theories, and he does so in order to distinguish theories from systems of morality of which he is very critical, but as this argument is not central to the present discussion, we will hold on to the vocabulary outlined in Chapter 1. The importance of the personal perspective for moral life will be discussed in Chapter 5.

34      conceptually simple’? (Williams 1985, 17). We cannot from the outset expect that moral life will subject itself to systematisation or generalising. Williams connects these specific points of critique to a more general concern about the possibility of using theory to justify a specific conception of moral life, a concern that takes up more than half of Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, where Williams investigates attempts to provide external and morally neutral justifications of moral theory, for example in the form of a Kantian view of reason or an Aristotelian conception of welfare.³⁵ Unsatisfied with the prospects of these justifications, Williams turns his attention to attempts to give morally internal justifications of the moral. Unfortunately, we cannot retrace Williams’ investigation in its entirety here, but he examines how many prominent theories such as utilitarianism and contractualism attempt to establish authority for moral theory by reference to the meaning of moral concepts, to ideal observer theory, to moral intuitions etc. In each case, Williams shows that what is presented as a universal justification of the moral relies on some unfounded but substantial set of assumptions about what it would be reasonable to accept morally, for example about which preferences should be considered morally valid, or which intuitions should be allowed to count in a reflective equilibrium. Williams’ point is that we do not have to adopt any of these substantial assumptions, they can all be disputed, which means that none of the theories investigated can offer a universally valid account of justified moral judgement. In this way, Williams questions the guiding idea behind what he calls foundationalism, the idea that moral theory is able to provide a foundation that can justify a particular conception of moral life.³⁶ Williams openly admits that his investigations are not exhaustive, but they suggest a general point. In Cora Diamond’s words, Williams shows us how ‘[m]oral theorising in the Sidgwickian tradition is one form that moral thinking takes; it is itself as historically embedded, as reflective of particular interests and modes of thought, as any of the forms of moral thinking that such theories criticise’, and because of this, ‘moral theories have no special credentials that would require anyone to give them more respect than any

³⁵ Many Aristotelians would object to Williams’ idea that the moral philosophy of Aristotle involves an external notion of welfare and instead claim that the notion of eudaimonia is itself shaped by moral concerns. However, this would lead them to agree with Williams that eudaimonia cannot provide a morally neutral justification for the moral (see e.g. McDowell 1995). For a discussion of Williams’ objections to Aristotelian virtue ethics, see also Annas 1992. ³⁶ Chappell also criticises what she calls the quest for the ‘Master Factor’ in moral philosophy by arguing that this quest inevitably involves a trivialisation of moral thought (see Chappell 2009b, 206–11).

    


other putting together of moral ideas’ (Diamond 2018, 395). According to Williams, this point is especially important when moral theory is confronted with other forms of moral thought, as the aim of moral philosophy must be ‘to help us construct a world that will be our world, one in which we have a social, cultural and personal life’ (Williams 1985, 111). This means that if our moral convictions conflict with moral theory, theory will have to give way. Moral life is primary, and theory can only be justified—if at all—by reference to this life. Moreover, here the personal perspective is not just central, but crucial; a moral life is always the life of a specific person, and this challenges the authority that would allow theories to be decisive in cases where they collide with what a person from a practical, first-person perspective finds truly valuable. What Williams criticises is the idea that moral theory has the authority to demand that we revise deeply rooted moral convictions; he is, in other words, questioning the commitment to ‘the view that philosophy can determine, either positively or negatively, how we should think in ethics’ (ibid. 111). Williams criticises the idea that moral theory can provide a moral foundation that ensures the theory’s authority to offer action-guidance and test our deeply rooted moral convictions. This critique is clearly directed at Nussbaum’s first two requirements stating that moral theories should provide ‘recommendations about practical problems’ and show ‘how to test correctness of beliefs, rules and principles’ (Nussbaum 2000, 234). These criteria are crucial for Nussbaum’s project because they serve as justification for the other requirements on her list and provide the critical potential of such theories. Williams’s main worry is certainly not that moral theory will not be able ‘to persuade bad people’ (ibid. 248). He rather worries whether any of us—good or bad—ought to be persuaded by theory. We may listen to the arguments offered in moral theory, but, Williams holds, such theory has no special authority if it conflicts with what we ourselves sincerely find to be of moral importance. He is questioning the authority of moral theories—and this is a point that Nussbaum does not address in her intended refutation of anti-theory.³⁷

³⁷ For a defence of Nussbaum’s conception of moral theory, see Hämäläinen 2006. Hämäläinen however does not discuss what Williams sees as the central problem with this conception, namely that it presents moral theory as authoritative and action-guiding. In a later article, Hämäläinen argues that the critique of the anti-theorist is by now outdated, because moral theorists are currently ready ‘to remove from our picture of moral theory an assumption concerning the relationship between systematic theoretical articulation and action-guidance, that the anti-theorists object to’ (Hämäläinen 2009, 548). Unfortunately, this seems, as we have seen above, to be quite far from the case.

36     

2.5 The Authority of Moral Theory? How should we understand the claim, advanced by Nussbaum and criticised by Williams, that moral theory has an authority over moral life which authorises it to test the correctness of our beliefs and principles, in short, to be action-guiding? And is it possible to understand the authority of moral theory in a way that allows it to avoid Williams’ criticisms? One way to investigate these questions is by discussing the way Immanuel Kant formulates the idea. Kant writes: Innocence is indeed a glorious thing; only, on the other hand it is very sad that it cannot well maintain itself and is easily seduced. On this account, even wisdom—which otherwise consists more in conduct than in knowledge—yet has need of science [Wissenschaft], not in order to learn from it, but to secure its precepts admission and permanence. (Kant 2008, 23)

In the quote, Kant captures, arguably, two assumptions which are fundamental to Nussbaum’s discussion of the need for moral theory and which are also widespread in contemporary moral philosophy, even if sometimes only implicitly so. The first assumption is that even if we all have some form of practical understanding of moral questions, moral life is too important to be left to the mercy of unreflective practice, because, as Kant points out, human beings are fragile and can easily be led astray. The second assumption is that moral philosophy is an activity that should help keep the moral understanding of such fragile creatures in place. In other words, in being Wissenschaft, a systematic form of thought, moral philosophy has a certain status or authority in relation to practice that allows it to judge whether our moral thinking is sound or not. In the light of the discussion so far, we can say that moral philosophy is presented here as normative and authoritative. However, some caution is needed when trying to understand Kant’s view. The idea of the authority of moral theory can be spelled out in different ways, each of which comes with a different understanding of the normative role of such theories—in this way the questions of authority and normativity are connected. In what follows, we will explore two possible views of the authority of theory, the strong and the moderate view. We have already seen an example of the strong view presented by Nussbaum. Her understanding of the authority of moral theories is quite demanding as it implies that theories can do more than offer practical guidance—they also provide a test of the correctness of our moral beliefs and thus have the authority to require us to revise such beliefs.

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We can say that Nussbaum endorses a prescriptive notion of theory in which moral theory has authority over ordinary moral judgement. As we saw above, Nussbaum is not alone in taking this position; Michael Slote likewise thinks that we should revise our moral beliefs in accordance with moral theory in order for them to reflect a more consistent conception of the moral. To sum up, a central feature of the strong view of the authority of moral theory is that it allows theory to require revisions in our moral understanding if such an understanding does not correspond to the theory’s requirements.³⁸ We have already seen how Williams opposes the strong view of the authority of moral theory on the grounds that we cannot provide a universally justified foundation of theory that would authorise a revision of our moral convictions, to which he adds the stronger point that the aim of moral thought is not to live up to certain theoretical requirements, for example that of internal consistency, but to allow us to build a framework for a liveable life. The strong, Nussbaumian view of the authority of theories and actionguidance also faces additional problems. One of these is that the strong notion of action-guidance requires, as Julia Annas has described it, that ‘a moral theory direct us, that it issue commands, in short that it tell us what to do’ (Annas 2011, 32), since after all being ‘told what to do brings with it the idea of doing what we are told’ (ibid. 33). Her point is that we should be very sceptical of any conception of morality according to which what is required of us morally is that we should act or think in accordance with standards imposed on us from outside. This idea is problematic because it misconstrues a basic feature of the moral, namely that we always ourselves bear responsibility for making our own judgements, and thus it seems likely to impede the development of our own abilities of moral discernment, judgement, and critique. This idea does not, as Annas phrases it, ‘bring with it any move to understanding, self-direction, and improvement’ (ibid.). Annas adds that the requirement (also present in Nussbaum’s view) that moral theory should provide us with instructions that are explicit, simple, and systematic is simply puzzling, because this even further reduces the scope for our own moral judgement.

³⁸ Very few moral philosophers are as explicit as Nussbaum and Slote about the authoritative status of moral philosophy, but we find similar notions in the works of several moral philosophers from the middle of the twentieth century onwards (which is our main interest here), mostly in introductions to articles or works. One especially striking example appears in the preface to R.M. Hare’s Moral Thinking, where moral philosophy is presented as the resource that will solve our moral problems. ‘I offer this book to the public now rather than later, not because I think it needs no improvement, but because of a sense of urgency—a feeling that if these ideas were understood, philosophers might do more to help resolve important practical issues’ (Hare 1981, v).

38      Annas’ critique of the strong notion of the authority of moral theories has affinities to a classic discussion of the problem of moral authority, originating in Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma and here formulated by John Cottingham: The mere fact that a supremely powerful being issues commands, or implants them in our hearts, does not in itself seem enough to endow those commands with moral authority; if on the other hand we say we know the commands should be obeyed because we are told so by the authoritative voice of conscience, this simply takes us back to the original question of what endows our moral sense with the requisite normative status. (Cottingham 2013, 735)

In a similar way, Annas points out how we always have a responsibility to answer for what we endorse, morally. Referring to an absolute authority, whether divine or in the form of a moral theory, does not relieve us of this responsibility. A final problem facing the prescriptive understanding of action-guidance is that it opens the possibility of a form of moral expertise, namely the expertise represented by those who are knowledgeable of the correct moral theory and therefore able to issue the right prescriptions.³⁹ The notion of moral expertise is controversial and faces several counter-arguments. One well-known objection is that the idea of moral expertise conflicts with our exercise of moral autonomy.⁴⁰ An even more impressive objection has been developed by Lars Hertzberg, who argues that the idea of moral expertise arises because we misconstrue moral questions as ontological and epistemological questions. We assume that moral questions concern an independent moral realm, and this tempts us into thinking that the answers to such questions should be ³⁹ In 2002, Nussbaum does indeed argue for a form of moral expertise, even if she thinks it should be exercised subject to certain restrictions. Moral philosophers should for example not serve as expert witnesses on core constitutional questions because it would go against a core democratic virtue to present oneself as morally superior in a democratic context. In contrast, Williams rejects the idea of moral experts (see 1995). See also the following quote, where Gaita nicely brings the difference between moral problems and other practical problems and how it strikes us as problematic if someone simply hands over their moral problem to some form of moral expert: If I seek your advice on which is the best route off the mountain, then the nature of what I do in asking for it, and what you do in giving it, is conditioned by the fact that I may hand the problem over to you completely (perhaps you are better at it, or perhaps I have lost my nerve), by the fact that I may consult manuals and by other such familiar facts. But if I must make a moral decision by Monday, I cannot come to you on Friday evening, plead that I have little time over the weekend to think about it, and ask you, a rational and informed agent and a professor of ethics to boot, to try to have a solution, or at least a range of options, no later than first thing on Monday morning. (Gaita 2005: 103) ⁴⁰ See e.g. Archard 2011.

    


judged primarily by using epistemological criteria; that a certain form of knowledge, for example about the correct moral theory, is vital in order to answer moral questions correctly.⁴¹ At the heart of this idea is the thought that there is ‘some independent standard by which my moral understanding can be measured’ (Hertzberg 2002, 258), which is followed by the idea that some people might live up to this standard to a higher degree, thus demonstrating a form of moral expertise. Hertzberg’s point is that the epistemological model is very misleading when we are trying to understand moral life. He is not denying that concepts such as knowledge and understanding are relevant to moral questions, but he claims that in the moral case the use of these words is subject to moral criteria. Because of the normative character of moral questions, the answers to such questions are to be judged by moral standards, for example whether our answers express something that we are seriously committed to and that we have integrated into our moral lives. This means that a moral question— Hertzberg’s example is that of a woman considering whether she should have an abortion—is always a question for a particular person in a particular situation, and the answer will always have to consider this context. In the example, the woman’s answer will have to take into account her specific moral commitments and her particular situation, and her decision should be shaped by the way she relates to this type of moral question as well as her commitments and values. This also means that even if the woman finds that she has reached the right decision about what to do, we will find it understandable if she is still reluctant to claim that her reasons are valid or authoritative for other women facing a similar choice. Even if another person finds that the women’s decision is the right one, she may still not be able to make the same decision, to integrate it into her own life, to live that kind of life. The question is why we are so attracted to the epistemological model of moral life and the related idea of moral expertise. According to Hertzberg, this is because it supports a deeply rooted wish on our part to avoid our moral responsibility. The idea of moral expertise seems attractive to us, because it allows us to engage in a form of moral escapism by offering us a way in which we can avoid confronting our fundamental moral responsibility for our decisions. Together, the arguments point to a problematic feature of the strong view of the authority of moral theory, namely that it severs the connection between the

⁴¹ This is in line with Walker’s analysis of the basic tenets of the theoretical-juridical model of moral theory as involving the claim that morality essentially consists of knowledge that ‘serves to tell us what to do’, see section 2.3 above and Walker 1995.

40      right understanding of moral life and a person’s own moral convictions. It thereby introduces the idea that something or someone, a moral theory or a moral philosopher, may have a privileged access to the correct view of morality unavailable to ordinary moral subjects and may be entitled to demand that this view be realised in the choices and actions of these subjects. Nussbaum’s strong view of the authority of moral theory in this way appears to be burdened with moral problems, as it misconstrues the relationship that we have to our fundamental moral concerns and to our own moral judgements. Interestingly, to support her strong view of the authority of moral theory and action-guidance, Nussbaum refers to Kant in several places.⁴² She does not seem to realise that this is a somewhat risky strategy, as Kant is actually critical of the idea that theory has the authority to demand revisions of our most basic moral convictions. Remarking on the reception of the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant notes the following: A critic who wished to say something against that work really did better than he intended when he said that there was no new principle of morality in it but only a new formula. Who would want to introduce a new principle of morality, and, as it were, be its inventor, as if the world had hitherto been ignorant of what duty is or had been thoroughly wrong about it? (Kant 1949: 123, footnote)

According to Kant, the role of moral theory is not to establish standards by which our moral convictions are to be measured, but rather to make explicit the standards or principles that guide our moral convictions anyway. Moral theory thus takes on no other authority than what it achieves by providing a clear and precise statement of the principles of practical reason—and it takes on this task of explication only to enable us to keep a firm grasp of the commitments and standards that we already have. In this way, Kant represents a much more moderate view of the authority of theory than that found in Nussbaum’s work. According to Kant, theory has authority over our moral commitments only insofar it explicates what we in fact already adhere to. This means that moral theory cannot test or correct moral practice, and it offers action-guidance not in the form of prescriptions, but only in the form of explications. We may note a—maybe somewhat surprising—agreement between the views of Kant and Wittgenstein on this subject. In fact, both thinkers reject ⁴² See for example Nussbaum 2000, 252, 255.

    


the idea that there is anything to be discovered in morality, and that there is a form of special knowledge that we need in order to live morally good lives. If anyone should think he has solved the problem of life & feels like telling himself everything is quite easy now, he needs only tell himself, in order to see that he is wrong, that there was a time when this ‘solution’ had not been discovered; but it must have been possible to live then too & the solution which has now been discovered appears in relation to how things were then like an accident. (CV, 6; MS 108 207; 29.6.30; underlining in original)⁴³

Wittgenstein’s point is that what we need to be able to live a moral life must be available for us all along. We may be bewildered by how to live our lives in a morally decent way, and we may get distracted in our endeavour to live such a life or intentionally give it up, but neither our bewilderment nor our moral failings arise because there is a specialised form of knowledge to which we lack access. The reasons are rather more mundane, namely that leading a good moral life is a complicated matter that may be impeded because it collides with other of our central life-projects, because we lose our orientation in life or simply because our character is morally flawed. In this way, both Kant and Wittgenstein reject the idea that there is some form of specialised moral knowledge which is necessary if we are to act morally, but which can only be uncovered through the intervention of moral theory. The reason why it is possible for Kant to accept this insight and still champion a moderate notion of the authority and action-guidance of moral theory is that his substantial and metaphysically grounded view of practical reason serves as a guarantee that moral principles are in fact identical for all. As noted above, Nussbaum seems to be unaware of the difference between her strong notion of the authority of moral theory and the more moderate notion endorsed by Kant. Moreover, she cannot simply adopt the moderate Kantian notion—at least not without adopting and relying on the support of something like Kant’s metaphysical framework—because without this framework, we must accept the possibility of pluralism, the possibility that we have substantially different moral commitments. That is, without a metaphysical framework, moral theory cannot assume even a moderate form of authority and

⁴³ This remark is related to a remark in Tractatus where Wittgenstein notes: ‘We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched. Of course there are then no questions left, and this itself is the answer’ (TLP 6.52).

42      cannot claim to provide action-guidance in the form of explication.⁴⁴ Nussbaum therefore has to provide some other form of support for the strong authority of theory. The method she recommends is that of a reflective equilibrium between our actual moral convictions and the developed moral theory, but this is countered by Williams’ point that theory alone never has the authority to require revisions of our genuine and deeply felt moral convictions. There is a way to bring out this problem with justifying uses of reflective equilibrium. What is entailed in this ‘method’ is that the philosopher reflects on her actual particular convictions and their connection to more general beliefs or principles that may be part of moral theories. However, there is no clear methodology for this process besides that of ‘reflecting’ generally and there are no independent criteria for what goes into this process besides what the philosopher already finds morally important. If I think initially that utilitarianism sounds plausible, but then notice that it contradicts deeply felt convictions of mine in particular cases, the equilibrium that I reach might just be sticking with my particular convictions. I will only move away from my particular convictions towards theory if I also feel that the theory is authoritative. So, the method of reflective equilibrium is not a method for awarding any kind of impersonal authority to anything, instead, it must begin from authorities I already recognise, and it only awards the result the authority that I reached this result by a process of reflection (a process of reflection that other people might or might not acknowledge to be authoritative for them). The point is that ‘reflective equilibrium’ as a ‘method’ licenses no special kind of authority, it simply awards anything exactly as much authority as it would come to have through any individual person’s reflections.⁴⁵ With only a reflective equilibrium to justify theory, it is therefore not obvious why any well-considered and well-reflected moral convictions ought to yield to theory in the case of a conflict with theory. In consequence, if we want to accept pluralism and we do not want to adopt a particular metaphysical understanding of moral life, we will have to reject both a moderate and a strong understanding of the authority of moral theories. It may be worthwhile to ask why Nussbaum comes to accept a strong notion of the authority of moral theory. The background motivation seems to be a mistrust of what we can call moral practice or ordinary moral thinking, the fear that left unchecked, our thinking will run off the track, leaving only ‘some ⁴⁴ Margaret Urban Walker provides a forceful argument against another philosophical attempt to sidestep this problem, namely the introduction of the notion of an ideal observer (see Walker 2003, chapter 3 and section 6.1). ⁴⁵ I owe this point to Karsten Schoellner.

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good thought, corrupted by selfishness, aggressiveness, and urges to dominate’ (Nussbaum 2000, 252); but this is not the sole reason. Her endorsement of authoritative moral theory rather seems to be necessitated by her acceptance of an exclusive disjunction according to which we have the choice either to assign this authority to theory or be left with a completely unreflective practice.⁴⁶ There are at least two problems with this assumption. First, it seems somewhat naïve to assume that moral theory is immune to the forces that may corrupt moral practice, such as irrelevant influences of selfishness and coercion. Second, the exclusive disjunction, the choice between theory or unreflective practice, is surely false. Moral theory is not the only way to further reflection in moral practice; in fact, theory does not seem to be the best tool to further reflective thinking as it is characterised by a rigidity that may make it unsuited in situations where we are genuinely at a loss about what to think or do. We should therefore challenge the assumption, in Williams’ words, that ‘the only alternative to ethical theory is to refuse reflection and to remain in unreflective prejudice. Theory and prejudice are not the only possibilities for an intelligent agent, or for philosophy’ (Williams 1985, 112).⁴⁷ Abandoning a certain form of moral theory does not leave us empty-handed, because in moral life, practices of reflection are already in place. Moreover, when these ordinary practices of reflection turn out to be inadequate or wanting, moral philosophy offers various ways to further reflection besides those that involved in the development of moral theory such as for example practices of argumentation, exemplification, and elucidation (in fact one aim of this book is to contribute to our understanding of these practices). If we dismiss the model of authoritative action-guiding moral theory, we do not have to surrender to unreflective practice. However, this dismissal does confront us with the choice either to dismiss moral theory all-together, as indeed some philosophers critical of theories have suggested,⁴⁸ or to reconsider the role of theories, their status, and their relation to moral thinking. The first alternative has certain obvious unattractive consequences, as it seems to imply that we should dismiss everything currently considered moral theories—and with that many of the insights of moral philosophy as we know it. Thus, in the following we will pursue the second alternative by suggesting a way to reconceptualise the role of moral theory. The first step is to try to develop a view of theory according to which it is ascribed a form of

⁴⁶ I owe this important point to an anonymous reviewer for Oxford University Press. ⁴⁷ See also Diamond 2018. ⁴⁸ Phillips is the philosopher most explicit in defending this position (see e.g. 1992a,b).

44      authority less demanding than both Nussbaum’s strong and Kant’s moderate view of authority. We find a suggestion for such an alternative understanding of moral theory in Wittgenstein’s suggestion that we see philosophy as neither prescriptive nor explicative, but as descriptive. According to Wittgenstein, ‘Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundation either. It leaves everything as it is’ (PI §124). In the next chapter, we will try to work out what this idea of descriptive moral theory entails, but we can already note that it involves giving up on the requirement that theory can provide us with authoritative action-guidance as well as a test for moral belief. On a descriptive view of moral theory, the authority ascribed to theory can only be the authority of being the best or most relevant description of a moral problem or concern, that is, theory cannot discover anything behind or beyond what is already present in moral life and it cannot justify revisions or simplifications of what is present here. What is the best or most relevant description is, in short, not something for theory to decide, but is to be settled by the relationship between a given theory and what is outside of the theory, the problem or concern in question, depending on whether a specific moral theory enables us to see our moral predicament with greater clarity.

2.6 Looking Forward This chapter has reviewed various points of critique raised against moral theory. What turned out to be the central turning point of these criticisms was the claim, vital to the dominant view of theory, that theories should provide a foundation for moral thought and authoritative action-guidance for moral life. However, we also saw that defenders of the dominant view have very little to offer that could justify either the foundational status or the authority of moral theory, and this supports the suggestion of giving up the idea of authoritatively action-guiding theory all together. Yet we have also seen that the need to offer action-guidance for practice was the reason for requiring theories to be both general and simple, systematic, and explicit, and without it, we now find ourselves without an understanding of the role of moral theory and of what form it may take. In order to move on, we therefore need to reconsider the role of theory, and in the next chapter, we will turn to this task by attempting to develop a coherent understanding of descriptive moral theory.

3 Descriptive Moral Theories In philosophy, we frequently talk about ‘Aristotle’s moral theory’ and ‘Kant’s moral theory’. In many cases this choice of words is simply imprecise; it is for example possible to question whether we find anything resembling a ‘theory’ of the moral in the work of Aristotle. However, in other cases, this use of words seems more appropriate; the framework surrounding Kant’s four formulations of the categorical imperative has a character that may warrant the use of the term. The question is how we should understand the notion of ‘moral theory’ in moral philosophy? In the previous chapter, it was concluded that we should reject the idea that moral theory can provide a simple and consistent foundation of moral life and be authoritatively action-guiding. We also saw that this has motivated some theory-critics to simply reject the idea that there is such a thing as moral theory. In this chapter, I will take a different route and instead explore whether it is possible to develop an alternative way of understanding what we have traditionally called moral theories. The aim is to develop a view of moral theories according to which theories are descriptive rather than prescriptive or explanatory, providing overviews of normative structures of concerns, which I will call moral grammars, an idea inspired by the notion of grammar found in the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. I will argue that theories as descriptions of grammar are descriptive similar to the way that models are descriptive, by highlighting and making explicit certain features of language and moral life so that these features are easily surveyable. In describing and zooming in on some moral considerations, however, theories also cause equally important considerations to recede into the background. Consequently, no theory can alone describe the totality of considerations that make up moral life, and we therefore need a multitude of theories in our ongoing struggle to get an overview of what is at play here. The chapter opens with two suggestions for how to understand descriptive moral theories, neither of which can fully account for this idea. We therefore turn to Wittgenstein’s notion of grammar, which can be interpreted in two different ways, leading us to develop two different understandings of theories as descriptions of moral grammar. Both interpretations involve the idea that philosophy is a descriptive activity, but they differ in one important respect: Moral Philosophy and Moral Life. Anne-Marie Søndergaard Christensen, Oxford University Press (2021). © Anne-Marie Søndergaard Christensen. DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198866695.003.0003

46      while the first allows for general descriptions of the logic of our language, the second entails a rejection of this idea and argues instead that any such description concerns a specific instance of an expression and represents a specific philosophical aim. This would mean that in moral philosophy we would have to accept the co-existence of a plurality of moral theories, which describe a plurality of moral grammars, and we give up the idea that moral theories are mutually exclusive. Moreover, the second interpretation of Wittgenstein’s view of grammar also shows us how philosophical descriptions of grammar are always tied to the viewpoint of the philosopher, meaning that such descriptions can never be morally neutral. In closing, the chapter addresses the question of the relation between the view of moral philosophy developed here and Wittgenstein’s view of philosophy and explores the critical potential of this view. What will also become apparent is that developing descriptive moral theories is not enough to meet the challenges that we face in moral philosophy, and that they must be supplemented with other philosophical tools. For this reason, the development of theories cannot be the sole activity of moral philosophy.

3.1 Possible Understandings of Descriptive Moral Theory In the previous chapter, we reviewed the dominant understanding of moral theory, especially in the form presented by Martha Nussbaum. Central to this understanding of theory is the idea that theory establishes a foundation for moral practice and thereby generates the authority to provide action-guidance and a test of our beliefs and principles. However, the chapter concluded that this project fails, as that such theories cannot claim any authority over our moral lives. That is, moral theories must serve a purpose different than systematic and prescriptive action-guidance. The suggestion for a different understanding of the purpose of moral theory to be explored in the following is that theories are essentially descriptive, aiding our understanding of and orientation in moral life in a way that will, in turn, allow us to make better decisions, act better, lead better lives. At a very general level, the suggestion is that moral theories are fundamentally descriptive, striving to faithfully to represent the complicated normative concerns that constitutes moral life. Rather than constructing systems of recommendations, theories describe moral concerns, principles, feelings, attitudes, practices, and so on, which are already available to us as moral beings, but which are not surveyable and therefore need to be described in order for us regain a clear

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overview of how they come together in moral life. My guiding idea is thus that what we lack and need, morally, is not external guidance, but a clearer overview of the intricate fabric of moral life. As it stands, however, this suggestion is of course intolerably vague. The aim of the present chapter is to substantiate and spell out such an account of descriptive moral theory, and this will be done, first, through a critical study of the existing accounts of descriptive theory, and, second, by further developing the most promising points found here. In the literature we find several different accounts of a descriptive conception of theory, but if we look beyond the minimal commitment to description, these accounts can be sorted into two general types. According to accounts of the first type, descriptive theory can provide us with one comprehensive and roughly consistent description of the central elements of moral practice, for example in the form of a comprehensive view of practical reason, while according to accounts of the other type, the descriptions offered by moral theories cannot be worked into one consistent whole. In the following, we will introduce these two types of descriptive moral theory and argue for the latter, pluralistic one, before we move on to develop this view into a modified, Wittgensteinian account of descriptive moral theory. One of the critics of the dominant model of moral theory who argues for descriptive theory of the first type is John McDowell. On Wittgensteinian grounds, McDowell rejects the idea that the moral needs some form of external validation, and instead argues that moral questions are to be answered by practical reason. Central to morality is our ability to develop a form of practical reason that makes it possible for us to respond to various dictates of reason which ‘are there anyway, whether or not one’s eyes are opened to them’ (McDowell 1996a, 91). This means that from within a moral standpoint, we can wonder what reasons we ought to be moved by, but we are never in a position to evaluate particular reasons or the totality of reasons from a standpoint outside a moral context; the deliberation on real, moral questions is a task for each of us, not as philosophers, but as inhabitants of a moral life. Nonetheless, moral theory can contribute to an understanding of the conditions of moral life, for example in the form of a description of the formation of practical reason that guides moral considerations, which, according to McDowell, develops as a form of second nature.¹ This form of descriptive theory helps us get rid of misunderstandings about practical reason, and if the description offered is adequate, it will leave ‘no genuine questions about ¹ McDowell 1979, 1995, and 1996b.

48      norms, apart from those that we address in reflective thinking about specific norms, an activity not particularly philosophical’ (McDowell 1996a, 95). As we saw in the previous chapter, we find similar ideas of comprehensive and descriptive moral theory spelled out in the work of other philosophers, for example that of Julia Annas. Annas does not want to give up the idea that theory can play a role in moral philosophy; what she rejects is the idea that such theories have any normative force. Since practical thinking is something to be learnt, since it is nourished by experience and training, and since it is largely dependent on attention to the particular, theory cannot prescribe, but only describe practical reasoning, and it only has the authority that follows from providing such a description (if accurate).² Annette Baier also presents a related view of descriptive and comprehensive moral theory. She draws attention to the moral theory of David Hume as an example of a theory that does not involve any normative recommendations, but instead offers a ‘mental geography’, that is, a form of ‘descriptive moral and psychological theory, understanding the modes of individual and social moral reflection as they actually exist’ (Baier 1989, 38; italics in the original). In line with this, Baier argues that we should develop an understanding of theory that renounces the aim to be general and action-guiding in favour of the aim to provide ‘an internally consistent fairly comprehensible account of what morality is and when and why it merits our acceptance and support’ (Baier 1985, 54). Amalie Rorty is a representative of the second type of descriptive theory, and her view challenges McDowell, Annas and Baier’s idea of developing a consistent and fairly comprehensible moral theory. Rorty also does not want to give up on moral theory, but she argues that we need to accept a variety of such theories in order to attain a true understanding of moral life. She supports this idea by showing how conflicts between well-established moral theories, such as theories of moral responsibility, arise from the fact that they address different and equally important but mutually incompatible moral concerns. Some theories develop the morally important insight that moral responsibility is fundamentally egalitarian, which means that we are in one important sense equally morally responsible, while other theories develop the insight that moral responsibility depends on epistemic abilities, which means that we are indeed only responsible for what we can in fact understand, and that our responsibility therefore varies according to our epistemic competences. Rorty notes that such incompatibilities between theories obviously ² See also section 2.5 and Annas 2011, 33–51. Lovibond 2002 and Svensson 2010, 2011 are also in line with this notion of descriptive moral theory.

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cause problems for a traditional understanding of moral theory as actionguiding because different theories might result in mutually incompatible forms of practical guidance. But these incompatibilities also frustrate the aim of developing one comprehensive and consistent descriptive theory, because such a theory would also have to overcome the conflict between various moral commitments that Rorty has uncovered (at least to some degree). On Rorty’s view, any attempt to eliminate such conflicts would face several problems. The first problem is that different theories utilise different and conflicting epistemic norms, which means that we have no clear criteria for how to judge between competing moral theories or how to judge whether a suggested reconciliation between these theories is indeed successful. The second problem is that morality is not a neatly delineated ‘area’ or ‘domain’ of human life structured by an over-riding set of norms or form of moral reasoning; rather ‘The phenomena of morality—its discourse and practices— are so highly differentiated and nuanced that they merge with those of other ideals, norms and forms of social control’ (Rorty 2010, 39). Rorty’s second point, that the moral does not constitute a separate domain that can be separated from other areas of our lives, resonates with points made by many Wittgensteinians critical of moral theories. In line with this, Cora Diamond argues that it is mistaken to think we can delineate ‘a moral subject matter’, for example via the identification of sentences with moral concepts, because we then fail to take into account the Wittgensteinian insights that ‘a sentence’s belonging to ethics is a classification by use’ (Diamond 1996a: 237), and that the questions of use can only be answered in a specific context. If we examine the way we talk about the moral we come to see that ‘sentences, stories, images, the idea we have of a person, words, rules: anything made of the resources of ordinary language may be brought into such a relation to our lives and actions and understanding of the world that we might speak of the thinking involved in that connection as “moral”’, Diamond says and concludes: ‘There is no limit to be set’ (Diamond 1996b, 248). Diamond furthermore claims that moral relevance is ubiquitous in our life, that everything that may take on importance for us, may also potentially be of moral relevance. In Diamond’s words, ‘ethics is not one subject matter alongside others. It’s not that trees are a subject for botany, and human character a subject for ethics, but rather that human character in many circumstances, and trees in somewhat rarer circumstances, can be described as morally interesting’ (Diamond 1997, 83). Diamond goes on to acknowledge that it is often very hard to hold on to this understanding of the moral and that this difficulty gives rise to a tension that is also present in her own work.

50      The tension [ . . . ] is between the idea of moral discourse as a sphere of discourse, with its subject matter, and the idea that there are no limits to what may be thought of in such a way as to be morally interesting, that is, to belong to ethics. The attractive response to this tension would be to suggest that [ . . . ] both ways of thinking about ethics are present and important in what we want to pick out as ethics; something would be lost if we were to leave out either of the two modes of thought. (ibid.)³

What is ‘moral’ in moral life is not determined by investigating whether something belongs to a particular area or domain, but by investigating the role that it plays in our life.⁴ With reference to Iris Murdoch, Diamond further argues that a neutral demarcation of the moral is also challenged by the fact that there is ‘a peculiar difficulty in ethics (in contrast with other parts of philosophy) in specifying the phenomena to be studied. Our moral judgements themselves shape our conception of the field of study’ (Diamond 1983, 373).⁵ Views of what is morally relevant will differ according to what one considers morally important, also in moral philosophy, and because of this, there is no morally neutral way of delineating the moral. We should note a significant difference between the views of Rorty and Diamond. What Rorty does is to accept a variety of moral concerns and argue that the complexity of the moral and the way it is interwoven with other areas of life makes it almost impossible to delineate, but in doing so, she still adheres to the idea that the moral is a field, even if it is a field with ‘blurred edges’ (PI §71), overlapping with other philosophical disciplines.⁶ What Rorty does not challenge is the idea that we can talk of what things belongs within the subject matter field of ethics, and what things do not. In contrast, Diamond makes the more radical point that morality is pervasive in our lives and that our commitments are partly constitutive of what we find to be morally relevant.⁷ I think we should accept Diamond’s point about the morally

³ In the article, Diamond also discusses the work of Sabina Lovibond. See also Diamond 1996a, 105, and see Diamond 1985 and 2010 for arguments for why we in moral philosophy should never be too settled in our understanding of the field of our interest and why we should even continuously work to unsettle it. ⁴ This also resonates with Wittgenstein’s view of ethics. In the Tractatus, he says that ethics is not part of what we can describe, but something that conditions how we approach what we can describe. ‘In the world everything is as it is, and everything happens as it does happen: in it no value exists—and if it did, it would have no value’ (TLP 6.41). Ethics is not in the facts, it is not a particular area of facts; rather ethics concerns how we relate to the facts, which for Wittgenstein is not a question of for example ‘meta-facts’, but about how facts are related or organised (see also Christensen 2011a). ⁵ Diamond here refers to Murdoch 1956. ⁶ A similar view is defended in De Mesel 2015. ⁷ See e.g. Phillips 1992a, 65–7.

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influenced nature of conceptions of the moral (and I will return to this question in Chapter 8). Whatever stand we take on the possibility of a moral domain, Rorty’s and Diamond’s rejection of the possibility of demarcating such a domain opens a new question, namely whether a conception of moral theories is possible according to which they do not apply to any specific, identifiable area of reality. In answer, Rorty offers the suggestion that we should ‘stop thinking of moral theories as delivering truths or justifying rules’, as offering ‘competitive explanatory hypotheses’, and as being mutually exclusive (Rorty 2010, 44 and 43, respectively). In a similar vein, Margret Urban Walker claims that we should stop seeing moral philosophy as a field for ‘a contest among moral theories’, without giving up the idea that moral philosophy can engage in ‘a descriptive and critical understanding of how moral life does and can go on’ (Walker 2003, 86). On a descriptive view of moral theory, different moral theories are not mutually exclusive, because they are not part of a competition to provide the best explanation of an already given realm of reality; in this way, they differ from straightforward factual claims. Instead they are engaged in a shared endeavour to describe the various aspects of our moral practice in which a variety of possibly conflicting moral concerns may be at play. Rorty builds on this idea by proposing that moral theories are heuristic tools, both descriptive and particularistic, that enable us to achieve an overview of different aspects of our moral commitments as they ‘prompt and direct attention to a wide variety of salient features in situations of evaluation and choice’ (Rorty 2010, 43). In this way, theories may help us become aware of assumptions that were hitherto hidden from us, they may remind us of our value commitments and the connections between them, but they may also work as the starting point for a critical reflection of what these value commitments ought to be. On this conception of moral theory, theories still play an important role, both for moral philosophy and for moral thinking in general, because of what they draw our attention to and what they allow us to see. ‘Active engagement in constructing and construing traditional moral theories remains intellectually and morally significant. Carefully and robustly articulated, moral theories refine our concerns, reveal the logic of their interdependence and trace their consequences’ (ibid. 45). According to Rorty, we need heuristic moral theories to explicate and describe our moral concerns in order for us to understand their implications, see how they conflict and subject them to critical scrutiny. It is important to see clearly the descriptive character of what we traditionally call moral theories, because by providing ‘thicker

52      descriptions and more subtle specifications of our options, they enable us to understand what is at stake in our choices’ (ibid. 44–5). We can draw on the contributions mentioned in this section to expand and support the idea that moral theories are descriptive. First, this means that theories do not uncover something which is in principle hidden or unavailable to us in moral life, they rather describe something that we already to some degree know and master in practice, the meaning of moral concepts, the importance of central moral concerns, principles, and commitments, etc. On a descriptive account of theory, when we learn about moral theory, we are not taught something essentially new. It may require some work to understand the utilitarian happiness principle, for example when one first encounters it in an ethics class, but when one understands it, then one has not, on this account, grasped a new and surprising piece of information, but a way to model something that is already part of one’s practical reasoning, namely that it is sometimes morally important to consider the value of the possible outcomes of a variety of possible acts. On this view, the happiness principle thus describes this central moral concern. This still leaves one part of the happiness principle unexplained, especially the claim that we should always act to maximise good consequences, but this claim should, second, be given up together with the attempt to model moral theories as a form of epistemological claims referring to a pre-demarcated domain of reality. Giving up this model is what allows us to give up the idea of the mutual exclusiveness of moral theories—to reject the idea that theories are ‘competitive explanatory hypotheses’ (Rorty 2010, 43). The epistemological model should, third, be exchanged for a descriptive model in which theories may provide us with general insights into the moral by recalling and helping us explore the many different commitments at play in moral life. By focusing on one specific concern or set of concerns (the importance of good consequences for example), a theory clarifies this concern, enabling us to see it more clearly and make it the object of critical scrutiny. In doing so, the theory of course also leaves out other things of moral importance; the clarity achieved through the description comes at the expense of the visibility of other morally important concerns. What the theory or description must not do, of course, is to distort some features of moral life—if it does this, it is a flawed description or maybe not a description at all. In my view, we should therefore accept Rorty’s suggestion that we need a multitude of moral theories if we are to elucidate the full complexity of the moral, something which also gives us one more reason to reject the idea that any specific theory will be able to offer authoritative prescriptions about what to do in specific situations.

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With this point, we have provided an initial understanding of the view of descriptive moral theories. What we still have not accounted for is the relation between the descriptive and the clarificatory role of moral theories, namely how we are to tie the clarifying aspect of theories to an understanding of them as describing our moral commitments and perspectives. What is it that moral theories are to describe, and how do these descriptions help us clarify what we think and value, morally? We now turn to these questions.

3.2 Wittgenstein on Grammar: Two Possible Interpretations We have found that we need an understanding of moral theories that ties together their descriptive and heuristic dimensions. The suggestion I will pursue here is that we can turn to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s idea of describing grammar as a central philosophical activity and from this develop an understanding of moral theories as descriptions of moral grammar. It may appear awkward to draw on Wittgenstein’s thinking in the attempt to develop a new conception of moral theory, as Wittgenstein himself is quite critical of the use of theory in philosophy in general and in moral philosophy in particular. In a discussion with Friedrich Waismann on moral life, Wittgenstein once noted, ‘If anybody offers me a theory, I would say: No, no, that doesn’t interest me. Even if the theory were true that would not interest me—it would not be what I seek. The ethical cannot be taught.’ In relation to the moral, Wittgenstein continued, a ‘theory gives me nothing’ (Waismann 1965, 16). And in the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein holds that in philosophy, ‘we may not advance any kind of theory. There must not be anything hypothetical in our considerations. We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place’ (PI §109). Several points are in order here. First, it is possible to argue that Wittgenstein’s dismissal of the use or role of theories in philosophy is directed primarily at what we have until now called the dominant notion of theory, modelled on an ideal imported from the natural sciences, in which theories are considered explanatory, authoritative, and exhaustive. According to Wittgenstein, philosophy never produces such theories. People have sometimes said to me that they cannot make any judgement about this or that because they have never learnt philosophy. This is

54      irritating nonsense, it is being assumed that philosophy is some sort of science. And people speak of it as they might speak of medicine. (CV, 33e; MS 188 113r, 1937)

Wittgenstein’s rejection of theories in philosophy is in this way aimed at a specific understanding of theory. As Hacker notes, ‘In general, Wittgenstein associated the term ‘theory’ with the hypothetico-deductive theories of the natural sciences. Theories in philosophy were misguided attempts to mimic theory-construction in science’ (Hacker 2013, 166). What Wittgenstein is rejecting is a conception of theory that arises from the mistaken idea that philosophy is a discipline with the same methodologies as the natural sciences. On this conception, Hacker adds, ‘theories strove, like theories in the natural sciences, for complete generality, they were held to be refutable by a single counter-example, and they aimed to explain why reality must be thus or so’.⁸ According to Wittgenstein, there is a great difference between the aims of the natural sciences and those of philosophy, which is best described as the difference between discovery and achievement of clarity; this difference means that the natural sciences and philosophy differ both in the methods they use and in the forms of activity that they engage in. In one of his lectures, Wittgenstein offers a picture of this fundamental difference: In science you can compare what you are doing with, say, building a house. You must first lay a firm foundation; once it is laid it must not again be touched or moved. In philosophy we are not laying foundations but tidying up a room, in the process of which we have to touch everything a dozen times. (AWL 24)

My purpose is of course not to use Wittgenstein’s notion of grammar to reintroduce the dominant, scientistic notion of theory in moral philosophy, but rather to show that moral philosophers should give up this notion—and more generally, to investigate whether what we have hitherto considered theory in this sense can be understood in another way and what this other understanding amounts to. A second point to note is that if we give up the idea that theories can be authoritative and exhaustive, we can find inspiration in Wittgenstein’s idea of

⁸ According to Hacker, Wittgenstein saw theories in philosophy as ‘parodied scientific theories in attempting to explain, by means of explanatory hypotheses, involving assumptions, idealisations, and suppositions’ (ibid.).

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philosophy as a descriptive activity in our attempt to work out an understanding of descriptive moral theories. Thus, I want to explore whether we can understand one of the aims of moral philosophy to be presenting moral theories in the form of overviews of particular moral grammars, that is, of morally relevant connections between words which are not easily surveyable. This may still seem at odds with a central element in Wittgenstein’s view of philosophy, the idea that descriptions of grammar are always directed at particular philosophical difficulties or problems. The paragraph quoted from Philosophical Investigations continues: ‘And this description gets its light, that is to say its purpose, from the philosophical problems. [ . . . ] The problems are solved, not by reporting new experience, but by arranging what we have always known’ (PI §109). Wittgenstein is proposing that philosophers use descriptions of grammar to provide an overview relevant to a particular problem, but this raises the question of how we are to understand the role of the general overviews provided by moral theory as descriptions of moral grammar in relation to Wittgenstein’s particular descriptions of grammar. We will return to this quite complicated issue at the end of the chapter. For now, I will introduce Wittgenstein’s understanding of grammar and its connection to philosophical investigations in order to use it as a source of inspiration for an understanding of descriptive moral theories. Throughout his writings, Wittgenstein’s view of philosophy is guided by the idea that philosophical problems arise when we mistake conceptual difficulties for some form of metaphysical problems; what he sees as the aim of philosophy is to dissolve the spell of metaphysics through philosophical investigations of our language. As we are told in a remark, ‘Philosophical investigations: conceptual investigations’ (RPP I §949).⁹ What we need to solve philosophical problems are not investigations of facts or of ‘what is’, but of our ways of talking, of our language use. In Wittgenstein’s words: ‘A main source of our failure to understand is that we do not command a clear view of the use of our words.—Our grammar is lacking in this sort of perspicuity. A perspicuous representation produces just that understanding which consists in “seeing connexions”’ (PI §122). Thus, Oskari Kuusela notes quite correctly that ‘Wittgenstein’s method, generally speaking, is that of the perspicuous presentation of language’ (Kuusela 2008: 269). Moreover, as language is inextricably intertwined with the activities and reactions of human beings, such an investigation is not in any sense

⁹ The remark continues: ‘The essential thing about metaphysics: that the difference between factual and conceptual investigation is not clear to it. A metaphysical question is always in appearance a factual one, although the problem is a conceptual one’ (see also Zettel §458).

56      restricted to the purely linguistic.¹⁰ Rather by investigating our language and our uses of words, we attempt to achieve a clear view of the possible ways in which we may meaningfully interact with others and with ‘what is’. ‘What is the nature of our investigation?’ Wittgenstein asks and continues, ‘Am I investigating the cases that I give as examples with a view to their probability, or their actuality? No, I’m just presenting what is possible, and am therefore giving grammatical examples’ (BT 312e). Philosophical investigations are descriptive, and the area of interest is the grammar expressed in possible, intelligible ways of talking, acting, knowing, relating to others etc. In line with this, Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations §371 (unusually) boldly claims that: ‘Essence is expressed by grammar’, and in §373 that ‘Grammar tells what kind of object anything is’.¹¹ Such remarks may lead us to think that all we need in order to rid ourselves of philosophical problems is once and for all to give a clear and succinct description of the grammar of the uses of words in our interest, but Wittgenstein qualifies this idea with various reminders of how our understanding of grammar is tied to our understanding of particular instances of language use. He discusses how the use of a word changes in different circumstances, how objects of comparison enable us to investigate similarities and differences between various language-games and proposes language-games very different from our own, thereby questioning whether we can imagine such language-games having a grammar at all, having a foothold in our lives. Wittgenstein even conducts grammatical investigations of the various ways in which we may come to change the way we look at things and conceive of them. You have a new conception and interpret it as seeing a new object. You interpret a grammatical movement made by yourself as a quasi-physical phenomenon which you are observing. (Think for example of the question: ’Are sense-data the material of which the universe is made?’) But there is an objection to my saying that you have made a ‘grammatical’ movement. What you have primarily discovered is a new way of looking at things. (PI §401)¹²

¹⁰ See PI §123—and more or less the rest of that work. In Moi’s words, ‘By “grammar” Wittgenstein means the criteria, rules, or conditions of use for a word or a phrase. (Wittgenstein’s “grammar” is not a purely linguistic category: grammar is bound up with our forms of life.)’ (Moi 2017, 200). ¹¹ In one of his lectures, Wittgenstein equally boldly exclaimed that ‘in philosophy all that is not gas is grammar’ (WL 112). ¹² See also PI §114. For an overview of Wittgenstein’s different ways of doing grammatical investigations, see Baker 2006, 42.

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Wittgenstein explicitly rejects the idea that grammatical investigations are directed at an all-embracing understanding of language, or that they establish an overview that is conclusive in relation to other instances of language use. Wittgenstein in fact makes these qualifications explicit: ‘(In giving all these examples I am not aiming at some kind of completeness, some classification of psychological concepts. They are only meant to enable the reader to shift for himself when he encounters conceptual difficulties)’ (PI, p. 175). Of course, Wittgenstein’s refusal of the possibility of a final and exhaustive grammatical overview is connected to the above-mentioned point that on his view, a grammatical investigation is always directed at a particular philosophical confusion. We may still be at a loss as to why we are in need of descriptions or elucidations of a grammar that we already master in practice. If we know the uses of our words, how can these uses come to be unclear to us? According to Wittgenstein, there are many reasons why we sometimes lose our grasp of the grammar at play in particular uses of language, for example because we make unfounded generalisations from one area of language to another (as in the assumption that all words get their meaning from what corresponds with them, cf. PI § 40) or unfounded applications of certain philosophical ideals (such as the ideal that meaning is determinate, cf. PI §§98-105). In Philosophical Investigations §664, Wittgenstein offers yet another reason why our grammar may become opaque to us: In the use of words one might distinguish ‘surface grammar’ from ‘depth grammar’. What immediately impresses itself upon us about the use of a word is the way it is used in construction of a sentence, the part of the use— one might say—that can be taken in by the ear.—And now compare the depth grammar, say of the word ‘to mean’, with what its surface grammar would lead us to suspect. No wonder we find it difficult to know our way about. (PI §664)¹³

Wittgenstein’s point is that we may come to need elucidations of grammar because the grammar immediately apparent to us does not reflect the grammar that actually establishes the meaning of the words we use. In the attempt to develop this insight, however, we should note that it is possible to interpret the difference between the notions of surface and depth grammar in two quite different ways. For now, we will simply examine these two interpretations and ¹³ See also PI §123.

58      use them to develop two different understandings of grammatical descriptions. The questions of which interpretation is more Wittgensteinian, and how these interpretations may help us develop an alternative understanding of descriptive moral theories, we will leave to the next sections. The main defender of the first interpretation is Peter Hacker, who thinks the distinction between surface and depth is a distinction between on the one hand ‘the obvious syntactic features of the sentence and the words of which it is constructed’ (Hacker 1996, 708), and on the other hand ‘the overall use of the relevant expression, by survey of its combinatorial possibilities and impossibilities, of the circumstances of its use, and of its consequences’ (ibid.). According to Hacker, surface grammar consists of what we ordinarily call ‘grammar’, the grammatical categories and distinctions that we find in dictionaries and textbooks, while depth grammar consists of logical grammar, the actual and use-dependent rules for constructing well-formed sentences. By describing the complicated networks of grammatical connections that establish the grammar of our language, grammatical investigations reveal a world of nuances and detail normally hidden behind ordinary grammatical categories.¹⁴ Moreover, on Hacker’s view, depth grammar consists in a fixed system of connections, distinctions and combinatorial possibilities established by our use of words and guiding our future construction of meaningful expressions.¹⁵ In philosophy, we can therefore ‘attempt to assemble a dossier of grammatical facts’ (Hacker 2007, 92) which will provide us with overviews of the grammar of our language that will be helpful when we get ourselves into particular forms of philosophical confusions. According to this interpretation, the task of philosophy is both general, ‘to tabulate the rules for the use of words’, and particular, to ‘arrange them in a perspicuous representation that will dissolve a particular problem or range of problems’ (ibid. 104). We find another understanding of depth grammar in Gordon Baker’s later work on Wittgenstein’s method. Baker notes that Wittgenstein in §664 talks of the use of words both with regard to surface and depth grammar, and Baker therefore suggests that by ‘surface grammar’ Wittgenstein actually means logical grammar, the grammar established by use, ‘the combinatorial possibilities of words in framing meaningful [ . . . ] sentences, i.e. the rules which govern

¹⁴ Hacker 1996, 107. For a discussion of this interpretation, see McGinn 2011, 654–9. ¹⁵ Garver presents a similar reading by arguing that depth grammar in Wittgenstein’s sense is a necessary and fixed system of ‘agreement in practical judgement’ (Garver 1996, 151) which means that ‘grammar expresses certain essential qualities of the persons and actions—essential for the purposes of the judging-game, not in the absolute sense—and expresses them as necessities and impossibilities’ (ibid. 160).

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sentence-construction (Satzbau) from a logical point of view’ (Baker 2006, 77; italics in the original). As a result, Baker describes surface grammar in a manner quite similar to Hacker’s construction of depth grammar, while in contrast to Hacker he thinks that ‘depth grammar’ cannot be given a fixed, ‘once and for all’-description, because it concerns conditions of the construction of sentences that are liable to change with context. To support this reading, Baker points to Wittgenstein’s interest in the different ways different speakers operate in language, how words are integrated in different ways into human activities, the way the meaning of an expression depends on the specific circumstances in which it is uttered etc.¹⁶ In Baker’s view, Wittgenstein introduces depth grammar as yet another perspective of philosophical interest in a way that distinguishes the method of the Philosophical Investigations from that of Frege, Russell and the author of the Tractatus, who all—although in very different ways—thought meaning describable only through an attention to its logic.¹⁷ That is, on Baker’s view of depth grammar, meaning is tied, not just to use, but to use in various contexts for various purposes. In opposition to Hacker, Baker thus holds that on a Wittgensteinian understanding of grammar there is no one description of ‘the grammar of our language’ because any description of grammar using the notion of depth grammar concerns a particular instance of the expressions described. Moreover, Baker takes Wittgenstein to be showing us that there ‘are specific ways of representing ‘our grammar’ or particular ways of looking at it’, and he questions ‘whether it makes any sense to speak of “descriptions of our grammar” which do not exemplify particular modes of representing or ways of seeing things’ (ibid. 43). In other words, when Wittgenstein in §112 says that ‘Our grammar is lacking in this sort of perspicuity’, he is, according to Baker, not saying that ‘the grammar of language’ is lacking perspicuity, but that grammar in the sense of our descriptions of actual uses of words is not perspicuous. The cure for such a lack of perspicuity will be to modify ‘our previous descriptions of the use of our words in particular circumstances for particular purposes’ (ibid. 58), that is, to produce new descriptions of grammar, which means that such descriptions are always tied to the specific purpose of the philosophical investigation.

¹⁶ See Baker 2006, 78–84. For discussion see McGinn, 655–8. Cf. Wittgenstein’s Nachlass, MS 116, 47: ‘Eine Interpretation eines Satzes ist seine Umgebung in der Grammatik’. ¹⁷ See Baker 2006, 77; cf. TLP 4.002.

60      To sum up, Hacker and Baker agree in tying the meaning of an expression to its grammar in a broad, Wittgensteinian sense. They disagree, however, about what we should include in this notion of grammar. The question is whether grammar only involves grammatical structures of combinatorial possibilities embedded in our use of words (what Hacker calls depth and Baker surface grammar), or whether grammar also involves essentially context-bound features of the way in which words and expressions are used in particular utterances and the way in which such uses are described in philosophy (the features that Baker calls depth grammar). The result is that even if Hacker and Baker agree that Wittgenstein’s notion of grammar entails the idea that philosophy is a descriptive activity, they disagree about the possibility of offering general descriptions of grammar, with Hacker arguing for the possibility of offering descriptions that are context-neutral and general, and Baker rejecting this idea in favour of the view that all grammatical descriptions are particular, concern particular instances of language use, and represent a particular philosophical aim or perspective.¹⁸

3.3 Moral Theories as Descriptions of ‘The Grammar of Our Language’ What we have found is that Baker and Hacker offer two different readings of Wittgenstein’s notion of philosophical grammar. It is important in the present context that these two readings suggest two different understandings of descriptions of grammar as a possible task of moral philosophy, but to see how, we must consider what it means to give descriptions of grammar on a Wittgensteinian understanding. In a remark from 1933, Wittgenstein says: ‘It will often be possible to say: ask what your reasons are for calling something good or beautiful and the particular grammar of the word “good” in this case will be apparent’ (CV, 28; MS 145 17v). Wittgenstein thus distinguishes between two different dimensions of moral practice. The first is giving of reasons why something is of moral importance, which we do for example in moral discussions. The second is the grammar that guides this giving of reasons and establishes normative connections and differences between the words employed in moral discussions. If we accept this distinction, we can use it to discriminate between our actual expressions of moral relevance and importance on the one hand, and the grammar that guides such expressions ¹⁸ See also Hacker 2007 for a discussion of the differences between his view and that of Baker.

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on the other. Our present interest is to understand how moral philosophy can provide descriptions of the latter, the grammar which guides expressions of moral significance. In other words, if we take seriously the idea that ‘[e]ssence is expressed by grammar’, then we can see one possible activity of moral philosophy as that of making grammatical investigations into what we will call moral grammars—the grammars that we employ when we think and discuss questions of moral relevance.¹⁹ There are, however, two ways of explicating this idea. If we take our lead from Hacker, we can think of moral philosophy as uncovering general and stable structures of grammar implicit in our morally relevant uses of words. That is, we may see theories of autonomy or care not as normative theories, but as descriptions displaying the normative, grammatical connections that give these words their meaning. The descriptions provide us with an overview of moral grammars which may help us to clarify what is at stake in concrete discussions of a moral issue. On this view, moral theories are thoroughly descriptive and morally neutral; to point out the existence and the layout of a particular grammar is not to say that this grammar must be employed.²⁰ Moreover moral theories also only present a partial description of the available moral grammar and must be supplemented by other descriptions of grammar. This means that theories cannot provide us with the normative standard for correct moral reasoning, and they cannot tell us what would be the right grammar to use; instead, the responsibility for the normative framework deployed in moral thought ultimately lies with the moral subject herself.²¹ On this view of moral theories as descriptions of grammar, theories present us with normative connections fixed in language. Moreover, collectively, these descriptions are attempts to present an overview of the complete conceptual knowledge involved in moral reasoning, and they can therefore be ascribed with a certain form of generality and completeness. We find a version of this view of moral philosophy in the writings of Jeremy Wisnewski. Taking his lead from Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, Wisnewski describes what we would traditionally call moral theories as clarifications which aim to make explicit our understanding of ‘the good and the right’ (Wisnewski 2007, 21). ¹⁹ In order to explore this question, we leave the discussion of Wittgenstein’s thinking aside, taking with us just the inspiration from his view of grammar and grammatical descriptions. This section is therefore in no way intended to reflect what Wittgenstein thought of moral philosophy. ²⁰ Just as grammar does not explain why some considerations are part of our moral life, while others are not. Cf. Wittgenstein’s remark in PI §496: ‘Grammar does not tell us how language must be constructed in order to fulfil its purpose, in order to have such-and-such an effect on human beings. It only describes and in no way explains the use of signs.’ ²¹ As stressed in Chapter 2; cf. Hertzberg 2002.

62      Clarificatory theories, Wisnewski maintains, are not ‘assertoric’ (ibid. 24); instead they are attempts to reveal what conditions moral thoughts and discussions by describing ‘different aspects of the complicated understanding, we bring to bear on our everyday being-in-the-world’ (ibid. 112). In this light, Wisnewski re-evaluates the work of Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill as offering valuable clarifications of moral life; in the case of Kant, descriptions of ‘what will count as moral reasoning’ and in the case of Mill of ‘the constituents of human flourishing’ (ibid. xii and xv, respectively). The point is that as these clarifications concern different areas of moral life, they are not mutually exclusive, but rather complementary. On a Hackerian conception of descriptive moral theories, a moral theory shows the requirements entailed in a specific form of moral grammar, and in this way, it shows us what we must live up to if we are to intelligibly engage in this form of moral discourse. This conception is appealing, because it enables us to hold on to two attractive ideas about moral theories. The first idea is that specific parts of moral grammar can (at least to some degree) be described once and for all—an idea that allows us to understand for instance Mill’s descriptions of a part of the grammar of human flourishing as definitive (of course, at least insofar as Mill got it right). The second idea is that theories on this conception are morally neutral in the sense that they do not prescribe certain forms of judgements or actions. If we follow Hacker’s conception of descriptions of grammar, theories are themselves not shaped by normative considerations, nor are they influenced by the moral viewpoint of the philosopher (again, insofar as the philosopher does her job well). In this way, moral theories can be considered morally neutral, as they simply expose the fixed, internal logic of our grammar. Any specific theory shows the limits of intelligibility of a specific moral grammar, and by making this grammar surveyable it also makes it transparent when this grammar may be relevant. This is the very limited form of practical instruction that it provides. This view of descriptive theories is, however, also marred by internal tension that becomes apparent if we ask how we are to decide which grammars to investigate in moral philosophy. This decision is not morally neutral, because the very activity of describing a particular form of moral grammar in itself influences our understanding of what the moral is—the choice of a specific field of interest in moral philosophy is a moral choice, and one for which the moral philosopher is morally responsible. Thus, this jeopardises the idea of the moral neutrality of theories as descriptions of moral grammar. To this, we also need to add two lessons from Wittgenstein’s later philosophy. The first is that grammatical frameworks are not stable, well-defined, or

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monolithic, but rather reflect the messiness and alterability of our actions, activities, and lives. The second is that philosophical investigations of grammar are always directed at particular philosophical problems, which seems to imply, as Baker suggests, that grammatical descriptions vary according to the philosophical problem that they address. General theories, even understood as descriptions of specific forms of moral grammars, cannot meet the challenges raised by these points. We thus face a choice. Either we simply reject this understanding of moral theories as general descriptions of moral grammars, or we acknowledge that theories on this understanding help us achieve an overview of the complicated grammars involved in our understanding of the moral, while also acknowledging that the development of such theories alone does not suffice to clarify moral life. Here we will adopt this latter suggestion, because it allows us to hold on to the idea that theories do a particular form of work in moral philosophy (even if this is quite different from what is traditionally assumed), while also pointing to a need to investigate other forms of activities that will have to be a part of moral philosophy. The implied hope is that the idea of moral theory developed in this section has provided at least one argument for the second strategy.²² In the final part of this chapter, we will therefore move on to sketch the other forms of elucidation of the moral that cannot be done via the general descriptions provided by theories.

3.4 Moral Theories as Descriptions of ‘A Particular Way of Seeing Things’ In this section, we will take our lead from Baker’s way of understanding philosophical grammar to re-evaluate our understanding of descriptive moral theories once again. This re-evaluation of course still involves the insights that theories cannot determine right action and are not mutually exclusive. However we will now try to account as well for Baker’s point that grammar is established by the particular ways in which we actually operate with words and expressions in particular situations, which implies that grammar may change according to the contexts and the purposes of our moral language use and the problems we address. ²² The fact that Wittgenstein’s view of descriptions of grammar seems to invite an interpretation that allows for general descriptions of grammar as well as an interpretation that only allows for completely particular descriptions of grammar could be taken as another such argument. This strategy would also be in line with the philosophical approach chosen in this work and outlined in section 1.2.

64      What is rejected, on this account, is first that moral theories in the form of descriptions of moral grammars can claim to be fixed and permanently relevant for a particular area of thought. In most cases such descriptions will have to be reconsidered and reworked in light of the particularities of the problem investigated. Second, this account rejects the notion that the sole aim of moral philosophy is to work out general descriptions of grammar, as these will always have to be supplemented with other forms of philosophical interventions, with adequate descriptions of the language use in question, but also with comparisons with other problems of moral life, examples, thought experiments etc. Developing descriptive moral theories is just one of the many possible activities of moral philosophy (and maybe not even a very prominent one). Third, as we use descriptions of grammar for different reasons, for instance to highlight what we find essential or overlooked in a particular moral discussion or with regard to a particular moral question or action, such descriptions also express a particular view of what we find to be of moral importance. Descriptions of moral grammar are not just tied to particular problems, they are also offered for particular purposes arising from the philosopher’s understanding of the problem at hand and of moral life on a whole. In Wittgenstein’s words, any use of a moral theory ‘denotes the form of our representation, the way we see things’ (RFGB 133).²³ Finally, to complicate things further, on this conception grammatical descriptions may also be used to suggest new ways of seeing situations, new forms of moral grammar.²⁴ That is, we may use such descriptions to change our view of the possibilities offered in the moral grammar, a change that is in itself moral. Summing up, we will have to give up the idea that moral theories offers morally neutral and fixed descriptions of moral grammar, but what we gain is a conception of moral theories and their (possibly quite limited) role in philosophy that is true to the dynamic character of language in general and moral language in particular. If we depart somewhat from Baker’s view of grammar and hold that general descriptions offered by theories and particular descriptions of grammar in use supplement each other (as well as other forms of philosophical activities), this has implications for how we understand moral theories. On this conception, and in contrast to the view of moral theories presented by Wisnewski, Kant does not present a description of the grammar of ‘moral reasoning’. Instead, the first formulation of Kant’s categorical imperative can be considered as a model presenting, in an easily surveyable way, one of the requirements that guides the appeal to the universality of moral principles: the requirement that ²³ Cf. above and Baker 2006, 58 and 43.

²⁴ Cf. PI §401.

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whatever principle you appeal to, it must be one that you could accept in all other cases, for example also in cases where your role was quite different from the one you presently have. We now see Kant as offering one possible description of moral thought which serves to make apparent one of its many different aspects, its universality, and which is motivated by a particular purpose, the preoccupation with this feature of morality. This means that we must reject Kant’s own view of the aim of his practical philosophy, presented in section 2.5, that it simply makes explicit an unchanging structure already implicit in moral thinking.²⁵ In fact, we will have to see Kant’s moral philosophy as a form of moral intervention intended to make us more aware of the moral importance of universality in moral thinking and change our conception of the possibilities of moral life (and with it, the moral grammars available to us). On this further developed conception of moral theories as descriptions of moral grammar, what we must accept is that there are no completely morally neutral descriptions in moral philosophy. The apparent neutrality of theories is indeed only apparent; even if a philosopher simply notes the diversity of moral perspectives, as D.Z. Phillips suggests, this is a moral intervention insofar as it highlights some aspects of the moral over others.²⁶ What I propose, then, is a conception of descriptive moral theory according to which, for something to be a moral theory, it will have to be a surveyable description of moral grammar, and it will need to have some of the features ordinarily attributed to theories: generality, abstractness, explicitness, a certain degree of simplicity and internal consistency. These are the features that justify continuing to characterise certain forms of descriptions as forms of theory; descriptive moral theories are theories in the sense of models that present us with one possible description of the area in our interest.²⁷ Even if we accept this as a conception of moral theory, we should still take note of a distinct difference between this conception and the dominant conception of moral theory treated in the previous chapter. As moral theories on this conception describe different forms of moral grammar, they are not ²⁵ See Chapter 2. ²⁶ See the previous chapter. There are reasons to doubt that Phillips would agree with this point as it seems to challenge his idea of ‘a cool place’ for philosophical reflection, at least in moral philosophy (see Phillips 1999). It is, however, in line with the position that Diamond develops by way of Murdoch. In Murdoch’s words, moral philosophers can have ‘very different interests and attitudes to the world’, and they can therefore be ‘concerned accordingly to display different aspects of the moral life’ (Murdoch 1956, 33), which means that engaging in moral philosophy is always itself a form of moral activity. ²⁷ However, if one wants to insist that the term ‘theory’ is essentially tied to the scientistic model of theory (see the discussion above), one will have to give up using the term for such general descriptions of grammar. This would be in line with the general reluctance to use the term ‘theory’ in any discussion of Wittgenstein’s philosophy. However, this also impedes the attempt to offer a re-evaluation of the role of what is in moral philosophy normally called moral theory.

66      rival explanations of a single ontological realm and therefore not mutually exclusive; rather the plurality of theories contributes to a total heuristic effort to attain an overview of the complicated meaning constituted by the grammar involved in morally relevant uses of words. We find a similar idea in the work of Oskari Kuusela, who has developed a notion of ‘philosophical models’ based on Wittgenstein’s later philosophy and related to the conception of descriptive moral theories developed here. Kuusela writes: the possibility of using one mode of representation does not exclude the possibility of using another in the same way as a truth claim may exclude another one. In this way different modes of representing an object can then be used to highlight its similarities with different sets of objects, bringing to view different conceptual connections or relations. (Kuusela 2019, 33)

We should not strive for one unifying moral theory, because different theories can ‘be used simultaneously to highlight different aspects of a complex object of investigation, such as morally good actions’ (ibid. 34). In other words, a moral theory may elucidate one aspect of our moral approach to the world and the normative connections that we see in it, but as an elucidation it does not cover everything involved in this approach, and it cannot determine right action or provide a foundation for moral practice. On this conception, the purpose of moral theories is to be elucidatory, to show in a perspicuous way certain features of moral life that we cannot clearly make out, that we fail to notice or actively work to ignore (because of egoistic interests, for example) or that we have not (as of yet) clearly conceptualised or explicated, and to show in a clear way how these features connect which other features. The advantage of theories is that they are easily surveyable forms of elucidation, but this also means that they may potentially distort or reduce our understanding of moral life, especially if we take them to directly mirror the complexity found there. As Murdoch notes, philosophers ‘make classification and set up analogies in order to illuminate an aspect, and this illumination may cast a shadow which makes another aspect less visible’ (Murdoch 1992, 83). We can never assume that a theory fully captures all that is morally relevant in a specific situation or problem; this is the reason why they can only be one of the activities necessary in moral philosophy, and why they must always be supplemented by, or be seen as supplements to, specific descriptions of grammar. There are reasons to think that this Bakerian conception of descriptive theories is more in line with Wittgenstein’s view of the use of grammatical

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descriptions in philosophy than our first re-evaluation of moral theories.²⁸ This view finds support in what Wittgenstein says about the philosophical investigation of ethics in his lectures in the early thirties, for example in the following remark: When there is an argument about whether a thing is good, the discussion shows what we are talking about. In the course of an argument the word may begin to get a new grammar. In view of the way we have learned the word ‘good’ it would be astonishing if it had a general meaning covering all of its applications. (AWL 33)

Wittgenstein emphasises how the grammar of moral words is dependent on context,²⁹ and how it develops with the purposes that we have in using particular words such as ‘good’. Returning to the discussion above, we should note how Wittgenstein, by pointing out that ‘the discussion shows what we are talking about’, resists the attempt to settle in advance the morally relevant aspects at play in a moral discussion, which also seems to amount to a resistance towards attempts to delimit the domain of the moral. As Kuusela notes, Wittgenstein’s method ‘does not take for granted the model of simple conceptual unity, it enables us to recognize the variety and plurality of cases that fall under concepts, such as goodness or morality’ (Kuusela 2019, 34–5). Finally, this view of moral theory is also in line with the above-mentioned remark from the Philosophical Investigations, where Wittgenstein rejects the idea that a grammatical investigation aims at completeness, suggesting instead that it aims to ‘enable the reader to shift for himself when he encounters conceptual difficulties’ (PI II.xi, p. 175). In philosophy, grammatical descriptions are made for particular purposes and are relevant to particular difficulties in establishing an overview of our moral thinking. If the particular and context-bound view of descriptions of grammar is more in line with Wittgenstein’s philosophy, we may ask why we should hold on to a conception of moral theories at all, even the descriptive one developed here. There are at least three good reasons for this. One is that Wittgenstein himself, even while working out a view of philosophy as providing contextbound descriptions of grammar, at times comes close to offering something very much like general descriptions of grammar. ‘The human body’, we read in

²⁸ Even if I do not want to argue that this notion of moral theories as descriptions of grammar is one either Wittgenstein or Baker would in fact endorse. ²⁹ Of course this point does not just concern moral words.

68      the Philosophical Investigations, ‘is the best picture of the human soul’ (PI II.iv, p. 152). And: ‘Our attitude to what is alive and to what is dead, is not the same. All our reactions are different’ (PI §284). And ‘An “inner process” stands in need of outward criteria’ (PI §580). Such general-sounding descriptions are probably part of what invites the type of interpretation of Wittgenstein’s view of grammar represented by Hacker above. My view is that it is both possible and philosophically constructive to develop general descriptions or elucidations in the form of descriptive moral theories with the important qualification that such theories will have to prove their relevance every time we turn to a new philosophical problem in moral philosophy. If we move beyond Wittgenstein’s philosophy, we find another reason that supports this view of moral theories, namely that some descriptions of moral life have come to be part of our standard repertoire in philosophy because they have proven themselves relevant in the elucidation of many of our problems, and it seems plausible to assume that the theories (or whatever we may now want to call them) to which we return again and again in moral philosophy are such descriptions. Kant’s description of the universal feature of the moral as brought out by the first formulation of the categorical imperative, for example, and Mill’s description of the vital differences between various forms of pleasure, make us aware of relevant features of moral life which we are prone to overlook or misrepresent, and this seems to be the reason for their lasting relevance in moral philosophy. This seems to indicate that it is not in itself problematic to use or develop general descriptions of moral grammar, or at least this is what I am claiming here, even if it is problematic to claim that any such description is always relevant in moral philosophy. We should therefore allow for moral theories in the form of general descriptions of moral grammar as long as we find that these descriptions offer forms of reminders that can be relevant and needed when we address problems in moral philosophy. The last reason for allowing for general description in moral philosophy is that moral language use seems to be, not more complicated than other language use, but more subject to certain forms of distortion. Moral questions and problems are often of a more pressing, practical importance to us than questions concerning meaning and thought, and this means that what we want from our investigation, what we think must be the case, exerts a far more powerful influence in moral philosophy than in other forms of philosophy.³⁰

³⁰ Cf. PI §131 and §101. See also this remark from The Big Typescript: What makes a subject difficult to understand – if it is significant, important – is not that it would take some special instruction about abstruse things to understand it. Rather it is the

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For similar reasons, moral philosophy may also be more exposed to distorting factors such as egoism or wishful thinking as Nussbaum and Kant for example remind us.³¹ The lesson here is that we therefore very often need reminding and elucidation of normative connections inherent in our moral grammars, and that we need such reminders sometimes in the form of general descriptions of grammars aiding our overall orientation and sometimes in the form of particular descriptions directed at particular moral problems. Even so, a defender of moral theory may worry whether the resulting view of moral theories as aimed at grammatical elucidations of particular moral problems leaves any room for the development of moral theory in its own right, as an intellectual endeavour freed from the hurly-burly, the contingencies and demands of actual, moral practice. Some may claim that moral theory is necessary in order to maintain a critical distance to moral practice. An answer to this objection begins with the reminder that moral philosophy, on the view developed here, is an activity that is always driven by particular purposes and shaped by the moral preoccupations of philosophers, which points to an ever-present danger that developing moral theories without a tie to practice will simply result in a blind development of these preoccupations. If we free theory from its tie to moral practice, theory might end up not just distorting the real concerns found in our practice but subjecting these to the contingent concerns of the moral philosopher. Furthermore, we should not get caught in the false dichotomy behind Nussbaum’s plea for traditionally conceived theory: the idea that either we are left with a blind and corruptible unthinking practice or we must direct practice with theory, no matter how crude and simplistic. In fact, we do not face any such choice. Giving up the idea of theories unrelated to practice is not the same as giving up the critical bite of moral philosophy. The view of moral theories as presenting descriptions of moral grammar allows for a form of theory that is intimately related to practice, but is not ruled by ulterior concerns, because its relation to practice is descriptive, which means that it may serve a critical purpose by confronting us with what we say and think, morally. What it is important to remember is that according to this view, moral reflection and critique will always have to involve

contrast between understanding the subject and what most people want to see. Because of this the very things that are most obvious can become the most difficult to understand. What has to be overcome is not a difficulty of the intellect, but of the will. As is frequently the case with work in architecture, work on philosophy is actually closer to working on oneself. On one’s own understanding. On the way one sees things. (And on what one demands of them.) (BT 300, translation amended) ³¹ We will return to this point in section 4.4.

70      an awareness of the purposes that drive our particular descriptions of the grammars of our moral practice. What we have found on this view of moral theories as descriptions of moral grammar is on the one hand that the development of theories is never a neutral activity—we can here take to heart Iris Murdoch’s warning that moral differences may concern, not just ‘differences of choice’, but also ‘differences of vision’ (ibid. 40), and this means that philosophy takes on responsibility for what it is attentive to and what it describes, for the quality of its vision. On the other hand, the tie between moral theories and our actual moral grammars means that we are not in a situation where ‘anything goes’, either in moral theory or in moral practice. In developing theories, philosophers are bound by fidelity to what they find in moral practice; their descriptions must be recognisable as descriptions of actual ways of talking in and of moral life. In moral practice, we can all be challenged by the descriptions of grammar presented in moral theories, because these express the internal logic of the normative concerns we live by.

3.5 The Need for a ‘Perspicuous Overview’ of the Moral In closing, we should address the question of whether descriptive moral theories can aid our moral thinking. One thing to note is that theories on this view are indeed descriptive; they do not discover, explain, or justify moral concerns, they do not teach us anything new (they are in this sense uninformative) and they do not prescribe anything in particular (because we can never exclude the possibility that other possible grammars could be relevant for us). Rather, by describing moral concerns, which we may not be able to explicate and may not even be fully aware of endorsing, they help to make these concerns surveyable. In the same way as the grammar of our language in general is not immediately clear to us, the grammar of our moral lives also presents itself in a way that is both opaque and inscrutable, leaving it open for the danger of misunderstandings based on tainted expectations, mistaken generalisations, or a simple lack of clarity. This unsurveyability of our moral grammar gives rise to several difficulties. The first is that even if we agree to a large extent in our basic moral concerns, for example that universality is a crucial aspect of the moral, we may not fully understand how much weight such concerns carry, how they are relevant or how they are connected. Is the perspective of the universal the only relevant perspective in morality? And if not, when and how is it important? To

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understand and debate such questions, we need to develop descriptions of our moral concerns and of their mutual connections in order to sustain a reflective moral practice. Another difficulty is that we are very likely to overlook or misunderstand some or many of our own central moral concerns, and by reminding us of these, descriptive theories provide us with opportunities to subject them to critical moral scrutiny. One final, but vital point: Before closing this chapter, I want to emphasise that the view of moral theories as elucidations of moral grammars developed here concerns only one part of moral philosophy. Moral philosophy is a wide and expanding discipline that involves many other activities besides developing theories, and this means that even for someone holding the conception of moral theory developed in this chapter, it is still an open question how much time and energy moral philosophers should put into developing such theories and how constructive this kind of work really is. My own view is that these questions cannot be settled in advance; instead, the use and development of moral theories will have to prove itself worthwhile, offering useful elucidations of moral life, in each single case. What I will try to show in the following chapters is instead that, whatever our stand on moral theories, we need a comprehensive and inclusive understanding of moral philosophy as a discipline that involves many different activities besides offering theories. Moral philosophy needs to move beyond the development of theory because of the importance of the particular emphasised by many theory-critics, and in the following chapters, I will therefore turn my attention to a more thorough description of the interaction between the understanding of the general and the particular in moral philosophy—or, to use the vocabulary developed in this chapter, the interaction between the use of general moral grammars and the particularities of our moral problems.




4 Generality and Particularity in Moral Thought Before we enter Part II of this book, on the role of the particularities of moral life in moral philosophy, it might be worthwhile to recapitulate some of the insights gained so far. In Chapter 2, we saw how a main point of criticism raised against the dominant understanding of moral theory is that theories on this understanding cannot address the particularities involved in moral life, our moral vision, specific value commitments, inner lives, and particular contexts. According to theory-critics, we should no longer conceive the activity of moral philosophy as offering theoretically consistent explanatory devices that operate top-down and that through some form of neutral analysis of the moral present arguments for substantive action-guidance or a specific demarcation of the moral domain. Moral philosophy should rather rediscover itself as one practice among others that aims to assist and improve moral life, taking into account the most comprehensive understanding of human life. On such a view, which is what I will explore in the rest of this book, moral philosophy is a reflective practice that critically interrogates our existing moral positions and commitments in various moral contexts. In the previous chapter, I argued that this conception of moral philosophy does not imply that we should give up all notions of moral theory, but rather that we should work to develop an alternative understanding of theories as simple and general but only partially elucidatory descriptions of moral grammars. This means that a moral theory will always have to prove its relevance and its elucidatory power in relation to a particular problem, but also that the development of moral theories makes up only a minor part of the activity of moral philosophy. Theories must be supplemented with other forms of reflective practice, other philosophical tools, and particular descriptions of the philosophical problem under investigation. Furthermore, it is important also to see philosophical criticism as a tool through which we can work to counter intellectualising inclinations and foundationalist aspirations and instead develop a truly engaging form of moral philosophy. In order to explore

Moral Philosophy and Moral Life. Anne-Marie Søndergaard Christensen, Oxford University Press (2021). © Anne-Marie Søndergaard Christensen. DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198866695.003.0004

76      and develop such an understanding of reflective and engaging moral philosophy, we need to acknowledge the importance of the particularities of moral life for moral philosophy, such as the importance of ordinary human forms of life and the wider natural and social coexistence in which individuals humans are situated, especially the interplay between the natural framework of human life and its concrete social and historical forms, and the importance of care for oneself, of self-understanding and selfdevelopment, as central moral activities. The aim is thus to work towards a conception of moral philosophy that considers the situated character of the individual as well as an understanding of the role of self-development within a specific form of social co-existence. In this part of the book, I explore the role of particularities in moral thought and their importance in moral life with the aim of achieving an overview of the form of understanding of these particularities necessary in moral philosophy, and to substantiate the idea, developed in Chapter 3, that moral philosophy is a descriptive activity facing a dual task, both general and particular. The present chapter examines the role of particularities in moral thought, while the question of the wider role of particularities in moral life, especially particularities of the self and of its context, will be treated in chapters 5 and 6. This chapter falls into two parts. The first part is an investigation of the role of general principles in moral thought that will help us to understand how far general descriptions of moral thought (for example in the form of moral theories) can be of help to us in philosophy. The focus of this part is Onora O’Neill’s wholehearted defence of the indispensability of general principles in moral thought and reflection. In the second part of the chapter, I sketch an understanding of moral thought with the purpose of substantiating the claim that moral philosophy will have to involve other tools beside those of moral theories. The last sections investigate whether this qualification of the role of general principles in moral reasoning can be reconciled with the idea that moral considerations are objective, universal, and absolute.

4.1 The Practical Question within an Aristotelian Framework There is an often-quoted sentence, normally ascribed to Groucho Marx but apparently much older, which mocks politicians as immoral by having them say something like: ‘Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them . . .

     


well, I have others.’¹ The joke revolves around the widespread assumption that the morally good person is a principled person, and that it is an easily identifiable form of corruption if a person does not stand by her principles. The sentence is informative for the following investigation because it shows how strongly we associate being principled with being morally competent.² And it shows something about what role we take moral principles to have in morality (or at least one of the roles that we take moral principles to have), namely that of being practical guides in moral thought and action. This is what is sometimes called the practical question; the question of whether and to what extent general principles can be valuable guides in actual moral reasoning.³ This is the question that interests me in the first part of the chapter, but before investigating this, I would like to note some basic assumptions which I take to be more or less indisputable: first, it is widely agreed that general principles cannot alone account for moral deliberation. Even if general principles play a role in coming to the right moral understanding of a situation and thus to the right moral decision, the application of moral principles will always rely on some form of judgement of the particular case at hand. Second, we should also note that general principles sometimes do seem to play an important role in moral deliberation—something which is for example reflected in our initial quote. What I am interested in is whether an account of general principles, for example one offered by general moral theories, is sufficient for an account of moral thought in moral philosophy, and, second, whether general principles play a role in all cases of moral deliberation. The aim of the following is thus to elucidate the role of general principles and particular considerations in moral thought. The framework of the investigation will be a broadly Aristotelian understanding of practical reasoning, according to which excellence in moral thought is considered an activity of phronesis, practical wisdom—even if the following account will differ somewhat from that of Aristotle.⁴ One reason why Aristotle offers an appropriate ¹ I have found one reference presenting the first source as a New Zealand paper dated 18 October 1873 (see but the source of that information cannot be reconstructed, so it is unclear whether the reference is reliable. ² An idea, it must be said, that is much more ingrained in English phrases about the morally praiseworthy person than for example Danish phrases. In English, you can be ‘principled’, ‘a person of principles’, unwilling to ‘violate one’s principles’ etc.; in Danish, there seems to be only one such phrase, namely that a person can be ‘principfast’, steady in her principles, which concerns a specific way of being morally praiseworthy, not moral praiseworthiness as such. ³ This question concerning principles is presented in slightly different versions in McKeever and Ridge (2008) where the authors present it as a question of whether ‘principles may prove genuinely valuable guides’ (2008, 1178). ⁴ For the argument that an Aristotelian understanding of practical reason is by far the most promising approach to practical reasoning, see Wiland 2002.

78      starting point for an investigation of moral thought is that his writings on ethics are motivated, not by the aim to develop a consistent, general, and simple theoretical account of moral thought, but by the practical question of how to live a good, human life. In this spirit, he writes in the Nicomachean Ethics, ‘we are engaging in the investigation not in order to know what virtue is, but in order to become good people’ (Ethics II.ii, 1104a).⁵ It should be noted that even if Aristotle’s description of what is involved in becoming good of course involves a wide range of elements, we will restrict ourselves to the framework of phronesis. Importantly, Aristotle points out that moral thought concerns that which is not ruled by necessary laws and which could be different, that is, the emotions, thoughts, actions, and institutions of human beings. He furthermore warns us that we should never expect more generality and consistency of an inquiry than the field of inquiry allows, and that an investigation of phronesis is an investigation of the practical side of human life, which is a field that seldom allows for more than approximations. Practical questions involve such complexity and variety that the only possible answers ‘show the truth roughly and in outline, and—in an account that concerns things that hold for the most part and is in accord with them—to reach conclusions of the same sort too’ (ibid. I.iii, 1095a). This point also applies to moral thought. Phronesis concerns issues that are tied to particulars and this means that ‘up to what point and to what extent a person’s deviation is blameworthy is not easy to define in an account—nor indeed is anything else among perceptibles, for such things lie in the particulars, and their discernment lies in perception’ (ibid. II.ix, 1109b). If we are competent practical reasoners, we cannot rely solely on general theories or principles, because the judgement of whether something is good or bad depends on an adequate attention to the particular case at hand.⁶ Aristotle’s focus on particulars also means that his Ethics is saturated with considerations particular to his specific background and context, such as the particularities of the culture of the classic Greek city-state, the nature of friendship and of slaves and so on, and it thus involves a number of assumptions that we no longer share or even consider indisputably refuted. This embeddedness in a specific cultural period makes it possible to argue that Aristotle’s Ethics is philosophically flawed in a way that an understanding of morality based on general moral principles would not be, and the most

⁵ The quotes from the Nicomachean Ethics are taken from the translation by C.D.C. Reeve (Aristotle 2013). ⁶ We will return to the question of how to account for this form of attention in section 4.5.

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common response to this is that many or all of Aristotle’s general points may still be true in so far as they can be freed from historically contingent assumptions. However, if we keep in mind that Aristotle writes the Ethics in order to investigate ‘how to become good men’, and that he thinks this requires discernment of particulars, then it also becomes less of a mystery why the Ethics offers us insights into the particularities of his cultural context. The reason is that these particularities are a part of what a competent moral subject at that time needed to know to be able to engage in competent deliberation of moral questions. If one is to hit the mean in friendship, for example, this requires a rather extensive knowledge of the existing practices surrounding friendship in order to be able to perceive the morally relevant features in particular cases. This knowledge is part of what Aristotle provides in the Ethics, and it necessarily takes a specific historical and cultural shape.⁷ A final, important point highlighted by Aristotle is that practical wisdom consists in a dual ability and has a dual aim. On the one hand, it involves the deliberative ability to rationally consider what means we should use to further the realisation of the good in specific situations (in the same way as skills, technē, involve the ability to rationally consider what means we should use to further the realisation of the end of the skill in question). On the other hand, moral reasoning also involves the ability to reflect on whether such means will in fact contribute to the overall aim of living well. Phronesis is in this way concerned both with finding the means to realise good ends and with ongoing reflections about how to understand the general end of living well. This double task of deliberation and reflection of moral thought is one main theme of the chapter, and we will approach it through an investigation of a defence of general principles.

4.2 O’Neill’s Two Arguments for the Indispensability of Principles in Moral Thought The question to which we now turn is whether general principles in some form or other are necessary for sound moral thought. One defender of this position is Onora O’Neill. In her article ‘The Power of Example’, she first launches a frontal attack on a specific branch of Wittgensteinian moral philosophy concerned with the description and discussion of examples found for example ⁷ This is not to deny that some of Aristotle’s views, on women and slaves for example, are just plain wrong.

80      in literature, before she moves on to develop a view of moral reasoning and reflection as necessarily dependent on general principles. What ties her two projects together is O’Neill’s view that if moral thought essentially involves general principles, then moral philosophy must move beyond the description of individual examples in order to do any real work; philosophers should avoid making the same mistake as the Wittgensteinians and think that they can analyse examples of moral thought as if such examples are ‘relatively independent of ethical theory’ (O’Neill 1986, 4). In the critical part of O’Neill’s article, she scrutinises this form of Wittgensteinian moral philosophy as developed in the writings of Peter Winch, focusing on Winch’s idea that all instances of moral reasoning are conditioned by shared moral traditions and practices that cannot themselves be made the object of critical questioning. According to O’Neill, Winch’s view implies that ‘moral reflection practiced among the like-minded will yield a local consensus of views’, while moral reflection exercised outside of areas marked by consensus can ‘lead to no shared conclusions, but to a realization that moral communication has broken down at some points’ (ibid. 14). From this, O’Neill concludes that the Wittgensteinian view leads directly to conservatism and relativism. We should note, however, that O’Neill’s conclusion is tied almost completely to her interpretation of Peter Winch’s view of disagreement in moral philosophy, and this interpretation is controversial, because it reduces Winch’s notion of shared practice to a form of consensus.⁸ Moreover, her critical points do not apply to forms of particularism that allow for moral critique of such practices, a point to which we will return later.⁹ My main concern is with O’Neill’s alternative account of moral thought, as it involves the claim that general moral principles serve a crucial and necessary function in moral thought in at least two respects, both in moral reasoning about what to do and in moral reflection generally.¹⁰ First, O’Neill argues that general principles play an indispensable role in moral reasoning by determining what we ought to do in particular situations. She also accepts the abovementioned qualification that no general principle can apply itself and that attention to and discernment of particular situations are necessary conditions of correct moral judgement. To use O’Neill’s phrase, we have to ‘formulate minor premises appropriate to the situations we actually face’ (ibid. 24). ⁸ For an alternative interpretation of Peter Winch’s view on this point, see Diamond 2013 and the final section of Christensen 2011b. ⁹ For O’Neill’s treatment of other versions of moral particularism, see her Towards Justice and Virtue (1996, chapter 3). For a critical evaluation of this, see Garfield 2000, 179–85. ¹⁰ O’Neill seems to understand moral principles as exception-less and law-like generalisations.

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However, O’Neill also claims that Wittgensteinians such as Winch are blind to what is involved in coming to an understanding of a particular situation, as this is indeed a matter of bringing the situation under the right description in the form of a general principle. Even if the ‘most significant single element in moral deliberation may well be coming to appreciate the actual case in a specific way’, this appreciation consists in understanding the situation ‘as falling under one rather than another set of descriptions and hence judgeable in the light of some rather than other practices or principles’ (ibid.). Even if perception, or ‘appraisal’ as O’Neill labels it, of the particular is necessary, moral evaluations also presuppose knowledge of general principles, and this reveals the importance of such principles for moral thought.¹¹ O’Neill succinctly sums up her point by saying, ‘Principles without appraisals are empty; appraisals without principles are impotent’ (ibid. 29). She thus denies that it is possible to find a case of understanding a situation that is not in this sense a case of subsuming appraisals of the situation under a general moral principle. O’Neill’s second point concerns the very possibility of making reflective moral evaluations and thus the possibility of moral critique. For her, this is a question of what conditions sound and thorough moral appraisals, and we here face the challenge of relativism and conservatism. ‘If we have no way in which to reason over the formulation of descriptions of situations and (proposals for) actions, practical reasoning must remain local’ (ibid. 23), according to O’Neill, because without sustained moral reflection conditioning such appraisals, ‘we can at best run through a set of fixed moral categories [ . . . ] and posit that these provide an adequate basis for (determinant) judgments about actual moral situations’ (ibid. 27).¹² According to O’Neill, the form of reflection that conditions correct judgement in concrete cases also hinges on the introduction of moral principles, as such reflection is a matter of employing a number of reflective strategies that connect different, possible evaluations of situations via ‘a large range of “maxims of practical judgment in general” such as “take account of differences of information” or “listen to the other’s reasons”’ (ibid. 26). Only by employing maxims in the form of general principles can we assure reflective moral reasoning. It is hard to imagine anyone who would not agree that moral deliberation requires a background of moral reflection in order for it not to degenerate into blind reproduction of local moral assumptions. Here O’Neill seems to be ¹¹ O’Neill makes a similar argument that describing always involves bringing a situation under a general principle in 1996, 67–9. ¹² O’Neill’s notion of fixed moral categories echoes Nussbaum’s notion of ‘systems of rules’, see section 2.3.

82      fighting windmills. The real question is how to understand the form of moral reflection that ensures the background conditions of sound moral judgement. O’Neill argues that the only alternatives are either using general principles of reflection or unreflectively running through of ‘a set of fixed moral categories’, but this seems to beg the question, as it leaves unexplored the question of whether there is some form of moral reflection that does not hinge on general principles. Our discussion of O’Neill’s article thus leaves us with two questions: The first question is whether we always draw on principles in judgements of specific moral questions, the second is whether the rationality of moral reasoning depends on a set of general, reflective principles or maxims.

4.3 The Importance of Moral Development for Moral Reasoning In order to elucidate the first question of the role of general principles in moral thought, we turn to the description of moral reasoning developed in contemporary Aristotelian views of virtue ethics; these views that focus on how moral reasoning guides the virtues may help us to answer the practical question of what guides a person in actual instances of moral reasoning. As one virtue ethicist phrases it, Aristotelian virtue ethics focuses ‘primarily on the nature and development of a virtuous character, including the specific intellectual capacity (the practical wisdom or intelligence [ . . . ]) which gives us the ability to reliably appreciate the morally relevant features of the situation that are present in our particular circumstances’ (Svensson 2011, 133). In line with the view taken here, this view of practical reason also allows that general principles can play a role in moral deliberation—what we need to examine is whether it also allows for cases in which general principles play no such role. We find one answer to this question in the account of practical reason developed by Julia Annas, whose guiding idea is that the form of practical reasoning involved in the exercise of the virtues is in some important respects analogous to practical skills. If a person is to acquire either skills or virtues, she needs more than good habits or dispositions, namely appropriate and reasoned responses to particular situations, which means that in either case ‘[t]he practical mastery is at the service of conscious thought, not at odds with it’ (Annas 2011, 14). To get a grasp of the conditions of such forms of reasoned response, Annas suggests that we look at the parallels between learning a skill

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and developing practical reason.¹³ The first parallel is that in both cases there is a ‘something’, a rationally grounded set of techniques and practices, that is to be learnt and that can be only approximately and not fully expressed in general principles, in the case of both skills and moral reasoning. Instruction should therefore take the form of ‘learning by doing’ where the learner is brought to act in accordance with certain techniques and evaluations, even if she at first does not understand the importance of acting in this way, and the instruction should ideally be led by instructors whom the learner acknowledges as competent role models with regard to moral reasoning or to the skill in question. The second parallel is that the general approximations as well as the training received only serve to direct the learner towards coming to master a skill or moral reasoning. The aim is not simply successful imitation, but rather facilitating a true form of understanding in the learner, and this aim is made possible by the third similarity between skills and moral reasoning, the existence of a relevant form of expertise. With regard to both skills and practical reasoning, we can identify individuals who are capable of more than simply acting correctly, who can also make the reasons for their actions explicit, identify exceptions to ordinary cases etc. According to Annas, the criterion of expertise in a specific skill or in moral reasoning is not that the expert should be able to give a complete and explicit account of her whole area of expertise, but rather that she is able to account for her reasoning in particular instances, with regard to particular choices and actions.¹⁴ The difference between the understanding of expertise in moral reasoning given here and the one rejected in Chapter 2 is that expertise on the virtue-ethical understanding cannot be formulated in general principles and does not result in judgements that are transferable to other people, as these judgements are completely dependent on the reasoned response of the expert. This means that a skilled moral reasoner does not acquire the authority to decide moral issues in which she is not involved, because she will then lack a nuanced and in-depth understanding of what is really at issue. Even in cases where she has such an understanding, her judgement is not ‘transferable’ to another person, not just because the other person’s moral commitments may be different, but also because that person will have to come to a decision for

¹³ The following relies on Annas 2011, chapter 3. ¹⁴ Annas says that being an expert requires ‘some degree of articulacy’ (2011, 19) and that ‘the skilled person can “give an account” of what he does, which involves being able to explain why he is doing what he is doing’ (ibid. 20). In Annas 2003, she does however seem to require a higher degree of articulation on behalf of the expert, when she writes, ‘an expert is able to articulate her understanding of her subject, able to “give an account” of it, logon didonai, in the ancient way of looking at it’ (2003, 18).

84      which she herself can take moral responsibility.¹⁵ The role of the expert cannot be that of decision-making for others, but rather that of teacher and role model for other aspiring moral reasoners. This leads us to the final parallel between skills and moral reasoning, which is that in both cases learning is dependent on the learner having two basic forms of motivation. The first is a drive to learn and come to her own understanding of the form of reasoning at play. The second is an aspiration for understanding, self-direction, and improvement, which ‘leads the learner to strive to improve, to do what he is doing better rather than taking it over by rote from the teacher’ (Annas 2011, 18). A learner that is not motivated in these ways is simply not attempting to learn, but just reproducing certain actions. The question of why we can be motivated in these ways is, according to Annas, not one we can answer; it is rather a point to be noted about the kind of creatures that we are. We find this point already in the writings of Aristotle, when he notes how ‘[a]ll people seek, not the way of their ancestors, but the good’ (quoted from Nussbaum 1996, 28).¹⁶ This also implies that the acquirement of moral reasoning is a developmental process without a final endpoint; we continually need to develop as we are confronted with new moral questions and challenges.¹⁷ To become a competent moral reasoner is a matter of engaging in an ongoing process of ‘moral formation’, in Sabina Lovibond’s apt phrasing.¹⁸ The question is what role general principles play on this understanding of the learning and exercise of moral reasoning, and Annas explicitly supports the idea that rules are crucial for its development. When we begin our process of learning, we are presented with a number of general principles or rules such as basic virtue rules or ‘the v-rules’ (‘Be honest’, ‘Be generous’ and ‘Be courageous’ etc.).¹⁹ Learning rules helps us identify particular features of situations that are frequently important in moral reasoning, but when we develop reasoned responses to situations, we acquire an ability to judge which considerations are available in a particular case, and which are the most salient, independently of the use of rules, and this ability cannot be accounted for in terms of general principles.²⁰ That is, general principles

¹⁵ See the discussion in section 2.5, Hertzberg 2002 and the discussion of personal moral commitments in Chapter 5. ¹⁶ An alternative translation says: ‘Generally, of course, it is the good, and not simply the traditional, that is aimed at’ (Politics, Aristotle 1981, 138, 1269a3–4). ¹⁷ See also Annas 2011, 36–9. ¹⁸ See Lovibond 2002. ¹⁹ Annas takes the idea of the v-rules from Hursthouse, see 1999, chapter 2. ²⁰ This is also a central point in the influential account of skills developed by Dreyfus and Dreyfus, see e.g. 1985.

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support our moral development, but they cannot account for either the ability of moral reasoning or the outcome of this ability in the form of moral judgement.

4.4 The Role of Discernment—Moral Reasoning Continued The skill analogy highlights how moral reasoning is an ability to make reasoned decisions in light of a general understanding of a set of moral concerns and an ability to discern and act on morally relevant features of situations.²¹ The insight that moral reasoning is dependent on the responses of the reasoner and her attention towards and perception of morally relevant features of situations is central to the accounts of moral reasoning provided by neo-Aristotelian virtue ethicists and to the view of practical reasoning defended here, and in the following we will introduce the most important elements that go into moral attention. One thing we should note is that the emphasis on the importance of moral perception and attention to the particular is indeed an emphasis on the role of experience in moral reasoning. If we think that there are such activities as reasoning and judgement with regard to moral matters, we have to account for how these relate to experience, that is: ‘If we are to take these marks of objectivity seriously—if we are to explore our assumption that at least some of our ethical judgments legitimately aspire to getting matters right—then we must take our ethical judgments to be responsive to experience’ (Misak 2008, 621). The difficult and genuine challenge is to give an adequate description of the role that experience plays in the moral case. In contemporary debates, the role of attention for moral reasoning is often presented as importantly similar to the role of (especially visual) perception for perceptual knowledge, for example in this presentation of particularism: ²¹ The question of how to account for the binding moral character of our understanding of certain features of situations is difficult and a matter of real disagreement among neo-Aristotelian virtue ethicists. Some will argue that it is an ability which is conditioned by the development of practical reason together with good traits of character or virtues. In Bridget Clarke’s words, moral deliberation and discernment will on this view ‘require something in the way of character for their successful application’ (Clarke 2012, 230). On a different view, the ability to act on the right reasons is a purely cognitive ability to understand the moral features of the world, as exemplified in McDowell’s understanding of the unity of the virtues and practical reason as one’s ability ‘to recognize requirements that situations impose on one’s behaviour’ (1979, 53, see also Christensen 2009). Annas’ stance with regard to this question is not completely clear. She identifies practical wisdom as ‘the virtue we need for coping with the complexities of decision and action in varying and complicated situations’ (Annas 2011, 98), but she does not seem to address the question whether this coping consists solely in a reasoned ability or also requires particular independent dispositions of feeling and motivation.

86      According to an important line of argument for particularism, moral knowledge is analogous to perceptual knowledge [ . . . ]. In the perceptual case, moreover, principles are neither used nor even presupposed. We can know that a canary is yellow without deploying any principles that specify in non-chromatic terms when an object is yellow. [ . . . ] If moral knowledge is acquired in a way akin to perception, then perhaps principles are equally unnecessary to moral knowledge. (McKeever & Ridge 2008, 1188)²²

The analogy between perceptual and moral knowledge is important because it reminds us how some forms of knowledge—of colours for example—are acquired without the involvement of general principles. However, we should be careful not to take this analogy at face value, because it may in many respects be deeply misleading. The analogy should not be taken to imply that the acquisition of moral knowledge only depends on adequate observation of relevant moral phenomena, on us using our already available abilities of sense perception. For then the analogy could not account for the fact that there is a much higher degree of diversity in our perception of moral phenomena than of colours. This diversity stems from two differences between perception of colour and moral perception. The first is that seeing value is different from seeing colour because it involves an active element. No matter how inattentive or indifferent I am, I cannot help seeing a red patch if it is right in front of me, but this is not so in the case of value. If I do not pay attention and do not care, I may for example easily overlook the pain that I am causing another person.²³ The second difference is that moral perception is conditioned by the development of a number of abilities of attention and discernment. In contrast to colours, morally relevant features of situations are not something that we can always simply ‘see’ in any straightforward sense; this form of perception requires that we develop certain abilities crucial to our development into competent moral reasoners. We find a description of this form of attention in John McDowell’s writings on the virtues. He reworks Aristotle’s practical syllogism in order to explicate how the attempt to figure out what to do always involves two elements: a general and comprehensive understanding of the good way of living embodied in Aristotle’s notion of eudaimonia, and attention to the particular situation at hand. One important feature of McDowell’s view is that both the general and

²² See also e.g. Lance & Little 2006, 577–8. ²³ See also the discussion of this issue in De Mesel 2016b.

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the particular element are essentially uncodifiable.²⁴ The knowledge involved in the first element, our total knowledge about the good life (what McDowell sometimes calls our ‘moral outlook’²⁵), is so complex and diverse that it resists codification and systematisation into general moral principles. The knowledge involved in the second element, arising from an adequate form of attention towards the situation aimed at identifying the morally relevant features of the situation, is so contextually determined that it cannot be accounted for by such principles either. Moreover, McDowell claims that the question of what reason is to be decisive in moral reasoning can only be settled by this form of attention. The experience necessary to make adequate moral judgements thus depends on both a background of a comprehensive understanding of the good life and the outcome of a complex set of skills of attention and discernment. None of these elements are at play in cases of colour perception, and thus it may be more appropriate to call the form of experience necessary for moral reasoning a form of attention rather than a form of perception.²⁶ In trying to account for moral attention, we should of course heed the threat of relativism and conservatism as well as possible dangers of blindly adopting corrupt elements of our upbringing, as O’Neill points out, but we should also be concerned with issues of adequacy, fullness, and precision in discernment. Margaret Urban Walker brings out this point nicely: It is not as if our perceiving and registering morally significant features of our circumstances were a straightforward matter once certain distorting factors have been controlled, the way, for example, accurate color perception is, for the most part, with normal perceivers. [ . . . ] Even if one is acutely aware of how not to look, accurate ‘seeing’ is not thereby a matter of course. Marking common impediments, distractions and aberrations in moral appreciation doesn’t itself illuminate the positive capacities, techniques and processes that can make available what we morally need to know. (Walker 2003, 47)²⁷

²⁴ See also section 2.2 and McDowell 1979. McDowell’s view of uncodifiability has been criticised for not being specifically about moral understanding, but instead being a ‘general one about all conceptual competence’ (McKeever and Ridge 2008, 1183). This is, however, to misconstrue McDowell’s view, at least as it is presented in his classic article ‘Virtue and Reason’ (1979). McDowell is ascribing uncodifiability not just to singular concepts such as that of ‘right’ or ‘generous’, but to the general competence of moral reasoning as this involves our uncodifiable and normative knowledge of the good life or eudaimonia. ²⁵ The idea of a moral outlook is central to most of McDowell’s writings on ethics. For a short discussion of this notion, see Baz 2008, 636. ²⁶ Annas takes over this point from McDowell, see e.g. 2011, 33. ²⁷ This is also a central point in the work of Nussbaum (see e.g. 1990) and Cora Diamond (see e.g. 1996, 2009).

88      Adequate moral attention requires not just that we exercise our attention meticulously and responsibly, striving for an undistorted and unbiased view of the world. It also involves ‘the exercise of many complex, learned, and indefinitely improvable skills of attention, communication, and interpretation’ (ibid.). Walker further argues that this insight should be followed by the insight that we need a set of criteria for such attention that helps us ‘put primary emphasis on adequacy, that is, fullness and precision of appreciation within the (often narrow) limits our situation establish’ (ibid. 48). We should be attentive to the dangers involved, not just in reasoning from a wrong view of the facts, but also in reasoning from a view that is not good enough, because it is crude, narrow-minded or lacks nuance or depth. Of course, it is a moral failure if you fail to inquire into your close colleague’s recent absence and fail to discover that it is caused by his newly diagnosed chronic illness, that is, if you get the basic facts of the situation wrong. It is, however, also a form of moral failure if you fail to pay attention to the way his illness affects him, to his reactions, state of mind, his hopes and fears, and you therefore offer him help or consolation in a way that appears condescending or impatient (even if this last form of failure may arguably be lesser than the first). If this seems to set a very high standard for moral attention, we need to remember that the best way to meet this standard is to work to develop a set of skills and capacities that will generally enable us to achieve ‘adequacy, fullness and precision of appreciation’. Iris Murdoch has made a valuable contribution to our understanding of this form of discernment.²⁸ She implores us to consider ‘positive and radical moral conceptions which are unconnected with the view that morality is essentially universal rules’, and instead ‘emphasise the inexhaustible detail of the world, the endlessness of the task of understanding, the importance of not assuming that one has got individuals and situations “taped”, the connection of knowledge with love and of spiritual insight with apprehension of the unique’ (Murdoch 1956, 46).²⁹ On her view, moral discernment depends on all the complicated abilities involved in our everyday forms of understanding, of such complicated matters as the inner lives of human beings, of our emotions, relationships, and reactions. This also requires relevant and varied forms of experiences of human life, because, as Walker notes, these phenomena ‘have a grammar grounded in human experiences and possibilities; certain forms of ²⁸ The question of whether Murdoch’s moral philosophy is a form of virtue ethics is controversial. Clarke 2012 reads her work as a form of virtue ethics, while Blum (e.g. 2012, 319) and Antonaccio (e.g. 2012, 157) have reservations about this interpretation. ²⁹ See also Diamond’s extensive discussion of this quote in 2010.

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literacy are required in reading and understanding attachment and commitment, loss and continuation’ (Walker 2003, 43). Murdoch also wants to remind us that such an understanding of the morally relevant features of reality is not easily achievable, and that it is often subject to certain forms of blindness and distortion. We ‘do not necessarily see what confronts us’, Murdoch warns us, because our ‘minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, usually self-occupied, often falsifying veil which partially conceals that world’ (Murdoch 2001, 82).³⁰ An accurate understanding of moral life is not a neutral matter; it rather depends on us continuously countering our egoistic tendencies to wishful thinking as well as our selfserving and one-sided attention to reality. Moreover, it would be a mistake to think that we first draw on relevant abilities of attention in order to come to a purely descriptive understanding of life, which we then evaluate in moral reasoning.³¹ Instead, Murdoch wants us to see how an understanding of a particular situation or question is always already moral as it is placed within a moral understanding of our lives.³² As she writes in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, ‘It seems to me that one cannot “philosophise” adequately upon the subject unless one takes it as fundamental that consciousness is a moral activity: what we attend to, how we attend, whether we attend’ (1992, 167), adding some pages later: ‘To attend is to care’ (ibid. 179). The description of reality is itself a moral matter. As Cora Diamond puts it, in moral matters ‘describing the situation is frequently itself part of the problem’ (2002: 239). When we are thinking about or discussing a moral question ‘moral thinking goes on in what one takes to be the facts of the case, how one comes to see them and describe them’ (1985, 310), and in this way, ‘the description or appreciation of facts is itself a moral task’ (1983, 377). For moral reasoning to be successful, we need a comprehensive understanding of the good life of human beings, as stressed by Aristotle and McDowell, and abilities for finely tuned and in-depth discernment, allowing for a comprehensive and full awareness of the world, not distorted by prejudice, selfishness or too narrow a focus on particular elements, as emphasised by Walker ³⁰ This distortion is often a result of the influence on our moral vision of our ‘fat, relentless ego’ (Murdoch 2001, 51). We also touched upon this point at the end of section 3. ³¹ Murdoch is explicitly critical of the attempt to separate fact and value in moral philosophy and sees this attempt as in itself the promotion of a particular moral view of the world, see Murdoch 1956 and Murdoch 1992, chapter 2. For an argument that moral philosophers also operate within a view of the world that is already moral, see sections 2.1, 3.1 and Chapter 8. ³² This is a guiding idea in Murdoch 1992, and it is related to McDowell’s notion of a moral outlook presented above, but where this notion concerns a moral perspective generally shared by a group of people, Murdoch seems to be concerned with our individual perspectives, with an idea akin to that of a moral ‘position’ that will be explored further in Chapter 5.

90      and Murdoch. Adding to this list, moral reasoning also involves a substantial use of imagination, serving to explore different ways of living and thinking in moral life. In Murdoch’s words, ‘morality is imaginative and creative and not limited to duties of special obligation’ (1956, 46). Here, imagination should not be confused with fantasy, because where fantasy aims to please us, imagination is directed at the world—in this way the two are opposed.³³ Imagination is crucial in moral thinking, because it is part of what sets up the framework for our understanding of the moral problems that we encounter. ‘When we settle down to be “thoroughly rational” about a situation, we have already, reflectively or unreflectively, imagined it in a certain way’ (1992, 314). Imagination is also what allows us to investigate how possible decisions and actions would affect the people involved in a particular decision, it can help us consider the most likely effects of the various interventions (or noninterventions) available to us. ‘What will happen if . . . ?’ is a question that we can only try to answer through the use of imagination. As K.E. Løgstrup notes, ‘in order to become clear about what will best serve the other person we must use imagination quite as much as calculation’ (Løgstrup 1997, 119).³⁴ To this, Hannah Arendt adds: Imagination alone enables us to see things in their proper perspective, to put that which is too close at a certain distance so that we can see and understand it without bias and prejudice, to bridge abysses of remoteness until we can see and understand everything that is too far from us as though it were our own affair. This ‘distancing’ of some things and bridging of the abysses to others is part of the dialogue of understanding for whose purposes direct experience establishes too close a contact and mere knowledge erects artificial barriers. (Arendt 1953, 392)

What Arendt highlights is that some moral concerns are too close (usually because they concern ourselves and those we love), while others are too distant (a distance usually growing with the distance to our own interest) for us to

³³ In Murdoch’s words, we need ‘a distinction between egoistic fantasy and liberated truth-seeking creative imagination [ . . . between] two active faculties, one mechanically generating narrowly banal false pictures (the ego as all-powerful), and the other freely and creatively exploring the world, moving toward the expression and elucidation (and in art celebration) of what is true and deep’ (1992, 321). ³⁴ On the importance of imagination for moral reasoning see also Diamond 1983, 1985, 1991b, 2003, Nussbaum 1995, 1998b, 2001 and Moyal-Sharrock 2012. For this point as applied in professional life, see e.g. Clark 2007.

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judge them properly, and imagination can help us even out these unwarranted differences in distance.³⁵ These reminders of the many skills involved in moral reasoning indicate that the role of general principles is primarily that of aiding us in the early stages of moral formation when we are struggling to become attentive to the morally relevant features of situations and reach a balanced judgement about what to do. This is similar to the way that moral theories understood as general descriptions of moral grammars can help us become attentive to various aspects of moral life in general and provide an initial overview of actual moral problems in particular.³⁶ However, the fact that general principles mainly do preparatory work in relation to moral reasoning implies that in situations where our understanding is sound and our powers of attention and discernment are fully developed, the guidance of principles (at least in many cases) falls away as irrelevant. When we have learnt and internalised what we ought to learn from a principle, we will often have no need to involve it in our subsequent reasoning, because, at this stage, we have also learnt the exceptions to the principle and the ways in which it can be overruled. The understanding of competent moral reasoners has surpassed that expressed by principles, and they will in many cases have little use for principles (even if they may at times encounter cases where they face doubts or need to remind others or themselves of a specific moral consideration), as true competency in such reasoning is marked by an experienced and holistic judgement of particular cases.³⁷

4.5 Generality and Particularity in Moral Reflection If we sum up the insights of the previous two sections, we have found that O’Neill is wrong to claim that all cases of moral understanding are a matter of subsuming our appraisal of a specific situation under a general moral principle. This understanding may involve general principles, but it may also consist in an understanding arising from our powers of attention and

³⁵ For Murdoch, an important aid in this struggle is (good) art, because it shows us the reality of living different lives from different moral perspectives: ‘I think that most great writers have a sort of calm, merciful vision because they can see how different people are and why they are different. Tolerance is connected with being able to imagine centres of reality which are remote from oneself ’ (Murdoch 1978, 29). ³⁶ This view is similar to the view of philosophy introduced in Chapter 1. As noted there, it has some affinities to Murdoch’s understanding of philosophy, see also the discussion in section 8.3. ³⁷ We will return to this point in our discussion of Løgstrup’s ethical demand in section 4.9.

92      imagination, our experience, and all the many other resources that may be at play in our understanding of a good life. This means that we can settle O’Neill’s first question by pointing to the possibility of instances of moral reasoning that do not in any way involve general principles. This leads us to O’Neill’s second question of whether general moral principles, or in O’Neill’s terminology ‘maxims of practical judgment in general’, are necessary in order to secure the soundness and coherence of moral reflection. If moral reasoning really is to amount to a form of reasoning, it will of course have to display some form of coherence, as this is the condition of our ability for example to reproduce earlier judgments and lines of reasoning. However, coherence can be established in many ways, and the form of coherence needed in moral reasoning may be rather different from that of theoretical consistency between general principles. Of course, moral reflection aims to establish a coherent understanding of moral life, but this is a practical, not a theoretical endeavour, and it is guided by concerns quite different from those of formal consistency. David Bakhurst argues that what we need in moral reasoning is not coherence between a principled theory of the good and judgements in particular cases. It is rather a matter of the (internal) coherence of descriptions of particular cases, and the coherence of these descriptions with each other and with a developing vision of what constitutes a life well lived, a life the character of which is manifest in and through apt judgements in particular cases, though much else besides. [ . . . ] It is a matter of what kind of lives can coherently be lived. (Bakhurst 2000, 175)

We require of sound and reflective moral reasoning that it arises from a coherent understanding of how to live to which the person in question is implicitly or explicitly committed.³⁸ It is however important not to confuse the criteria for consistency with those of coherence. Where consistency requires generalisation and complete uniformity, coherence can allow for gradations and context-dependence, and moral reasoning can involve descriptions,

³⁸ This demand for coherence in one’s understanding in life is related to a central point in Kierkegaard’s Either/Or that for a person’s pursuits and activities to have meaning that person’s ‘life must have continuity’ (Kierkegaard 1843, 195). The additional point offered by Kierkegaard is here that coherence or continuity requires that the person in question accepts herself as the actual and given starting point of any moral choice or action, that is: ‘The person that chooses himself ethically has himself as his task, not as a possibility, not as a plaything for the play of his arbitrariness. Ethically he can choose himself only if he chooses himself in continuity, and then he has himself as a multiply defined task’ (ibid. 258).

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narratives, metaphors, exemplary experiences, and so on, as that which establishes the coherence of a view of life. The criteria for sound moral reflection are not formal or theoretical, but rather themselves moral, and standards not just of the coherence but also of the sensitivity and conscientiousness of the judgements which flow from this form of reflection. Moreover, as these criteria concern a person’s ‘understanding of how to live a moral life’, they also allow for considerable individual variety with regard to what is given weight in moral reflection—an issue that we will consider in the next chapter.³⁹ The answer to O’Neill’s second question of whether general principles are necessary in order for moral reflection to ensure sound deliberating thus parallels the answer to O’Neill’s first question. Often, ‘maxims of practical judgment in general’ will be just what we need in order to reflect on the background understanding of moral life and to critically investigate the assumptions (and the experiences, stories, models, pictures etc.) that make up this understanding. However, many deficiencies in our moral background understanding do not arise because we fail to adhere to general principles of reflection, but rather because our understanding of our shared moral lives is limited or morally impoverished. In such cases, it seems fair to assume that what we need are forms of moral reflection very different from those offered by a set of general principles. If a person comes to see that she lacks a more indepth or more comprehensive or more nuanced understanding of some aspect of moral life, then opening herself up to dialogue with other people, learning about different circumstances of life or reading a novel about people with lives different from her own will often be good and fitting ways to go about improving her moral reflection. In moral reflection, as in moral reasoning, general principles may be important, but they are not always necessary. This leads us back to O’Neill’s initial objection against forms of moral philosophy concerned with the particulars of moral life, namely that they will inevitably come to embrace forms of relativism and conservatism, because the lack of independent principles with which to check moral deliberation unavoidably means that such reasoning must be tied to and even determined by its context.⁴⁰ Julia Annas has considered the question whether critical reflection that does not involve the use of general principles will necessarily ³⁹ For the question of what this means for the assessment of moral judgements, see especially section 5.5. ⁴⁰ Related forms of criticism directed at McDowell’s position are raised in Blackburn 1981 and Wallace 1991. These criticisms are discussed—with reference to the position of Murdoch—in Clarke 2012, 233–9.

94      collapse into a reproduction of the assumptions and practices of the community from which it arises. She fully embraces the idea that becoming a practical reasoner is indeed a matter of becoming a member of a particular community, but according to her, the relevant community is not just that of a particular culture or society, it is also that of a wider community of practical reasoners. If we consider the example of someone who acquires the virtue of courage, we will see that this of course also includes the ability to reason correctly about when and how to be brave. According to Annas: It is useful to think of this in terms of becoming a member of a community. People becoming brave will share certain reasons, feelings, and attitudes in a way that renders them distinctive, and can be thought of as forming a community of the brave. This is not the obvious kind of community that is formed by family, friends, and the like. It is [ . . . ] one made up by people with whom what you share is not physical space, but rather common concerns and ideals. (Annas 2011, 54–5)

By entering the community of the brave, we become able to engage in critical reflection, because we develop abilities to detach ourselves from the communities originally responsible for our education. This process of detachment is not a purely individual achievement, because it depends on the communal achievement of establishing a moral practice in which we can participate and interact with other competent practical reasoners (such as in the community of the brave). As Annas notes, ‘We can think of a progressive enlargement of understanding as a progressive enlargement of the shared community’ (ibid. 56). In this way, acquiring practical reason provides us with the possibility to engage in a critical and reflective investigation of the actual communities of which we are a part. Of course, on this view, the exercise of practical reasoning faces various obstacles because we need to overcome, not only our own moral and rational limitations, but also the limitations inherent in our original and moral communities. That is, even if this view does not imply that moral reflection is determined by its background, it does imply that the completely unimpeded exercise of practical reasoning is an unattainable, or rather illusory, ideal. Our moral reasoning is indebted to and enabled by our participation in moral communities, and even if we must strive to overcome the historical and cultural limitations of this community, it is an illusion to think that we can completely suspend or overcome our participation in any form of community. We will return to this question when we investigate

     


examples of restrictions of community and context in Chapter 6, but for now, we note that the possibility of entering into the community of moral reasoners means that even if particular practices play a role in acquiring the ability to engage in such reasoning, this fact does not make critical reflection without the use of general principles impossible, and it does not mean that the view of moral reasoning presented here collapses into forms of relativism or conservativism. This view of moral reasoning and reflection has some implications for the activity of moral philosophy. If moral reasoning involves general as well as particular elements, then a philosophical description of morality must consider both elements; it has to clarify on the one hand the general principles that may be involved in moral reasoning and on the other all the other, more particular factors crucial to such reasoning. I presented this view of a dual aim of moral philosophy, of clarifying the general as well as the particular, both in the introduction and in connection with the view of moral theories developed in the previous chapter. What I now hope to have shown is that this duality pervades the whole of moral philosophy. Moreover, the view of moral reasoning as dependent on an extensive set of abilities of discernment and an experienced understanding of human life also places a demand on the moral philosopher herself. Problems in moral philosophy are not immediately clear, they need to be clarified through attentive description, and this requires of the philosopher that she develop the abilities necessary to engage in such description and clarification. The requirements facing someone who aspires to be a competent moral reasoner also face the moral philosopher trying to describe such reasoning.⁴¹

4.6 Particularity and Moral Objectivity The two last questions to be addressed in this chapter are the questions of whether it is possible, on the view developed here in which moral thought is largely dependent on an uncodifiable understanding of the good life and acquired skills of discernment and judgement, to ascribe any form of objectivity and universality to moral thought. These questions appear pertinent because the objectivity and the universality of moral thought are often explained with reference to general principles, and as I reject a fundamental role for such principles in moral thought, I face the choice either to give up ⁴¹ We will return to this question in Chapter 8.

96      morality’s claims to objectivity and universality or offer alternative ways to account for these claims. I will adopt the last strategy for two reasons. The first is that any ordinary understanding of moral life includes an understanding of the moral as aspiring to both objectivity and universality, a fact that should be acknowledged on a descriptive approach to the moral such as the one developed here. That is, if view of moral thought presented here cannot allow for objectivity and universality, then this view will have to change. The second reason for the chosen strategy is that it offers an opportunity to challenge the assumption that all viable understandings of objectivity and universality necessarily involve a reference to general principles. Thus, in this section I explore the possibility of finding an alternative understanding of objectivity, before turning in the next to the question of universality. What we are looking for is an understanding of moral objectivity that does not revolve around a reference to general moral principles, and that assigns central roles to forms of attention, reasoning, and judgment dependent on developed skills of reasoned responses to situations in moral thought. This view of objectivity is hard to reconcile with one dominant view of objectivity in contemporary moral philosophy, according to which objectivity is the absence of any reference to particular human abilities and perspectives.⁴² A prominent critic of this understanding of objectivity is John McDowell, who draws on Wittgenstein’s rule-following considerations to argue that all forms of language use and thus all forms of judgement depend on our ‘sharing routes of interests and feeling’ (McDowell 1981, 149), and ultimately, on our sharing a human form of life.⁴³ What Wittgenstein shows is that any ideal of objectivity that is unrelated to our common life form is in fact illusory, and we therefore cannot see dependence on specific human responses and abilities as a threat to objectivity in itself. Moreover, if we fail to realise this and hold on to an overly demanding and indeed empty conception of objectivity, this will indeed block our understanding of the role of objectivity in moral life, McDowell warns us.⁴⁴ In Beyond Moral Judgement (2007), Alice Crary builds on the idea that we find it difficult to account for moral objectivity because we assume that an objective understanding of reality must be established independently of a specific human point of view, and if we accept this assumption, then we can only allow for objectivity in moral judgements that feature concepts that track

⁴² Two classic references for this view are Nagel 1986 (denoting this view of objectivity the ‘view from nowhere’) and Williams 1985 (calling it ‘the absolute conception of the world’). ⁴³ McDowell also ascribes this point to Cavell. ⁴⁴ See e.g. McDowell 1981 and 1996b.

     


moral reality completely independent of anything distinctly human. What we have to realise, according to Crary, is that this philosophical view of objectivity, which excludes all forms of subjective responses from the objective realm, conflicts with our ordinary understanding of objectivity. It is true that we normally consider certain claims non-objective when they involve concepts that depend on subjective responses that cannot be rationally negotiated among a number of subjects and thus only express the standing of one particular individual. In contrast, claims involving concepts that draw on shared human responses, such as red or courageous, can indeed be rationally discussed, and they are therefore considered objective in a straightforward sense.⁴⁵ That is, in ordinary language we allow for an alternative, wider conception of objectivity that includes certain forms of subjective responses, namely those that can be the subject of reasoned agreement and disagreement. To unfold this conception of objectivity, Crary draws on the Wittgensteinian insight ‘that our concepts, far from being instruments for picking out contents that are independently available [ . . . ] are resources for thinking about aspects of the world to which our eyes are only open insofar as we develop certain practical sensitivities’ (Crary 2007a, 25). Concepts do not track properties in the world which are understandable independently of anything specifically human, instead they enable us to see aspects of the world which reveal themselves as important to us because of our participation in human practices that in turn depend upon specific human abilities such as that of practical reason and developed emotional responses. To borrow a remark from Raimond Gaita, an objective judgment ‘is not one which is uninformed by feeling, but one which is which is undistorted by feeling’ (Gaita 2002, 89). We therefore need to give up the idea that we even have access to a conception of the world as given independent of anything distinctively human. Any understanding of the world draws on certain forms of subjective response, and the standard, narrow conception of objectivity is in this sense an unsustainable or rather illusory ideal of objectivity.⁴⁶ The critique of the narrow conception of objectivity is general, but it has specific consequences for our view of moral reasoning. If mastery of moral

⁴⁵ Crary argues that the difference between these two groups of claims is that they involve problematically and merely subjective properties respectively, see 2007a, 15–16. ⁴⁶ This allows for the possibility that the narrow view of objectivity may be sustainable within limited and well-defined practices for example those found within modern science as suggested e.g. in Williams 1978. Crary develops and expands her critique of the narrow conception of objectivity and her arguments for a wider conception in Crary 2016.

98      concepts and the use of these in particular situations necessarily involves acquired abilities, then we cannot achieve a neutral or scientific reconstruction of such uses. On the contrary, we can only understand the use of a moral concept if we develop the sensibilities necessary to register its importance and the differences and similarities between its many varied uses. A wider conception of objectivity thus allows us to see how moral concepts trace objective, consistent patterns, not within a set of ‘neutral facts’, but within the moral outlook where these concepts play a role, and to see how, in Crary’s words, ‘projecting a moral concept is a matter of discerning regularities in, as we might put it, a vision of the world that is itself already moral’ (Crary 2007a, 38). Furthermore, Crary argues that this conclusion holds, not just for moral concepts, but also for other concepts that we use in talking about moral matters, which means that we cannot restrict moral significance to judgements involving a certain class of concepts. What Crary shows us is that the intelligibility of our use of a wide range of concepts essentially involves a reference to our moral outlook, which means that our uses of such concepts are themselves moral because they depend upon and deploy the moral outlook that makes their use intelligible. Relatedly, Cora Diamond points out how description is not exclusively and maybe not even primarily tied to classification, both because ‘the capacity to use a descriptive term is a capacity to participate in the life from which that word comes’, and because ‘what it is to describe is many different kinds of activity’ (Diamond 1988, 267). This means that ‘grasping a concept [ . . . ] is not a matter just of knowing how to group things under that concept; it is being able to participate in life-with-the-concept. What kinds of descriptive concepts there are is a matter of the different shapes life-with-a-concept can have’ (ibid. 266). The forms of discernment and description necessary in moral reasoning are not simply a matter of mastering a range of evaluative classifications, as assumed by Onora O’Neill, but are rather tied to the task of finding out what ‘one takes to be the facts of the case, how one comes to see them or describe them’, it is a task that involves ‘the work of moral imagination’, in some cases even ‘a significant moral doing’ (Diamond 1985, 310 and 311). The activity of discernment and description of what is involved in a particular situation is (as we have already noted) not morally neutral, but is itself a moral task, since the concepts we use only have meaning because they are embedded in what we can call life-with-those-concepts, and, in the moral case, in a particular moral outlook on the world. What the investigations of Crary and Diamond show is that this is no impediment to the objectivity of moral reasoning.

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4.7 The Question of Moral Universality Having shown how to make a place for the notion of moral objectivity within a description of moral thought that essentially involves discernment of particulars, we need to consider whether such thought can yield judgements with a claim to universality. On the face of it, this may seem rather unlikely. However, K.E. Løgstrup includes the possibility of claims to universality in his particularist understanding of moral reasoning. To investigate how, we begin by reviewing two related ideas in Løgstrup’s moral thinking, the idea that general principles cannot account for the particularity of moral life, and the idea that this is precisely because of the universality of the moral. If we take the second point first, for Løgstrup the specific character of moral life arises from one single moral demand—or in his terminology, an ethical demand—to take care of the other person. This demand is universal and unconditional, and it is the unified source of all moral responsibility, arising from the basic phenomenon that we are interdependent creatures, necessarily dependent on each other in order to live and flourish. Løgstrup also describes this feature of human life by saying that we are dependent on the existence of a basic form of human trust that makes trusting relationships to others possible, a fact which ‘may indeed seem strange’, but which we must acknowledge as ‘part of what it means to be human. We would not be able to live; our life would be impaired and wither away if we were in advance to distrust one another, if we were to suspect the other of thievery and falsehood from the very outset’ (1997, 8–9). The fact that basic trust is a condition of our lives gives rise to the ethical demand to do what is required to uphold and support the trust of the other, that is, to consider her specific situation genuinely and openly and work to take care her needs.⁴⁷ We may suspect that Løgstrup’s ethical demand to take care of the other really amounts to a disguised general principle, but to stave off this suspicion, we can turn to Løgstrup’s way of unpacking the implications of the ethical demand. According to Løgstrup, the demand is in itself silent, as it does not in any way specify how we are to take care of the other person; the role of the ethical demand is not that of classification, we could say with reference to the discussion above, but rather a demand for a specific form of attention. Its role is simply to point us in the right direction and single out what ought to ⁴⁷ This conception of the ethical demand is developed mainly in Løgstrup 1997. For a highly recommendable exposé and discussion of this, see Fink 2007 and Fink & MacIntyre 1997.

100      be our concern. This, however, is all the demand does, in any other sense it is utterly uninformative and cannot be translated into general principles, as these are unsuited for, and may misconstrue, the particularity of the considerations involved in an understanding of what the other person truly needs. Løgstrup accepts that general principles may be relevant and sometimes even necessary in moral thought, but only in non-ideal cases, where they may be needed to guide us either because we are insufficiently open to the needs of the other or because we have an insufficient understanding of moral life. In line with the view developed here, Løgstrup thus allows that general moral principles may play a role in moral reasoning, while also maintaining that such principles are only approximations which aid our reasoning or attention. According to Løgstrup, the moral role of a general principle is to ‘point beyond’ itself in order to make us aware of morally important features of a situation; it is only ‘a transitional element for thought, it is not decisive’ (Løgstrup 1997, 39).⁴⁸ Our moral concern is never that of allegiance to a moral principle and we must never give primacy to such principles, because if we do, they might divert our attention from the other and in this way come to conceal the particular insights that they are supposed to help bring about.⁴⁹ According to Løgstrup, if we are to act in a perfectly moral way, we in fact need to move beyond principles to a particular understanding of the person in our care. Still, this does not jeopardise the universality of our judgements. If we imagine a case where my understanding of another person’s needs is completely correct, then my judgement about what to do will be universal in the sense that it is binding for everyone, but also completely particular in the sense that is shaped by the uniqueness, not just of the other’s situation, but also of our relationship and of my resources of understanding and help. Universality is in this way not tied to generality. Actually, it is because of the rigid universality of the ethical demand that we need to move beyond the generality and rigidity of rules. The other person’s actual needs always take priority over principles or other forms of guidance, and the content of the ethical demand thus cannot be specified or codified. In Løgstrup’s writings, which are similar to Aristotle in this regard, we instead find an emphasis on the necessity of ⁴⁸ Translation by the author. See also 1996, 36. ⁴⁹ Løgstrup here anticipates a standard objection against moral generalism in the contemporary debate, namely that a strong focus on principles leads to certain forms of moral blindness and rigorism: ‘Particularists have urged that reliance on principles leads to rigidity and narrow-mindedness (Dancy; McNaughton). Principles direct our attention only to those features already countenanced as relevant by whatever principle we are trying to apply. Consequently, we miss entirely or disregard morally relevant features that we would not ignore if had we not relied on principles in the first place’ (McKeever and Ridge 2008, 1190). For a generalist reply, see O’Neill 1996, 74ff.

     


experience and an extensive knowledge of moral life, including a historically and culturally shaped understanding of vital moral phenomena such as love, friendship, parenthood, and so on.⁵⁰ Most importantly, Løgstrup wants us to see that in ideal cases, there is no need for action guidance and general moral principles, because our attentiveness to the situation and to the particular person will enable us to discern what is demanded of us and act on the reasons already available for us in the particular needs of the other. On Løgstrup’s view, moral reasoning is, at least in the ideal case, completely particular and completely universal, that is, even if the ethical demand is universal, this does not mean that any other elements of morality are universalisable. The aim here is not to argue for Løgstrup’s idea of the ethical demand, but to offer it as an example of how a particularist understanding of moral thought can still acknowledge the universality of the moral. Another way to do this, more in line with the present investigation, is by a descriptive approach to the universality of moral life. We find an example of this approach in ‘A Lecture on Ethics’, where Wittgenstein presents an example that illustrates the special character of moral claims that they always concern us, regardless of our inclinations, commitments, interest, and projects, and that they are in this sense universal. Supposing that I could play tennis and one of you saw me playing and said ‘Well, you play pretty badly’ and suppose I answered ‘I know, I’m playing badly but I don’t want to play any better,’ all the other man could say would be ‘Ah then that’s all right.’ But suppose I had told one of you a preposterous lie and he came up to me and said ‘You’re behaving like a beast’ and then I were to say ‘I know I behave badly, but then I don’t want to behave any better’, could he then say ‘Ah, then that’s alright’? Certainly not; he would say ‘Well you ought to want to behave better’. (LE 5)

A moral judgement always has a claim on us, and we cannot brush aside such a judgement by arguing that it is for some reason or other not relevant in our case. The only way we can dismiss a moral judgement is by showing that it is incorrect; in the example, Wittgenstein could only get off the hook if he could show that even if it seemed he was behaving like a beast, he really was not, because of some aspects of the situation that were overlooked or unknown

⁵⁰ This fact explains Løgstrup’s many apparent digressions from moral philosophy as traditionally conceived, see for examples his discussion of possible ways to understand and to pervert love (1997, IV and VII).

102      by the interlocutor. The point is that if a moral judgement is correct, it is indeed universal.

4.8 Moral Thought and Moral Philosophy In this chapter, I hope to have developed a description of moral thought that assigns a prominent role to the particulars of moral life. This description allows for a role for general moral principles, but it also shows how the particular may be decisive in cases of both moral reasoning and reflection. However, if moral thought in this way involves both general and particular elements, moral philosophy should help us elucidate both. Descriptive moral theories, on the understanding developed in the previous chapter, can help us understand general structures of moral life, but they cannot help us understand the particulars involved in moral reasoning. As a result, we need another form of understanding from moral philosophy, and with it a fuller conception of moral philosophy itself. Thus, in the next two chapters we will investigate examples of particular considerations relevant for moral philosophy, before we return to the activity of moral philosophy more generally in the final part of the book.

5 Particularities of Moral Lives Moral Positions

One common way to characterise morality is by saying that it is impersonal, that it concerns what you should do or be regardless of the particular person that you are, or the values or relationships established in your particular life. In a discussion of the relationship between morality and love, J. David Velleman describes the basic assumption as follows: ‘The moral point of view is impartial and favors no particular individual, whereas favoring someone in particular seems like the very essence of love’ (1999, 338). This way of characterising moral life seems to imply that the personal is morally irrelevant or even that the personal and the moral are in some sense opposed to one another. It also seems to imply that the morally relevant notion of a person is something like an actual person, but stripped of individual features, capacities, and concerns, what is in moral philosophy often referred to as a ‘moral agent’. In Craig Taylor’s words, for impartialism ‘to be a moral agent is to be rational, and in particular to be capable of recognizing and responding in thought and then action to important human values that are just there for anyone to see’ (2018, 465–6). The idea that morality is impersonal can thus be taken to amount to the assumption that personal features of our lives are morally irrelevant and do not go into shaping us as moral agents. As we saw in Chapter 2, a growing number of philosophers have been arguing that the central assumptions of impartialism are wrong, and that personal and contextual features of our lives are in fact morally important. The work done in this chapter is in line with this criticism, but the main aim is to move beyond criticism and provide a sketch of how and to what extent particular features of our moral lives take on moral importance. By providing such a sketch, I also hope to reach a better understanding of why moral life resists theorisation of the form discussed in Chapter 2 and consider the challenges involved in developing a form of moral philosophy that can take the particular dimensions of moral life into consideration. In the present chapter, the aspiration is to show the moral significance of the particular features tied to our moral personhood. The first section offers a clarification Moral Philosophy and Moral Life. Anne-Marie Søndergaard Christensen, Oxford University Press (2021). © Anne-Marie Søndergaard Christensen. DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198866695.003.0005

104      of my approach and some of the central concepts used in chapter 5 and 6 before I turn to the main investigation. Here, I consider two suggestions of how to account for the personal dimension of moral life, namely in terms of agent-relative reasons and strong moral self-definition, but as both these suggestions will prove wanting, albeit in different ways, in the reminder of the chapter I instead explore the essentially personal dimension of ethics and the role of personal particularities in moral formation and in the moral position from which our moral thinking stems. Moreover, I will also discuss how the moral importance of personal particularities creates a demand on the subject to engage in justification and self-understanding in relation to others, where self-understanding in many cases is to be understood as a process of both self-discovery and self-determination; a process of striving to settle both who one is and who one wants to be. Finally, I will look at how we, in selfunderstanding and in coming to inhabit a particular moral position, draw on the resources of our moral community in a way that raises the question of the moral role of the particularities of our contexts. We turn to this question in Chapter 6.

5.1 Particularities of Moral Life—the Very Idea In the following, we try to expand our understanding of moral life, that is, of what could be a relevant subject for moral philosophy, and we do so by turning to an investigation of the importance of particularities pertaining to persons and contexts, respectively. Before we proceed, however, we need to consider a few points regarding the approach and the status of the present investigation. The first point concerns the justification for the chosen vocabulary, especially the terms ‘moral life’ and ‘particularities’. We have already noted how the term ‘moral life’ is chosen to encompass the moral aspects of what we may call, with Wittgenstein, the ‘everyday’ or, with Cavell, ‘the ordinary’. However, the term is also chosen because it is vague enough to be neutral with regard to different conceptions of the moral; in this way it places only minimal requirements on what we can take as morally relevant, and it makes room for the idea that nothing can be excluded in advance from being a potential object of moral interest.¹ In addition, the term ‘moral life’ is chosen to indicate how the moral

¹ To return to Diamond’s apt phrasing, the notion allows for the possibility ‘that human character in many circumstances, and trees in somewhat rarer circumstances, can be described as morally interesting’ (Diamond 1997, 83). The term ‘moral life’ is in fact often used in discussions of Cora Diamond’s

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is not something that can be understood fully in abstracto, because, as we will go on to show, concrete historical, cultural, and even personal features of our lives can also be of moral importance. When thinking about the moral, we have to take into account that we are creatures situated in a particular context and holding a particular moral position within this context. The aim is thus to show how the particular has a moral importance that we must take into account in moral philosophy, no matter what other assumptions we may hold. The notion of ‘particularities’ indicates that we are here investigating features of our lives that carry moral import in some cases, while carrying no such import in others. That is, such particularities take on moral salience because of the role they play in the life of a particular person, or because of the role they play in a particular context. In line with the Wittgensteinian idea that moral philosophy develops in a movement back and forth between the general and theoretical on the one hand and the particular and concrete on the other, in this and the following chapter we aim to realise the particularising movement by investigating the phenomena of moral life as they appear embedded in concrete human lives and practices. We could say that we are looking at aspects of our lives that are relevant for what Margaret Urban Walker calls ‘the pragmatics of moral thinking’ (2003, 36). The aim of this form of pragmatics is to supplement moral philosophy’s traditional preoccupation with moral concepts, principles, and theories by offering an understanding of how these are fitted into actual lives, activities, practices, relations, and situations, thereby reminding us ‘that moral thinking is a real-life, socially situated, interpersonally effective phenomenon’ (ibid. 37). However, the aim is not just to investigate how general features of moral life, such as concepts, principles, and theories, are realised in concrete manifestations. The present work also allows for the possibility that the particularities found in this pragmatic context may themselves have moral import, and in doing so, it allows for the possibility of a more radical form of moral pragmatics than that suggested by Walker.

5.2 Getting Started: Agent-Relative Reasons and Strong Moral Self-Definitions In the main part of this chapter, we will use this initial characterisation of moral particularities to investigate how some particularities can come to have work and related discussion, see e.g. the title of the anthology Wittgenstein and Moral Life. Essays in Honor of Cora Diamond (Crary 2007b) with articles on Diamond’s work.

106      genuine moral relevance in relation to a particular person, how they can become what we could call personal particularities. Note, however, that the use of the word ‘personal’ is in no way meant to indicate that these particularities are exclusively personal or private, because even if they give rise to a form of moral salience that is essentially tied to particular persons, they take on public importance as part of what should be taken into account in our moral dealings with that person. They therefore have the same status of objectivity as other morally relevant concerns.² In this section, we will review two suggestions that may seem to be concerned with personal particularities, but which cannot accommodate the full scope of their importance. One such suggestion is that of agent-relative reasons, originally developed by Thomas Nagel, who believes that with regard to some moral reasons, we need to include a description of the person acting in the specification of that person’s reasons, meaning that such reasons are binding only for some particular people.³ To take an example: I have a reason to visit my friend at the hospital, if that visit would make her happy, but my reason to visit my friend at the hospital is a reason for me exactly because I am her friend, that is, the specification of my reason essentially involves a reference to me as her friend, and I would not have a similar moral reason if I did not figure in the specification of the reason (for example if some other person, unknown to me, were admitted to the hospital). According to Nagel, agentrelative reasons are nonetheless essentially generalisable: in our example, we could give the reason a universal form by saying that, if an action would be appreciated by a person’s friend, then that person has a reason for performing the action. However, Nagel’s distinction between agent-relative and agentneutral reasons does not say anything about whether truly personal features may take on moral importance. Of course, the question of whether I have a friend or not can only be settled by examining my particular life, and the relationships that I have. However, on this distinction, we can account for the reasons which friendship generates without reference to anything particular about me; according to Nagel, these reasons have a completely general form. The point is that Nagel’s principled understanding of agent-relative reasons does not fit the above-mentioned description of moral particularities, because agent-relative reasons are classifiable and generalisable across different concrete manifestations in different circumstances, and because the justification of ² See also the discussion of moral objectivity in section 4.8. ³ This is based on Nagel’s classic and principle-based account of agent-relativity (see Nagel 1978 and especially 1986, chapters 8–9), but the terminology of agent-relative and agent-neutral reasons is introduced in Parfit (1984).

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their moral relevance is completely general. This is different from the possibility explored here of whether some particularities can be of moral relevance to a specific person in particular circumstances, without that person being obliged to claim that these particularities would have an equal moral relevance for others, even if the same circumstances were present, because these circumstances may take on a different importance for another person. That is, Nagel’s principled understanding of agent-relative reasons does not allow for the possibility that the moral relevance of features of our lives may be truly personal. This idea only comes into view if we take seriously the idea that the moral salience of such features is tied to their manifestation in concrete contexts and the lives of concrete persons. A second suggestion for how essentially personal particularities can take on moral importance takes as its starting point the idea that we can identify and describe a type of concern that has moral relevance in a person’s life without necessarily having similar moral relevance in the lives of others. I discussed this suggestion in relation to Lars Hertzberg’s discussion of an example of a woman considering whether to have an abortion. Hertzberg pointed out that in coming to a decision, the woman would have to take into account her particular moral commitments, the values, projects, relationships, life choices, and so on, that have shaped herself and her life, and the personal nature of these commitments means that even if she settles on a decision which she considers morally right in her own case, she may not want to claim that this decision is right for others, even others in the same, external circumstances.⁴ In line with this, Margaret Urban Walker has developed an understanding of personal moral particularity that is tied to the process of strong moral selfdefinition. Walker begins from the observation that through our moral formation, some features of our lives will come to have a special moral weight for us. Features such as love for one’s parent or spouse, involvement in practices such as art or community work, special commitments to one’s work or one’s friends, and so on, may come to have special moral importance in any human life, but they are not features that will take on such importance in all human lives. According to Walker, these concerns may have importance for us, but not necessarily for others, because they are ‘identity constitutive structures and features of an agent’s life’ (Walker 2003, 3), and they take on moral importance if ‘this formation of oneself makes a direct and irreplaceable contribution to one’s capacity for moral discrimination and performance—one’s moral competence’ (ibid. 6). Part of what it is to become a competent moral self is ⁴ See section 2.5 and Hertzberg 2002.

108      thus to engage in a process of ‘strong moral self-definition’, understood not simply as ‘the identification of oneself as a moral being, but identifying oneself with the bearing, serving, guarding or championing of certain morally significant values’ (ibid. 13), and the moral particularities in question become an integrated and irreducible part of our moral competence, our ability to reason about the moral, by being part of what determines our moral priorities, especially when we consider a moral issue that is related to our particular identity. Through strong moral self-definition, we come to consider certain commitments and values to be constitutive features of our identity and morally important in a way that is distinctive for us but is nonetheless morally binding.⁵ For Walker, strong moral self-definition does not introduce some new form of personal moral concern, but rather means that the structuring, weighing and combination of some moral concerns differ from person to person. Strong self-definition thus produces an ability that is exercised when we make and act upon a special class of judgements that Walker labels ‘irreducibly particular moral judgements’.⁶ The point is not just that such judgements involve individual discernment and discretion; this is an element of all moral judgements, as we saw in the last chapter. The point is that the framework that connects the grounds and the judgements is individual or personal. Walker’s primary example is a man considering whether to keep caring for his ageing and ‘increasingly irrational, incontinent and unpredictable’ (ibid. 4) mother, and to mention just one element of this example, the man in question will, if he is morally competent, value both loyalty to his parent and consideration to his wife and children (as well as many other relevant considerations), but the weight he gives these considerations is settled by his particular moral identity, the kind of the person he is and wants to be. That is, with regard to judgements that involve identity-constitutive features, we cannot infer the truth of a particular judgement from universal moral concerns, because the reasons given take their force for that individual not from anything universal across all people but from the relation between a particular reason and the moral self⁵ Walker’s idea that certain ‘identity constitutive structures and features’ of our lives give rise to individual moral concerns seems to be related to Charles Taylor’s idea of strong evaluations, values that, through individual valuing, come to have a constitutional role in a person’s practical identity (Taylor 1989, 25–52). ⁶ The judgements are called ‘irreducibly particular’ because they are the result of moral considerations that cannot be universalised; they are not ‘instances of universalizable connections between grounds invoked and position affirmed’ (Walker 2003, 8). Such judgements are of course compatible with some forms of universality, for example the universally shared feature of human beings that we are beings ‘who deeply care about, find meaning and identity, in certain sorts of structures and feature of their lives, even if in quite different versions, combinations, and weightings of these elements’ (ibid. 7).

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definition of the person claiming the reason, and the judgement thus depends on an existing or prospective coherence in the values, actions and choices of that person.⁷ As irreducibly particular judgements results from essentially particular concerns whose weight is determined only in an individual life; it is also impossible to give guidelines about the general weight which these concerns should be assigned. The moral particularities involved in strong self-definition are not static. As particular concerns are established as part of our development of a moral identity, they develop with this identity and can be altered, revoked, or renewed. In Walker’s words, such ‘particulars are aspects of ourselves up for moral scrutiny and possibly reevaluation at any time of our moral lives, and so are part of the matter for moral consideration ongoing’ (ibid. 9). In making particular judgements, we should always subject particularities to critical scrutiny in order to ascertain whether they are relevant for the given case, but also whether they still carry special weight in our considerations. Moreover, a person may also in course of making such a judgement come to change the role that a particular concern plays in her life—what happens then is that this choice will bind her onwards, and this form of backwards- or forward-directed uniformity is what allows us to say that moral particularities can be constitutive of a person’s moral identity. One consequence of this is that it is possible to make two different types of error when trying to commit to an irreducible personal concern. First, a person may try to place moral importance on something that really does not have the appropriate value, which is a mistake because we are only justified in giving special moral weight to a particular concern in our self-definition if this concern has some potential value in all human lives. Second, a person may try to commit to a concern that she really does not find important, something which will show for instance if she fails to uphold it in future actions and choices. As Walker notes, ‘one may licitly and wholeheartedly attempt by a particular resolution to set or continue a distinctive moral course and find oneself unable to honor the resolution and/ or the future commitment it sets in play’ (ibid. 15). What happens in such cases is not just that one cannot do what one ought to do, but that ‘one cannot be what one in a profound and internally motivated way wants and needs to be’ (ibid.). That is, even if one is reflectively committed to a particular moral concern, it may still be the case that one is unable to realise this commitment in one’s life.

⁷ See the discussion of this demand for ‘coherence’ in moral life in section 4.6.

110      Walker’s description of strong self-definition and its consequences for moral judgement in the form of the possibility of irreducibly particular judgements is important—it spells out one way in which particular concerns may have a binding force for a person in a way that is both truly moral and truly personal. We come to be the individuals we are partly through the values, the commitments, the concerns, and cares that we integrate into our lives and identities. Yet there are two important considerations that should be raised in connection with the notion of irreducibly particular moral concerns. The first concerns the connection that Walker establishes between strong moral selfdefinition and irreducibly particular judgements. This connection implies that self-definition is a conscious and reflective process, and that the personal particularities that it brings about always come to have moral weight through some sort of commitment or choice on our part. This is, however, not always the case. We do of course take on some personal concerns freely, for example if we decide to have children or to devote ourselves to a specific profession. It is, however, also possible to think of situations where moral particularities come to matter in our lives without any explicit form of reflection and consent on our part, for example when we find ourselves especially committed to some value introduced in our upbringing, to our parents or to the friend with whom we have shared a part of our lives. Moreover, it is equally possible to think of cases where this dichotomy between inherited and freely and reflectively undertaken moral particularities cannot be maintained. Many, maybe even most, of the concerns that we hold particularly important are introduced through a mixture of reasons. If we think of someone with a particular strong concern for her parents, this may simply be a concern that she has come to have, but it may also be shaped by her own choices to see her parents often, to depend for them for advice or support, to take an interest in their lives, and so on (choices that she may, or may not, have made the object of reflective scrutiny). Most of the irreducibly personal concerns that shape our moral lives arise out of a blend of reflection and choice on the one hand and our socialisation, the circumstances of our lives and the communal and cultural moral resources available to us on the other. That is, they arise in a continuum between free, personal commitment and influences stemming from the context of our lives. This leads us to the second consideration. For Walker, acknowledging strong moral self-definition and the moral importance of personal particularities is meant to supplement a philosophical discussion of moral life that is mostly concerned with universalisable and impersonal considerations. As she

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describes it: ‘Most moral judgements we make [ . . . ] manifest plain moral competence, are viewed correctly as instances of universalisable connections between grounds invoked and positions affirmed and represent nonindividuated submission of oneself to “the right (or decent, or morally acceptable) thing”’ (ibid. 8). Walker aims to bring something to our attention that is too often ignored in moral philosophy, namely the personal or particular, but she does not challenge the idea that the main part of moral life does not involve any reference to what is truly personal and can be adequately captured by universal principles and theories. However, Walker shows us that personal particularities come to have moral importance because they are involved in our moral formation and our moral competence. In this way, personal particularities are part of what shapes us as moral subjects, our identity, our sense of who we are, and this gives rise to two reservations: it is doubtful whether it is possible to make a general distinction between on the one hand our ‘plain moral competence’ and on the other the competence needed to make judgements about matters where our self-definition or our moral identity is involved. And even if we can indeed maintain such a distinction between different forms of moral competence, it is even more doubtful whether we can make a general distinction between the form of moral personhood involved in universal moral judgements and that involved in judgements that play a role in our self-definition. In other words, if personal particularities are part of what constitutes our identity, part of what conditions what has moral weight for us, it seems unlikely that such concerns only matter for us or only come into play in relation to a specific set of questions (questions concerning our own life for example, if such a set of questions can be demarcated at all). This gives us a reason to move beyond Walker’s focus on ‘strong self-definition’ to a wider investigation of the personal dimension involved in our moral formation and our moral thought, and this opens the possibility that the particular and personal dimension of our identity shapes our moral thought in a more fundamental way than that envisaged by Walker.

5.3 ‘An Ethical Proposition Is a Personal Act’ What I hope to have shown in the last section is that we need a more farreaching investigation of the personal dimension of moral thought. This is indeed a central theme in Wittgenstein’s writings on ethics, and I will here use

112      his reflections as a springboard for this wider investigation.⁸ In a conversation with the Vienna circle, Wittgenstein commented on his own ‘A Lecture on Ethics’: ‘At the end of my lecture on ethics I spoke in the first person. I think that this is something very essential. Here is nothing to be stated anymore; all I can do is to step forward as an individual and speak in the first person’ (WVC 117). Some interpreters have taken this remark as an rejection of the possibility of doing philosophical work with regard to the moral, but this conclusion is premature.⁹ What Wittgenstein is saying is rather that when we leave moral philosophy, that is, the philosophical activity of trying to describe morally relevant ways of talking, which he is doing for most of the lecture, it is important to change perspective from the third to the first person, because we then turn to an exploration of actual moral importance that is tied to the positions of actual human beings. The reason for the shift to the first-person perspective at the end of ‘A Lecture on Ethics’ is that Wittgenstein here leaves philosophy, he stops saying something about ethics in order to say something of moral importance, to say what he ‘wanted to do’ (LE 11).¹⁰ As Yi-Ping Ong has brought out, this shift in focus involves a critical point relating to moral philosophy, because by drawing attention to his own standpoint and his own doing in the lecture, Wittgenstein exposes the illusion ‘of wanting ethics to speak with an unquestioned, absolute authority’ (2016, 220). ‘The moral’ as such never speaks, only particular individuals. In other words, there are no moral judgements ‘as such’; a moral judgement ‘must be someone’s conclusion in a sense more substantial than is suggested by the fact that he feels compelled to write it at the end of a piece of reasoning on a blackboard’ (Gaita 2005, 324). If a judgement is to be moral in any genuine sense it must be a judgement which some particular person may seriously wish to assert—and in this way, the judgement is connected to the perspective of that person. We can thus understand

⁸ The questions of how to interpret Wittgenstein’s few writings on ethics is tricky and will not be treated here. The following will be in line with the interpretation defended in Christensen 2011a, 2015 and 2018, according to which Wittgenstein’s view of ethics concerns what Diamond calls ‘an attitude to the world and life’ (Diamond 2000, 153). ⁹ Duncan Richter holds this position, see 1996 and 2000, chapter 2. However, Wittgenstein wrote and delivered a lecture on ethics, and he returns to the question of ethics in philosophical writings and discussions throughout his life. A fuller version of this alternative understanding of Wittgenstein’s claim that ‘ethics is personal’ can be found in Christensen 2011a, 809–12. ¹⁰ The shift occurs in the middle of page 11. Ong rightly notes that Wittgenstein speaks in the first person throughout his text: she argues that on the topic of ethics Wittgenstein is struggling for the audience to ‘get my meaning’ (LE 3), in Ong’s phrasing, to make them understand a language not designed ‘for locating universal and abstract truths, but rather a historically and specific entity’ (Ong 2016, 219). However, the shift at page 11 is still notable (and noted by Wittgenstein), because it marks the place where Wittgenstein addresses the value of trying to get this, his meaning, across.

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Wittgenstein’s determination to speak in the first person as springing from the view that he can only speak morally from his own particular position. As Matthew Pianalto suggests, Wittgenstein’s point is ‘that it is essential to speak in the first person on ethical matters because each person must judge the world for him- or herself ’ (Pianalto 2011, 268). My moral judgements have a personal dimension because they involve a reference to my standing in the world and what I find morally important, and they also become part of what determines my way of judging the world in terms of value or importance. What Wittgenstein is emphasising is that when we leave philosophy and address genuine moral questions, we are always talking from an—at least partly—personal vantage point. In a notebook entry from the same period, he elaborates: An ethical proposition states ‘You shall do this!’ or ‘That is good!’ [ . . . ]. But an ethical proposition is a personal act. Not a statement of fact. Like an exclamation of admiration. Just consider that the justification of an ‘ethical proposition’ merely attempts to refer the proposition back to others that make an impression on you. If in the end you don’t have any aversion for this & admiration for that, then there is nothing to deserve the name of justification. (PPO 85; MS 183, 76)¹¹

If our moral judgements in part get their weight from their connection to what we care about, from what we could call our moral position, then claims such as ‘You shall do this!’ or ‘That is good!’ are also ways of acting, as we confirm or establish such claims as claims we take responsibility for. In other words, we establish our moral position in many ways, in our way of talking, judging, acting, and living, in what we praise and condemn, what we abhor and admire, what we act on and what not etc. It is what comes to light in the general pattern of our reactions, judgements, and actions, what Murdoch calls ‘the texture of a man’s being or the nature of his personal vision’ (Murdoch 1956, 39). Wittgenstein’s emphasis on the personal dimension of moral life does not mean that he rejects the idea that there can be objectivity in the moral, as defended in the last chapter; this would only follow if we subscribed to a narrow understanding of objectivity that could not include the objective

¹¹ Translation by the author.

114      import of some forms of subjective responses. As De Mesel notes, ‘It is certainly true that Wittgenstein, both early and late, saw ethics as deeply personal and bound up with people’s deepest concerns and commitments. It does not follow, though, that he saw ethics as essentially subjective. That only follows if what is deeply personal and bound up with people’s deepest concerns and commitments cannot be objective’ (De Mesel 2017, 13). The personal dimension of moral life does however have consequences for how we engage in moral discussions with others, as Wittgenstein also notes: ‘The ethical justification of an action must appeal to the man to whom I want to make it understandable’ (Nachlass 211, 207).¹² If we are truly concerned to justify something (a judgement or an action for example) to another person, we have to connect it to something that this person actually values or to something that we think she could come to value. Wittgenstein fleshes this out in a related remark: If you tell someone ‘just think what would come of it if everyone did what you do’ then it can make a deterrent impression on him, or not. It may appeal to him, or not. It does not amount to an undeniable argument. It will impress him if this sort of thing impresses him. (Nachlass 154, 12)¹³

What Wittgenstein is saying is not that justification is more effective if it relies on something that the other person actually cares about. Rather, he is saying that the justification simply fails as moral justification if it does not rely on something that the other person can see or can come to see as morally important. If we want to offer justifications at all, we will have to engage with moral concerns that may also play a role in the life of the other. The fact that I see something as morally relevant and important does not suffice to guarantee that it carries the same weight or any moral weight in the life of another person. The importance of our moral positions and the differences between them mean that moral justification is tricky business, tied not just to the particularities of the situation and our own moral position, but also to the particularities of the positions of the people we are addressing. We need to be aware of this point in discussion with others, but it may also help us identify a particular temptation, namely using the example of others to allow ourselves to do what is really not justified given our circumstances or our particular moral position. ¹² Translation by the author. The remark also figures in Nachlass 110, 119. ¹³ Translation by the author.

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Wittgenstein warns us about how surface similarities between our situation and that of others might lead us to assume that we are justified in engaging in particular actions. ‘As in philosophy so in life we are led astray by seeming analogies (to do what others do or are permitted to do). And here, too, there is only one remedy against this seduction: to listen to the soft voices which tell us that things here are not the same as there’ (PPO 97). The role of the personal in moral life means that we are responsible for noticing and acknowledging the differences between our situation and moral position and that of others, both when we engage in moral discussion and when we are trying to justify our choices and actions to ourselves. We are, of course, also responsible for our particular position, because this position is to a large extent of our own doing; established, changed, or reinforced by our reactions, judgements, and actions. We are, however, also responsible in this way even if it may be extremely difficult to achieve an overview of the shape of our moral position, and even if this position is to a large extent shaped, not by our own choices, but by external factors (such as our upbringing, culture, and the influence of other people).¹⁴ In fact, we are responsible in this way even if it may be almost impossible to change the position that we have come to inhabit, deeply engrained in our way of living as it is.

5.4 Moral Position and Moral Thought To better spell out the role of the personal in moral life, we can turn to the work of Stanley Cavell, especially the parts of The Claim of Reason concerned with the connection between the personal and the practical dimensions of moral thought where he shows that the reference to our specific moral position is built into the very structure of practical rationality. Cavell brings out this connection by contrasting moral reasoning with reasoning and discussion about epistemological questions—a contrast that underlines two points.¹⁵ First, if we are competent reasoners with regard to a certain epistemological issue, then there are certain methods and ways of assessing questions with regard to this issue that we will have to acknowledge as authoritative and as setting the framework of the discussion in question;

¹⁴ As discussed in section 5.2 above. This challenge will also be discussed in Chapter 6. ¹⁵ Williams makes a related distinction between factual deliberation, which is used ‘[w]hen I think about the world and try to decide the truth about it’ and practical deliberation, which always ‘involves an I’ (1985, 67).

116      that is, there are certain forms of justifications that we will have to accept.¹⁶ This also means that if someone raises relevant doubts about a particular reason for accepting an epistemological claim, and these doubts are acknowledged as true, this is in itself enough to challenge the reason and the associated claim to knowledge. As Cavell puts it, the relevant forms of justification and grounds, as well as the relevant reasons for doubting these are in many epistemological cases ‘determined by the setting of the assessment itself’ (Cavell 1979, 267; italics in original). This is not so in the case of reasoning and discussion about moral claims. Let us look at an example, where two friends, A and B, are discussing A’s relationship to her father. A claims that she should end all relations with her father because of his notorious dishonesty, carelessness, and neglect of their relationship, but B objects that this would be a cruel thing to do at this particular time because of the father’s serious illness. The point is that even if A knows and acknowledges the severe character of her father’s condition, it is still possible for her to reject this as a reason to doubt her claim, and she can do so, not just because she finds the reasons for cutting off relations with her father more weighty, but because she finds that his illness is unconnected to the question of whether to continue their relationship. Importantly, A can reject B’s reason without failing as a moral reasoner, that is, in the moral case, ‘I can refuse to accept a “ground for doubt” without impugning it as false, and without supplying a new basis, and yet not automatically be dismissed as irrational or morally incompetent’ (ibid.). In epistemological cases, we have (at least to some extent) already agreed upon the relevant methods and grounds of assessing a question as this is a necessary condition to fulfil the purpose of discussion of epistemological questions: to reach agreement about factual issues. If we disagree about whether the fish we have seen is a trout or a perch, then we have criteria for settling this issue, and if we do not know these, we have settled ways to establish them; we can for example look them up in a book on fish or ask our mutual friend who is a distinguished fish-expert.¹⁷ This contrasts with moral cases where the question of what counts as criteria, as ¹⁶ There are of course serious limitations to this point, as we can also easily identify epistemological questions where the relevant epistemological framework is not settled. However, Cavell’s discussion takes as its starting point everyday epistemological questions that we normally settle without getting into a discussion of the relevant criteria of assessment and justification. ¹⁷ We should, however, note that even in epistemological cases, where we do find a settled framework for assessing whether an epistemic judgement is rational, Cavell holds that there is no settled framework for assessing which judgement to bring forward at a particular time. As Avner Baz puts it: ‘Central to Cavell’s reading of Wittgenstein is the idea that making ourselves intelligible with our words is a matter of saying things found to be worth saying. The idea [ . . . ] is that what we say cannot be specified independently of why we say it’ (Baz 2003, 474).

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grounds for accepting a claim, is itself part of what is at issue. In moral discussions, we discuss not only particular moral claims, but also what counts as the grounds of what, and what is at stake is not just our claims, but also our willingness to take on responsibility for the particular forms of justifications and grounds that we draw on in offering such claims. This leads to the second point. The lack of an independently established framework of assessment also means that in the moral case we cannot straightforwardly reject the relevance of any seriously invoked grounds for doubt or acknowledgement. In Cavell’s words, ‘What I cannot do, and yet maintain my position as morally competent, is to deny the relevance of your doubts’ (ibid.). In our example, what A cannot do is deny that B is in a position to put her father’s illness up as a reason for consideration. A may refuse to accept B’s grounds for doubting her assessment, but A cannot simply ignore or reject them without revealing herself to be an incompetent moral reasoner, because she would then be ignoring the fact that B’s moral position is on an equal level with her own. What makes a particular form of moral ground relevant or irrelevant cannot be settled simply by referring to some independent criteria of relevance, because its relevance is also supported by the simple fact that a party in the discussion is willing to take on responsibility for it. Cavell also offers an alternative way of understanding the way our moral position comes into play in moral reasoning, namely through a contrast between the role of rules in games and the role of principles in morality. If one is playing a game such as chess, the regulatory and defining rules of that game must be treated as binding, because if one disregards them (for example by ceasing to follow the regulatory rules for the movement of the chess pieces), then one is simply not playing the game of chess anymore. In this way, the rules of a game set up a ‘must do’, a form of necessity that cannot be negotiated and has to be respected by any serious player. With reference to Socrates, Cavell notes that for players of a game like chess it is really the case that ‘knowledge is virtue’ (ibid. 311).¹⁸ If the player accepts the pre-established goal of the game (if she, for instance, wills to win in chess), then correct knowledge of the rules together with knowledge of the state of the game in question will result in knowledge about what she ought to do, because these rules form a closed system from which the right moves can be inferred. In this case, practical knowledge simply amounts to factual knowledge about the necessities established by its rules and the possibilities established by the actual state of the game. ¹⁸ See also Plato’s dialogues Laches and Protagoras (Plato 1997a, d).

118      With regard to moral questions this is not so, because there is ‘no equivalent in the moral life of the defining rules of games’ (Cavell 2006, 293). Even if moral principles may seem to capture something vital to morality, they do not take the form of necessity that characterises rules in games, because moral life does not come with pre-established and well-defined aims for our actions. In the attempt to describe and account for the binding character of moral principles and of moral judgements in general, we therefore cannot rely on references to such shared aims. Cavell describes this difference beautifully: In games, what the other person is doing, the goal he aims for, his way, is clear; what it is you tell him to do is defined; what alternatives he can take are fixed; what it would mean to say, the grounds upon which you say, that one course is better than another are part of the game; whether he has done it is settled. In morality none of this is so. Our way is neither clear nor simple; we are often lost. What you are said to do can have the most various descriptions; under some you will know that you are doing it, under others you will not, under some your act will seem unjust to you, under others not. What alternatives we can and must take are not fixed, but chosen; and thereby fix us. (Cavell 1979, 324)

In the moral case, rules or principles are not authoritative, because part of what we are discussing and reasoning about is what our moral aims are, what we are striving for, but also what our moral alternatives are, and how these alternatives are to be described and understood. The way that a particular reason is presented in a moral discussion is essential to how it supports a particular moral judgement, but there are many different moral modes of presenting reasons available (as something that is right to do, good to do, that one ought to do, that one will be sorry if one does or does not do, as something courageous, generous, merciful etc.). Moreover, a particular mode of presenting a reason cannot be found by logical inference, according to Cavell, it is rather justified in relation to the person presenting the reason as having this particular weight (as something that is right, good etc.). In this way, the rationality of uses of modal forms of presentations is tied to ‘their relevance to the person confronted, and the legitimacy your position gives you to confront him or her in the mode you take responsibility for’ (ibid. 323). All of this means that we cannot justify a moral judgment simply by arguing that it is the conclusion of a logical argument.

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Moreover, most uses of moral concepts imply the possibility of freedom regarding what we want to take responsibility for. If we use concepts such as ‘ought’ or ‘right’, we present a case in a way that singles out the one possibility that the other person should find morally important, but this mode of presentation also implies that the person confronted has a range of other possible actions to choose from. In Cavell’s words, ‘“Ought”, unlike “must”, implies that there is an alternative course you may take, may take responsibility for; but reasons are brought to urge you not to’ (ibid. 309). What Cavell wants to show is that the justification of a moral judgement always involves a reference to what Cavell calls our moral position, which for him covers what a person values, commits herself to, considers important or obligating, and so on, that is, her understanding of moral importance, but also of herself and her commitments, what she takes herself to be doing, what she thinks she ought to and must do, and what she thinks she ought to and must be. The rationality in play in the use of such concepts is thus essentially tied to what we take responsibility for, and what we are answerable to. This also means that moral discussions very often concern our relation to the specific person addressed, our offering of reasons to that person and our assessing the reasons offered. Moral discussion is also an effort ‘to determine what position you are taking, that is to say, what position you are taking responsibility for—and whether it is one I can respect’ (ibid. 268), as Cavell writes. However, ‘knowing what you are doing [ . . . ] cannot fully be told by looking at what in fact, in the world, you do. To know what you are doing is to be able to elaborate the action; say why you are doing it, if that is competently asked; or excuse or justify it if that becomes necessary’ (ibid. 311).¹⁹ This means that in moral discussions we stand accountable for our own moral position in the ongoing engagement with another person accountable for her position, and this brings with it an obligation to explicate and expand on our particular positions.²⁰ Cavell’s main point is that the very fact that moral reasoning involves a reference to a person’s moral position, shaped by what we termed personal particulars, does not challenge this reasoning’s claim to rationality; instead, the role of personal commitment must be acknowledged if we are to articulate the particular form of morally infused rationality at play. The reference to what we ¹⁹ Cavell claims, and I agree, that this moral requirement of offering elaborations of one’s moral position is a feature of our lives that is not dependent on a particular approach to the moral, rather it is ‘a dimension of moral life that any theory of it may wish to accommodate [ . . . ] the moral necessity of making oneself intelligible’ (Cavell 1990, xxxi). ²⁰ This point also applies to political disagreements, as Laugier notes: ‘In the case of moral agreement as in the case of political claims, I am turned back on myself, to discover my own position and my own voice’ (2009, 35).

120      care about, what we find morally important, our actual moral position, is an essential dimension of moral thought and discussion, because we may care about very different things, and because we may even come to change our former commitments in the course of the deliberation. Our moral position shows in the reasons we provide for specific claims and judgements in moral reasoning and discussion, but this means that we, in order to be competent moral reasoners, have to be attentive to the various connections between the situations in which we find ourselves and what we can take ourselves to be caring for and answerable to. It also means that we have to engage in an ongoing reflection on our particular moral values and commitments. Moral reasoning is justified not by rules or principles, but by our being able to answer and account for the moral position from which it springs. This raises questions of what we are justified in valuing, and what binds us morally no matter what we value. In Cavell’s phrasing, ‘The problems of morality then become which values we are to honor and create, and which responsibilities we must accept, and which we have, in our conduct, and by our position, incurred’ (ibid. 325). The fact that our moral position is in play in our moral thought does not imply that we ourselves settle what is of moral importance. To take a standard example in philosophy: if I pass a man, deep in water in a lake, helplessly waving his arms and crying out for help, I ought to the very best of my abilities try to save him. In this example, my moral position plays only the very limited role that I need to understand that it is I that (given the circumstances) have the responsibility to help him. On the view defended here, there are of course objectively given responsibilities and values that we must accept and act on no matter what our moral position is. We should, however, also note the quite special character of the example (and that it is in this respect quite similar to many of the examples used in moral philosophy). In the example, the moral challenge is clear; it is obvious both what the man’s predicament is, and what I ought to do to help him. However, many, maybe even most, of the moral difficulties that we face are not like this. In many cases, when I try to live up to an objectively given responsibility, if I try to help my son who is bullied in school, if I suspect that my colleague is depressed, if I want to face up to my responsibility to work against climate change or against the cruel treatment of animals in factory farming, there is not one obvious strategy to take and any strategy that I do take has to be integrated in my life. It is only from my moral standing point, my moral position, that I can attempt to come to an adequate description of these challenges and choose between different courses of action. Philosophy can help us get clearer about these issues, for example by describing the differences between responsibilities

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that we must accept in moral life and responsibilities that we can come to acquire. It is, however, not the role of philosophy to settle or legislate such responsibilities. This is a task we must face as moral subjects, in our actual moral discussions and in moral life in general. Cavell’s notion of moral position connects to D.Z. Phillips’ notion of ‘moral perspective’ which covers individually constituted elements in our approach to moral questions.²¹ For Phillips, as indeed for Cavell, our moral perspective is important because it shapes what we think is morally relevant and what we accept as moral grounds when engaged in moral reasoning. ‘If we want to appreciate the ways in which moral considerations can be constitutive of a person’s perspective, it is important not to think of morality as the agent’s guide in choosing between alternative course of action’ (Phillips 1992a, 67), Phillips warns us. If we are to understand the way that morality can be constitutive of thinking, we must stop seeing it as a guide for choosing between alternatives, and instead see it as playing a part in a person’s identification of these alternatives, that is, ‘to understand what a person makes of [moral] possibilities, how they enter his life, how they do or do not hang together there, we must understand, not the culture, but him’ (ibid.). A moral perspective is not a body of beliefs that we can draw on to settle the moral questions that we face; it is rather what gives shape to such questions and establishes the grounds on and context in which we can attempt to settle them. Our moral perspective is what determines our approach to moral life.²² The notions of moral position and moral perspective help illuminate the moral import of personal particularities. Particularities are important not just because we have specific moral concerns we are especially committed to, but also because the very fabric of moral thought has an irreducibly personal component by involving a reference to the moral position of the concrete, individual reasoner in a way that does ‘justice to the moral situatedness of the flesh and blood possessors’ of moral reason (Baz 2008, 638). In other words, it is a condition of moral thought that each of us stand accountable for our moral position, and that we face up to a continuous obligation to establish and develop this position. ²¹ This notion of moral perspectives was introduced together with Phillips’ critique of Bernard Williams, see section 2.2. Phillips uses it to show how there is a limit to what philosophy can achieve with regard to the moral. Against Williams, Phillips argues that even if philosophy could take note of and describe the diversity of moral perspectives and the different forms of reflections that these perspectives offer, ‘It is not itself a form of critical reflection which underpins any one of these reflective perspectives’ (Phillips 1989, 13). ²² In line with this, Freyenhagen suggests that what settles our basic moral orientation is a moral outlook in the form of ‘an ethical orientation as it is lived by a person—as contained in the person’s actions and dispositions, and as, at least in part, reflected in his or her self-understanding’ (Freyenhagen 2013, 257).

122     

5.5 ‘Carried by the Whole House’ We have seen that moral position is an irreducible element in moral thought. However, this may lead us to wonder whether and how it is possible to give a justification for a particular and personal moral position. One way to approach this question is to return to Bernard Williams’ observation, noted in Chapter 2, that the aim of moral thought is ‘to help us construct a world that will be our world, one in which we have a social, cultural and personal life’ (Williams 1985, 111). Previously, we invoked this point to show how there are definitive limits to the authority of moral theory in our lives, but it is also important in the present context, because it reminds us that moral thought helps give shape to what is essentially and irreducibly our own lives (even if these lives of course also carry with them certain moral responsibilities and are placed within certain social and cultural contexts). Moral thought enables us to see how we face an objectively given set of moral concerns, but we also need moral thought to judge how to integrate such objective concerns in our particular lives. Humans are essentially finite and bounded creatures, which means that it is impossible for any of us to realise all potentially morally relevant concerns in our particular lives. This means that we have to figure out which moral concerns we see as central, and these have to be concerns which we not only could (in theory, we might say) endorse, but which we actually will endorse, that is, see as central in and important to our lives and actively work to promote. Williams reminds us that a part of what moral thought should enable us to do is to reason from personal concerns and priorities established in the course of our lives. In the previous chapter, we presented a picture of moral thought in which it develops as a part of a more wide-ranging shaping of our character, a process of moral formation in which we acquire an ability to be responsive to objective moral reasons. This is, as we saw, a dominant theme in the work of John McDowell, and Rosalind Hursthouse and Julia Annas take over central parts of his argument. Sabina Lovibond also contributes to this discussion with the valuable suggestion that through moral formation we come to inhabit ‘a culturally constructed perspective to which value (including ethical value) discloses itself ’. This means that ‘Objective value . . . is that which discloses itself to the evaluative informed person; but the perspective that defines the “evaluative informed” person is one that can be occupied with no greater security of tenure than we possess, in general, in our identity as social beings’ (Lovibond 1996, 77 and 79). Much of the issue here originates from the work

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of David Wiggins, who (reflecting on Lovibond’s position) sums up what could be said to be the shared core idea of the positions mentioned, ‘that collectively we create a form of life and corresponding conceptions that invest certain features of people, acts and situations with the status of values. But this is not to say that the values themselves are created. Values are discovered by those who live the form of life that is said to have been created’ (Wiggins 1996, 255–6).²³ The discussion of the present chapter does not challenge this developmental model of moral thought as informed by objective reasons, but it shows that this model needs to be supplemented by an understanding of how our moral formation also involves irreducibly particular and personal elements that allow us to become competent in the task of leading our own lives. Moral formation is what enables us to know our way around the world morally; this requires us to be able to make judgments about objective and morally salient features of the world, but it also requires us to be able to make judgements about the import of their salience in our own lives. Successful formation is connected to a person’s struggle to find moral orientation in her own particular life and aims at the capacity, not just to live a moral life, but also to live her moral life. In Cavell’s writings, we find a way to describe the personal side of moral formation and understand why the development of moral competence involves a development of one’s own position, namely because it in part concerns a process of moral self-formation—a process of giving shape to what one is, what one wants to do and be which in turn shapes one’s way of thinking and judging. Iris Murdoch agrees with this point, and she also brings out how the importance of moral position means that our understanding and evaluation of other people concern not just their choices and actions, but also something more comprehensive and more elusive that is given in their way of living; what Murdoch refers to as the texture of a person’s being: When we apprehend and assess other people we do not consider only their solutions to specifiable practical problems, we consider something more elusive which may be called their total vision of life, as shown in their mode of speech or silence, their choice of words, their assessments of others, their conception of their own lives, what they think attractive or praiseworthy, what they think funny: in short, the configurations of their thought

²³ See also section 4.4.

124      which show continually in their reactions and conversation. These things, which may be overtly and comprehensibly displayed or inwardly elaborated and guessed at, constitute what, making different points in the two metaphors, one may call the texture of a man’s being or the nature of his personal vision. (Murdoch 1956, 39)

In Murdoch’s view, our moral position is central to moral life in two different ways. First, the notion of ‘the texture of a man’s being’ highlights how particularities are vital to who we are, our identity, our moral thinking and what we find morally acceptable. Second, the notion of a ‘personal vision’ highlights another side of the role of moral particularities, which is the way they shape and condition our moral attention, that is, what we see as morally relevant. For Murdoch, attention to reality is never neutral, it is an activity done from a specific position and aiding us in a particular task, that of living our own life. Naturally, the moral character of our attention may be a source of distortion as it can cloud our judgement in numerous ways. To avoid this, we must strive to understand the shape of our own perspective and see the possibility of other perspectives on the world, a point also emphasised by Cavell. We can get a clearer view of the intimate interaction between moral position and moral competence by taking a closer look at how our moral positions play a role in making and assessing a moral judgement. When we try to make a morally right decision, we are of course trying to decipher an objectively given pattern of moral salience present in the situation, but we are also trying to reach a decision that can be our decision, that is, a decision that we can integrate into our lives and embrace as expressive of our identity. It is partly an attempt to determine what kind of person we want to be, but it is also a matter of coming to hold a coherent moral view of the world. In David Bakhurst’s apt phrasing, moral judgments and decisions are made by an agent struggling to determine not just what to do, but what kind of person to be. The latter quest requires general moral competence of a richer kind than simply an appreciation of the importance certain properties can have, or typically do have, in certain circumstances. It involves acts of self-definition made in part by the articulation of an attitude to those properties as they typically manifest themselves. (Bakhurst 2000, 174)

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It is part of our struggle to ‘make moral sense’ that we come to inhabit a particular a moral position, and this should ideally provide us with a coherent moral understanding of both the world and who we think we ought to be, which in turn enables us to offer moral justifications. Our moral positions take shape through our moral development, and they are central to our identities as well as to our moral thought. It is tempting to say that our moral positions serve as the foundation of our moral lives, but this would be misleading, as if a person’s position could be divorced from her identity and her life. It would be wrong to draw up a picture that separated the moral position on the one side from the life that flows from it, a person’s decisions, judgements, reactions, and actions on the other. A much more adequate picture is provided by Wittgenstein; with regard to the relation between moral position and moral life we can say that the ‘foundation-walls are carried by the whole house’ (OC §248). With this in mind, we can return to Cavell’s point that the assessment of a moral judgement involves an assessment of its relation to the moral standpoint of the person making the judgement. What is of interest to us is not only whether the judgement reflects an accurate and nuanced understanding of the circumstances at hand, but whether it is in line with the previous judgements, actions and reactions of the person making the judgement, whether it expresses her moral position, and whether it is a position that we can respect morally. In his discussion of moral perspectives, Matthew Pianalto develops a similar point, noting that ‘what is at stake when we enter into the assessment of ethical judgments is whether a person has shown us that her way of judging [ . . . is] in harmony with everything else she says and does’ (2011, 271). He also presents the somewhat more surprising claim that this relation between moral judgement and moral position means ‘that there is no division between evaluating an ethical judgment and evaluating the character of the person who makes that judgment [ . . . ] because ethical judgments can only be made in the first person, and in order to assess the judgment, we have to assess its context, which is, ultimately, the life of the person who makes that judgment’ (ibid.). What Pianalto rightfully reminds us is that we have reasons to be interested in the moral standing of others beyond those of moralism or simple curiosity, as this form of understanding is a condition for understanding their judgements; however we should be careful about how we describe this relation between moral position and judgements—at least more careful than Pianalto. It is important to see that we cannot reduce the assessment of a moral judgement to the assessment of the moral position of the other, even if the

126      two are connected. Assessment of a moral judgement involves more than assessment of ‘its context’ in the form of the other’s moral life, because the judgement itself involves more than simply an expression of this context, it also entails claims about how the world is (at least in most cases). We may develop this point through a clarification of—or maybe a minor disagreement with—Cavell’s view of moral position. It is central to this view that moral thought aims to make one’s position and grounds intelligible to others, which means that it is also an engagement with a community. The issue in moral reasoning and discussion is, according to Cavell, ‘not, or not exactly, whether you know our world, but whether or to what extent, we are to live in the same moral universe’ (Cavell 1990, 268). The question now is how we should understand this suggestion that morality is ‘not, or not exactly’ about knowing one’s world. Matteo Falomi offers one interpretation: The point of the exchange of reasons is not [in the moral case], as in in the epistemic case, one of attesting your competence of reality, in order to get your interlocutors to converge on your judgement. The point of giving and asking for reasons is rather one of making yourself intelligible in order to make your interlocutors decide whether, and how, they can continue their relationship with you in the face of your present disagreement. (Falomi 2010, 93–4)

As presented by Falomi, Cavell is saying that the almost exclusive aim of moral reasoning is to clarify our different positions and our mutual relationship. That this is one aim of moral thought is in line with the view developed in this chapter. However, my point is not to propose a picture of moral reasoning according to which it exclusively—or even primarily—concerns the question of whether we are ‘to live in the same moral universe’. In other words, we should acknowledge that moral thought also concerns the question of whether we ‘know our world’. We may suspect that the reduction of moral reasoning to clarifications of moral position is not the right way to understand Cavell’s thought, but I will not discuss that question here.²⁴ However this may be, on the view developed here the point is that we have a number of different aims in moral thought; one such aim is to clarify and interrogate our respective moral positions; another is to clarify and interrogate the understanding of the world offered by the other and involved in her reasons. ²⁴ As noted, one matter for discussion could be what Cavell means when he writes that what is at stake in moral discussion is ‘not exactly, whether you know our world’ (Cavell 1990, 268, my italics).

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We may engage in moral reasoning because we question the other’s responsibilities, as Cavell notes, but we may also do so because we question her knowledge of the morally relevant features of the situation at hand, that is, because we question whether her judgements indeed reflect an unbiased and adequate knowledge of the situation. If a friend argues that she is right to end all relations with her father, as in the case of A and B above, it is possible to challenge her moral position, for example by asking how she can abandon a family member who depends on her. Likewise, it is possible to challenge her understanding of the situation, for example by showing that she has failed to appreciate the seriousness of her father’s illness, the father’s dependence on her, or her own dependence on her father. This means that there are different kinds of objections in moral reasoning: one family of objections concerns the moral position of the other such as objections of the type ‘How can you say that?’, ‘Choose that?’, ‘React or act in that way?’, and so on. Another family of objections concerns the adequacy of the attention or sensibility of the other such as objections of the type ‘But don’t you see?’, ‘Have you not noticed?’, and so on. In many cases, concerns of these two types are interwoven, but we see the difference between them reflected in the difference between various possible outcomes of moral discussions. In some cases, we will succeed in changing our interlocutor’s appreciation and knowledge of the situation in question, allowing her to see new features of it. This may make her change her moral judgement; not because she has changed her moral position, but because she now has an enriched understanding of what is at stake. In other cases, we may succeed in enriching her understanding without this having any effect on her judgement, because she does not think that the knowledge which she has acquired influences what she ought to think or do. In yet other cases, we may from the outset agree completely on how to understand the situation, and we may instead succeed in changing the position of our interlocutor, convincing her, for instance, that she does not want to be the kind of person who acts in this or that way. Furthermore, there could be cases where we agree in our understanding, but after engaging in discussion, we still disagree about what is to be done—and then we do not, at least not exactly, ‘live in the same moral universe’ in Cavell’s words. We could say that we use two different forms of criteria in our assessments of moral judgements—on the one hand criteria concerning the moral position of the other person; and on the other criteria concerning the quality of her knowledge of the world. This picture of moral reasoning may be both schematic and imperfect, but it shows that we cannot reduce the role of reasoning either to understanding of the other or knowledge of the world. Remembering

128      that questions of moral knowledge may be the subject of moral discussion may also help us avoid another temptation: the temptation to claim that questions of an adequate moral knowledge of situations are purely epistemic questions and not really subject to moral reasoning. In the previous chapter, we found one reason to avoid this temptation, namely that developing and presenting a morally adequate description of a situation is itself a moral activity—in moral reasoning and discussion, descriptions are not morally neutral.²⁵ We have now found a further reason, namely that questions that concern the other’s knowledge and understanding of the world are often intimately interwoven with questions that concern her moral position. In moral reasoning, we cannot isolate the ‘epistemic’ question of our knowledge of the situation from the ‘moral’ question of our individual positions.

5.6 Understanding Others and Understanding Ourselves The personal dimension of moral thought alerts us to another special set of moral responsibilities. As moral thought is shaped in part by our particular moral position, and as this position cannot be directly read off our actual actions and claims, we must be willing to offer explications of our positions and of how they connect with our judgements and actions in a way that is intelligible as well as comprehensive. In Cavell’s words, ‘If a moral question is competently raised, then a moral response must allow a discussion whose conclusion will be the fuller articulation of the positions in question’ (Cavell 1979, 303). If ‘the trunk and branch of responsibility are what you are answerable for’, then ‘where your conduct raises a question, your answers will again be elaboratives’ (ibid. 312). Our moral position may not be fully to obvious to others, and moral thought therefore involves a requirement to make ourselves morally understandable to them.²⁶ Importantly, our moral position may also not be fully obvious to ourselves, which reveals another condition of moral thought. If our moral position is crucial for our moral reasoning, then adequate selfunderstanding, in the form of an understanding of the particularities of our specific positions, is a necessary condition for moral competence. There are, ²⁵ See section 4.4. ²⁶ Cavell claims, and I agree, that this moral requirement of offering elaboratives is a feature of our lives that is not dependent on a particular approach to the moral, rather it is ‘a dimension of moral life that any theory of it may wish to accommodate [ . . . ] the moral necessity of making oneself intelligible’ (Cavell 1990, xxxi).

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however, at least two reasons why this form of self-understanding may be hard to achieve. The first is that we are rarely, if ever, fully transparent to ourselves, also not with regard to our moral commitments. This is reflected in a number of familiar experiences where we discover that our value commitments are different from what we believed them to be: maybe we come to appreciate that we only have a clouded understanding of our moral concerns when we are challenged to articulate these concerns in discussions with others. Or we may think that we value a particular concern highly, but if it turns out to conflict with another of our concerns, we then realise that it really did not matter in the way that we originally thought it did. Or a concern, that we never thought much about may, if called upon, suddenly prove to be central to our moral understanding. The possibility of these experiences demonstrates that our self-understanding may be inadequate or may not reflect our actual moral position at all. Wittgenstein discusses both the demand for selfunderstanding and the problems in living up to this task. ‘Let me hold onto this that I do not want to deceive myself ’ (PPO, 175), he writes in one of his notebooks, where he also cautions himself: ‘that is what I must do: listen not to another in my imagination but to myself. That is, not watch the other watching me [ . . . ] but watch myself ’ (PPO 139). And another remark, years later: ‘How difficult it is to know oneself, to honestly admit what one is!’ (PPO 221).²⁷ According to Wittgenstein, the demand of self-understanding is a demand for genuine attention to self, and the process of achieving selfunderstanding requires forms of honesty and humility that are very easily derailed by self-serving phantasies and by the unwanted reliance on the opinion of other people.²⁸ Another reason why we need to engage in a process of self-understanding is that the process of articulating, explicating, and elaborating our moral positions sometimes does not take the form of self-discovery, but rather that of coming to settle our moral concerns and the way we want to become morally intelligible and coherent persons. When we strive to understand our own moral position, what we attend to is not given independently of the process ²⁷ About the demand for self-understanding also involving a responsibility to be attentive towards one’s actual moral standing, Naomi Scheman writes: Not to be negligent is to be responsible, and James and Wittgenstein are equally concerned to redefine what we take that to mean. In the tradition they are criticizing, responsibility has meant conformity to standards of thought and behaviour that are given independently of that thought and behaviour. [ . . . ] Both authors suggest that if we define responsibility this way, we will end up committed to chasing a chimera and failing to attend responsibly to what we are actually doing. (Scheman 1993, 122) ²⁸ This mirrors Murdoch’s warnings about the distorting influences of phantasy and the ego.

130      of self-understanding, and in settling on particular descriptions of who we are, what we value and what we are doing, we may not just be articulating, but rather shaping or giving form to what we find morally important and what not. The process of self-understanding is not just a process of explicating a moral position that we already occupy, but also a process of developing and settling what this position is. What Cavell shows us is that the endeavour to reach an adequate understanding of ourselves is intimately connected to the attempt to make ourselves understandable to others and establish some sort of transparency in our relation to them; thus he sees moral life as ‘a weave of cares and commitments in which one is bound to become lost and need the friendly and credible words of others in order to find one’s way’ (Cavell 2004, 16).²⁹ Coming to an understanding of oneself essentially concerns our relationship not just to ourselves, but also to others, and which can only fully be realised in dialogue and discussion with others. Moreover, in self-understanding, we must draw on the resources of description and understanding that are available to us in our moral community, that is, we must engage in and find out where we stand in relation to our community. For Cavell, this is not just a process of exploring what moral standpoint we want to assume, but also a process of developing the moral standpoints available within this community. Still, Cavell realises that this process of entering society may in one sense be described as a necessary yet impossible task. The necessity of that task is [ . . . ] the acknowledgement of the existence of finite others, which is to say, the choice of community [ . . . ]. The impossibility lies in the options of community that the older grownups have left, which no one could want, not with a whole heart. (Cavell 1979, 464)

As we strive to find a suitable standpoint within our community, we draw on its moral resources, its language, and its care, but in doing so, we also come to engage with a number of moral options that we may or may not want to accept. The point is that we do not choose our position in our community from the ‘outside’, as it were; in the attempt to find a suitable moral standpoint, we are already deeply embedded in and speaking for that community.

²⁹ In continuation of this, Cavell in his work on perfectionism puts emphasis on the importance of the role of the friend, ‘the figure, let us say, whose conviction in one’s moral intelligibility draws one to discover it, to find words and deeds in which to express it’ (Cavell 1990, xxxii).

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This raises the question of how our moral standing and our responsibility is influenced by the moral community which conditions it—a question we turn to in the next chapter.

5.7 Moving On What we have explored in this chapter is the way in which personal particularities are involved in our moral positions and shape our moral thought, and what we now come to realise is that holding a particular position is intimately tied to an engagement with the particularities of our moral communities. The aim of the next chapter is to further elucidate this fact and to explore whether the particularities of our context also play a part in shaping our moral thought.

6 Particularities of Moral Contexts The Embedded Moral Self

It is a guiding idea of this work that we can only become competent moral thinkers by engaging in our community, in its practices and language. Until now we have focused on the way that communities provide us with resources for reasoning, judging, and choosing, and ultimately with possibilities of moral thought and reflection, but this is of course only part of the story. Our moral communities may also be the source of moral bias, distortion, and corruption; a problem which we will explore in this chapter. The aim, however, is not exclusively to show the negative influence of context, but rather to understand the connection between moral thought and moral context, and the investigation is guided by the idea that in order to understand how context can further and/or inhibit moral thought, we often need to understand the particular nature of this context. However, as the significance of the particularities of context stands out more clearly in cases of negative influences, examples of this kind will be at the centre of attention in the chapter, but we should also keep in mind that it would also be possible to make a similar investigation focusing on the way that particularities of context may enable and further moral thought. Of special interest will be the question of whether the resources available in thinking about moral matters in a particular community may inhibit or distort moral thought in a way that diminishes or excuses moral responsibility. To begin with, I will investigate whether the embeddedness of the moral subject in a particular context challenges the very possibility of moral responsibility, before I move on to the investigation of another and more productive question of how context influences our moral thought and responsibility. This question will be examined in two ways. First, I will look at cases of changes in language use in order to see whether such changes are related to changes in the thoughts available to us. This investigation will show that we face a twofold moral responsibility, both for our particular uses of words and for the linguistic practices and norms in which these words are embedded. Second, I turn to cases of particular practices, and the suggestion pursued here is that existing Moral Philosophy and Moral Life. Anne-Marie Søndergaard Christensen, Oxford University Press (2021). © Anne-Marie Søndergaard Christensen. DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198866695.003.0006

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practices can inhibit or distort moral thought, but that they cannot make certain moral thoughts or judgements inaccessible to us. Rather the lesson we take from this is somewhat different, namely that even if we in principle can think any moral thought in any context, context may still greatly influence what thoughts we have reason to think, making some moral insights readily accessible while hiding or marginalising others. In the final section, I discuss the possibility of critical moral reflection on context, before returning to the question of moral responsibility in order to show that its twofold nature arises from two fundamental aspects of the moral subject.

6.1 The Moral Subject, Moral Context, and Moral Responsibility In the previous chapter, we investigated how moral position, even if particular and personal, is a necessary condition of moral thought, and how we as a consequence take on moral responsibility for this position. In the very last section, we also came to see how our occupying a moral position means that we are already embedded in and drawing on the resources available in our moral community. The combination of these insights gives rise to a pressing question regarding moral responsibility. If the moral resources available to us and many of the particularities that make up our individual positions are not the subject of any sort of conscious moral consent, but rather are acquired together with our immersion into a community (an immersion necessary for us to become morally competent beings), how can we then be morally responsible? That is, how can a person have responsibility for her moral thought if she has not fully chosen it and cannot fully grasp its implications? The aim of the present chapter is to look at how the particularities of communities influence our moral position and thought and to ask what this means for the possibility of moral responsibility. In the present section, I continue the investigation begun in the previous chapter of the ways in which the influence of context may challenge the possibility of moral responsibility. Here we saw that we draw on the resources of our moral community in our moral development and self-understanding, and that this brings with it the danger that we simply settle on the commitments and values that are readily available or dominant in our community, but that we may not have actively endorsed, and that may be morally tainted or outright wrong. Furthermore, we saw how engaging in moral reasoning and discussion with others is a necessary part in developing, understanding, and settling our commitments and our

134      position; activities that are also conditioned by the moral resources available in our community, its language, values, norms, and practices of discussion, justification, and so on. In this way, we are from the outset not just related to, but also to a large degree committed to, a complex structure of norms and values, which we are not the masters of, and which far exceed our actual and even potential understanding. What this shows is that the very process of becoming a moral subject and developing a moral position, and thus of becoming able to take on moral responsibility, is constituted through our immersion into a moral community. Judith Butler makes a related point in Giving an Account of Oneself, when she alerts us to how the norms of our moral community are part of what determine what can and what cannot be an ‘I’, and how they in this way play a crucial role in the very constitution of us as persons. To show this, Butler develops the above-mentioned point that becoming a person is not something that we do ‘on our own’, but rather something that we do in answer to an address from another person. To become a self is to come to be able to offer an account of oneself in reaction to the questioning of one’s accountability by another person. Butler draws on the Nietzschean idea that we become persons out of fear of a certain form of latent violence, the threat of punishment, which can only be deflected, if at all, by the accountable subject. Butler agrees with Nietzsche that the address of the other is the constitutive element in becoming a person, but she rejects his narrow construal of this address.¹ We have to become someone in order to answer the queries of the other, and sometimes, as Nietzsche notes, these queries concern accountability and are followed by threats of punishment, but they also take endless other forms such as ‘Are you hungry?’, ‘Are you sad?’, ‘Where are you?’, ‘Who are you?’, ‘What do you want?’, and so on. Butler thus wants to hold on to Nietzsche’s structure of address and answer as a crucial condition of personhood and the possibility of being responsible, while also pointing to the fact that the address and the answer do not always take the forms of violence and fear. By describing responsibility via the structure of address and answer, Butler shows how we as moral subjects are constituted within a culturally established framework in a double relationship in which we relate to other people and our community on the one hand and to ourselves at the other. Becoming a moral subject is a process of self-formation in which we continuously reflect on and negotiate our identity within an already established web of values and ¹ See Butler 2005, 11.

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commitments, over which we have only a very limited power, but which is nonetheless a constitutive factor in who we will become. In this process, ‘one invariably struggles with conditions of one’s own life that one could not have chosen. If there was an operation of agency or, indeed, freedom in this struggle, it takes place in the context of an enabling and limiting field of constraints’ (ibid. 19). For Butler this gives rise to the following question: if the subject is not transparent and knowable to herself, can she then be held morally accountable? Because the values and norms of our community are not of our own making and are not fully transparent to us, they become a source of opacity in the subject in several ways by influencing our moral development and our engagement with others, and by setting the framework in which our moral personhood is constituted. This opacity poses a challenge to the possibility or at least the range of our moral responsibility—a challenge that can be viewed from two different perspectives. In line with Butler, we can see this challenge from an epistemological perspective: if we cannot fully know the conditions of our moral constitution and thus cannot fully account for ourselves, how can we then be morally responsible? We may, however, also see this challenge from a moral perspective: if we do not fully control and master these conditions, how can we then be fully responsible for them? These two ways of expressing the same challenge show how epistemic and moral considerations are interwoven in our lives, and in the following the two questions will therefore be treated as mutually dependent. Importantly, the idea that our opacity poses a challenge to moral responsibility depends on the assumption that we only take on responsibility for what we can fully understand and fully master.² These assumptions are central to an influential picture of the moral subject as the only source of his or her own responsibilities.³ According to this picture of ‘pure agency’, we are as moral subjects characterised by a radical form of independence, since our field of responsibility is co-extensive with and actually constituted by our field of control. In Margaret Urban Walker’s description, the picture of pure agency

² This is the idea often expressed by saying that ‘Ought implies can’. This sentence can, however, be used in different ways; as a rule, which does not allow for exceptions, but also as a reminder that in most cases we only ascribe people moral responsibility if they have had some way of knowing or influencing that for which they are said to have responsibility. For a nuanced discussion of different ways of understanding ‘Ought implies can’ and its origins in Kant’s thought, see Stern 2004. ³ We find this picture at play in some readings of Kant’s moral philosophy (but whether it should actually be contributed to Kant is a complicated issue) and in Nagel’s idea that moral agency requires that we are the absolute source of what we do. For a discussion of the origins of the picture of pure agency, see Walker 2003, 28–30.

136      is meant to account for a person’s ‘full field of action while pairing responsibilities to fit consent, commitment, and contract—the markers of voluntary control’ (Walker 2003, 31). On this picture, we only bear responsibility for what we have freely undertaken. However, if we accept this picture, then the very possibility of bearing moral responsibility is challenged by the fact that we cannot fully know and have not freely undertaken the conditions of our moral selves. If we accept the picture of pure agency this jeopardises the possibility of moral responsibility, and this should draw attention to the ways in which this picture misconstrues our ordinary understanding of the moral subject. First, the assumption that we only take on moral responsibility through voluntary and free actions such as consent, commitment and contract is at odds with our ordinary understanding of moral responsibility, because we often allow that we may come to have responsibilities without giving any form of consent, for example in the cases of responsibilities for parents, for neighbours, for our natural talents and faults, or simply for being present in a particular situation (at an accident, for example). In real life, we have many responsibilities that we have not freely chosen and that we do not fully control, and as Walker notes: ‘Pure agents, in sum, are freer on the whole from responsibility; are freer to define for themselves what and how much responsibility they will bear; and hence are freer from the varieties of burden to which responsibility renders one subject’ (ibid. 31). Second, we should give up the idea that moral personhood is essentially characterised by independence, since our very constitution depends on the address of and the relationship to others, parents, siblings, friends, but also role-models, teachers and maybe even to the fictional characters we are brought up with or the celebrities we follow in the media. As Butler notes: I am precisely non-transparent to myself because of my relationship to others, and if this very relationship to others is the site of action regarding my own ethical responsibility, then one can surely conclude that the subject’s non-transparency marks one of its most important ethical bonds. (Butler 2003, 29, quoted from Thompson 2005, 519)

We should therefore, without regret, give up the illusory picture of pure agency and instead develop an understanding of the embedded moral subject as opaque, as constituted in part by its relations to others, and as talking on responsibilities in various ways, through consent, commitment, and contract, but also through implication, closeness, or love.

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The important thing about this alternative picture of the opaque and embedded moral self is that it changes the type of questions that it makes sense to ask with regard to moral responsibility. The relevant question is not whether our embeddedness in a specific context or community challenges the very possibility of moral responsibility. The relevant question is rather how this context influences moral responsibility, its scope and character. I will examine this question by looking at various exemplary cases where context influences moral thought, examining how context affects the character of our moral responsibility. In the rest of this chapter, I therefore turn to the significance of particularities of moral context in moral life. Urban Walker makes a related call for more attention to context in moral philosophy (even if her focus on theory is stronger than in the present work): When context is ignored or effaced in theorizing, what we get is irrelevant or bad theory: theory that does not connect with life; theory that distorts, rather than reveals and clarifies its subject matter; theory that becomes a pastime and even competitive game for theory-makers independently of whether the theory enhances our understanding of its subject matter. In the case of ethical theory, the subject matter is the moral responsibilities of human beings. (Walker 2003, xiii)⁴

To sum up, our present aim is to investigate how the particularities of the context may both further and hinder moral thought, and in doing so influence the character of our responsibilities—even if we, as outlined in the introduction, focus on negative cases, where the influences of the particularities of moral context stand out more clearly than in cases of positive influences.⁵

6.2 The Case of Language: Restricted and Distorted Thoughts In this and the following sections, we will investigate how moral context can influence moral thought in order to see whether there are cases where

⁴ Walker continues: ‘But ethical theories can be worse than bad theory. They can be insidiously misleading, covering over features of our human and social conditions that require us to be morally examined and challenged. They become “ideological” ’ (ibid.). ⁵ See Eriksen 2017 (especially parts 3–4) for examples of the influence of the particularities of context resulting in moral change and a Wittgensteinian account of the interplay between context and moral justification in these cases.

138      context can constrain or distort our judgements or make certain judgements unavailable to us, thus changing the character of our moral responsibility. Another aim is to show the significance of particularities of context for moral life—and thus, in turn, for moral philosophy. In this investigation, we need to remember, of course, that the many different aspects of the context of our lives are interwoven; here language, practices, culture, and community make up one intricate fabric. Nonetheless, to explore different ways in which context matters for moral life, we will approach the context from two different angles, focusing on language and practice, respectively. Our first set of examples primarily focuses on the influence of language on moral thought, which is important both because our shared language displays the grammar of our moral practices (what we could call the Wittgensteinian reason), and because language is the place in which we struggle to make ourselves and others morally intelligible (what we could call the Cavellian reason). It is hard to investigate how language influences moral thought precisely because language is the very medium in which thought unfolds, which shows for instance in how the availability of adequate concepts is crucial to our abilities of discernment.⁶ We will attempt to sidestep this difficulty by looking at examples of changes in language use in different contexts. An invented example of this would be a society where the authorities attempt to change how people think morally by changing their moral vocabulary, ruling out certain moral concepts or introducing others. Such interferences with the way people talk and reason about moral matters—ranging from manipulation and propaganda to juridical or violent sanctions—do not, at least not initially, seem to change or distort the possibilities of moral thought available to those people, because during this process they will still be able to reflect on and criticise the changes in language. However, their critical moral abilities may be challenged if the changes in their vocabulary are gradual, persistent, and pervasive and concerned with many different areas of society, similar to the way the introduction of newspeak is portrayed in Orwell’s famous novel 1984 (1949). A real example of this is the Nazi party’s massive influence on the German language before and during the Second World War. One major source of knowledge of these changes in the German language is the German-Jewish philologist Victor Klemperer, who registered the changes in a number of notebooks written in secret during the Nazi era. Klemperer describes how the Nazis, through massive use of manipulation, propaganda, and language ⁶ A point explored in section 4.5.

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laws, managed to bring about a slow and gradual but very effective change in the Germans’ concepts and ways of talking. We could say that the Nazis influenced the possibilities of thought available in the German language. According to Klemperer, this influence was exerted on many basic moral judgements, such as the judgement that all humans are equal, which was originally widely shared in German society, but which in time came to appear odd, baffling, or irrelevant to many Germans. We find an illustration of this in Klemperer’s recollection of how one of the nicest women at the factory where he was assigned as forced labour one day asked with disbelief if Klemperer’s wife, the wife of a Jew, really was ‘a German’. Klemperer insists that the woman had a fundamentally humane character, and that her disbelief did not arise because she was a devout Nazi or had any other personal or ideological reasons to dislike Jews. The problem was rather that she ‘had been infected by the most fundamental ingredient of the National Socialist poison’, he says, and continues: she identified Germanness with the magical concept of the Aryan; it was barely conceivable to her that a German woman could be married to me, to an alien, a creature from another branch of the animal kingdom; all too often she had heard and repeated the terms ‘artfremd [alien]’ and ‘deutschblütig [of German blood]’ and ‘niederrassig [of inferior race]’ and ‘nordish [Nordic]’ and ‘Rassenschande [racial defilement]’: she certainly didn’t have a clear picture of what it all meant—but her feelings could not grasp the fact that my wife could be German. (Klemperer 2002, XVI, 94)⁷

For the woman, the idea of human equality had come to be emptied of positive content and relevance, or rather, it had become unavailable for her, while a word such as ‘German’ had taken over a new, morally fundamental, and positive significance. Klemperer’s point is that the Nazis through such small manipulations with language in many cases managed to effect a change whereby concepts and considerations went from being seen as morally positive to being seen as unattractive, illegitimate, or simply puzzling. Klemperer notes a similar change in the value implications of certain words under the Nazi influence, such as for example ‘fanatic’ and ‘fanaticism’.⁸ These words have their roots in the Latin ‘fanum’ which means temple or holy place, and ‘fanatic’ originally referred to a person in the state of religious ecstasy. ⁷ Translation amended. For the original German version, see Klemperer 1996, XVI, 121. ⁸ The German words are ‘fanatisch’ and ‘Fanatismus’.

140      However, through the influence of French enlightenment thinkers, for whom religious ecstasy was synonymous with religious delusions and opposition to rationalism, ‘fanatic’ came to have very negative and pejorative connotations until it became, in Klemperer’s words, ‘invariably negatively loaded’ denoting ‘a threatening and repulsive quality’ (ibid. IX, 59) lying somewhere ‘between sickness and criminality’ (ibid. IX, 58). So, before the Nazi rule, the words ‘fanatic’ and ‘fanaticism’ were used in German in a fashion similar to that of many other European languages, that is, their use was rare and always negatively loaded. However, in 1940, Klemperer records how the words got taken up in Nazi propaganda, and he tries to map out instances of this new use until he gives up, three years later, exclaiming in his notebook: ‘Their use is legion, fanatical is used as frequently “as [ . . . ] grains of sand on the beach”’ (ibid. IX, 57). In Nazi propaganda, the obsessive extreme of fanaticism came to stand for a grand and all-encompassing and wholly positive passion that was used in descriptions as ‘an inordinate complimentary epithet’ for example in the phrases ‘“fanatical belief ’ in the everlasting life of Hitler’s Reich”, the “‘fanatical faith in the final victory’”, and the “‘troops fighting fanatically’ in Normandy’ (ibid. IX, 60 and 61, respectively).⁹ Klemperer records a number of other significant changes in the moral resources of the German language; a transformation which many Germans took to heart without ever noticing what was happening. The lesson which Klemperer draws is that the strongest form of propaganda that the Nazis had at their disposal was indeed this, the successful transformation of the German language to fit to the Nazi ideology. ‘Nazism permeated the flesh and blood of the masses through single words, stock phrases and sentence structures which were imposed on them through millions of repetitions, which were mechanically and unconsciously accepted’. Quoting a verse from Schiller about the ‘gebildeten Sprache, die für dich dichtet und denkt’,¹⁰ Klemperer continues: But language does not simply write and think for me, it also guides my feelings, it governs my soul’s whole being, and it does so the more naturally,

⁹ Klemperer also notes that the transformation of ‘fanatic’ may not have been completely successful, as it, in contrast to many of the other elements of language introduced and reinforced by the Nazis, quickly disappeared from ordinary German usage after the war. On this ground, he finds it possible to conclude that ‘either consciously or unconsciously people remained aware of the real facts of the case all through those twelve years, namely, that a confused state of mind, equally close to sickness and criminality, was for twelve years held to be the greatest virtue’ (Klemperer 2002, XVI, 61). ¹⁰ This is more or less untranslatable into English, because of the lack of a counterpart to the German word ‘dichtet’, which means writing, making poetry, and making up stories. A rough translation would go something like this: ‘cultivated language which writes and thinks for me’.

   


the more unconsciously I abandon myself to it. And what happens if now cultured language is made up by poisonous elements or has been made the bearer of poisons? Words can work like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, but after a while, the toxic reaction shows anyway. (Ibid. I, 15–6)¹¹

The disquieting claim made by Klemperer is that such changes in language, even if each of them is minor and relatively surveyable, may penetrate an entire language and through that an entire way of thinking, by promoting some forms of thought and forcing alternative ways of thinking to recede into the background, becoming almost unavailable or effectively disappearing. Another, even more influential description of the Nazi influence on German language up to and during the Second World War is found in Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt is especially interested in how changes in language were used to solve one of the great problems facing the Nazi Party at the time of the decision to implement the Endlösung—a concept that in itself was an effective tool in trying to make thinkable the attempt to extinguish an entire people—namely the conscience and pity of the German citizens, the intended perpetrators. The problem was how to overcome the resistance that most people would feel against doing the horrible deeds necessary to implement the extermination of the Jews. According to Arendt, one very effective way in which the Third Reich dealt with these ‘problems of conscience’ was slogans which introduced a new meaning to well-established value words or forged new connections in language. An example of this is the SS slogan, coined by Heinrich Himmler, ‘My Honour is my Loyalty’, which replaces the idea of honour being attached to certain values with the idea of honour being tied solely to loyalty to a specific entity, the Nazi Party with Hitler as its leader (Arendt 1964, 105).¹² Another way in which the Nazis manipulated language and moral thought was by making up new expressions for certain phenomena; here ‘the extermination of the Jews’ became ‘the final solution’ or Endlösung, and in connection to unwanted individuals, the concept of ‘murder’, with its inevitable connotations of moral evil and violence, was replaced by the phrase ‘to grant a mercy death’, implying a positive moral value and a connection to medical practices ¹¹ Translation amended. For the original German version, see Klemperer 1996, I, 24–5. ¹² Arendt notes another disturbing example of Hitler taking a central moral role, namely that Eichmann referred all his duties to Hitler and claimed that he was acting in accordance with a perverted form of the Kantian imperative: ‘Act in such a way that the Führer, if he had known your action, would approve it’ (Arendt 1964, p. 136).

142      (ibid. 108). The Nazis also changed moral language by turning commonly accepted and sound moral ideas upside down, for example by claiming that moral excellence was required in order to do not what was good, but what was wicked. The soldiers of the death squads, the Einsatzgruppen, were in this way reassured that they would need to be ‘decent’, ‘superhuman’, even ‘superhumanly inhuman’ (ibid. 105) in order to do the terrible acts expected of them. Relatedly, the Nazis also tried to reverse the direction of basic moral feelings to concern, not the victims of terrible actions, but rather the perpetrators, in this case, the Germans themselves (probably utilising a common psychological tendency). In Arendt’s description, ‘instead of saying: What horrible things I did to people!, the murderers would be able to say: What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighed upon my shoulders!’ (ibid. 106). Arendt concludes that this manipulation of the German language in effect meant that Nazi Germany became a society where all fundamental moral concepts and principles were turned upside down, bestowing an appearance of necessity on the evil done there. What do these examples show us? Before we answer this question, it seems necessary to remind ourselves of the extremity of the case of Germany under Nazi rule, but also that what is unique is the radical and wicked nature of the forms of change which the Nazi Party tried to implement, not that they influenced and manipulated language in order to change the possibilities available in moral thought. Such attempts are clearly not unique to the Nazi Party, and we find many illustrations of this for example in contemporary Danish politics. When the Danish government in 2015 tried to brand a major cut-back in the financial benefits given to refugees, they named this new form of extra low benefit the ‘integration benefit’, thus forging a link in language between lower income and integration.¹³ And in 2014, cut-backs in the available number of places at some higher educations within the Arts and Social Sciences were named ‘dimensioning’, thus forging another link between the idea of ‘the right dimensions’ and fewer people educated within these areas.¹⁴ These examples are of course not obviously morally corrupt in the same way or to the same extent as the previous examples, but they still concern ways of manipulating language in order to further a particular way of thinking about an issue. It seems fair to say that such examples are legion in contemporary western politics, in contemporary

¹³ For information about the ‘integration benefit’, see Beskæftigelsesministeriet 2015. ¹⁴ For information about ‘dimensioning’ of Danish higher education, see Uddannelses- og forskningsministeriet (2017).

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advertising and popular debates. This shows that the connection between moral thought and the resources available in language, the fact that introducing a particular form of language use can make some judgements more readily available and others harder to express, is well known and often utilised. What the examples of the Nazi manipulation of the German language show us is that some such changes in language can come to distort moral judgements and moral thought. The difficult question is what makes these and certain forms of language use morally problematic. One problematical feature of the manipulations presented in the examples above is that they forge unwarranted or even corrupt connections in language such as the connections between praiseworthy passion and the blindness of fanaticism, between honour and thoughtless loyalty, between moral excellence and acts of violence and murder, between being a German and being a superior form of human being. Because they are embedded in language, these connections become part of the moral resources which the language user draws on when she strives for understanding, and for this reason, they make it difficult for her to discern and consider alternatives, such as the value of every human being or the blindness and cruelty of fanaticism. These examples show us how language, by way of misleading connections, may lead us astray and be made to lead us astray, in this case distorting moral thought. We could say with Wittgenstein, ‘A picture is conjured up’ (PI §426) and share his worry that ‘we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably’ (PI §115). However, this leads us to another pressing question. As Wittgenstein reminds us, the danger of being led astray by misleading linguistic analogies is an ever-present danger in all language use. So is there anything that justifies the judgement that some of these analogies and connections, for example those forged by the Nazis, are morally faulty? To answer this question, we must look to another feature of the examples, namely that language use in these instances becomes divorced from a fundamental function of language, which is to further our understanding of ourselves and of the world. In Caleb Thompson’s words, we here find the ‘accuracy of language [ . . . ] abandoned in favor of its effect; truth is subordinated to ambition’ (Thompson 1992, 19). The morally flawed nature of the examples of language use presented above is connected to the way in which language is made to serve external, and in these cases morally wretched, interests. However, if we look closer at our cases, we will see that the problem of external interests guiding language use involves two different forms of moral responsibility and thus opens the possibility of two different forms

144      of moral failure on the part of the manipulator of language and of the individual language user, respectively. Thompson is helpful in elucidating the first form of responsibility, where the failure is to introduce external interests into language and allow them to guide and change language use, something which he terms ‘corruption of language’. According to Thompson, ‘The corruption of language is measured against the human interests that language otherwise serve, given some measure of interest in the fidelity between speakers and their words and between words and things’ (ibid. 21). Thompson is especially concerned with forms of misuse of language where certain words or phrases are emptied of meaning as in Orwellian ‘newspeak’. However, his description of corrupt forms of language use is relevant to our examples, because they also involve ways of dealing with language that give up ‘some measure of interest in the fidelity between speakers and their words and between words and things’. The speakers’ experiences of the vileness of murder and fanaticism is pushed aside in favour of certain misleading pictures of ‘the mercy of death’ and ‘the glory of fanatic belief ’. The examples concern uses of language intentionally coined to invite and enforce misleading analogies in language, and this is why this coinage is itself morally corrupt. We may get the other form of possible failure into view if we consider the responsibility of the individual language user. The question here is whether the influence of corrupt forms of language will excuse individual language users of moral responsibility for their judgements, actions, attitudes, and so on. What we have seen is that corrupted forms of language use can distort or even hide certain forms of moral thought, making them more difficult. However, setting aside contexts where the whole of language is corrupted in this way (which is arguably a case not even explored in fiction),¹⁵ there are no unthinkable thoughts, even if some thoughts must develop in different ways, in more austere regions of language. Moral corruption of language is one of the moral challenges that we face, and a serious one at that, but it does not make sound moral judgement impossible, and therefore it does not exempt language users of moral responsibility for their uses of words. Instead, the examples indicate that the individual language user has a responsibility different from the responsibility for her judgements, actions, attitudes, and so on. Engaging in corrupted forms of language and thus accepting the related abandonment of some measure of interest in fidelity in language use involves ¹⁵ In 1984, Orwell describes how certain thoughts are hard to come by, but the novel also shows how they are not (at least not yet) impossible to think.

   


a failure of the language user to notice how these forms of language use are detached from our attempt to understand ourselves, others, and the world. The possibility of failing in this way shows us an area of moral responsibility that with Thompson we could call the responsibility of fidelity in language use. This is what we will explore in the next section.

6.3 The Dual Responsibility of Language Use To explore the idea of a responsibility for fidelity in language use, we need to take a short detour through Wittgenstein’s description of language use in the rule-following considerations of the Philosophical Investigations. In these remarks, Wittgenstein investigates language use through a number of examples of very basic rule-following such as developing series of numbers (§151–4), reading aloud (§156), copying doodles (§175) and adding two (§185 and onwards) in order to describe the different elements involved.¹⁶ First, he shows how human agreement in basic reactions and judgements is of fundamental importance for language use. We can only establish and uphold the rules and criteria conditioning rule-following because human beings under certain circumstances actually react and act in similar ways, because humans ‘agree in the language they use’ (§242). Second, Wittgenstein reminds us that rule-following, understanding, and ultimately language, are possible only in reference to ‘particular circumstances’ (§154, §179), consisting of particular forms of training (§198), customs (§198), institutions (§199) and practices (§202), and so on. Rule-following does not get its stability from a reference to or support from external elements; Wittgenstein shows how references to for example platonic rails or mental images or processes do no work to secure our ability to follow basic rules. Rule-following rather becomes possible because its participants through training have been introduced into a normative practice and have become masters of a range of techniques (§199). Rule-following involves more than regularity because it is embedded in shared practices that establish shared criteria for correct and incorrect action. Learning a rule or a word is thus always also a learning of norms. To these elements, Wittgenstein adds a third and equally important element, the active contribution of the person doing the rule-following. Rule-following is only possible if there is an I that reacts in a particular way, even if this is in some ¹⁶ This way of presenting the rule-following considerations is in line with the one found in McGinn 1997 and McDowell 1981 and 1992.

146      cases only the very minimal contribution that ‘I have been trained to react to this sign in a particular way, and now I do so react to it’ (§198). Nonetheless, there are no cases of rule-following that do not depend on a contribution from the rule-follower; rule-following always involves an active subject. Moreover, we should remember that Wittgenstein is here concerned with the most minimal forms of rule-following, such as adding two, which means that in other forms of language use this contribution will often consist in more than mere reacting or doing the same again. Wittgenstein’s considerations on rule-following remind us that there is no domain of language that does not involve some form of contribution on our part, at the very least the minimal contribution that we let the rule strike us and simply obey (cf. §219). The question is how we should understand the interplay between this individual contribution of the rule-follower and the practice surrounding the use of a word. Stephen Mulhall has addressed this question by looking at our understanding of concepts. On one possible description, the grammar of the ordinary use of a concept informs our understanding of any use of that concept in a way that always allows us to determine whether a particular instance of use is correct. The individual contribution to language use is simply that we obey the criteria of the relevant grammar, and if we encounter a form of use that does not conform to ordinary grammar, we have the choice either to dismiss this use as faulty, or to let it establish a new use, that is, a new concept with a new grammar. Mulhall is, however, unsatisfied with this description and goes on to introduce an alternative that takes into account how it is often possible for us to understand quite unfamiliar or divergent uses of words, and how we approach the differences and similarities between such unusual uses of words and our ordinary grammar. What we see in cases in which we try to project a concept into a new context is that uses of concepts are often ‘importantly open to individual judgement’ (Mulhall 2002, 313). Our grasp of the grammar of a concept and the criteria connected to it obviously guide our assessment of such projections, but the question of whether the norms or criteria involved in this grammar have been met is essentially open to the judgement of the individual language-user. Mulhall sums up his point by saying that ‘any concept must be flexibly inflexible in these ways: its normativity is of a kind that enables or rather constitutes individual freedom of judgement, because its grammatical schematism is such that our projections of words are at once deeply controlled and ineliminably creative’ (ibid. 315). Our present aim is to focus on one consequence of Mulhall’s reminder, namely that the individual’s essential contribution to concept use means that

   


such use always involves an element of personal responsibility. In actual uses of language, in acting on the ‘flexibly inflexible’ nature of concepts, we should on the one hand be able to account for how a specific context invites or allows for our use of a concept while we on the other hand recognise that our use is always also an exercise of freedom. In talking, when we use language, we can almost never refer to something that will definitely settle or justify our use as the only right one; the appropriateness of an instance of language use always also relies on individual discernment and powers of judgement as well as an ability to justify such judgement.¹⁷ Mastering a language is not just a matter of reacting in specific ways, but also a matter of being able to understand and reflectively evaluate the rules guiding ‘the right way’ to act, that is, to judge particular uses of language. This should lead us to see that our engagement in language is subject to a responsibility arising in the field between norms embedded in the grammar of a concept and the individual’s contribution to specific uses of that concept. In this way, responsibility is involved in all our dealings with language. We will return to the question of what such responsibility for language use entails, but we need to consider another question first. We have seen that we are responsible for our language use because it involves elements of freedom and judgement, but it also seems obvious that the latitude for freedom and judgement varies between different types of language use. To exemplify, we find intelligible only a very limited contribution with regard to concepts such as ‘2’, namely to react as we have been trained, while we find intelligible and allow for a much wider creative freedom and thus a greater responsibility with regard to concepts such as ‘good’, ‘praiseworthy’ or ‘courageous’ (not to mention words such as ‘artfremd’ or ‘niederrassig’). The question is what determines the scope of our freedom and judgement and the corresponding responsibility for language use. One possible suggestion is that the possible scope of the individual contribution is settled with reference to the different degrees of disagreement we allow for the uses of different concepts. As Cora Diamond reminds us: ‘Ethics is not like mathematics; the role of agreement, the kind of agreement that there is in ethical thought, is not to be laid down in advance on some general Wittgensteinian principles. We need to see—in ethics as in mathematics—what agreement belongs to the intelligibility of the language we use’ (Diamond 1991a, 28). This difference in forms of agreement ¹⁷ Avner Baz raises a similar concern against the conception of language found in John McDowell’s writings, namely that to assume that truth alone is enough to explain meaning is to give in to the temptation of thinking that words somehow speak for themselves, without any contribution from us (Baz 2003).

148      thus arises from a difference in the use we make of these different concepts, the different roles they play in our lives. If we look at basic number concepts, one of the reasons why we teach children such concepts is to introduce them to linguistic practices that enable them to reach results equivalent to the results of others. As Wittgenstein notes, ‘Disputes do not break out (among mathematicians, say) over the question whether a rule has been obeyed or not. People don’t come to blows over it, for example’ (PI §240). This means, however, that when we learn to use numbers, we also learn not to place any value on the possibility of disagreement about numbers.¹⁸ If we want to be able to use numbers correctly, we must accept that our individual contribution is minimised to reacting as we have been trained or doing the same again. If we do not respond in this way, others will rule out our uses as unintelligible, or, to put the same thing differently, they will claim that we are simply not using numbers. Wittgenstein also notes that ‘[c]ounting (and this means: counting like this) is a technique that is employed daily in the most various operations of our lives. And this is why we learn to count as we do: with endless practice, with merciless exactitude; that is why it is inexorably insisted that we shall say “two” after “one”, “three” after “two” and so on’ (RFM I, §4). In contrast to the case of number words, our primary aim in the teaching of evaluative words is not agreement, a difference which is reflected in our evaluations of their use. When parents teach a child to use an evaluative word like ‘good’, they may consider it a sign of understanding if the child starts to use the word about objects that differ substantially from the ones that were used in the teaching, even if the parents themselves do not consider these objects good. In other words, they may readily understand why the child calls candy good, that is, what place that use of the concept holds in the life of the child, even if they do not share this judgement. To draw on Mulhall’s distinction, we allow for a high degree of freedom and creative use with evaluative words. Still, we should remember the lesson of Wittgenstein’s rule-following considerations that the difference between the forms of agreement that we allow with regard to the use of numbers and evaluative words respectively does not arise because our use of numbers is settled by something external while

¹⁸ Wittgenstein makes a similar point. ‘[W]hen we say that it is evident, this means that we have already chosen a definite kind of employment for the proposition without realising it. [ . . . ] It is not our finding the proposition self-evidently true, but our making the self-evidence count, that makes it into a mathematical statement’ (RFM IV §3). Of course, this point only applies to basic forms of mathematics. In some discussions of advanced mathematics, even basic moves will be the subject of dispute. This dispute will, however, still presuppose agreement on how to use basic number words.

   


our use of words such as ‘good’ relies solely on individual judgement. Instead, it results from the different degrees of freedom and variation that we allow for in uses of different words, because of the different roles these words play in our practices. What does this mean for our responsibility for language use? In the case of numbers, we rule out possible disagreement as illegitimate in order to enable us to use numbers to reach equivalent results, and this means that part of what we learn in learning to use numbers is that this use places only a very restricted and well-defined set of responsibilities on ourselves as well as on others— responsibilities that are not generally moral, but concern our reproduction of the grammar of numbers, our doing the same again. In the case of an evaluative word such as ‘good’, we value the possibility of taking an individual stand and of elaborating on our moral position higher than we value the possibility of reaching agreement on particular matters. Because of this, we allow for a high degree of freedom in evaluative uses of words and for the connected possibility of widespread disagreement; both are necessary in order to allow for the intelligibility of a variety of evaluations, which makes it possible for us to express evaluations that are genuinely our own. Thus when we engage in morally relevant language use, we have a responsibility to justify the appropriateness of our particular uses of words and supply the context that makes this use intelligible, as this context will often not be the subject of uniform agreement.¹⁹ This means that responsibility for uses of evaluative concepts is morally significant in a way that responsibility for uses of basic number concepts is not. If this description of what is involved in responsibility for language use is correct, then moral responsibility is involved in all cases where we allow for a morally significant variation of possible uses of a word; a variation that is settled, not by the intentional states of the individual speaker, but by the linguistic practices and norms surrounding uses of a concept, how we react to speakers, what variety of uses we find intelligible, and so on. Accordingly, the possibility of moral disagreement is an integrated part of the grammar of morally relevant uses of concepts. If we wanted to rule out the possibility of such disagreement, we would have to change our practices to exclude the possibility of creative uses of morally relevant concepts, but this would not be moral discourse as we know it, except for the troublesome element of disagreement. It would indeed be something very different, where we perhaps ¹⁹ This parallels Cavell’s claim that in moral reasoning and discussion we should be able, not just to answer for, but also to explicate and elaborate our moral position, see section 5.3.

150      accepted as morally relevant only a limited set of highly defined words and thus restricted the possibility of expressing our own moral evaluations and judgements. Such a change would alter, not just the way we speak, but also the way we live, as it would make different forms of moral life harder to express or outright unintelligible. In order to see what is at stake in our responsibility for language use, we can look at an example of someone who engages in forms of language use open to substantial individual judgement, and who, because of the problematic character of the context necessary for the intelligibility of this use, becomes morally reproachable. The example is taken from Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House and concerns one of the main characters, Helmer, and his almost consistent use of nicknames such as ‘little skylark’ and ‘little squirrel’ to address his wife, Nora. During the play, Helmer calls Nora ‘skylark’ at least six times and ‘squirrel’ a couple of times; a few times exchanging ‘little’ for ‘my’ (Ibsen 2009, 9, 12, 56, 80, 81, 92 and 8, 9 respectively). Helmer hardly ever calls Nora by her name, but refers to her also as ‘little featherhead’ (ibid. 9), ‘little spendthrift’ (ibid. 8, 11), ‘little song-bird’ (ibid. 43), ‘little mortal’ (ibid. 77) and ‘Miss Obstinate’ (ibid. 59).²⁰ To state the obvious: these words are not moral words by any standards, and there is no indication in the play that Helmer consciously has any laudable intentions in referring to his wife this way. It also seems safe to assume that one reason for using nicknames in marriages is to confirm the intimate relation to one’s spouse and to express the meaning that he or she has for oneself, which means that we allow for a very wide variety of uses of nicknames as intelligible—even if the intelligibility of such uses will hinge on the user of a nickname being able to argue for the appropriateness of the nickname and provide the relevant context of the use. The question here is whether the responsibility involved in Helmer’s use of nicknames can be said to be moral in character. Helmer’s choice of nicknames establishes a connection between his wife and small animals, often considered adorable, carefree, and irresponsible; a connection that is reinforced by his almost consistent reference to her as ‘little’. Uses of nicknames like ‘little skylark’ and ‘little squirrel’ thus bring with them a picture of Nora as thoughtless, immature, and irresponsible, and thus help establish and reinforce a view of Helmer’s and Nora’s mutual relationship as asymmetric with Nora being ascribed the role of the immature and irresponsible party and Helmer assuming the role of the mature and more responsible one. Establishing such a view ²⁰ A brilliant analysis of Helmer’s insincere relationships to many of his statements is presented in Haraldsson (2010).

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of one’s spouse and such asymmetric roles within one’s marriage is indeed morally relevant and in doing so, Helmer becomes the subject of genuinely moral responsibility. As this view is also morally problematic, he becomes reproachable simply for his uses of words. Incidentally it is notable that the example concerns referring uses of concepts, and thus indicates that the question of linguistic responsibility may also be relevant to such uses. What becomes clear from the Ibsen example is that the morally problematic character of some uses of words does not spring from the words themselves but is tied to the specific instances of uses of words and the context that makes these uses intelligible. This goes for ‘little skylark’ as well as for ‘final solution’. Moral responsibility for language use is thus tied both to the practices that establish the possibilities of specific uses (the practices surrounding marriage at Ibsen’s time and, more extremely, the practices of Nazi Germany), and to the individual that makes use of these possibilities. We will return to the question of morally problematic practices in the next section, but for now, we will try to summarise what is involved in the individual responsibility for language use. There seems to be two forms of responsibility involved here. One is our responsibility for what we actually say, for example Helmer’s responsibility for his use of nicknames and Klemperer’s co-worker’s responsibility for questioning the possibility of a Jew being married to a German. Caleb Thompson refers to this form of responsibility when he notes that ‘[t]he essence of responsible language must come to this: we must consider carefully what use of language is appropriate to our subject, whatever it is’ (Thompson 1992, 24). We have such responsibility because appropriate use, as we have seen above, involves an element of freedom and judgement and cannot be settled simply with reference to rules and existing grammar. With regard to responsibility for specific sayings, corrupted forms of language can impoverish, restrict, and distort our possibilities of moral thought, making it more difficult to express oneself, and to some degree also serve to excuse moral failures in one’s uses of language. We may, for instance, to some degree want to excuse Helmer for accepting the culturally dominant view of marriage of his time or excuse Klemperer’s coworker because of the massive linguistic manipulation to which she has been subjected.²¹ Klemperer himself seems to have a similar view when he remarks that even if the woman allowed herself to be influenced by the many words setting up barriers between Germans and Jews, ‘she certainly didn’t have a ²¹ Just as we may to some degree want to excuse Helmer for his disempowering way of addressing his wife, because of his cultural context.

152      clear picture of what it all meant’. How much we are willing to excuse someone for engaging in corrupted forms of language is a matter of degree and depends on how comprehensive we judge the influence of the corruption of language to be. However, in the cases considered here, I would argue that this excuse is not total, as the relevant contexts still allow for alternative ways of thinking. This does however lead us to the other form of responsibility, which concerns our acceptance of and engagement with particular ways of using words, particular ways of speaking or particular linguistic practices. With regard to this responsibility, the woman of Klemperer’s story fails morally by accepting and engaging in forms of language use that veil and distort the simple fact that Klemperer is a human and a person just like his German wife and herself. That is, she has failed if she has not at the very least attempted to achieve ‘a clear picture of what it all meant’ and to resist the pictures of human beings conjured up by the Nazi’s language manipulation, just as Helmer fails for not even considering alternative understandings of marriage. Our moral embeddedness in the language of our community thus means that we have a double-sided responsibility. On the one hand, we are responsible for our particular uses of words, the way we express our attitudes, judgements, and actions, and with regard to this side of our responsibility, the presence of corrupted forms of language may to some degree work to excuse us. On the other hand, we are—at least to some extent—responsible for this context, for our engagement with particular forms of language, with the practices and norms that guide our words and thereby influence our thinking. That is, we are responsible for engaging in reflective and critically scrutiny of the language of our moral community and for keeping this language free of corrupting influences. With regard to this responsibility, the presence of corrupted forms of language does not excuse us, quite the contrary.

6.4 The Case of Practice: Unthinkable Thoughts? What we have seen so far is that we have a double-sided moral responsibility in relation to language, both for our actual sayings and for engaging in specific language practices; and also that our embeddedness into a specific language may both excuse and expand our moral responsibility. The question to which we now turn is whether we find such double-sided moral responsibility if we widen the scope of our investigation to involve the practices of our moral communities. In doing so, we should remember the point developed in Chapter 4 that moral thought is dependent on competent participation

   


in a number of interwoven normative practices that offer a framework of inter-subjectively shared ways of relating to, looking at, acting in and criticising our moral lives. As we become able to reason morally, we are initiated into practices that allow us to trace patterns of interest and rely on shared judgements that we normally do not question, which means that our moral positions and moral thought are fundamentally shaped by the context provided by our moral community. The question is whether our moral thought can be distorted or constrained if we are initiated into a context shaped by inflexible or distorted norms and values. This relationship between moral thought and moral practices can be explored by looking at the influence of context on our moral development. We find an illuminating example of this influence in a story from George Orwell’s memoirs. At the age of eight, Orwell was sent to boarding school and, as often happens to children in this type of situation, he began wetting his bed. The boy Orwell thinks that bedwetting is indeed wrong of him, but initially, he also thinks that it is in some way forgivable because it is out of his control. First, he is warned by a teacher to stop, but when he does not stop, his headmaster gives him a severe beating. The question is what the boy Orwell learns from this. He does not learn the lesson about the terrible things that adults do to children, which of course is the lesson that the man Orwell wants us, his readers, to learn. Quite the contrary. The boy Orwell learns that he cannot trust his initial judgement that he is in some sense excused for that which he cannot control, and he learns that he is indeed to blame. In Orwell’s words, ‘this was the great, abiding lesson of my boyhood: that I was in a world where it was not possible for me to be good. [ . . . ] Life was more terrible, and I was more wicked, than I had imagined’ (Orwell 1953, 16). What the boy Orwell learns is that given the practices and norms of the community in which he is embedded, he cannot succeed morally. The story shows us how certain contexts can distort a person’s moral development—and this is the tragedy of it. Moral development is, however, not just a matter of growing from child to adult; becoming a competent moral person is, as shown in the last chapter, an ongoing process involving a continuous effort to establish a coherent understanding of oneself. Even as an adult, a person’s understanding of herself and moral life is greatly influenced by context, as she has to draw on the moral resources available for herself and for those she addresses in her community. If these resources only consist in very narrow or inflexible concepts, norms and possibilities of moral thinking and acting, the subject may find that she has limited ways of making herself understood, and she may come to give up the

154      attempt to make herself intelligible and instead simply reproduce prevailing views of what it is good or right to be. She may even come to accept herself as wicked, as in the case of the boy Orwell. This is related to Nomy Arpaly’s notion of ‘inverse akrasia’, where a person thinks herself morally flawed because she fails to act in accordance with a morally wrong judgement prevalent in her society, while also failing to consciously hold any judgements that could help her understand why the prevalent judgement is wrong.²² Arpaly finds this exemplified in the story of Huckleberry Finn, where Huck consciously holds the beliefs that slavery is morally acceptable and that helping an escaped slave is a form of stealing, but still fails to betray his travel companion, the escaped slave Jim—something for which Huck seriously reproaches himself. If we accept, as indeed we should, that Huck does the right thing in not turning Jim in, this is a clear example of how context can inhibit moral thought and with it the possibilities of acting and reacting to others in the right way. However, I want to investigate whether contextual influences can reach beyond isolated instances of inverse akrasia, where context forces a specific, wrong moral judgement on us. In Huck’s case, we could for instance imagine that given time he would be able to put into words the unconscious insights that are making him resist betraying Jim, such as the insight that Jim is ‘a fellow human being’ (Arpaly 2003, 77). The possibility I want to investigate is whether our practical context can influence us in a way that fundamentally distorts our thinking to the point that it becomes impossible for us to grasp or hold on to some moral insights. The Orwell example seems to indicate that this may be the case with children, but my main focus will be the exercise of mature moral thought, because this focus allows us to explore whether there are contexts in which certain thoughts are made unthinkable for otherwise competent moral persons.²³ If we build on Orwell’s story, we could for instance imagine seeing the situation from the perspective of a young teacher loyal to the prevailing wisdom at the boarding school. Such a teacher may also find it hard to think the right thought, namely that Orwell’s involuntary bedwetting cannot be a moral fault; the teacher’s thoughts could be constrained in this way. However, unless we can point to something very unusual about the life and character of that teacher, it should also be possible for him to find the resources to come to think the right ²² See Arpaly 2003, 75–8. From cases like this, where conscious reasoning seems to work against acting well, in the way that explicit knowledge of one’s modesty can work against actually being modest, Julia Driver has argued that we should give up the idea that moral reasoning is central to all forms of virtue, see Driver 2001. ²³ See section 4.6 for a discussion of the critical potential of mature moral thought.

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thought somehow, for example by noticing how we normally do not blame people for their completely involuntary reactions.²⁴ In Raimond Gaita’s Good and Evil, we find an argument for the idea that certain forms of thought are out of reach in certain contexts even for competent moral thinkers. Gaita argues that in slave cultures, where the slaves are treated as replaceable in a way that we now think that they are not, this is not because the slave owners do not understand that a slave has a specific character in the sense of desires and projects with which he or she identifies, but rather because the slave owners deny that this character is such as to make the slave irreplaceable. Cavell makes a similar point. He notes that the slave owner ‘is missing not something about slaves exactly, and not exactly about human beings. He is rather missing something about himself, or rather about his connection with these people, his internal relation with them, so to speak.’ Cavell continues: ‘He means, indefinitely, that slaves are different, primarily different from him, secondarily perhaps different from you and me’ (Cavell 1979, 376). Cavell and Gaita’s point is that the slave owner sees a slave both as like the slave owner himself and as fundamentally different, for example in being replaceable. Gaita holds that the slave owners’ treatment of the slaves as replaceable means that there are indeed thoughts about the slaves that the slave owners cannot think. If a slave killed himself because he could no longer bear his affliction, his owner could not think of the slave’s suicide in the same way as he can think of the suicide of a friend who also killed himself in despair. In the case of the friend, thoughts about the terribleness of suicide, perhaps of a Christian kind, makes sense to the slave owner, but this is not so with the slave. The slave is seen as ‘putting himself out of his misery’ and this is more or less the end of it. (Gaita 2005, 152–3; italics added)²⁵

²⁴ Of course even if it is possible for the teacher to find the resources to think and judge differently about the boy Orwell, he may still not do so. As Wittgenstein remarks: It is not unheard of that someone character may be influenced by the world that surrounds him. For that only means that, as we know from experience, people change with circumstances. If someone asks: How could the environment coerce someone, the ethical in someone?—the answer is that he may indeed say ‘No human being has to give in to coercion’, but all the same under such circumstances someone will do such and such. ‘You don’t HAVE to, I can show you a (different) way out’,—but you won’t take it. (CV 95, MS 173 17r) ²⁵ A recurring theme in Gaita’s moral philosophy is that the denial of the other’s place in our ‘common humanity’ is the worst form of moral violation (see also Gaita 2002). For an excellent, critical discussion of Gaita’s general treatment of cases where some being is excluded from our moral considerations, see Hertzberg 2010.

156      Because the slave owner talks about and acts towards the slave as replaceable, and because he lives in a society where this way of talking and acting is considered intelligible, there is, according to Gaita, indeed something that the slave owner cannot think. The moral context and the practices in which the slave owner’s relation to the slave is embedded constrain the thoughts of the slave owner to such a degree that it is impossible for him to think the thought that the slave is a human being in a sense that brings with it a claim to uniqueness, dignity, and equal respect. Gaita thus argues that in contexts with practices of owning slaves and accepted ways of thinking and acting as a slave owner, certain thoughts are made unavailable for otherwise competent moral thinkers. However, Gaita’s claim seems rather radical. It seems to fail to take into account the possibility of moral development and the flexibility of moral thinking, the idea that the slave owner may take a different route in coming to see that his relation to slaves is wrong. In the example above, all sorts of things may happen. If the suicide of the slave is followed by that of the slave owner’s friend, it may for example spur him to compare the two and through this become able to see that the suicide of the slave is, in fact, terrible in a way similar to that of his friend. Or we can imagine a parallel development in relation to another of Gaita’s examples, that of a slave owner raping one of his slaves. In this case, Gaita claims, the slave owner would not be able to understand the harm done to the slave because of his inability to see her as ‘an intelligible object of anyone’s love’ (ibid. 161). However, even if we accept this description, there still seems to be various ways in which the slave owner’s thinking may develop. If he takes the slave woman as his mistress, many things may happen. Maybe he will keep seeing her in the same way as always. Or maybe his wife will become jealous of the slave mistress in a way that will open the slave owner’s eyes to how the slave is indeed an intelligible object of love and thus an intelligible object of jealousy. Or maybe the slave will come to mean something to him that makes him see her as infinitely valuable and unique. There are indeed a number of different ways in which the slave owner can come to think the ‘unthinkable’ thought that a slave is irreplaceable in the same way as every other human being, and this means that the thought is not unthinkable after all, at least not in any strict sense. We thus find something correct as well as something misguided in Gaita’s idea of the unthinkable thought. It seems right to point out that the practices of a moral community may seriously constrain moral thinking, but it seems wrong to claim that such constraints are absolute, setting up limits that make certain thoughts and judgements impossible, because our access to apparently

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‘inaccessible thoughts’ may be revived if we draw on other resources available to us, as the slave owner might come to see his slave mistress as irreplaceable and as an intelligible object of love through the jealousy of his wife. This seems to be the case, even if such ways of bypassing contextual inhibitions of moral thought may be hard to find in contexts with very few or corrupted moral resources. We find another defence of the idea of the unthinkable thought in Julia Annas’ discussion of the Stoics’ view of slaves and the influence of context on moral thought. What worries Annas is that while the Stoics held the view that slaves deserve respect in the same way as every other human being, they still failed to draw the natural conclusion and recommend the abolition of slavery (Annas 2011, 60–1). The question is how the Stoics managed to hold these two seemingly contradictory judgements at the same time. Annas’ answer is complex. On the one hand, she holds that acquiring the virtues enables us to detach ourselves from the community in which we have received our upbringing and our education and place it under moral scrutiny.²⁶ On the other hand, she thinks that there are limits to how far this critical ability can distance us from the circumstances in which we live. The Stoics were prevented from reaching the natural conclusion that slavery was wrong, simply because they lived in a society completely dependent on slavery. ‘[I]n the ancient world there was nowhere else to go, no way to opt out and move into a more just system’, Annas notes, and goes on: ‘It is the circumstances of ancient society that limit the ways Stoics could act with regard to slavery, not the limitations of thinking in terms of virtue’ (ibid. 60). Annas argues that in order to be able to reach the conclusion that slavery should end, the Stoics would have had to remake their society in a way that would allow them to see this as a possible moral demand, and she concludes that our circumstances may indeed limit what moral thoughts we can think, even if we are as virtuous and as fully competent as possible within our particular context. However, for Annas to be right, we would have to say that the thought of a world without slaves was fully inaccessible to the Stoics—we would have to say that it was not even imaginatively accessible, that they could not make up stories about such a society, and so on.²⁷ This seems rather unlikely, as we explore all kinds of societies without our imagination being restricted by what we may call the material basis of our society—or even the laws of physics, and so on.²⁸ ²⁶ This point was discussed in section 4.6. ²⁷ For the importance of imagination for moral thinking, see section 4.5. ²⁸ Think for example of changes in the laws of physics in the fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials (Pullman 1995, 1997, 2000).

158      What we have seen is that it is hard to find cases where moral context makes certain thoughts inaccessible to us. The lesson that we should draw from this with regard to moral context is not that it sets limits for what we can think; in principle, we can think any thought in any moral context. The lesson is rather that context greatly influences what moral thoughts we have reason to think and what moral thoughts are easily accessible to us. The main problem with deprived or outright corrupted contexts is that they establish a situation where we have very few resources and almost no reasons to think certain thoughts— as slave owners in a most cases have no reason to think that slaves are irreplaceable or have a claim to dignity and equal respect. That is, even if moral context does not make particular thoughts unthinkable, it may hide or marginalise them, make them appear irrelevant or almost unintelligible, and in many cases, this may be almost as problematic.

6.5 Double-Sided Responsibility Revisited Two important insights have emerged from our investigation. One is that even if our moral thought relies on our moral context—namely the language available to us and the practices into which we are embedded—it is indeed still a form of thinking. It aims, in Cheryl Misak’s words, to ‘be answerable to or responsive to experience’ (Misak 2008, 619),²⁹ to our experience of ourselves, of others and the world. This is the realistic element of the view of moral thought presented here.³⁰ Even if our language and practices can make certain features of our lives easily available for us, while distorting or even hiding others, they do not and cannot completely conceal or invent them. This means that in moral discussion and reasoning—even across differences in moral contexts—we are able to identify these features. The difference between contexts is not unbridgeable, not because we can refer to an undistorted understanding of moral life that functions as a neutral arbiter in cases where different understandings clash (for example the difference between seeing a slave as replaceable and as a fellow human being), but because we have practices of identification that work across different forms of language use and practices—even across completely different cultures. ²⁹ Quoted in 4.5. ³⁰ The position presented here is therefore not a form of relativism, even if this objection is often raised against both Wittgenstein and virtue ethicists. For relativistic readings of Wittgenstein’s philosophy, see e.g. Nyíri 1981 and Gellner 1992. For an argument against such readings, see Christensen 2011b.

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Cora Diamond brings this out with precision in a discussion of whether we can say that medieval cosmologists and modern astronomers are looking at the same skies. Despite their different ‘universes of discourse’ Diamond holds that we can because identifying what people in other cultures are talking about is something we do, and that what is involved in doing it depends on what kind of thing it is, and how we do the identification of such things. This does not involve an above-it-all view of Reality with a capital R. It may be done well or badly, may be wildly distorted, or involve prejudices or ideologies—which does not mean that there is no being careful and getting it right, when we say such things as that what people in some other culture thought about such-andsuch was in thus-and-such ways flawed. (Diamond 2012, 196; italics in original)³¹

When it is possible for us, across moral contexts, to identify what we are talking about, it is also possible to begin a discussion of how we should describe and understand and talk about this in our lives. Moreover, moral contexts are very rarely, if ever, sealed ‘universes of discourse’. They consist of many different normative practices, and these are not singular units, closed off from one another; instead they overlap within and across lives, practices, and cultures in ways that make it possible for us to use the resources from one practice to scrutinise another, just as it is possible to establish and cultivate practices of critique of our present context. That is, despite the influence of moral context, we can still see moral thought as answerable to our experience of reality and as dependent on a context shaped by more or less flexible moral norms and possibilities. With this in mind, we return to the question of the embedded moral self. Through our investigation of the influence of language on moral thought, we came to see that we face a double-sided moral responsibility, both for our particular uses of words and for the linguistic practices and norms in which these words are embedded and in which we engage. The question we now face is whether we should ascribe the embedded self with responsibility not only for what we do within a particular moral context, but also for the moral context itself, its practices, norms, and values. In Alasdair MacIntyre’s work, we find a helpful discussion of a very similar question, of whether a person can be relieved of responsibility if she has in every way lived up to the norms of her ³¹ See also Diamond 2013.

160      community. MacIntyre uses the example of a fictional character, J, a manager at the railways, who has been responsible for organising train transports of Jews to extermination camps. J insists that he is not blameworthy because, according to all norms available in his society, it is not his moral responsibility to inquire into the content and the purposes of these transports, but MacIntyre points out that we would still hold J responsible since moral subjects are ordinarily and justifiably ‘held responsible for the standards governing the reasoning from which their actions flow and they have to understand themselves as thus responsible’ (MacIntyre 1999, 313–4). In this way, MacIntyre argues for a double-sided responsibility, both for what one says and does and for whether one adheres to norms of one’s moral community, which also applies to case of J, even if he has been brought up in a society where the duties and responsibilities of particular social roles are well-defined and never questioned. MacIntyre further notes that we in this way hold J responsible ‘for having failed to question the hitherto unquestioned’ (ibid. 313; italics added). Still, we may want to question whether we have grounds for ascribing to J the second form of responsibility, if it is true that his moral community does not include practices of critical reflection on prevailing norms and practices. The question is whether we accept J’s self-understanding as on the one hand morally responsible and capable of moral thought, and on the other incapable of forms of moral reflection and critique that reach beyond judgements based on the norms available in his context. Macintyre’s answer is no. Someone like J has either developed the abilities to participate in practices of critical reflection, or he is not really a capable moral subject at all, exemplifying a ‘seriously diminished type of agency, one unable to transcend the limitations imposed by its own social and cultural order’ (ibid. 317). This is so because ‘[a]ccountability to particular others, participation in critical practical enquiry and acknowledgment of the individuality both of others and of oneself are all then marks of the social relationships and mode of self-understanding that characterize the moral agent’ (ibid.). We are returning to familiar ground. This resonates with Annas’ claim that acquiring the virtues is not just about developing excellent character traits but also about entering a community of the virtuous that allows us to transcend the limitations of our moral communities—as well as Cavell’s claim that becoming a moral subject requires that we engage in a mutual reflection with others, not only about where we should stand in our moral community, but also about what we want this moral community to be. What MacIntyre, Annas and Cavell are arguing, each in their own way, is that in order to become moral subjects, we have to develop both abilities of moral thinking,

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acting, and living and abilities of critical reflection which enable us, in MacIntyre’s words, ‘to transcend the limitations imposed by [our] social and cultural order’. That is, the twofold condition of the embedded moral subject, shaped by both contextual influences and personal concerns, is mirrored in a twofold responsibility towards one’s sayings, doings, reactions, attitudes, relations, and so on, on the one hand, and towards the context in which these sayings, doings, reactions, and so on, are embedded and from which they get much of our intelligibility on the other. What the investigation has also shown is that for us to engage in such critical reflection, we have to turn our attention to the particulars of this context, that is, we will have to engage with the specific historical and cultural characteristics of our moral community. With this, I end the investigation of the particulars of moral life, and in the last part of the book I return to moral philosophy and ask what this view of moral life developed here means for philosophy.




7 Literature and Moral Philosophy This third and final part of the book marks a return to moral philosophy. The aim is to answer questions concerning how to understand moral philosophy in light of the renewed understanding of moral theories as descriptions of grammar and their limited role in philosophy as well as the vital importance of contextual and particular features of moral lives developed in chapters 5 and 6; questions such as how are we to do moral philosophy, what activities does it involve, and what is the status of its results? In the next chapter, I respond to these questions by presenting a comprehensive understanding of moral philosophy, while in this chapter I address a narrower question of how we are to combine an understanding of the particulars of moral life with the more general and abstract insights traditionally developed in moral philosophy. The chapter opens with an overall suggestion for how we can integrate an understanding of particularities into moral philosophy, before I investigate a specific example of the way that an understanding of particulars can be achieved in philosophy, namely through the engagement with literature. After arguing that engagement with literature offers us knowledge by acquaintance and possibilities of moral cultivation, I describe how literature can be a suitable partner for moral philosophy in three activities that differ from the development of moral theories: namely the exploration, the critique, and the development of moral life. The last type of activity, where literature is a partner for moral philosophy in initiating forms of moral change, will be given special attention, and it will be shown that it is an integrated part of moral philosophy, even if this is currently underexplored.

7.1 The Company We Keep The first part of this book offered a view of moral philosophy as a descriptive activity influenced by Wittgenstein’s descriptive view of philosophy, expressed for example in the following remark. ‘Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundation either. It leaves everything as it is’ (PI §124). According to Moral Philosophy and Moral Life. Anne-Marie Søndergaard Christensen, Oxford University Press (2021). © Anne-Marie Søndergaard Christensen. DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198866695.003.0007

166      this view, moral philosophy offers descriptions with the aim to clarify and remind us of the many different normative connections at play in the ways we speak, act and live, in our moral problems and in moral life more generally. In this work, we have already discussed one such form of descriptions at length: the descriptions offered by moral theories describing some of the oftenrelevant forms of moral grammar. However, in Chapter 3, I also argued that these descriptions must be supplemented with other types of description that are better suited to addressing specific moral problems and to exploring, not the generalities, but the particularities of moral life, in line with the guiding idea of this work, namely that moral philosophy develops in a movement between the general and the particular, offering different reminders, sometimes in the form of general descriptions or moral theories which aid our overall moral orientation, and sometimes in the form of particular descriptions directed at elucidating particular problems. This overall view of moral philosophy will be developed further in the next chapter, but for now, my aim is to address the question of how to acquire and integrate an adequate understanding of the particular side of human life into moral philosophy. Philosophers need a nuanced, in-depth, and comprehensive knowledge and understanding of the complex, intricate, and variable aspects of our moral lives, but moral philosophy with its focus on abstraction and generality seems in many ways to be ill-suited to acquiring such knowledge. As a result, moral philosophers have often turned to other sources of understanding of moral life, to common sense, shared moral intuitions, or, more recently, experimental psychology or forms of experimental philosophy.¹ There are well-known epistemological problems haunting all these sources of knowledge, but the fact that they continue nonetheless to play a vital part in philosophical work shows how important it is to engage with them, just as philosophers also often turn to the natural sciences to gain an understanding of the kind of being that humans are and the environment in which we live.² However, all these sources of knowledge share the same problem. They are quite unsuited as sources of knowledge of the particulars of moral life. Moreover, if we are to take seriously the point made in Chapter 4, that ¹ We find classic examples of the appeal to common sense in the work of G.E. Moore and W.D. Ross (see Moore 1903, Ross 1930, and Hurka 2004 for an illuminating discussion of the view of common sense found here). See e.g. Bedke 2014 for a discussion of the use of intuitions in moral philosophy and Levy 2014 for experimental philosophy. For a discussion of possible relevant sources of knowledge for descriptive philosophy, see Hämäläinen 2016c. ² As Wittgenstein notes: ‘Is scientific progress useful to philosophy? Certainly. The realities that are discovered lighten the philosopher’s task, imagining possibilities’ (LWPP II §807).

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moral life is characterised by a wider form of objectivity that necessarily involves references to human responses, then the natural sciences cannot alone provide us with the type of knowledge that we need to understand the complexities involved in moral life. As Alice Crary argues, ‘if we are to responsibly pursue the kind of empirical grasp of [human and animal] lives that is germane to ethics, we need to be open to exploring ethically loaded perspectives of sorts that we find expressed, for instance, in work across different fields in the humanities as well as in literature and other arts’ (Crary 2016, 3). If philosophers want to achieve an adequate understanding of moral life and the many possible shapes that such lives may take, they need to engage with other fields of knowledge such as history, education, studies of culture and gender, and so on. Furthermore, they may also benefit from listening to and engaging in dialogue with others, by reflecting more systematically on their own lives or the lives of others, or by reading biographies or diaries, and so on. Or they could engage with different forms of art such as theatre, films, TV series, works of fiction or others forms of literature.³ At this point, one may be tempted to ask why philosophers need to go anywhere to gain an understanding of the particulars of moral life? In fact, this precise form of understanding is certainly one that all human beings must come to develop—to some extent at least—through their own life experiences (even if these experiences have the disadvantage of only providing knowledge of moral particulars from one perspective). This question is especially pertinent for the present project as it claims to provide an understanding of moral philosophy that revolves around a Wittgensteinian and Cavellian understanding of philosophy as relating to the everyday or the ordinary. But surely an understanding of the ordinary is something that every human being has, so why then does the philosopher need to go beyond her own understanding of the ordinary to understand moral life? My answer to this question is Wittgensteinian in character, even if it is not one that he offers himself. As is well known, Wittgenstein thinks that the type of questions investigated in philosophy is of a nature that can be characterised with Augustine’s words about time, when he in response to the question ‘What, then, is time?’ responds: ‘I know well enough what it is, provided that nobody asks me; but if I am asked what it is and try to explain, I am baffled’ (quoted from PI §89).⁴ Two points are important here. Wittgenstein’s

³ Haines (1998) notes that moral philosophy’s growing interest in literature is connected to its growing interest in the personal and ordinary part of moral life. ⁴ Translation in notes to that paragraph.

168      first point concerns the character of philosophical problems, that they are different from questions found for example in the natural sciences in that they do not call for an answer in terms of uncovering hidden knowledge—in a certain sense, we already know what time is, we live and deal with time in all manners of ways.⁵ His second point is that even if we in this sense already know what time is, there are ever so many ways we can lose sight of this understanding or familiarity with everyday phenomena: our ways of talking about something may not be perspicuous, we may fall under the spell of misleading analogies or we may not want to acknowledge what we in fact know about a particular phenomenon. This may lead us into philosophical problems, as Wittgenstein notes: ‘A philosophical problem has the form: “I don’t know my way about”’ (PI §123). In these cases, we may need help to regain our familiarity with the everyday, we may need help to hold on to what we ‘in a particular sense already know’. My suggestion here is that turning to disciplines and activities outside of philosophy may be one way to do this. I think this need for partners, for company in philosophy is accentuated by Stanley Cavell’s and Cora Diamond’s rethinking of the ways we get lost in philosophy, the idea that central to philosophy is the fight against ‘deflection’. Cavell introduces this idea in the context of his discussions of scepticism, of how knowledge of the feelings of the other, of how the other can suffer, can ‘become deflected in the course of [ . . . ] investigation’ (Cavell 2002a, 247). Trying to avoid the uncomfortable acknowledgement of the other’s pain, we instead turn our attention to a general philosophical problem of whether we can really know the other’s mind, and we do so in such a way that our further engagement with this apparent problem only leads us further from what we ‘in a particular sense already know’ about the other, the reality of her suffering. Diamond develops the concept of deflection and uses it ‘for describing what happens when we are moved from the appreciation, or attempt of appreciation, of a difficulty of reality into a philosophical or moral problem apparently in the vicinity’ (Diamond 2009, 57). Philosophy is a form of activity that brings with it its own specific dangers (especially moral philosophy, I am tempted to write), namely the dangers of deflecting from what we cannot stand to think and reshaping it into something which is bearable, but which also leads us astray from the problem that we are investigating. Here, or this is my suggestion, philosophers may find support in the attempt to avoid deflection by engaging with other areas and disciplines that help them sustain their focus

⁵ See also the discussion of Wittgenstein’s conception of philosophical questions in section 3.2.

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on the particular, that is, help them think about what they do not want or cannot bear to think about. Furthermore, other academic disciplines such as history, studies of culture, and so on, as well as forms of art such as literature, movies, TV series, poems, paintings, and sculptures may aid the philosopher in the activity of providing ‘a surveyable representation’ (PI §122), which, according to Wittgenstein, may help us dissolve philosophical problems.⁶ I think that we in philosophy ought to see the contribution from these other fields in terms of what Wittgenstein calls philosophical reminders, when he notes that ‘[t]he work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose’ (PI §127). They can also offer philosophers ‘objects of comparison which are meant to throw light on the facts of our language by way not only of similarities, but also of dissimilarities’ (PI §130). In moral philosophy, we can use the descriptions of moral life offered in these other fields as reminders of how moral life may unfold, even the possibilities that are almost too difficult or horrible to think about, as well as comparisons that highlight differences and similarities between the many phenomena involved here.

7.2 The Reminders of Literature Literature is especially suited as company for moral philosophers because, as Cora Diamond notes, ‘literature shows us forms of thinking about life and what is good and bad in it, forms of thinking which philosophical requirements on the character of thought, mind, and world may lead us to ignore’ (Diamond 1991a, 24). Literature reminds us of an understanding of moral life, easily distorted in philosophy, and through engagement with literature philosophers can thus also come to an acceptance of the limitations of moral philosophy. In Nora Hämäläinen’s words, ‘The dominant gesture of the literary turn is one of [ . . . ] accepting uncertainty, accepting tensions, and accepting that a science of morals is a lost ideal’ (Hämäläinen 2016a, 210). In the following, I will be concerned with the engagement with literature, but similar chapters could have been written on moral philosophy’s engagement with films, history, real-life biographies, and so on. The point of this chapter is not to argue that literature is the only possible source of reminders of the importance of the particular in moral philosophy. The point is rather to ⁶ For arguments for the usefulness of giving surveyable representations in moral philosophy, see Johnston 1989, Wisnewski 2007, and De Mesel 2014.

170      illustrate that literature is a very suitable partner in philosophers’ attempts to develop the understanding necessary to address the full complexity of moral questions, and just as importantly, to aid philosophers in their descriptive endeavour to stay loyal to the actual reality of our lives. In Aristotle’s thinking we find a related idea. Aristotle thinks that literature can contribute to knowledge about universals, because it presents truths about what is possible within human life. What Aristotle emphasises as the central element of literature is the ‘representation of action and life’, that is, in literature ‘the point is action, not character; it is their moral status that gives people the character they have, but it is their actions that make them happy or unhappy’ (Poetics 1450a16–20). The true object of mimêsis is not facts or people, but rather the actions of human beings, the structure of which is reflected in the structure of tragedy. Literature mirrors the way that we as acting and living creatures are engaged in life, but literature is not restricted to the simple copying of lives and actions as they have already unfolded—this is the task of a science like history. On the contrary, literature is concerned with possibilities, with how our lives may unfold. In Aristotle’s words, ‘it is clear that the poet’s job is not relating what actually happened, but rather the kind of thing that would happen—that is to say, what is possible in terms of probability and necessity’ (Poetics 1451a36–9). Through literature, we get valuable knowledge of the possibilities available in human life, and in this way ‘poetry is more philosophical and more serious than history; poetry utter universal truths, history particular statements’ (ibid. 1451b5–7).⁷ In Anthony Kenny’s words, literature presents us with truths of a kind that lie between ‘the necessary truths of philosophy and the contingent particulars of history [ . . . ] truths that, even if not necessary in the philosophical sense, are universal in their application to human nature’ (2007, xxviii). By presenting the possibilities connected to certain ways of living and acting, a literary work also reveals the moral qualities and flaws of such lives and actions, allowing the audience to evaluate their moral import and the moral standing of the characters involved (Poetics 1448a1–2, 1454a16–18), and to see the various connections between particular ways of acting, particular lives and the happiness and unhappiness of such lives (ibid. 1450a18–20).⁸ ⁷ This reading of Aristotle differs from the non-cognitive reading found in Lear 2009, where Lear also offers an alternative understanding of katharsis. ⁸ In Cohen’s words, Aristotle’s idea is ‘that dramatic literature—specifically tragedy—can present human life and action exhibiting a kind of necessity, a necessity not always conspicuously exhibited in human affairs when those affairs are simply confronted in ordinary life or presented in nondramatic historical narration. Thus, an ancient Greek tragedy, or perhaps any work of fiction, might teach us that when a man or a woman acts in certain ways, there will be consequences for which that actor is

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This is not the result of a passive recording or imprinting of the way our lives actually unfold, as the notion of mimêsis could be taken to imply; rather it is the consequence of an active selecting, ordering, and shaping of material. Literature is a way of making a specific possibility intelligible, and creating literature is in this sense truly ‘an act of construction’ (Else 1986, 83). In line with Paul Ricoeur, Rita Felski urges us ‘to think of mimesis as a redescription rather than a reflection, a chain of interpretative processes rather than an echo or imitation. This bid for redefinition is grounded in a return to Aristotle’s conception of mimesis as an act of making rather than copying’ (Felski 2008, 84). In this way, literature provides us with the opportunity to investigate the possibilities of human life in a confrontation with its various possible manifestations. The following discussion takes as its starting point Aristotle’s view of literature as a presentation of the possibilities of human life and as having a possible role in moral improvement, but this view will be developed through a critical engagement with the contemporary discussion of knowledge in literature. Following in the footsteps of Aristotle, a number of contemporary philosophers have argued that literature is relevant to moral philosophy by offering a specific form of knowledge, often termed ‘knowledge by acquaintance’ (Carroll 2000). Literature can give us knowledge by acquaintance because it confronts us with a variety of possible human experiences that are not our own, and with ways of being some particular other person different from ourselves; something that is made possible by the fact that the narrative form of literature mirrors the narrative form of such experiences. In literature, we can experience how it is to find one’s true love or to be betrayed by her, how it is to live in a different country or time, to be of a different gender or sex, to steal or cheat, play a symphony or be a hero, and we can experience how it is to act, react, and feel in ways different from how we ordinarily act, react, and feel. Literature also allows us to understand how the life and experiences of others as well as their moral understanding of particular situations may differ substantially from our own. Moreover, because of its form, literature presents us with essentially contextual understandings of these possible experiences, and it shows us how the particularities of a life and a context may be crucial for the moral understanding and judgement of a person.⁹ responsible. It will do this by presenting the acts and their sequels as linked by what Aristotle calls necessity, and this will reveal the implicit moral significance of those acts, something the audience might not otherwise have realized’ (Cohen 2009, 488). ⁹ See Nussbaum 1990, e.g. 38.

172      Literature speaks about us, and as Martha Nussbaum’s notes: ‘our interest in literature becomes [ . . . ] cognitive, an interest in finding out (by seeing and feeling the otherwise perceiving) what possibilities (and tragic possibilities) life offers to us, what hopes and fears for ourselves it underwrites or subverts’ (Nussbaum 2010b, 244). Even if the experiences presented in literature are not our own, literature offers us a form of knowledge of ‘what it would be like’, especially what it would be like to be this or that in particular. We can see the idea of knowledge as acquaintance as a development of Aristotle’s idea that literature presents the possibilities of human life.¹⁰ That literature engages our imagination is crucial, because it allows us to become lost in a novel or a poem in a manner that almost forces us to explore and discover phenomena of human life that we in philosophy often tend to neglect, overlook, or even avoid. We may even see human life clearer in great works of literature than in real life because in our dealings with literature we are freer from our own preoccupations, ambitions, and commitments than usual, and because literature does not bend to these preoccupations, ambitions, and commitments. As Martha Nussbaum notes, ‘Art does not simply perceive life; it also comforts us by keeping us at a distance from life’s violence and arbitrariness’ (Nussbaum 2010b, 259). In Ted Cohen’s apt phrase, it is as if ‘the work must present, as the saying goes, real life but with better lighting’ (Cohen 2009, 491). That literature will help our moral understanding by countering our preoccupations and the self-serving phantasies with which we support them is a dominant theme in Iris Murdoch’s understanding of literature. She phrases it in this way: good art is good for people precisely because it is not fantasy but imagination. It breaks the grip of our own dull fantasy life and stirs us to the effort of true vision. Most of the time we fail to see the big wide real world at all because we are blinded by obsession, anxiety, envy, resentment, fear. We make a small personal world in which we remain enclosed. Great art is liberating, it enables us to see and take pleasure in what is not ourselves. (Murdoch 1978, 14)

To Murdoch, literature is important because it shows us the world in a way that is different from how we see it in our own lives, where our appreciation of reality is often clouded by our own feelings and pursuits; as an imaginative ¹⁰ See e.g. Palmer 1992 and Currie 1998. We will see how this idea is substantiated in the work of Cora Diamond below.

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endeavour, literature is opposed to fantasy and aimed at truth.¹¹ In this respect, literature is evaluated by whether the offered knowledge of ‘what it is like’ is accurate, nuanced and illuminating, rather than distorted and prejudiced, that is, the criteria according to which we judge knowledge in literature are related to the criteria that we apply in the assessment of the quality of moral attention.¹² In the next section, we will look at another way in which literature can be relevant to moral philosophy, but before we move on, we need to pause to consider the very idea of knowledge by acquaintance. One of its advantages is that it enables us to deal with non-cognitivist arguments in the philosophy of literature, which claim there is no form of knowledge involved in literature. Non-cognitivism depends on a rather narrow view of knowledge as consisting only in factual claims (which may also be called information), but I here argue for an alternative understanding of knowledge, involving also knowledge of experiences and possibilities of moral life.¹³ According to this view, literature may offer us objects of comparisons that widen and challenge our often too settled understanding of moral importance by confronting us with experiences, situations, and lives different from those we already know. It may however also simply offer us reminders of what we ‘in a particular sense already know’ by re-describing or re-interpreting aspects of moral life with which we are already familiar. And literature does this in a way that encourages our awareness and exploration of the moral significance of the context of moral problems, both the way that moral problems arise in particular lives and confront particular people, and the way that people in dealing with these problems must draw on the moral resources available in their specific context.

7.3 Literature and Moral Development Engagement with literature can be relevant in moral philosophy by offering knowledge by acquaintance, but also by providing philosophers with the opportunity to investigate the moral importance of specific abilities of discernment and understanding. Behind this idea lies an understanding of moral

¹¹ Murdoch describes the opposition between imagination and fantasy in this way: ‘Fantasy is the strong cunning enemy of the discerning intelligent more truly inventive power of the imagination, and in condemning art for being “fantastic” one is condemning it for being untrue’ (Murdoch 1978, 11). ¹² See also section 4.4. ¹³ See e.g. Carroll 2000 for an overview of discussions about non-cognitivism. For a critical discussion of the possibility of knowledge in literature, see Currie 2016, 650–3.

174      development similar to that defended in Chapter 4, according to which such development involves, in Noel Carroll’s apt description, the ‘honing of ethically relevant skills and powers (such as the capacity for finer perceptual discrimination, the imagination, the emotions, and the overall ability to conduct moral reflection) as well as the exercise and refinement of moral understanding’ (Carroll 2000, 366). Literature can offer us an opportunity for this form of cultivation of moral attention, reflection, discernment, imagination, and so on, as well as cultivation of our concepts, for example by presenting us with the difference between our own lives and lives revolving around different sets of concepts, as discussed in the last chapter.¹⁴ Engagement with literature also presents us with a possibility to develop and exercise emotional responses appropriate to moral life; a form of cultivation highlighted by Aristotle, but also by many contemporary moral philosophers working with literature. In Aristotle’s writings, we find the idea that literature can play a crucial role in moral education reflected in his definition of tragedy as ‘a representation [mimêsis] of an action of a superior kind—grand and complete in itself—[ . . . ] effecting, through pity and fear, the purification [katharsis] of such emotions’ (Poetics 1449b21–9). If we can understand katharsis as ‘the moment of recognition on the part of the audience of a deep universal human truth achieved through a profound emotional experience’ (Reynolds 2011, 14), then literature can be seen as facilitating a process of emotional purification that may aid us in the attempt to develop a sensible and appropriate emotional response to the situations we encounter. In a discussion of Wordsworth’s poem ‘The Old Cumberland Beggar’, Cora Diamond brings out how our moral understanding depends on ‘a capacity to respond with deep sympathy to the feelings of other people’ (Diamond 1982, 298). What she finds especially important is the way the poem allows us to feel the appropriateness of such an empathic response both within the setting of the poem and in response to the poem itself. ‘We can come to recognise what is expressed in “we have all of us a human heart” through coming to feel the force of the heart’s responses to such poems as the ones I mentioned’ (ibid.), Diamond writes, and continues: In a sense, someone who has not learnt to respond with the heart in such ways has not learnt to think [ . . . ], for thinking involves thinking charged with appropriate feeling. Poetry then helps develop the heart’s capacities that ¹⁴ We find the idea that literature can aid the cultivation of morally relevant abilities for example in Murdoch 1956, 2001, Palmer 1992, Diamond 1998, Nussbaum 1995, 1998a, 2010a, and Carroll 2002.

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are the basis for the moral life by deepening our emotional life and our understanding of it. (ibid. 298–9)

In this way, literature makes it possible for us to exercise emotional responses that are often vital if we are to become able to understand and earnestly involve ourselves with the concerns of other people. Ted Cohen also emphasises literature’s capacity to develop our abilities of empathetic understanding. In his view, literature does so ‘by presenting characters and their situations so vividly and unignorably as virtually to compel the reader to “feel” what it would be to be such a character in such a situation—no small achievement, and one of no small moral significance’ (Cohen 2009, 491).¹⁵ Thus, by offering us to ways to develop and improve our abilities, our concepts and our emotions, literature may offer us at least the possibility of becoming more morally competent. The ideas that literature can offer knowledge by acquaintance and cultivation of morally relevant abilities are in many ways complementary to the understanding of moral thought presented in this book and to the aim of showing how an understanding of the particularities of a person’s character, position, and context can be crucial for morality. Literature offers us one way of coming to see how this is indeed the case by showing us some of the many possible forms that our moral positions and contexts may take, together with the possibility of cultivating the abilities necessary for this insight. As noted above, we can also acquire such knowledge by many other routes, such as the engagement with films, life stories, history, and so on, but literature is nonetheless a particularly rich source of moral knowledge and cultivation, because it has the freedom to explore the full range of possibilities of human life (in contrast for example to the range of possibilities present in a biography or our own experiences), and because it confronts us directly with how it is to be in and react to particular situations without filtering out the more unattractive thoughts, emotions and responses (perhaps in contrast to the stories that we tend to tell ourselves and each other). Finally, and maybe most importantly, literature is relevant to moral life because the engagement with literature offers us a possibility for cultivating and refining the abilities of imagination that condition our understanding and interaction with others, such as the ability to put ourselves in their place, not just formally, but substantially.¹⁶ ¹⁵ See also Gibson 2009. It is also worth acknowledging Cohen’s point that if it is true ‘that reading literature at least can be morally uplifting [ . . . ], then it must also be true that reading literature can be morally degrading’ (Cohen 2009, 487). ¹⁶ As discussed in section 4.5.

176      Before I move on to take a closer look at the kind of work that literature can do in moral philosophy, I want to offer an important clarification of the view developed here. In debates about literature’s possible moral relevance, it is sometimes asked whether all works of literature involve a moral dimension. According to proponents of aestheticism and autonomism, this should be denied, because literature and indeed all other forms of art represent an autonomous realm of value, different from that of morality, which means that they are to be judged by aesthetic criteria only.¹⁷ However, aestheticism and autonomism primarily challenge the aim to establish the universal relevance of ethical criticism, which is not pursued here. Instead, this investigation concerns whether literature may offer us morally relevant knowledge and forms of moral cultivation, and to show this, there is no need to show that all works of literature have a moral dimension, but only that some do. This appears to be quite a trivial claim, especially given the point developed earlier that for something to have a moral dimension it does not need to promote certain values, principles, or virtues, but rather may be considered ‘an exploration of something of moral significance’ (Diamond 1983, 376). The group of literary works that have a moral dimension may therefore also involve works that do not use any specific moral concepts and works exploring morally dubious or wicked ways of acting and living which aid our understanding of the many ways in which we can distort or corrupt our moral lives. The question of the moral relevance of literature is in this way connected to the question of how to delimit moral relevance as such and cannot be answered in isolation from this wider question of broader relevance which I have already discussed in section 3.1 and to which I will return in the next chapter.

7.4 Exploration, Critique, and Moral Change In this section, I turn to the more specific question of how philosophers may seek a broader understanding of moral life in the interaction with literature and sketch out three different aims for philosophical engagement with literature, those of exploration, critique, and moral change. My primary aim, however, is to bring out how an engagement with literature may bring philosophers to see possibilities of moral change—an idea which really has not received much consideration in moral philosophy until now. In closing, ¹⁷ For an overview of the discussion of ethical criticism, see e.g. Carroll 2000, 374–81, MendelsonMaoz 2007 and Giovanelli 2007. For a defence of ethical criticism, see Nussbaum 1998a.

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I will discuss more generally the relationship between literature and philosophy. The following is a development of the idea suggested in previous chapters that we live and act in language, and that, as Murdoch notes, ‘language itself is a moral medium, almost all uses of language convey value’ (Murdoch 1978, 27). The moral dimension of language means that literature and philosophy are in similar ways engaged in an exploration of our complicated forms of moral life and that both are guided by the desire to reach a true understanding of this complexity. In Murdoch’s words: ‘I want to say that literature is like philosophy in this respect because I want to emphasise that literature is too a truth-seeking activity’ (Murdoch 1978, 11).¹⁸ For this reason, the engagement with literature offers philosophers the possibility for an exploration of moral life, aiding them in their attempt to expand and refine their moral understanding. In literature, we are confronted with possibilities of moral thought that are embedded in particular life circumstances and understandings of the good life, of ourselves, our relations, concerns, values and so on. In moral philosophy, the potential importance of exploring moral life through literature for example is plain to see if we keep in mind Murdoch’s reminder of the need for ‘moral attitudes which emphasise the inexhaustible detail of the world, the endlessness of the task of understanding’ (Murdoch 1956, 46). This is connected to a view of morality that sees attention to human life as primary; a view that, in Cora Diamond’s words, takes ‘as the root of morality in human life a capacity for attention to things imagined or perceived: what I think it would be fair to call a loving and respectful attention’ (Diamond 1982, 306).¹⁹ By turning to literature, philosophers can honour the importance of attention and exploration because we as readers are ‘invited to share a way of viewing human nature and its failings, in which amusement, sympathy, critical intelligence, and delicacy of moral discrimination all play a role’ (ibid. 300). In this manner, literature offers moral philosophy a way to explore our lives that is both imaginative and creative, but is also done in a realistic spirit, aimed at knowledge of ‘what it is like’. To moral philosophy, literature may also be a rich source of moral critique because it presents us with examples of the many possible conflicts that may

¹⁸ To this Murdoch adds: ‘But of course philosophy is abstract and discursive and direct. Literary language can be deliberately obscure, and even what sounds like plain speaking is part of some ulterior formal imaginative structure’ (Murdoch 1978, 11). We will return to a discussion of the difference between moral philosophy and literature at the end of this chapter. ¹⁹ Cf. Diamond’s discussion of Wordsworth’s poem above. For two examples of how literature can offers us forms of moral thinking and attention, see Christensen 2018 and 2020.

178      arise between different ways of living, different moral concepts, moral positions, and conceptions of moral life as well as examples of the many ways in which we critically interrogate and evaluate such differences. In ‘The Literary Imagination in Public Life’, Martha Nussbaum for example unfolds how we in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times are presented with a range of nuanced ways to criticise and challenge the character Thomas Gradgrind’s consequentialist approach to human life, which paves the way for an understanding of wellbeing much richer than that found in contemporary political economy. For Nussbaum, this reflects the general point that ‘literature, and the literary imagination, are subversive [ . . . ] expressing in its very shape and style, in its modes of interaction with its readers, a normative sense of life’ (Nussbaum 1998b, 224). The critical potential of many literary works is also explored by Cora Diamond.²⁰ She points out that a literary work appeals ‘to the intelligence of the reader, inviting him, as it does, to give moral thought, moral criticism, a place in an ideal of civilized human life. The appeal is to the intelligence but it does not go via arguments—however hard that may be to fit into our philosophical schemes’ (Diamond 1982, 300–1).²¹ Literature presents a variety of ways of evaluating moral disagreement and conflict, for example in the form of critical responses of an emotional and conceptual character, which are quite different from the forms of evaluation offered by philosophical argumentation, and literature may in this way help us develop a wider selection of tools of critique, critical strategies as well as new ways of approaching the question of what we should accept as worthy moral ideals. In Diamond’s words, ‘the significance of works of literature for moral philosophy is that we may learn from our reading of such works, and from reflecting on them, terms of criticism of thought applicable to discussions of practical issues and to moral philosophy itself ’ (Diamond 1983, 377).²² Moral philosophy should not just turn to literature for a richer form of knowledge of moral life but also to challenge and develop its own methods of critique and evaluation. The third way in which literature may play a vital role in moral philosophy is in the investigation of new moral possibilities, new ways to develop our

²⁰ For an overview of the difference between the positions of Nussbaum and Diamond, see Hämäläinen 2016b. ²¹ One of Diamond’s major concerns is to show that there are many parts of moral life where arguments play an insignificant role or no role at all. In line with this, the article ‘Having a Rough Story about What Moral Philosophy is’ is written as a critical response to Raphael’s claim that literary works can play a role in moral philosophy only insofar as such works are written ‘in a mode of persuasion that can fairly be called rational’ (Raphael 1983, 4). ²² We also find this idea in Haines 1998 and Crary 2007a.

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moral concepts, ideals, and values. By exploring the realm of the possible in human life and by helping us to see meaning and importance where they had been overlooked previously, literature is a source of discovery of new possible ways of thinking about morality. This idea of the innovative potential of literature is present in Iris Murdoch’s work, but it seems to have received little attention in moral philosophy, and this neglect constitutes a significant reason to look more closely at Murdoch’s original suggestion about the relation between literature and moral change. The idea that moral philosophy through engagement with literature may play a part in changing and developing our moral concepts and concerns involves two possibly controversial suggestions: first, that our understanding of moral life is shaped in part by our personal perspective and commitments, and, second, that our moral understanding, not just individually, but collectively, may be subject to moral change.²³ Murdoch not only accepts these suggestions, she finds them vital for an adequate understanding of moral life. First, Murdoch argues that our personal concerns shape our moral thinking, which is in line with the description of the importance of moral position for moral thought developed in Chapter 5. As we have seen, Murdoch develops this point through reference to ‘the texture of a man’s being’ and ‘the nature of his personal vision’ (Murdoch 1956, 39) and an investigation of the ways that personal vision shapes and conditions our moral attention and what we can see as morally important.²⁴ Often our concepts and forms of moral vision differ fundamentally, not just in our judgements and choices but also in what we see as morally relevant and important. To understand and navigate our interpersonal reality, we therefore need to stay alert to the fact that we may not share a moral vision with others and may not even have an overview of the different moral visions involved in our relations with others, and that we may encounter moral visions which we do not consider acceptable or possible or do not even (at least not yet) understand. This leads us to the second controversial suggestion accepted by Murdoch, the possibility of moral change. According to Murdoch, ‘morality is essentially connected with change and progress’ because our value concepts are involved in a ‘movement of understanding’ (Murdoch 2001, 28). That means that our shared moral resources, the conditions of moral understanding, are not static, they may change through a lifetime as new experiences unlock new depths of understanding or new visions of human life, and they may change through ²³ A significant, recent work on moral change is Eriksen 2017.

²⁴ See also section 5.6.

180      history as we develop new moral concepts, come to a better understanding of moral life, or need to address its changing circumstances. Moreover, the possibility of change is connected to the diversity of possible forms of moral vision. From time to time, we may be confronted with visions that we find are indeed morally distorting or outright unacceptable, or we may for various reasons come to suspect that our own moral outlook is not all that it should be, just as we may encounter ways of approaching reality that are morally superior to our own. Because of this, we may come to want to facilitate a change of moral vision, in others or in ourselves. The possibility of change in moral vision poses a challenge for us, in life as in moral philosophy, because, as Murdoch notes, if ‘we hold that a man’s morality is not only his choices but his vision, then this might be deep, ramified, hard to change and not easily open to argument’ (Murdoch 1956, 43). It is often much more difficult to influence or change moral visions than to change what we do, both because we tend to be much less aware of our moral vision, and because it is in many ways fundamental to who we are and what we see as morally important. The idea that we can bring about moral change through disinterested communication and value-free discernment of the facts is central to our lives and especially to moral philosophy. However, according to Murdoch, this is itself a moral ideal, not an explanation or description of how moral commitments are in fact made and changed. This means that even if this ideal is in many cases the right ideal to guide our moral communication and interactions, we will also encounter cases where we cannot approach moral change in this way. In such cases, we need different sources of understanding and different forms of communication and interaction. The type of change relating to the vision and resources by which we approach and conceptualise the moral ‘cannot necessarily be achieved by a specification of factual criteria open to any observer’, as Murdoch notes, ‘but may involve the communication of a completely new, possibly far-reaching and coherent vision’ (ibid. 41). In moral philosophy, we therefore need ways to explore new possibilities of such ‘far-reaching and coherent visions’ together with new ways to engage morally with others, but we may be impaired in this exploration of the new by the form of philosophy, by its preoccupation with arguments, justification, and consistency. To develop new concepts and ways of seeing, philosophers will frequently need to find help elsewhere, for example in presentations and explorations of alternative moral visions such as those found in literature. A recurring theme in Murdoch’s philosophy is that in life as in moral philosophy, we occasionally encounter aspects of our lives that do not come

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sufficiently into view in our existing moral vision(s).²⁵ In other words, we need to be aware of the possibility that there are indeed moral questions which we, on our current understanding, simply cannot grasp—either because we have lost the relevant concepts and perspectives, or because we have not yet developed these. There are situations which are obscure and people who are incomprehensible, and the moral agent, as well as the artist, may find himself unable to describe something which in some sense he apprehends. [ . . . ] From here we may see that the task of moral philosophers has been to extend, as poets may extend, the limits of the language, and enable it to illuminate regions of reality which were formerly dark. (ibid. 49)²⁶

If our understanding of the world is tied to our concepts, then at times we will be confronted with a need to extend or even change these concepts. Moral philosophers can do so by developing and extending our language, the way we talk about our lives and the concepts that we use, and as the writer or poet will often face the same task in her endeavour to explore human life, the philosopher can turn to literature as a companion in the endeavour to foster such new moral visions. Moral philosophers’ engagement with literature in the development of new moral concepts and forms of understanding is a fundamentally different activity than exploring existing possibilities of moral life or new forms of moral critique, because it concerns the conditions that precede actual instances of moral judgement, choice, and action. Furthermore, I want to argue that the investigation of new moral possibilities also differs from exploration and critique because it is tied (to a large extent at least) to a different aspect of literature. The first two forms of engagement are concerned with our available possibilities of acting and living, and they primarily take advantage of how the narrative form of literature in many ways mirrors the way we understand others, ourselves, our actions and lives (what Aristotle identifies as the main source of insight in literature).²⁷ In contrast, the attempt to change moral concepts or vision are often better advanced through an engagement with pictures and metaphors, at least if we follow Ted Cohen’s view of ²⁵ See e.g. Forsberg 2013, chapter 3 for a discussion of this theme in Murdoch’s thinking. ²⁶ In the omitted section Murdoch ties her point to a critique of the philosophy of her time: ‘When we consider here the role of language in illuminating situations, how insufficient seems the notion of linguistic moral philosophy as the elaboration of the evaluative-descriptive formula.’ ²⁷ See e.g. Roberts 2012.

182      metaphors. Cohen notes that metaphors in many cases draw our attention to existing similarities and in this way call us, the readers of a literary work, to a ‘sameness of vision’, but that metaphors also sometimes establish new similarities and in this way create novel forms of sameness of vision (Cohen 2008).²⁸ Among other things, Cohen draws on a remark by Max Black, where Black points out that ‘[i]t would be more illuminating in some of these cases to say that the metaphor creates the similarity than to say that it formulates some similarity antecedently existing’ (Black 1955, 284–5). If we are having a discussion about some subject, and I present you with a metaphor rather than an argument, I am offering a both cognitive and emotional orientation to the subject and ‘invite you to join a community with me, an intimate community whose bond is our common feeling about something’ (Cohen 2004, 236). In this way, metaphors may offer us a new, shared orientation or vision of what is valuable, or of our lives together, or of our lives with animals, that may pave the way for a change in the moral possibilities available to us.²⁹ The idea that moral philosophy can be the site of moral change has to be understood in the right way. The point here is not to pick up the challenge presented in the 11th of Marx’s Feuerbach Theses, that ‘[p]hilosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it’. Rather the point is to argue that philosophy can be the site of a change in our moral resources: the concepts, the metaphors, and perspectives with which we try to understand moral life. In the history of philosophy, when philosophers have coined or helped to develop concepts such as ‘equal respect’, ‘discrimination’, ‘alienation’, ‘multiculturalism’ or ‘moral position’, ‘moral vision’ and ‘moral particularity’, they have been part of a process of changing the tools which we can put into use in our understanding of our lives, but also in our decisions and actions. Philosophy can thus bring about moral change by enabling us to see or by clarifying new moral concerns, but literature can also be the site of such change. What we are to do with the moral resources available to us is, however, not a question for philosophy, but for human beings in general, individually and collectively.

²⁸ Camp notes how ‘metaphorical construal manipulates the mode of presentation of a fixed content: It imaginative alters how we structure and color our thoughts about what is so [ . . . ] metaphor invites a conceptual transfiguration of its topic’ (Camp 2009, 116). ²⁹ An example of the last kind, currently much discussed in moral philosophy, is the fictitious lecture of the protagonist in Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello (2003), where she pleads for a change in our relation to animals using a language pervaded with metaphor and analogies. The discussions in Diamond (2009) and Cavell (2009) are especially illuminating.

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7.5 And Back to Moral Philosophy The aim of the second part of this chapter has been to investigate three aims for moral philosophy’s engagement with literature, those of exploration, critique, and moral change. The distinction between the three is in one sense artificial, as these aims are often connected, but it still offers us an overview of how literature may enrich the understanding of moral life in moral philosophy. Special attention has been given to the idea that moral change is a possible outcome of the engagement in literature as it enriches the available moral vocabulary and helps philosophers develop new moral perspectives or approaches to moral life. Before this chapter closes, I want to consider whether the relation between the insights offered in literature and those developed in philosophy means that literature is itself a form of moral philosophy. According to Martha Nussbaum, not only are literary works of a certain kind indispensable to philosophy, but these works are also themselves works of moral philosophy.30 In a discussion of Nussbaum’s claim, Cora Diamond supports a more modest view, saying that ‘there are some moral views which can be adequately expressed only through novels, and that therefore the study of such novels belongs within moral philosophy’ (Diamond 1998, 39; italics added).³¹ This is also the view presented here, that literary works are not themselves forms of moral philosophy, but the study of literature surely can be. Murdoch also resists the inclusion of literature into philosophy by pointing to an important difference between the two: ‘Philosophy aims to clarify and explain [ . . . ] and the writing must be subservient to this aim. [ . . . ] Literature interests us on different levels in different fashions. It is full of tricks and magic and deliberate mystification. Literature entertains, it does many things, and philosophy does one thing’ (Murdoch 1978, 4). Because of this difference in focus, the difference between the singlemindedness of philosophy and the diversity of the aims of literature and the related freedom of literature, it is impossible to restrict the aims of literature to fit philosophical concerns, and therefore, the two cannot be identical.³² I think that Murdoch’s characterisation of the single-mindedness of moral philosophy is accurate, at least if we add two important qualifications. First, on the view developed here, moral philosophy aims to clarify, not to explain. Second, even if moral philosophy is single-minded in its endeavour to clarify ³⁰ See e.g. Nussbaum 1990. ³¹ For criticism of Nussbaum’s claim, see Adamson 1998. ³² For a discussion of Murdoch’s position, see Forsberg 2013, 12–18.

184      our practical lives, it still needs to allow for and engage in a variety of different activities. This pluralistic view of the activity of moral philosophy is necessary, both because philosophy needs to engage with other fields such as literature to gain a substantial understanding of our lives, and because philosophical clarification can be done in many ways. There is therefore both something right and something wrong in Murdoch’s claim that ‘philosophy does one thing’. It is right insofar as moral philosophy has one aim, to clarify, but it is wrong insofar as moral philosophy must engage in many different activities if it is to achieve this aim. In the next and final chapter, we will elaborate on this view of descriptive moral philosophy and consider the question of whether philosophy, on this view, may be a practical activity, that is, whether it can aid us in our striving to become better human beings.

8 Descriptive Moral Philosophy What is the view of moral philosophy developed in this book, and what is the relationship between moral philosophy and moral life on this view? These are the questions for this final chapter, which aims to give a comprehensive account of the understanding of descriptive moral philosophy developed in this book. I open by revisiting and expanding two of the central suggestions of this work, namely that the moral cannot be delineated, and that moral philosophy is fundamentally descriptive. This will in turn allow me to explore two issues, also central to the present project. First, I will investigate how moral philosophy can be said to be practical, aiding moral life, and second, I will show how philosophical work on the view presented here is an activity that itself is subject to moral responsibilities.

8.1 A Clarificatory Understanding of the Moral In this section, I further develop an assumption, central to my view of descriptive moral philosophy and suggested already in section 3.1, that the moral dimension of life cannot be demarcated, and I do so in order to show why this understanding of the moral is the most appropriate when doing clarificatory work in philosophy. To begin, I would like to return to a remark by Cora Diamond quoted earlier, this time presenting a fuller version of Diamond’s thoughts. Diamond writes: Alexander Wat, the Polish writer, in his reminiscences of prison life in Russia, describes a twisted tree which he glimpsed on a trip between prison cell and prison cell. The radiance of the tree, its serene dignity, he saw as a kind of triumph over the anti-world of the prison. His perception of the tree is imbued with his moral responsibility. So, I’m suggesting, a response to a tree can be morally interesting. There seems to me to be a connection between this point, that there is no limit to what sorts of thing talk about which might in some context be

Moral Philosophy and Moral Life. Anne-Marie Søndergaard Christensen, Oxford University Press (2021). © Anne-Marie Søndergaard Christensen. DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198866695.003.0008

186      morally interesting, and a point which can be associated with both Wittgenstein and Iris Murdoch—the point that ethics is not one subject matter alongside others. It’s not that trees are a subject for botany, and human character a subject for ethics, but rather that human character in many circumstances, and trees in somewhat rarer circumstances, can be described as morally interesting. And in any case, how and in what spirit we engage in description or representation can always itself reveal something of our own understanding of the world, our own moral being. (Diamond 1997, 83)

What I want to investigate are two different suggestions that Diamond makes in this quote. The first suggestion is about demarcation or boundaries, that we cannot, on a general level, delimit what could be ‘morally interesting’ for human beings before actual investigations of cases. I take this to be a point about human life, that it is not possible to identify some sort of area or field that contains everything that could potentially be of moral interest—at least not if we refrain from saying that the whole of reality may potentially be of human interest; an answer that I think is mistaken for reasons that I will return to below. Diamond’s second suggestion is that the moral is different—different in kind, we could say—from anything that we would normally identify as a subject matter, and maybe also that it is different by not consisting of a certain group of things that can be connected by a certain classification in the way that trees, or more generally, plants, make up a group of things that can be classified in a way as to make them relevant as the subject matter of botany. I take this suggestion to be about moral philosophy, namely that it is a discipline different from for example botany or zoology insofar as moral philosophy does not have a subject matter in the same way as these other disciplines. To clarify my approach to the moral, I want to develop Diamond’s two suggestions. I also want to propose a reason why moral philosophers may often have difficulties in coming to terms with these suggestions in the right way, which connects to a fear which continually reappears and influences discussions in moral philosophy, the fear of not being able to counter forms of moral thought that we think are in some sense ‘outside’ of moral thinking. First, I would like to identify what I think is a somewhat confused understanding of Diamond’s first suggestion. In response to the question of what the moral ‘really’ is, of what could be ‘morally interesting’, one could state that everything is potentially moral; that human life and moral life really cover the same area. We could call this the ‘everything is potentially morally relevant’ hypothesis. So whenever someone comes up with something that does not

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seems to have moral relevance, a tree for example, or the activity of doing chemistry, the answer would be that that thing or activity or practice could in some circumstances be moral. There is something right in this response, something which is in line with Diamond’s suggestion, but there is also a problem presenting Diamond’s insight in this form. This hypothesis is framed as a hypothesis about demarcation, about the ‘area’ of the moral, claiming that this ‘area’ is just much bigger than we traditionally thought it to be in moral philosophy. In this way, the hypothesis can be understood as a proposal that something general may in fact be said about what it is for something to take on moral significance for us. This is, I think, the wrong way to go when trying to elucidate Diamond’s initial suggestion. Her suggestion is not to be understood as a substantial, general claim about our life or our reality as a whole but is instead to be understood as a philosophical tool, as a reminder that we should refrain from thinking that we always know already, in advance so to speak, what may potentially take on (and what may not take on) moral significance. It is a call for attention to when and how something in fact takes on such significance. The ‘everything is potentially morally relevant’ hypothesis thus reflects a failure to hold on to the truly clarificatory nature of Diamond’s suggestion.¹ In my view, the reason why moral philosophers should not subscribe to a substantial view of the moral is that the differences between various such substantial views are part of what we investigate here. If we are to clarify the different forms moral significance takes in our lives, we cannot work from an already settled philosophical understanding of what the moral is, but must instead work from case to case to identify what people find morally interesting and to elucidate how and why this is—and when this gets complicated, we can draw on various philosophical tools such as moral theories to bring out the moral grammars at play in this specific case. We find an example of such a clarificatory investigation in Diamond’s engagement with a moral exchange consisting in a front-page story from The Washington Post titled ‘Hell on Wheels’ and letters from readers of the Post responding to the story. The article conveys the extraordinary story of Hobart Wilson, who loses the use of his legs after a fall from a tractor at the age of five, but still manages to grow up as a defiant, remarkable person, getting around on a self-made skateboard-like contraption with grocery cart wheels,

¹ See also Diamond 1985 and 2010 for arguments for why in moral philosophy we should never be too settled in our understanding of our field of interest and why we should even continuously work to unsettle it.

188      covered in blue velour. Wilson lives out his love for silk shirts, strong language, fixing cars and breaking the law, something which he does regularly, often getting caught because of the tell-tale marks of his cart-wheels leading to and from the scene of the crime. The occasion for the article is, however, Wilson’s recent death; going to see his sister, Wilson drove 100 mph in the wrong lane, causing a car crash that killed a ‘luckless stranger’ (Diamond 1997, 202). In the written responses to the article, many readers object strongly to the fact that the Post devotes a whole article to what one calls a ‘worthless wonder’ (ibid. 207) and to the contrast between the positive picture painted of Wilson and the neglect of the poor man killed in the car crash. In one strand of Diamond’s subtle and complex discussion of the example, she brings out how many of the letter writers are shocked by the fact ‘the story of Wilson’s life is not used to edify or instruct’ (ibid. 211). For them, what is morally important is tied to the possibility of moral judgement—an idea that Diamond connects to the Kantian thought that there is ‘nothing good or admirable about the strength of life without a good will, which would direct that strength and make it conform to universal end’ (217). The letter-writers thus represent one possible mode of responsiveness to life in which life is subordinated to moral judgement, and their position thus borders on a form of moralism. Diamond’s point is that this responsiveness forms a background that shapes the explicit moral thought and particular moral judgements of the letter-writers, and she contrasts it with another mode of responsiveness to life, that of the writer of the article, who invites ‘a certain admiration for Wilson, or sympathy for him, [ . . . ] encouraging responses which are not subjected to the authority of awful, impersonal Morality’ (ibid. 211). What Diamond does is to show and discuss the differences between these two ways of understanding the moral and their connections to the differences in people’s responsiveness to human life, and she thereby also brings out the problematic character of the assumption, central to moralism, that morality (primarily or exclusive) concerns questions of moral worth and moral judgement, and more generally the problematic nature of that assumption that one has the right to say ‘this (whatever it may be) is what moral thinking in essence is; all else is not really moral thinking’ (ibid. 228). In this way, Diamond shows how thinking that one has, always already, identified the relevant field of morality may lead to a blindness to some forms of moral importance. If we move on to the second suggestion in the initial Diamond quote, that the moral does not fit the role of subject matter, I take this to imply no more than just the claim that we cannot demarcate a field of morality as the subject matter of moral philosophy. The point is not just that ‘a moral subject matter’

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has blurred boundaries, overlapping in intricate ways with other subject matters such as that of epistemology, for example, as suggested by Amalie Rorty,² or that it has changeable boundaries, in the way that some would say that the theory of the Anthropocene has shown the subject matter of geology to be quite different from what we have hereto assumed, also including an understanding of the human or of capitalism. Diamond’s suggestion is not meant simply to direct our attention to specific difficulties connected to the identification of the subject matter of moral philosophy, but to make us aware that what we are dealing with in moral philosophy does not lend itself to a characterisation in terms of subject matter. One way in which Diamond brings out this point is by discussing the problems involved in identifying a specific moral vocabulary. She discusses in this regard the view that descriptiveness pervades the whole of language and the way this view may lead moral philosophers to think, in Diamond’s words, that ‘there are moral features of the world, as there are botanical features of the world; the propositions of botany are about the latter and the propositions of ethics about the former’ (Diamond 1996b, 242). Developing this view, philosophers often come to assume that what makes a sentence moral is the fact that it contains a moral predicate referring to a moral feature of the world, and that this makes it possible to identify a set of moral words, a moral vocabulary. Diamond challenges this assumption by taking up various examples that do not fit with the idea that moral sentences are characterised by the occurrence of moral predicates or any other explicitly moral words. Diamond remarks: Whole sentences, stories, images, the idea we have of a person, words, rules: anything made of the resources of ordinary language may be brought into such a relation to our lives and actions and understanding of the world that we might speak of the thinking involved in that connection as ‘moral’. There is no limit to be set. (ibid. 248)

Diamond’s point is that if we want to talk of a moral vocabulary in the sense of the ‘vocabulary we use in saying things that might have application in moral life’, then ‘that excludes no words’ (ibid. 253). Some of the ways we talk about what is morally important to us do not involve anything like a specific moral vocabulary, not even when what we say is clearly descriptive. If I say to a friend, ‘Why not visit your father, now that he is sick?’, this may be a moral intervention, not because it really means ‘You ought to visit your father . . . ’, ² See section 3.1.

190      but simply because it points to something that I think may have moral importance for my friend, something that she maybe fails to see or take into account. The idea of a moral vocabulary may lead to an overly exclusive focus on specific classes of words when thinking about moral life and, according to Diamond, invite ‘a false conception of what it is for our thought to be about something moral’ (ibid. 245). Diamond’s resistance against the idea of a moral vocabulary has its critics. Benjamin De Mesel has worked to refute readings of Wittgenstein’s view of philosophy from which it follows that moral philosophy cannot be said to have a subject matter, arguing that the variety of the moral should not make us give up the idea that there is a moral subject matter. To support this claim, De Mesel argues that even if the subject matter of moral philosophy cannot be identified with a set of specifically moral words or even a limited set of words, this does not mean that we cannot identify a moral vocabulary (cf. De Mesel 2015, 71). According to De Mesel, thinkers sceptical of the idea of a moral vocabulary have forgotten the important Wittgensteinian insight that meaning is use, and by taking this insight to heart, we can in fact specify a vocabulary on the right grounds, namely by including the uses of words into our moral vocabulary. De Mesel here discusses an example of Diamond’s, the moral uses of the sentence ‘It is only through chance that I was born’ (Diamond 1996b, 247), and he comments, ‘If what makes “chance” a moral word in some cases is its specific use in these cases, then a moral vocabulary will include the word “chance” with a specification of use: in such and such cases, when used so and so, the word “chance” is a moral word’ (De Mesel 2015, 72). That a moral vocabulary can include ‘chance’ in its moral use shows us a general point, according to De Mesel: it is not single words that make up a moral vocabulary, rather such a vocabulary is also identified on the basis of moral uses of words—that is, we can identify some words as moral because these words are used in a specific way. I think that De Mesel, in his proposal to include specifications of use of words in a moral vocabulary, fails to notice (at least) two points. First, we should object to the assumption, implicit in De Mesel’s plea for a usedependent specification of a moral vocabulary, that we are able to judge whether a use of a word is moral before and independent of an actual instance of use of that word. De Mesel seems to interpret Wittgenstein’s reminder that ‘[f]or a large class of cases [ . . . ] the meaning of a word is its use in the language’ (PI §43) such that words carry around possibilities of use that are fixed and can be classified independently of actual instances of use. However, as I have already argued in Chapter 3, I do not think that this notion of pre-

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established possibilities of use is in any way compatible with what Wittgenstein does in the Investigations. Instead, Wittgenstein shows us how many uses of language are not determined by rules but are instead a matter for context-sensitive judgement, and if this is so, then we cannot save the idea of a moral vocabulary and a moral subject matter by including specifications of use. Second, De Mesel overlooks a point that can be brought out by pointing to an important difference between the disciplines of botany and moral philosophy. In botany, we can give a general classification of the stuff included in its subject matter, and we can do so before and independent of our specific hypothesis within botany (at least in normal cases). This is not so in moral philosophy. Here we have no established ways to give a general classification of words as moral (or not moral) independently of our standing within moral philosophy, because our moral commitments are themselves partly constitutive of what we find to be morally relevant. What is special about moral philosophy is that we have no way to pick out and specify what we are studying that does not rely on an understanding of what could be morally relevant. In the words of Diamond, in moral philosophy ‘[o]ur moral judgements themselves shape our conception of the field of study’ (Diamond 1983, 373).³ The activity of discerning and describing what is involved in a particular situation is not morally neutral, it is itself a moral task, just as the concepts we use have meaning because they are embedded in what we can call life-with-thoseconcepts which is, in the moral case, life within a particular moral outlook on the world (cf. Diamond 1988). Because of this, there is no way to identify morally relevant words in a morally neutral way. Furthermore, adding uses of words to a moral vocabulary only briefly postpones the problem, because there is also no way to identify morally relevant uses of words in a morally neutral way. In contrast to the case of botany, we cannot establish a moral vocabulary before and independent of the work we do in moral philosophy. It is important to consider why we are attracted to the ideas of a moral field and a subject matter of moral philosophy. One reason, I think, stems from one of the dominant understandings of the goal of philosophy, namely, to develop general, simple, and consistent accounts of that which is complicated and hard to understand, as this ambition brings with it the risk of a specific form of philosophical failure. Moral philosophers may come to assume that it is possible to develop a set of criteria for ‘the moral’ which may come to hide or distort our actual understanding of importance in moral life—especially if ³ See also section 3.1.

192      we are caught up in the ideal of theoretical consistency or a quest for a simple foundation of our moral commitments. In Cora Diamond’s words: ‘The requirements which we lay down stop us seeing what moral thought is like; further, they lead us to construct stupid or insensitive or crazy moral arguments, arguments which are capable of hiding our own genuine ethical insights from ourselves’ (Diamond 1991a, 23). If we as moral philosophers are interested in understanding moral life, then we need to give up our demand for fixed criteria and instead begin from, and again and again return to, the way that the moral comes into view in our lives. However, I believe there is also another reason why we are attracted to the idea of demarcating the limits of the moral, namely the thought that we can decide once and for all what is and what is not morally relevant. This thought is tempting, in moral philosophy as in moral life, because it seems to carry with it the promise that we can judge who is ‘inside’ and who is ‘outside’ of morality. The attractive thought is that if we can specify the boundaries of the moral or a moral subject matter, we can then judge who is inside the space of reasonable judging, the realm of moral thought, and who to rule out, who to refuse the status as a relevant participant in moral discussions. The idea of a moral ‘outside’ brings with it the idea that if you are standing ‘outside’, you are presented with a choice: either you accept what we have established as the relevant moral field and move back inside, or we do not have to take you seriously as someone with a genuine moral standing. In this way, the ‘spatial’ idea of the moral allows us to avoid engaging in the hard work of trying to figure out what, in this specific case, creates a moral distance between us. If we give up the spatial model of the moral in exchange for the clarificatory model suggested by Diamond, we will have to come to terms with the possibility that there may be real differences in how we see the world, morally, springing from real differences in how we talk and act and live and what we see and need.

8.2 In a Realistic Spirit: Descriptive Moral Philosophy In the previous section, I argue that moral philosophers need a clarificatory rather than a substantial understanding of the moral, and this claim is connected to another central suggestion of this book that moral philosophy is not just a clarifying but a descriptive activity. The rejection of any possibility of establishing criteria or boundaries of the moral involves a rejection of the idea that philosophy can establish and work from a distinction between our ordinary or everyday understanding of moral life and ‘how things really are’

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pursued here. The suggestion is instead that in philosophy we always have to start from the ordinary and from there investigate moral life in ‘a realistic spirit’, in the sense explored by Cora Diamond.⁴ That is, we should stay loyal to the reality of what we are investigating, considering the real as real enough, and taking an attitude to the real in which ‘there is no question of something missing from it, no question of something else beyond it in virtue of which it is perception of the real’ (Diamond 1986, 44). Or, as Lovibond phrases it in a discussion of Diamond’s work, in moral philosophy we must work against a specific type of philosophical fantasy: The content of the fantasy is that there must be more to our concept of ‘reality’ than could be gathered simply from investigation of how we actually distinguish between the real and the unreal within our (putative) experience. The ‘realism’ that can counter it, and indeed the only one worthy of the name, is an attitude of respect for these methods as fully adequate to their role in our life. (Lovibond 1997, 43–4)

According to Lovibond, philosophy is not the arbiter of what is real, rather moral philosophers must accept the methods that we have already established to distinguish between real and unreal. This is a general point about the standpoint from which we can judge something as real or not, but to this, Lovibond later adds: ‘So, for example, if we recognize as an authentic element in our “form of life” the habit of reflection on moral significance of events [ . . . ], then all the considerations of principle that sustains Diamond’s realistic spirit in general epistemology will be equally available to us in ethics’ (Lovibond 1997, 46).⁵ In moral philosophy, we must take seriously the fact that in moral life we already have available practices of distinguishing between what is of moral relevance and what is not, and this means that we must turn our attention to the description of these practices, the criteria and justifications at play here, and not try to bypass them, for example by trying to settle the question of moral relevance through abstract theories. The resources that we need in order to answer questions of how and when something takes on moral importance are to be found in our actual moral lives, and the answers to these ⁴ See Diamond 1986 and 1991a. The phrase is taken from an article by F.P. Ramsey (see Diamond 1986, 42), but Diamond connects it with a Wittgensteinian idea of having a realistic relation to reality (cf. RFM 375). ⁵ Through engagement with Wittgenstein’s thought, Scheman also criticises the idea that in moral life, the truths ‘lie beneath the surface, communicating in the causal code of signs and symptoms, decipherable to the expert and undeniably more real than the mere appearances we encounter at the surface’ (Scheman 1993, 122). See also the discussion of the objectivity of the moral in section 4.8.

194      questions can never be decisive, as they do not concern a preestablished moral field but rather the changing ways that aspects of reality may come to have a moral role in our lives. In this way, the answers to the questions concerning moral relevance are connected with our lives and develop together with them. The rejection of a moral field thus leads to another central assumption in the present work, that human life is fundamentally a moral life. To have a human life is to be faced with a task, not just to choose, act, and improve oneself in morally informed ways, but also to be able to justify such choices, actions, and commitments and to do so in a way that is integrated in one’s particular way of living. The idea of human life as a fundamental moral task is as common in ordinary life as it is contested in moral philosophy, but central to this idea is the understanding that the moral is not something in our lives; rather, moral concerns are a fundamental dimension in our very understanding of what it is to have and to live a human life.⁶ That a human life is, at least in one sense, also a moral life, is the driving idea behind the proposed view of descriptive moral philosophy. If moral relevance and justifications are established in our actual lives as dimensions of these lives, then the task of moral philosophy is not to discover, explain or ground the moral, but rather to describe legitimate cases of moral relevance and justifications, and how these cases connect to certain ways of acting and living, to particular moral positions and ways of being attentive to reality. In Chapter 3, I suggested that a descriptive view of moral philosophy can take this task seriously, because it involves an understanding of the activity of moral philosophy as offering descriptions that clarify and elucidate the normative structures organising our moral lives. This view is guided by Wittgenstein’s idea of philosophy as descriptive, and it is an attempt to unfold, in moral philosophy, the implications of his claim that ‘[p]hilosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundation either. It leaves everything as it is’ (PI §124). The point of moral philosophy is not to tell us how we ought to act or think or what we ought to become, morally, but rather to describe and elucidate the many ways we do in fact act and think, and what we can in fact become, ⁶ This is in line with Diamond’s exploration of Wittgenstein’s attempt in the Tractatus to do justice to an ‘understanding of life which belongs to ethics, not as a subject of discourse, but rather as primarily to the sense of life’ (Diamond 1991a, 10). This is also reflected in Kierkegaard’s understanding that my existence as person, a self, raises a question that is essentially practical and ethical, namely the question of ‘what a human being has to do in life’ (Kierkegaard 1843, 172). That is, for Kierkegaard the moral or the ethical is essentially related to my own, personal existence. ‘In order to study the ethical, every human being is assigned to himself [ . . . ] indeed, he is the only place where he can with certainty study it’ (Kierkegaard 1843, 141–2). See also Christensen 2007.

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morally, in a manner that helps to orient us among the available alternatives of moral life. By proposing a view of descriptive moral philosophy, I want to emphasise how an acceptance of the ordinary moral life together with vigilant attention to this ordinariness in all its many forms are necessary conditions of doing moral philosophy. The understanding needed in moral philosophy is not brought about through the discovery of hidden phenomena lying somewhere ‘behind’ our moral lives. In philosophy, Wittgenstein notes, ‘nothing is hidden’ (PI §435), in a related quote elaborating: ‘Philosophy simply puts everything before us, and neither explains nor deduces anything.—Since everything lies open to view there is nothing to explain’ (PI §126). What we need to understand the moral is already available to us in moral life; it must be, otherwise it could not make a difference there anyway. As we saw Kant point out in Chapter 2, it makes no sense ‘to introduce a new principle of morality, and, as it were, be its inventor, as if the world had hitherto been ignorant of what duty is’ (Kant 1949: 123, footnote).⁷ Moral philosophy cannot ‘discover’ new moral principles (or beliefs, attitudes, virtues, and so on), because such principles must always already be available for anyone who is striving to become morally competent—one could say that this is part of what is shown by the dictum ‘Ought implies can’. In this sense, there are no moral discoveries. The task of moral philosophy is not to correct or improve moral practice, but rather, to make explicit the normative concerns that already guide this practice. (Even if in this way it provides us with tools that we may use in the attempt to improve ourselves. I return to this question in section 8.4.) To solve problems in moral philosophy, we first have to look and see, as Wittgenstein reminds us: ‘Don’t apologize for anything, don’t obscure anything, look & tell how it really is—but you must see something that sheds a new light on the facts’ (CV 45). But another important point to keep in mind here is how very hard it can be to grasp what ‘lies open to view’. Even if nothing is concealed from us in our attempt to understand moral life, to see what is before us is no easy task, because, as Wittgenstein also reminds us: ‘The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something—because it is always before one’s eyes.)’ (PI §129). What is familiar can be almost impossible to get into view (as it can be almost impossible to really see the face of a loved one or the decoration of one’s well-worn living room), and we therefore have to continuously remind ourselves of the difficulties involved in being truly ⁷ See section 2.5 and see the illuminating discussion of this issue in De Mesel 2016a.

196      attentive towards what lies open to view and the difficulties involved in presenting this clearly.⁸ We should also be attentive to the fact that seeing what ‘lies open to view’ and leaving ‘everything as it is’ may be harder in moral philosophy than anywhere else in philosophy, because the need for improvement and for constructive philosophy may appear to be more acute and critical with regard to the moral than with other philosophical subjects. Think for example of the urgency motivating Martha Nussbaum’s plea for theory, the fear that if we just leave everything as it is, what we will be left with are ‘some good thought, corrupted by selfishness, aggressiveness, and urges to dominate’ (Nussbaum 2000, 252).⁹ Such fears may tempt us to look ‘behind’ or ‘beyond’ moral life in search of something some secure and reliable with which to support moral practice, for example in the form of a moral foundation. In addition, it may seem as if a moral philosophy that simply works to describe the familiar is without critical bite—an objection that is also central to Nussbaum’s plea for moral theory. On the view developed here, the important points are, first, that this yearning for a secure foundation of moral life is illusionary, as there is nothing ‘behind’ or ‘beyond’ moral life, and second, that descriptive moral philosophy is indeed a critical activity, not because it tells us what to do, but because it provides us with the resources and the understanding necessary to engage reflectively and critically with moral practice and reconsider and evaluate the moral dimensions involved in our lives. On the view developed here, philosophical investigation is tied to a specific problem or question, to something that worries, intrigues, fascinates or puzzles us. Such problems may arise for many reasons, such as misleading analogies in language,¹⁰ a craving for generality,¹¹ or the unsurveyability of a certain phenomenon,¹² but the focus on problems means that the aim of philosophical description is always local, to help resolve or dissolve a specific puzzlement by presenting the problem in a way that makes its problematical aspects disappear, just as the descriptions offered are relevant and appropriate only in relation to the intricacies of the particular problem at hand. One consequence of this is that the philosopher always plays a crucial part in identifying a philosophical problem, and that the philosophical investigation is guided by her interests and by what she is attentive to. In this way, the philosopher ⁸ Similar to the way the task of reading what is in a literary text is an activity in itself—an analogy central to Moi 2017. ⁹ See also section 2.3. ¹⁰ As explored in section 6.3. ¹¹ Which would be the driving force behind the conception of theory criticised in Chapter 2. ¹² We are often confronted with this form of unsurveyability when we encounter a completely new phenomenon, for example in the wake of biomedical discoveries, but we may also experience that same unsurveyability in relation to familiar phenomenon such as the role of love in moral life.

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always takes a risk by calling attention to something as a worthwhile object of philosophical attention, and she is always present in and responsible for her philosophical investigation, a point that we return to in the final section of this chapter.

8.3 The Activity of Description Fundamental to the notion of descriptive moral philosophy is the idea that philosophy aims to clarify moral problems by offering descriptions of moral life. However, clarification can be done in many different ways, and accordingly, there are many possible forms of such descriptions. In Chapter 3, I investigated one possible form of description that could be offered in moral philosophy, namely moral theories as descriptions of general moral grammars, where moral grammar is understood as structures of possible, intelligible ways of talking, acting, knowing, relating to others, and so on. However, I also noted how we philosophers will have to produce other forms of descriptions if we are to address the range of problems in moral philosophy, and this point has been further supported by our discussion of the importance of moral particularities, namely features of moral life that cannot be captured in descriptions of general, normative structures. What emerges is the point that moral philosophy involves many different descriptive activities. In this work, I have discussed a number of such activities such as giving general overviews in the form of descriptive moral theories (in Chapter 3), providing descriptions of the personal and contextual particularities that play a part in the moral (especially in chapters 5 and 6), turning to other disciplines or to literature to develop surveyable representations (in Chapter 7), and, in line with Wittgenstein, I have also emphasised how these different forms of descriptions may be used for many purposes such as ‘objects of comparison’ (PI §130) that highlight differences and similarities between uses of words that puzzle us or ‘reminders’ (PI §127) of what is familiar but hidden for us. This is, however, not an exhaustive list of the possible forms of descriptive activities that moral philosophy may engage in. In fact, the question of what kind of descriptive activities may be useful in moral philosophy is not one that can be settled in advance, independently of actual demonstrations of such usefulness, especially because the appropriateness of a descriptive activity is tied to the specific problem with which one is dealing in moral philosophy. Descriptions are tools directed at dissolving specific problems, and because of this, they must take a form appropriate to the problem at hand, a view that

198      is supported by Wittgenstein’s insight that all descriptions are designed to realise a specific purpose. Wittgenstein writes: ‘What we call “descriptions” are instruments for particular uses. Think of a machine-drawing, a cross-section, an elevation with measurements, which an engineer has before him’ (PI §291). When we describe something, the description is shaped by the point for which it is made; the way that I describe a street crossing will vary significantly according to whether I want to draw up a map, try to help someone find their way, argue that the crossing is unsafe for cyclists, or I am a painter who is trying to bring out the play of lights here and colours there. There is no one ideal description of a place or a phenomenon; instead, the way description is composed is tied to and should be judged in light of the purpose we have in offering it. As Cora Diamond points out, we should resist the temptation to think that description ‘is something that can be pulled out of the context of human life and interest’ and see that ‘what it is to describe is many different kinds of activity’ (Diamond 1988, 267). In moral philosophy, we need descriptions as reminders in cases where we have become lost in relation to a moral problem, and we need many different forms of such descriptions, because they serve to remind us of different types of moral relevance such as moral grammars, individual commitments, normative structures of the community, and so on, which inform the problem. At this point, we may return to the idea introduced in Chapter 1 that moral philosophy elucidates through two interconnected forms of movement which pull in two different directions. In generalising movements, we focus on overall concerns of importance for moral problems, for example by offering descriptions of the moral grammars at play. In particularising movements, we turn to the description of that which does not fit under the generalisation, in a move that leads us back to the messy concreteness and complexity of moral life. The point is that the two forms of movements are interdependent. The crudeness of general descriptions may call for a particularising movement, and if we are to avoid getting lost in the particular, we may need to move back towards generality to make the most pertinent features of the unmanageable complexity of the investigated phenomena stand out, and so on. That is, on this view, moral philosophy offers different forms of reminders, sometimes in the form of general descriptions which assist our overall moral orientation, and sometimes in the form of particular descriptions directed at elucidating particular problems. As the descriptions offered in moral philosophy are made for particular purposes, and as they are relevant to particular difficulties in getting an overview of our moral thinking, they only present partial descriptions of the

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available moral normativity. We should not see philosophical descriptions as opposing explanations of a single ontological realm offering mutually exclusive forms of knowledge, but instead see the plurality of descriptions as contributions to a collective struggle to make the complicated meaning established in moral life surveyable. Of course, this has the consequence that moral philosophy cannot offer action-guidance in the sense of recommending right action or a test of moral principles. Philosophy reminds us of our commitments and the structures of normative concerns constituting moral life, but it does not settle what we should be moved by; this is something that the moral subject will have to settle for herself in each case. Another consequence of this is that no one is ever compelled to accept that a description resolves a specific philosophical problem; presenting a description is, rather, a helpful way of offering us a common starting point for discussion. In Toril Moi’s words, ‘[a]n analysis—a description—of the particular case can only ever be an invitation to look and see, to consider whether, or how far, you can use it for your own purposes’, and if you cannot use it, she continues, ‘we can work out why you can’t see what I say I see’ (Moi 2015, 201).¹³ In moral philosophy, we offer descriptions that our partners in discussion may or may not find relevant, but ideally, these descriptions will help us to appreciate why we are struggling with this particular problem and to find new ways of coming to clarity with regard to it. And importantly, in contrast to moral theories on a traditional understanding, descriptions help us to do this in a way that does not threaten to distort the very field that is of interest to us in moral philosophy.

8.4 The Practicality of Moral Philosophy A pressing question for the view of descriptive moral philosophy as presenting elucidatory descriptions aiming to clarify moral life is whether this form of philosophy can be said to be normative or practical. In the following, I will attempt to answer this question and at the same time further develop the investigation of the relation between moral philosophy and moral life. We have already seen how Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, suggests a practical aim for moral philosophy when he says that ‘we are studying not to know what goodness is, but how to become good men’ (Ethics II.ii, 1103b).¹⁴ According to Aristotle, moral philosophy is an activity where we investigate ¹³ See also Moi 2017, chapter 4.

¹⁴ See also section 4.2.

200      how to become good, or maybe—to put it in more modest terms, perhaps more suitable to a contemporary, pluralistic world—how to become better human beings. What Aristotle is saying is not just that moral philosophy is the investigation of the practical dimension of life, including the practical endeavour to become better human beings, but also that moral philosophy is itself practical, that it works to advance this endeavour. Most philosophers agree with Aristotle that moral philosophy is practical, but despite this widespread agreement, it is rarely spelled out what the claim about the practicality or normativity of moral philosophy actually entails. What we all too often forget to ask is ‘How are we to understand the practicality of moral philosophy?’ Or, ‘In what way does moral philosophy help us to become better?’ It is to these questions we now turn. There is at least one readily available answer to the question of how to understand the practicality of moral philosophy, which is that moral philosophy is practical because it offers some form of action-guidance. Nussbaum’s admirably explicit and candid defence of the view that moral theories offer action-guidance was discussed in Chapter 3, but here it was also shown how it really amounts to the view that moral theories are normative in the sense of being prescriptive. I discussed several problems facing this view, especially that it misconstrues the position of moral philosophy (or more specifically, moral theory) as well as that of the moral subject. It misconstrues the position of moral philosophy by crediting it with an unwarranted authority to interfere with our genuine moral commitments that ignores the importance and unavoidability of the first-person perspective in moral life. And it misconstrues the position of the moral subject by reducing her moral task to that of adhering to moral theory, thus blinding us to the fact that we always carry moral responsibility for our judgements, actions, and commitments—no matter which authorities or sources of moral insight we may refer to or rely on.¹⁵ To this, we can now add some further reasons, that theories cannot be action-guiding because moral reasoning is always determined by the adequate understanding of the problem and the situation in question, and because of the importance of our moral position and personal value commitments and of contextual particularities.¹⁶ Together this means that philosophy cannot yield decisive answers to actual moral questions, it cannot make decisions for us when we are trying to make the right choice, do the right thing, or figuring out how to live or what to become.¹⁷

¹⁵ See section 2.5. ¹⁶ Developed in chapters 4, 5, and 6, respectively. ¹⁷ As Wittgenstein notes, to the demand for a decision, the philosopher can always reply ‘I don’t know—you decide’ (Nachlass 119, 81v).

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In light of all this, I have rejected the idea that we can understand the practicality of moral philosophy in terms of action-guidance, and in general I reject the idea that moral philosophy is normative in the dictionary sense of prescribing or ‘determining norms or standards’.¹⁸ It is, however, important to emphasise that the rejection of the idea that moral philosophy is normative does not in and of itself entail a rejection of the idea that moral philosophy is practical in the Aristotelian sense of aiding us in our effort to live morally better lives. It is therefore necessary to investigate what this understanding of moral philosophy as a descriptive and elucidatory activity developing in a movement between generality and particularity means for an understanding of the practicality of moral philosophy. At first glance, it might appear as if the attempt to account for the practicality of moral philosophy from a descriptive view of moral philosophy amounts to shooting oneself in the foot, because, really, how can descriptive philosophy be practical? However, if we try to address this issue from a different angle, we may ask whether there are challenges in moral life where we are aided by the form of clarity and elucidation offered by descriptive moral philosophy. My suggestion is that there are at least three ways in which descriptive moral philosophy is practical, namely in furthering our moral orientation, our moral attention, and our moral development. The first suggestion, that moral philosophy is practical insofar as it aids our moral orientation by offering general descriptions of moral grammars that provide an overview of our moral practice, has already been discussed extensively.¹⁹ We will not repeat this discussion here, but simply highlight that this is one way in which philosophy may aid us in moral life. The second way in which descriptive moral philosophy is practical is essentially connected to philosophy’s ability to aid the development of our moral attention. By offering reminders, moral philosophy can show us important features of moral life that we are prone to forget, neglect or simply put aside, and in this way, it reminds us of what is a suitable object of moral attention and helps us change the direction of our attention. Jonathan Wolff (2015) has argued in political philosophy that philosophy is practical in making recommendations for our moral attention. Wolff is critical of the idea that political philosophy contributes to political solutions by creating a ¹⁸ This is one of the three definitions of ‘normative’ in the Merriam Webster dictionary (see http:// In the Cambridge dictionary ‘normative’ is defined as ‘relating to rules, or making people obey rules, especially rules of behaviour’. The rejection that moral philosophy is normative does of course not imply a rejection of there being normativity in moral life. ¹⁹ In Chapter 3.

202      form of ‘blueprint’ of an ideally just society (a way of doing philosophy exemplified in John Rawls’ theory of justice), both because we never have the possibility to rework the whole of our political communities and because of the essentially contested status of all such ‘blueprint’ models. Instead, Wolff suggests that political philosophy can be practical by offering philosophical accounts of a specific pressing political issue that draw our attention to important but neglected value-commitments involved in this issue. That is, philosophy cannot provide general answers to political issues, but it can draw our attention to part of the truth of these issues, remind us of important political commitments, and ensure that these are not overlooked or ignored in political discussions. Wolff is here influenced by Margaret MacDonald, who writes that the value of political philosophers lies ‘not in the general information they give about the basis of political obligation but in their skill in emphasizing at a critical moment a criterion which is tending to be overlooked or denied’ (Quoted from Wolff 2015, 363). Thus, according to both MacDonald and Wolff, philosophy can be practical because it can direct our attention in politically relevant ways. Our engagement with Wolff helps to give substance to the idea that moral philosophy can be practical by making recommendations for our moral attention, which means that moral philosophy certainly has a special obligation to describe features of moral life that are currently, in our time or culture, either neglected or distorted. Toril Moi makes a similar suggestion: ‘If the best philosophy, the best theories of racism, or sexism, or homophobia, contribute powerfully to social and political change, it is [ . . . ] because they help us to see the world, and other people, more clearly’ (Moi 2017, 158). Moreover, on Julia Driver’s interpretation, we find this idea exemplified in Iris Murdoch’s understanding of philosophy. Murdoch’s emphasis on the importance of the particular in moral life should not be considered a rejection of the importance of the general in moral life. Instead, we should see this emphasis as springing from Murdoch’s assessment that the particular has been disproportionately and unjustifiably neglected by moral philosophers in favour of general questions, for example about the rightness of actions. In Driver’s words, ‘what Murdoch wants is a balance between considering questions at a high level of generality as well as detail. [ . . . She] is advocating a particularist methodology because it has been ignored, but [ . . . ] does not reject a crucial role for considering things in general as well’ (Driver 2012, 305). In a similar fashion, the present work subscribes to the idea that moral philosophy has a special obligation to bring to light parts of moral life that are currently bypassed or have fallen outside the scope of our moral attention.

  


A third way in which moral philosophy is practical is in expanding our powers of attention, inviting us to engage with new forms of moral thought. By offering clarifications, descriptive moral philosophy aims to show us moral life more clearly, but in doing so, philosophy will also often offer us the possibility to ‘think about things in a new way’, as Diamond points out, ‘not by giving us what to think about them, not by presenting us with new views or doctrines’ (Diamond 1983, 371). Karsten Schoellner has developed this view of how moral philosophy may change the conditions of our moral attention, a form of philosophy which is, as he puts it, ‘practical in its approach and not just in its subject matter’ (Schoellner 2017, 121), and he does so by looking at three atypical interventions in the ongoing philosophical discussion about how we should relate to animals. In this context, we will only look at one of his chosen interventions, primatologist Barbara Smuts’ suggestion that we should let our relationship with animals be guided by an idea of personhood as ‘a way of being in relation to others’ (Smuts 1999, 117).²⁰ Smuts is trying to demonstrate how adopting this notion of personhood would allow us to bypass our assumptions about what animals are capable of as well as the conditions we place on anyone taking on the status of a person, so that we may instead achieve a relationship to animals characterised by the ‘voluntary, mutual surrender to the dictates of intersubjectivity’ (ibid. 118).²¹ Schoellner notes that no matter how attractive Smut’s view initially appears, a moral philosopher will probably want to question it, because it seems to allow for the possibility that we only have to ascribe the status of personhood to those with whom we want to be in relation, something that may seem a disquieting loophole in the Smuts’ view, allowing for the exclusions of some human beings from the status of basic personhood. Schoellner’s point is that someone trained as a philosopher, whom Schoellner calls a theoretical practical philosopher, may see this as a reason to improve on Smuts’ view of personhood for example by offering the ‘helpful modification’ that ‘perhaps “person” should be defined as anything with which a personal relationship is possible’ (Schoellner 2017, 124). According to the theoretical practical philosopher, this helpful modification is meant to make it impossible for someone of ill intentions to adopt Smuts’ vocabulary simply to abuse it and to make it possible for us to condemn a person for being mistaken in her understanding of personhood. However, according to Schoellner, the modification really is not that helpful, because the very fact of offering it shows that one has missed the point of ²⁰ Quoted in Schoellner 2017, 123.

²¹ Quoted in ibid. 122.

204      what Smuts is trying to do. We can bring this out through a contrast between Smuts and the theoretical practical philosopher. It is clear, of course, what the theoretical philosopher is trying to do. She wants to develop a philosophical theory that tells us when to treat others (humans as well as animals) as persons, or in other words, tells us what is right to do and enable us to condemn those who do not act in this way. However, as Schoellner notes, ‘we will never be finished with the business of disputing philosophical theories, and even if we did all come to agree on one, there would be no guarantee that anyone would be moved to act on it’ (ibid. 134). In contrast to this, he introduces the practical practical philosopher or the really practical philosopher, who is trying to do what Schoellner also takes Smuts to be trying to do, which is not to set up rules about what to do or when to condemn others, but rather ‘to expand our awareness and sensitivity, to change how we respond to the world’ (ibid. 133). The practical philosopher is working to make us see how we can live and act morally differently from how we currently live and act, similar to the way that Smuts is working to make us see how we can relate to animals in a way that allows for a richer form of intersubjectivity between humans and animals. By offering the ‘helpful modification’, the theoretical practical philosopher misses the practical point of Smut’s suggestion. She fails to see that it is an attempt to change the way we think about animals, and, in Schoellner’s words, her response ‘is not only useless but also positively harmful, as it distracts us from doing the sort of thinking that would expand our moral horizon. [ . . . It] looks to the practical philosopher like a corrupt sort of impatience, an impatience for the real work of moral thought’ (ibid. 134). The suggestion that we take from Schoellner is that moral philosophy may work to develop new moral visions of what moral life can be and to invite others to engage in such visions, something which may be considered a form of truly practical moral philosophy, because it invites us to engage in and come to value new forms of moral thought in a way that may further actual moral change. This would also have consequences for how we engage with the philosophical suggestion of others in moral philosophy, because it would require that we (at least sometimes) put aside our philosophical preoccupation with finding flaws or inconsistences in philosophical views and instead turn our attention to exploring the forms of moral thought that these views open for us. The suggestions that moral philosophy can be practical, not by providing us with guidance for conduct, but by supporting or furthering our moral orientation, by offering us recommendations for moral attention and opportunities for moral change, invites a view of philosophy as an ongoing discussion of the best ways to clarify and develop moral practice. However, it

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also raises the question of whether there is any morally neutral way of doing philosophy, to which we will now turn in the next section of this chapter.

8.5 The Moral Dimension of Moral Philosophy In the previous section, I argue that a descriptive view of moral philosophy can include an account of the practicality of morality, and my present aim is to show that on this view, moral philosophy is itself a moral activity. There are two sides to this point; it means, first, that the investigations of moral philosophy are themselves morally informed, and, second, that that engagement in moral philosophy carries with it moral responsibility. Let me unfold these two aspects in turn. Moral philosophy is always morally informed because the very activity of giving a philosophical description of something involves a choice of where to employ the attention of the moral philosopher, and because this choice is indeed a moral one. Moreover, as we saw earlier, description is not a normatively neutral activity as it essentially concerns the purposes that guide the making of a particular description. This point also applies to descriptive moral philosophy, as descriptions here are tied to particular problems and offered for particular purposes, both of which are determined by the philosopher’s understanding of the problem. In this way, a philosophical description ‘denotes the form of our representation, the way we see things’ (RFGB 133).²² In developing particular descriptions, moral philosophers highlight what they find essential or overlooked in a way that is expressive of what they find to be of moral importance. To describe something as having possible moral relevance is to morally endorse it and say that—given certain circumstances—this is indeed something that we should concern ourselves with, morally. My point is that work in moral philosophy always involves taking a particular moral stance, precisely because it is an attempt to contribute to the practical question of how we become better human beings. We could say that the point about the moral importance of what we are attentive to also applies to the activity of moral philosophy. By offering particular descriptions of moral life, we are also offering recommendations, not for moral action, but for moral attention, which means that there is no morally neutral way to do moral philosophy; turning the philosophical gaze towards something in ²² See also the discussion in section 3.4. Cf. Baker 2006.

206      particular is a normative endeavour, implying that—again, given certain circumstances—we ought to turn our attention to this. In this way, philosophers take on responsibility for what they choose as their object of attention and the philosophical descriptions that they offer hereof. This view is at odds with the view of D.Z. Philips as presented in section 2.2. According to Phillips, philosophy only describes our moral life and does not take on any normative role; descriptions in moral philosophy are completely neutral, which means that there is such a thing as ‘philosophy’s cool place’ (cf. Phillips 1999). In contrast, I am here claiming that in offering descriptions in moral philosophy, we are always offering particular descriptions, focusing on something rather than something else, and that this is itself a morally informed activity, given the moral importance of attention. This view is in line with that of Iris Murdoch when she says that ‘[m]oral philosophy cannot help taking sides, and would-be neutral philosophers merely take sides surreptitiously’ (Murdoch 2001, 76). This means that when working in moral philosophy, we need to strive for a morally worthwhile ideal. What is does not mean is that a philosophical investigation will ever result in decisive moral recommendations; rather, if moral philosophy is done well, the result is a clearer understanding of the moral. In this way, the result of the philosophical investigation will always come in the currency of understanding, we could say. That moral philosophy is a moral activity means, second, that it is an activity characterised by a certain form of moral responsibility, a responsibility that is dual in character. This is a responsibility to look, openly and honestly, at moral life as it unfolds before our eyes; to engage in philosophical investigations in ‘a realistic spirit’ in the sense explored by Cora Diamond. This responsibility, to remain faithful to the reality that we are investigating, involves an obligation to make accurate descriptions of moral life and to avoid giving in to misleading expectations, for example that the phenomena under investigation can be given certain forms of explanations or be categorised by certain metaphysical requirements, and so on.²³ To live up to this responsibility, moral philosophers need to strive for selfunderstanding, including knowledge of the particularities of our moral position and moral worldview, of our prejudices and biases and of the expectations that we bring to the philosophical investigation, and we need to minimise these expectations as much as humanly possible. In this way, work in philosophy requires that we live up to something like the Socratic dictum to ‘Know ²³ Cf. Diamond 1991a, 20.

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Thyself ’.²⁴ In order to do philosophy, we have to know what we bring to our investigations, not just in terms of intellectual assumptions and prejudices, but also in terms of what we want and need from philosophy.²⁵ More than most, Wittgenstein is attentive to the difficulties involved in putting aside our own expectations when doing philosophy. He writes that in philosophy: What makes a subject difficult to understand—if it is significant, important—is not that it would take some special instruction about abstruse things to understand it. Rather it is the contrast between the understanding of the subject and what most people want to see. Because of this the very things that are most obvious can become the most difficult to understand. (BT 300e)

When we fail to see what is ‘most obvious’ (ibid.) or what ‘lies open to view’ (PI §126) in moral philosophy, this is in some cases simply because we do not want to accept moral life as it is given and instead allow ourselves to turn our attention to how we wish it would be. In this way, work in philosophy involves a two-sided responsibility, calling for an inward movement which consists in the continuous work on one’s expectations and wants an outward movement which consists in the equally continuous work to stay open and attentive towards the phenomenon under investigation. Philosophical activity thus carries with it its own moral responsibility to see clearly what is of interest in its investigation. We could say that this responsibility is what Wittgenstein describes in the quote chosen as the motto for this chapter, ‘Don’t apologize for anything, don’t obscure anything, look & tell how it really is—but you must see something that sheds a new light on the facts’ (CV 45).

8.6 Cutting a Long Story Short As stated at the very beginning, this is a book on moral philosophy, and even if I have raised in it many claims about moral life, my main point in raising these claims has not been to say anything truly substantial about the moral. Instead, I have attempted to draw out a view of moral life which is indeed ‘everyday’ or ²⁴ Especially in Philebus (see Plato 1997b, 48c) and Phaedrus (see Plato 1997c, 230a). ²⁵ Grieco also highlights how self-awareness is an important element in philosophical activity and how this involves a form of self-development or Bildung. ‘Die Philosophie soll eine ethische Arbeit, eine ethische Bildung und Selbstbildung sein’ (Grieco 1996, 8).

208      ‘familiar’ to everyone, and which, because of this, will have to be part of the attention of moral philosophers. In this way, I hope that the claims made about moral life in the present work have been rather modest, as my main aim has been a different one, namely to present a comprehensive suggestion for an understanding of moral philosophy that can accommodate such an everyday or ordinary view of moral life. The main motivation behind this book has been the suspicion that we currently lack a coherent answer to questions of the role and the status of moral philosophy, and I have attempted to present one set of possible answers to these questions, by contributing to a renewed understanding of moral philosophy, the role of moral theory, and the relation between moral philosophy and moral life. I feel unable to summarise what I have attempted to do in this book, but before some closing remarks, I will try to present the most central elements of this understanding. In Part I, I answered the need for an overview of the most important point of critique raised against the dominant understanding of moral theory as simple, general, and consistent accounts of the foundation of the moral that offers substantial and prescriptive forms of actions-guidance. From there I suggested a descriptive view of moral philosophy that allowed us to re-evaluate and re-describe the role of moral theories as providing general descriptions of moral grammar, and in this way offering an overview of forms of grammar often operative in our moral life. However, even if the forms of general orientation offered by moral theories are an important contribution to our understanding of moral life, they are not the only form of understanding—and maybe not even the most important form of understanding—needed in moral philosophy, which shows that moral philosophy must engage in many other activities besides the development of moral theories. In Part II, I therefore turned to an investigation of the role of the general and the particular in moral life and moral thought, showing that even if general elements such as moral principles play an important role in moral life, we also need very different forms of understanding tied to forms of particular moral judgement, discernment, and imagination. An important part of this investigation was to show that the importance of particularity in moral thought does not in any way challenge either the objectivity or the universality of the moral, because these are not attached to general forms of thought, but instead to the forms of moral life in which we are engaged. In the next two chapters of this part of this book, I therefore turned to an exploration of the many ways in which moral life is shaped by particular considerations concerning either our specific standing within moral life or the moral resources available to us. As it

  


has also been shown, one consequence of the moral importance of these particularities is that we take on moral responsibility not just for what we do and say, but also (at least to some degree) for what we are, for our moral positions, and for our moral context, for the moral community and language in which we are engaged. In this, the third and final part of the book, I have tried to further develop what this view of moral life means for moral philosophy. In the previous chapter, I made the point that work in moral philosophy will often require the philosopher to engage with other disciplines and activities if she is to get an adequate understanding of the particular features of moral life, both personal and contextual. I also gave one example of this, namely moral philosophers’ engagement with literature, and discussed how this may further not just philosophers’ understanding of moral life but also the attempt to develop new moral concepts and moral thought. Finally, in this chapter, the aim has been to combine and elaborate on the elements central to the proposed conception of descriptive moral philosophy. Central to this conception is the thought that the main aim of moral philosophy is that of clarification (rather than explanation or justification) which means that the conception of the moral employed in philosophy must be noncommittal and elucidatory. Also central is the idea that a descriptive approach in moral philosophy is necessary if we are to avoid unwarranted forms of influence or even distortions of our ordinary understanding of moral life. Importantly, I have not developed a specific philosophical form of description—even if I pointed to a specifically philosophical aim of such descriptions, namely that of clarification—but I have argued that philosophers are to make use of the many different forms of descriptions already available to us. Importantly, any specific description, in philosophy or elsewhere, is always shaped by the purpose in offering this description, and this means that philosophers take on moral responsibility for the descriptions they offer, for the point and purpose of giving attention to this particular dimension of moral life and doing it in this particular way. Moral philosophy is in this specific sense itself a moral activity and one for which the moral philosophers are responsible. In closing, it seems appropriate to ask what the suggested descriptive and clarificatory understanding of moral philosophy means for moral philosophy in general. In one sense, not much. Many of the suggestions of this book are already shaping contemporary moral philosophy. To take one such example, philosophers are already, to an increasing degree, engaging with other fields or disciplines such as literature, film, sociology, health sciences, technology, and so on. And they do so, I think, for the reasons suggested here, that if moral

210      philosophers are to clarify a specific moral question, they must have a substantial understanding of the particulars surrounding and shaping this question. What I find unfortunate in this development are that this engagement between moral philosophers and other disciplines, also to an increasing degree, takes place outside of philosophy departments, and that philosophy has only to a very limited degree reflected on and developed a comprehensive understanding of what this means for moral philosophy itself. Within philosophy, we still in many ways teach and discuss moral philosophy as if development of substantial and action-guiding moral theories was the main (and maybe the only) activity of moral philosophy. To challenge this selfunderstanding and to help pave the way for a different conception of moral philosophy has been one of the most important motivations behind this work.

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Index For the benefit of digital users, indexed terms that span two pages (e.g., 52–53) may, on occasion, appear on only one of those pages. action-guidance 15–16, 20, 22–4, 26n.25, 27–33, 35, 37–46, 48, 75, 198–201, 209–10 action-guiding, see action-guidance agent-relative reasons 103–4, 106–7 Annas, Julia 20, 37–8, 48–9, 82–5, 85n.21, 93–4, 122–3, 157, 160–1 Anscombe, Elizabeth 16–19 anti-theory 4–5, 19, 21–2, 28–30, 35n.37 anti-theorist, see anti-theory Arendt, Hannah 88–91 Aristotle 18–19, 24–5, 29–30, 34n.35, 45, 77–9, 84, 86–7, 89–90, 100–1, 170–2, 174, 199–200 Arpaly, Noma 154 attention in moral life 9–10, 14, 22–3, 51–2, 85–9, 91–2, 99–101, 124, 127, 172–4, 177, 179, 195, 201–6 authority of moral theory 12–13, 15, 18–19, 21–2, 24, 27–8, 32–42 Baier, Annette 5, 21–2, 30n.29, 31–2, 48 Baker, Gordon 58–60, 62–5 Bakhurst, David 92, 94–5 Baz, Avner 116n.17, 147n.17 Black, Max 181–2 Butler, Judith 134–6 Carroll, Nöel 173–4 categorical imperative, the 45, 64–5, 68 Cavell, Stanley 8–9, 20–1, 96n.43, 104–5, 115–16, 116n.17, 117–21, 123–8, 130–1, 155, 160–1, 168–9 Chappell, Sophie Grace 34n.36 Coetzee, J.M. 182n.29 Cohen, Ted 172, 175, 181–2 Conant, James 20–1

conservatism 80–1, 87, 93–5 Cottingham, John 38 Crary, Alice 20–1, 96–8, 166–7 De Mesel, Benjamin 113–14, 190–1 descriptive moral theory, see descriptive theory descriptive theory 12–14, 29–30, 43–9, 53–8, 62–3, 66–8, 70–1, 102, 197 Diamond, Cora 20–1, 49–51, 65n.26, 98, 104n.1, 147–8, 159, 168–70, 174–5, 177–8, 183, 185–94, 197–8, 203, 206 discernment 20, 37, 78–81, 85n.21, 86–91, 95–6, 98, 108–9, 138, 146–7, 173–4, 208–9 distortion of thought 5–6, 20, 66, 68–9, 89–90, 124, 129n.28, 132–3, 137–8, 142–5, 151–5, 158, 169–70, 172–3, 191–2 Driver, Julia 154n.22, 202 dominant conception of moral philosophy 4, 25–32, 208 elucidatory, see elucidation elucidation 42–3, 57–8, 63, 66–71, 75–6, 198–201, 209 embedded self 13–14, 130–3, 136–7, 152–3, 156, 158–61 epistemological, see epistemology epistemology 7–8, 38–9, 52, 115–17, 135, 166, 188–9, 193–4 ethical demand, the 99–101 eudaimonia 20, 34n.35, 86–7 Euthyphro Dilemma 38 everyday, see the ordinary expert, see expertise expertise 38–9, 82–4, 116–17, 193n.5

224  Falomi, Matteo 126 fantasy 89–90, 128–9, 172–3, 193 Felski, Rita 170–1 Finn, Huckleberry 154 first-person perspective 33–5, 111–13, 125–6, 200 Fleming, Richard 8n.6 following a rule, see rule-following Form(s) of life 20, 56n.10, 75–6, 96, 122–3, 193–4 Forsberg, Niklas 11n.7 Freyenhagen, Fabian 121n.22 Gaita, Raimond 38n.39, 97, 155–7 game 117–18 Garver, Newton 58n.15 grammatical, see grammar, grammar 12–13, 45–6, 53–71, 75–6, 88–9, 91, 137–8, 146–7, 149–52, 165–6, 187, 197–8, 201, 208 Grieco, Agnese 207n.25 Habermas, Jürgen 31–2 Hacker, Peter 54, 58–62, 67–8 Hadot, Pierre 24 Haines, Simon 167n.3 Hämäläinen, Nora 35n.37, 169–70 Hare, R.M. 15–16, 31–2, 37n.38 Hertzberg, Lars 38–9, 107 heuristic 12–13, 51–3, 65–6 Himmler, Heinrich 141–2 Hitler, Adolph 139–42 Hooker, Brad 31–2 Hume. David 30n.29, 48 Hurka, Thomas 24n.21 Hursthouse, Rosalind 20n.4, 84n.19, 122–3 Ibsen, Henrik 150–1 imagination 89–92, 98, 157, 172–5, 177, 208–9 imaginative, see imagination Kant, Immanuel 24–5, 28–30, 36–7, 40–5, 61–2, 64–5, 68, 135n.3, 195 Kantian, see kantianism Kantianism 5, 12–13, 18, 20n.4, 34, 41–2, 141n.12, 188

Kenny, Anthony 170 Kierkegaard, Søren 92n.38, 194n.6 Klemperer, Victor 90–1, 101, 101n.50, 103, 136, 138–41, 151–2, 156–7, 171, 195–6, 196n.12 Kuusela, Oskari 55–6, 65–7 language-game 56 language use 55–7, 63–4, 68–9, 96, 132–3, 138, 142–52, 158 Laugier, Sandra 119n.20 Lévinas, Emmanuel 22–3 literature in moral philosophy 26–7, 28n.27, 165–7, 169–83, 197, 209–10 Louden, Robert B 29–30 Love 88–9 Lovibond, Sabina 84, 122–3, 193–4 Løgstrup, K.E. 90, 99–101 MacDonald, Margaret 201–2 MacIntyre, Alasdair 159–61 Marx, Groucho 76–7 Marx, Karl 182 McDowell, John 20, 47–9, 85n.21, 86–7, 89–90, 96, 122–3, 147n.17 methodology, see philosophical method, Mill, John Stuart 61–2, 68 mimêsis 170–1, 174 Misak, Cheryl 158 Moi, Toril 8n.6, 199, 202 Moore, G.E. 11 moral change 14, 64–5, 95–6, 137n.5, 138–44, 149–50, 165, 176–83, 203–5 moral community 5–6, 8–9, 130–1, 133–4, 152–3, 156–7, 159–61, 208–9 moral competence 87n.24, 107–8, 110–11, 123–4, 128–9 moral development 82, 84–6, 123, 125, 133–5, 153–4, 156, 173–4, 201–2 moral grammar, see grammar moral position 5–6, 13–14, 75, 103–4, 113–15, 117, 119–31, 133–4, 149, 175, 177–9, 182, 194–5, 200, 206–9 moral theory, critique of 5, 15–25, 32–5, 44, 53–4, 191–2 moralism 4, 63, 188 Mulhall, Stephen 146–9

 Murdoch, Iris 9–11, 16–19, 19n.3, 22–4, 50, 65n.26, 66, 70, 88–90, 91n.35, 113, 123–4, 172–3, 177–81, 183–6, 202, 206 Nagel, Thomas 106–7, 135n.3 natural science 16n.1, 31–2, 53–4, 166–8 ‘Newspeak’ 138, 144 Nietzsche, Friedrich 134 Nussbaum, Martha 15, 25–37, 38n.39, 39–44, 46, 68–70, 172, 177–8, 183, 195–6, 200 objectivity in moral life 76, 85, 95–8, 105–6, 113–14, 120–4, 166–7, 208–9 O’Neill, Onora 13–14, 31–2, 76, 79–82, 87, 91–4, 98 Ong, Yi-Ping 112–13 ordinary, the 8–11, 49, 58, 96–7, 104–5, 146, 167–8, 192–3, 207–8 orientation in moral life 9–10, 14, 41, 46–7, 68–9, 121n.22, 123, 165–6, 198, 201, 204–5, 208 Orwell, George 138, 144, 144n.15, 153–5 particularism 4–5, 19–20, 24, 26–7, 80, 85–6, 99, 100n.49, 101 particularist, see particularism personal, the 5–6, 16, 33–5, 103–15, 119–24, 128, 131, 134, 160–1, 179, 194n.6, 197, 200, 209 phantasies, see fantasy, Phillips, D.Z. 20–2, 64–5, 121, 206 philosophical method 9–12, 20–1, 41–2, 54–6, 66–7, 178, 193–4, 202 phronesis 77–9 Pianalto, Matthew 112–13, 125–6 pluralism 33, 41–2 practical reason 20, 24, 40–2, 47–8, 77–8, 82–4, 93–5, 97 practicality 14, 199–201, 205 prescription, see prescriptive prescriptive 9–10, 24, 27–8, 36–40, 45–6, 52, 200, 208 principles 4, 13–14, 18, 20, 26–8, 31–2, 35, 41–2, 76–87, 91–6, 99–101, 117–20, 208–9 pure agency 135–6


Raphael, D.D. 178n.21 Rawls, John 31–2, 201–2 realistic spirit 177, 192–4, 206 reflective equilibrium 15, 34, 41–2 relativism 26–7, 80–1, 87, 93–5, 158n.30 responsibility, moral 13–14, 37–9, 48–9, 61, 83–4, 99, 114–17, 119–21, 128, 129n.27, 132–8, 143–53, 159–60, 200, 205–9 Rorty, Amalie 48–52, 188–9 rule-following 20, 96, 145–6, 148–9 Scheman, Naomi 129n.27, 193n.5 Schiller, Friedrich 140 Schoellner, Karsten 203–5 self-definition 103–4, 107–11, 124 self-understanding 75–6, 103–4, 121n.22, 128–30, 133–4, 160, 206–7 skill 79, 82–8, 91, 95–6, 173–4 slave(s) 78–9, 154–8 Slote, Michael 30–2, 36–7 Smuts, Barbara 203–4 Stoics, the 24, 157 subject matter of moral philosophy 7–8, 33–4, 49–51, 185–6, 188–92 Taylor, Craig 103 Taylor, Charles 108n.5 Thompson, Caleb 143–5, 151–2 universality in moral life 5–6, 26–7, 29–30, 64–5, 95–6, 100–2, 108–11, 170, 208–9 utilitarian, see utilitarianism utilitarianism 5, 12–13, 18, 20n.4, 31n.32, 34, 42, 52 Velleman, J. David 103 virtue ethics 4–5, 19–20, 34n.35, 82 virtue 20, 77–8, 82–5, 85n.21, 86–7, 93–4, 117, 154n.22, 157, 160–1 vision in moral life 16–18, 70, 75, 89n.30, 92, 95–6, 179–81, 204–5 Waismann, Friedrich 53 Walker, Margaret Urban 16n.1, 31–2, 39n.41, 42n.44, 51, 87–90, 107–11, 135–7 Wiggins, David 122–3

226  Williams, Bernard 15, 21–2, 28–9, 32–7, 38n.39, 41–3, 115n.15, 121n.21, 122 Wilson, Hobart 187–8 Winch, Peter 20–1, 80–1 Wisnewski, Jeremy 61–2, 64–5 Wittgenstein, Ludwig 8–13, 19–23, 40–6, 50n.4, 53–68, 96, 101–2, 104–5, 111–15,

125, 128–9, 143, 145–6, 148–9, 155n.24, 158n.30, 165–9, 190–1, 194–6, 194n.6, 197–8, 206–7 Wittgensteinian investigations 10–11 Wittgensteinian moral philosophy 4–5, 20–1, 24n.22, 79–81 Wolff, Jonathan 201–2