Clickbait Philosophy: Everything you thought you knew about ethics IS WRONG

Feb. 6, 2018, 3:30 p.m.

There is always some difficulty in connecting the domains of academic moral philosophy and ordinary public discourse on moral issues. On the one hand, moral philosophers, and perhaps philosophers in general, have a tendency to disregard the thoughts and opinions of those outside the discipline. Such laymen, so the line goes, are not qualified to speak. It is likely that they have no firm conscious moral principles, that they lack the seriousness that the discipline requires and most simply, they are just too stupid to have much to say. Such a position, it goes without saying, is extreme and erroneous. I do not expect that any particular philosopher alive today would represent him or herself as embodying it, but nonetheless as a caricature, it serves to illustrate some of the subconscious biases of the discipline.

On the other hand, ordinary citizens are likely to view moral philosophy as a lot of hot air. Morality for them isn’t about propositions, deductions and systems. Furthermore, it’s not something to be considered in abstract from the armchair. It is something to be lived. Perhaps the best characterization of this objection comes from within philosophy itself. Philosopher Bernard Williams once famously noted, “most moral philosophy at most times has been empty and boring … contemporary moral philosophy has found an original way of being boring, which is by not discussing moral issues at all.”

Unfortunately, given the difficulty of the project, navigating the horns of this dilemma is essential to evolving morally as a society. Caching out the precise reason for this is important. Here, I would like to proceed by way of an example, in which I demonstrate the value of theoretical work for public discourse. Public moral discourse is often characterized by a penchant for extreme rhetoric. This is evident in discussions of identity politics, content warnings, free speech, etc. It is generally character directed, in that the other side is viewed not just as an opposing view, but also as a potentially evil force. It follows then that reconciliation, calm debate and compromise are not common features of these discussions, particularly as concerns hot button issues. This is not an entirely bad thing — we need a fair amount of motivation in order to enact our moral projects in the first place. The problem creeps in when we are absolutely certain that we have the right in a given situation. This represents a profound failure to recognize the general pervasiveness of human fallibility, and it suffices to completely shut down a discussion. I would suggest that this certitude actually arises from an implicitly assumed philosophical position; namely, moral intuitionism.

Moral intuitionism is a theory that has a long history in philosophy. It was prominent in Anglophone philosophy of the early 20th century, perhaps most notably expounded by the philosopher G.E. Moore. The general thesis of moral intuition is epistemic: we come to know what is right and wrong by intuition. These intuitions are self-evident, almost ineffable grasping of moral truths. This stands in opposition to philosophical theories that claim that knowledge of ethics is based on knowledge of rationality or of utility calculations. Now, for the purposes of this article, it will not be necessary to go into the weeds of the debate about the various merits of the position. It will suffice to note some general characteristics. First, intuitionism is individualistic because it is unmediated — that is to say that nothing stands between you and the truth. We remove the psychological impression of uncertainty by removing degrees of separation. Second, moral intuitions, as shown by the work of numerous psychologists, are highly affected by one’s education, culture and current social group (for more information, refer to the book “The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt). Thus, we can see how equally intelligent people can exhibit comparable degrees of certainty about their moral correctness by analyzing their respective backgrounds. This also provides an explanation for the fact that moral positions are often criticized by way of ad hominem attacks on the character of their holder.

I do not, of course, wish to give the impression that moral intuitionism is consciously entertained as a position by those who have for the most part never heard of it. I am simply suggesting that it is the way of thinking about morality that has become prominent in folk discussions. If this is so, then theoretical philosophy offers us a way forward. By criticizing or affirming the reasons underpinning an adoption of moral intuitionism, we can see whether this is a good position to be taking in the first place. Optimistically, we might then hope to adopt our moral psychology thusly going forward. In the specific case of, for instance, identity politics, we can come to appreciate and control the the various intuitions about the role identity should play in public and university life, insofar as we can consciously place ourselves in the position of others and dispense with the idea that our intuitions are somehow uniquely privileged (or at least, the unthinking idea that they are privileged because they are ours). This is a particularly apt application because identity politics is almost by definition an area in which individuals bring to bear a wide variety of different intuitions based on different experiences.

I should stress that this is an optimistic claim. It is not likely that theorizing will be able to provide a compelling reason for change to many people. This is where we see the converse of the claim the public morality needs moral philosophy. Insofar as moral philosophy aims at increasing the moral standing of the world, it needs to learn the tools of public discourse that have been successful and learn to take seriously moral issues that are of grave seriousness to laymen. To do so, it seems to me, will be to mount a successful answer to Williams’ charge that moral philosophy is peculiarly empty and boring.


Contact Cameron Hubbard at cam502 ‘at’

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