An Empirical Study of Morality, Research Time, 5/12/2013

A few weeks ago, I went to a talk by John Hacker-Wright, a professor at University of Guelph, about his approaches to problems in virtue ethics. In the question period, I discussed with him some ideas I had about pluralism of morality: that there could be multiple valid conceptions of the good, the right, and the virtuous without slipping into relativism (after all, multiplicity isn’t the same as arbitrariness). Philosophy’s task in this vision would be systematizing these different moralities and relating them to each other.

In the light of my question, McMaster’s department head asked me if I had ever read any Margaret Urban Walker. I hadn’t, but I had found the book Dr. G spoke about, Moral Understandings, several years ago in a pile of books the department was giving away for free. Having previously heard Dr. G’s praise for Walker, I snapped it up. But it sat on my shelf for a long time while I got on with other things.

But I’ve finally started reading it after those conversations because it turns out that I’ve been a follower of Walker all along without even knowing it. Ever since I first deeply examined Nietzsche’s philosophy (and I had my own tendencies in this regard for a long time before), I’ve been skeptical about the traditional aims of moral philosophy: using pure reason to discover universal, unchallengable, absolute moral truths; the good, the right, the virtuous. 

I’ve been skeptical about the ontological dimension of this kind of moral reasoning: What kind of reality does this purely abstract realm of universality have? I’ve been skeptical of whether human reason has the ability to discover genuine universals at all. I’ve been skeptical whether there are such universals at all. I’ve been open to the notion that a very patrician model of humanity has been taken as universal because moral philosophy is often the job of patrician university professors. Although virtue ethics has lately been pitched as escaping this purely conceptual search for a focus on real-world behaviours, most theorists of virtue still look for THE virtues. They ask what is universally virtuous, what the true virtues of character are. 

Walker is a breath of fresh air here, offering a genuine moral empiricism that fundamentally realigns moral philosophy. Traditionally, the paradigm question of moral philosophy has been “What is the good/justice/right?/etc?” Walker doesn’t simply say that the proper question would be simply particularizing the traditional one (“What is this person’s good and that person’s good?”). That would be simple relativism.

Instead, this approach to moral reasoning deals with the phenomena that produce moral relations and concepts in the first place: the sympathy between people that generates mutual responsibilities. What is common to all morality isn’t a reflection of a pre-existing universal concept in some realm of pure reason that our actions only imitate. The universal in morality is the act of generating personal responsibilities toward yourself, the world, and other people. This is how moral science functions entirely immanently.* But once you have that universal worldly action of sympathy, moralities can develop in their various directions, and moral philosophers can examine how these directions develop and what kind of principles grow as a person’s moral thinking becomes more complex.

* As I was reading it, I saw this as an approach to moral philosophy that follows Nietzsche, Foucault, and Deleuze. Walker’s own history is entirely different, and I’ll get into the reasons why on Friday.

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