Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Doing Without Moral Theory?

Annette Baier is a very interesting moral philosopher who I find quite cogent on a number of issues. Not only is she an anti-Kantian like my favorite philosophers, but she also engages extensively with the history of philosophy. I find that so many of the philosophers who I connect with (which does not include agreeing with) engage the history of philosophy to mine it for wisdom, rather than just spinning off a few theses or positions with attendant arguments. I'm thinking of Rorty, Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, Stephen Toulmin, Jeffrey Stout, Susan Neiman, Robert Solomon. The list goes on. And some of them take up a particular philosopher as standard bearer. In Baier's case, she's devoted a lifetime of study to Hume and holds Hume up as the example of what moral philosophy should look like. (She's also a feminist philosopher, and makes the case in several places that Hume is the "woman's philosopher".)

One of the basic positions that I've occupied through Rorty and Pirsig and others is anti-theoretical, that reality and truth and good and the like are not something to which you can really have a theory about. Opposed to theory, I've been talking about this nebulous thing called "wisdom" accrued from practice. When it comes to moral philosophy, Baier talks about just this sort of thing in her assessment of contemporary moral philosophy, "Doing Without Moral Theory?"

Baier begins by noting that Aristotle and Hume, unlike contemporary moral philosophers beginning with Bentham and Mill, presumed a moral consensus on their actual moral judgments. Nowadays, philosophers presume the absence of consensus. Baier doesn't concern herself here with why this exactly occured, but simply that moral and cultural pluralism is now taken for granted. Baier says that "what is striking about this shift from presumption of moral consensus to presumption of its absence is that the philosophers at the beginning of the transition saw themselves as working for some disputed moral cause, saw themselves as members of the nonagreeing community of moral judges, while more recent moral theorists mostly see themselves as above the moral fray, outside the everyday disputes about what is to be tolerated." (30) Mill, in addition to being a moral philosopher, was a moral reformer, but Baier suggests that there are "very few contemporary Anglo-American moral theorists to whom one would naturally apply the term 'moral reformer.'" Baier looks at the theorists around her and sees them in the "intellectual construction business--one attempts to outbid one's competitor constructors in erecting a theory that rationalizes the moral opinion of some group," but in the limiting case of some constructions "the group is oneself."
This, I suggest, makes moral philosophy into either ideology or into play-ideology. Like most of us, I welcome good ideology for a cause I espouse--I admire J. S. Mill for his cultural crusades and for his effort to use intellectual instruments along with any others he could get. What I am less happy with is professional play-ideology, and with unacknowledged ideology, ideology parading as detachment.
This play-ideology and unacknowledged ideology is what we get with what Baier calls "normative ethical theory": "a system of moral principles in which the less general are derived from the more general." (33) This is the kind we get with R. M. Hare, Alan Donagan, Alan Gewirth, John Rawls--morally neutral edifices rationally deducted from our common reason, and therefore should be held by all reasonable people (though, it should be noted, that Rawls looks less and less normative in his later writings after A Theory of Justice). Baier notes that neither Aristotle nor Hume had normative theories--this was something that we get after Kant. The main practical trouble with normative theories (there are many theoretical ones) is why do we need them? Baier acknowledges that we need theories as accounts of what's going on in the world, scientific theories, psychological theories, political theories, economic theories, etc. "But do we need normative theories, theories to tell us what to do, in addition to theories that present to us the world in which we are to try to do it?" (34)

Baier wants to suggest that "there is no room for moral theory as something which is more philosophical and less committed than moral deliberation, and which is not simply an account of our customs and styles of justification, criticism, protest, revolt, conversion, and resolution" and the consequence is that "any moral philosophy which is not such descriptive anthropology will tend to merge with moral action." (33) Baier's suggestion is that moral philosophers need to get their hands dirty. They need to live life. If we are to be moral reformers like Mill, guides to moral action and not just sketching out the possibility of moral action (as neutral theorists sometimes describe themselves), we need to have knowledge about many different kinds of moral action. Her example for a secular moral philosophy is Hume. Hume's moral philosophy involved psychological and political and economic theories, but no normative theory. Hume's general practice was to go out and test his theories and go back and refine them. During his life, Hume had been a business man, a secretary to a general, a diplomat, a historian, he knew a little law. He was well acquainted with many different aspects of life. On Hume's account, moral philosophy attempts to provide a "mental geography", maps that can be tested and made better. Hume "directs the philosopher to learn from the nonphilosophers before presuming to advise them." (39) Hume is, in a way, directing moral philosophers to be a bit like dilettantes.

Baier notes at the end that much moral advice would seem to be just as easily given by nonphilosophers as professionals, which is something Rorty notes also (in "Philosophy in American Today" in CP). But that still doesn't leave the moral philosopher with nothing to do. They can at least be very well read, traversing a wide array of literature, looking for wisdom. Baier's article does much towards disabusing us of the notion of Kantian normative theory. Baier thinks that a Humean moral philosophy "would merge with other disciplines, and with the reflections of common life, and such a merger might help us to escape from that arrogance of solitary intellect which has condemned much moral theory to sustained self-delusions concerning its subject matter, its methods, and its authority." (46)

I should note that the last fourth of Baier's essay traverses another, though related, topic, of the way in which moral philosophy teachers compose themselves, and so also the very idea of professional moral philosophers, and philosophers in general. This is very interesting and acute, but a lesson for another time.

*Annette Baier's "Doing Without Moral Theory?" can be found in her Postures of the Mind: Essays on Mind and Morals (London: Methuen, 1985) and (where I have it and all pagination is coordinated to) in Anti-Theory in Ethics and Moral Convervatism ed. Stanley G. Clarke and Evan Simpson (Albany: SUNY, 1989).

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