Real Empiricism Changes Every Priority in Thinking, Research Time, 9/12/2013

I haven’t yet had a chance to explore the secondary literature about Margaret Urban Walker after Moral Understandings first dropped in 1998, but I’ll take this post to guess what some of the initial reaction from the wider philosophical community would have been. Judging from contemporary debates in moral philosophy that I do know, probably the most stringent reaction to her would be to accuse her of relativism, or worse, of being against philosophy entirely.

This is because of her argument against aiming for universally generalizable moral principles in philosophical thought. Her central critique against using such principles in philosophical reasoning is that they are too abstract to use. She demonstrates this with a wonderful technique that appears like one method of feminist criticism, but is actually a completely different insight.

The example of the drowning child is often used in moral
philosophy as an intuitive example of a clear obligation to
action. Yet no one ever discusses the example of the
drowning witch.
In one chapter, Walker discusses an argument of Peter Singer where, starting from the example scenario that it is intuitively right to save a drowning child when you have the capacity and are the only person available at the time, he argues that this same obligation holds for all rich countries to give massive financial support to poor countries to end the suffering of their inhabitants.* Walker concentrates on the central image of the drowning child, introducing reams of contextual material to render this example far more complex, less straightforward, and less intuitive than in its first presentation. She even introduces communal moral ideas from cultures in eastern Africa in which the life of an adult who brings more direct material benefit to his community is valued more than a child who will not become materially productive for a long time yet. This looks to be a standard destructive critique from a feminist perspective: show that a seemingly straightforward foundation for a moral argument is not so obvious or intuitive to all, and contentedly survey the argument’s wreckage.

* Ignore for a moment how this seems to smack of colonialist thinking, the idea that the poor countries of Earth (which, coincidentally, have themselves suffered from economic exploitation by those now-rich countries through colonial empires and their successive global power imbalances for centuries) inspire a duty of rich nations to help them. Indeed, some of the worst excuses for colonial exploitation, of which John Stuart Mill was a contributor, were that the colonized countries needed the help of Western nations to grow and fully mature culturally and economically. Purely utilitarian arguments like Singer’s that do not pay attention to the troubled history of human communities would pay little to no attention to the hypocrisy of a privileged citizen of a wealthy Western country advocating Western aid to peoples who are poor precisely because of the “help” our governments have provided them before.

Yet there is more to Walker’s argument than this simple mode of destruction. It’s a necessary method of any feminist or anti-oppression philosophy to introduce contextual details that reveal partiality in disguise as total objectivity and neutrality. But stopping there would amount to nihilism. Walker goes further. 

Her first step further reveals why she mentioned all those contextual details that destabilized the appearance of obviousness and intuitiveness of Singer’s drowning child example. It reveals that his true example was not the scenario of saving a drowning child, but simply the abstract categorical imperative, “Save lives!” This is a more obvious intuitive moral duty. But it is also a moral duty that offers no practical guide for action. Because every act in the real world is more complicated than this generic imperative, the imperative alone offers no effective guidance in how one actually goes about saving lives.

The final step in her critical argument makes me wish I had been exposed to her work years ago. I feel that despite my expertise in other areas of philosophy, I’ve lost time and have to catch up with this work. She concludes that this utterly impractical abstraction is the only coherent form for a universally generalizable moral claim, the only form that can’t be destabilized with interference from complicating factors of real life in all its mess.** This would appear to be an argument against moral philosophy itself, because many in the discipline take the goal of moral philosophy to be discovering the universal and generalizable nature of the right and the good, which would enable one always to know what ought to be done in any situation.

** Walker uses another example from the moral theory of Robert Goodin, whose 1990s work she values at least in part for creating a framework to trace moral responsibilities in the real world. He argues for the moral imperative on parents to be the primary caregivers of their children because children are most vulnerable to their parents, and his system traces strength of responsibility for others using the intensity of vulnerability. Walker destabilizes him by introducing all the gendered assumptions about child-rearing that his more abstract (though not as abstract as Singer or Henry Sidgwick’s thinking) focus on vulnerability ignores. She especially faults Goodin for arguing that his own theory is a kind of utilitarianism when it’s actually a proto-empiricism; it’s as though he thinks his ideas will only be valuable if he slots them into a pre-existing framework of universalist moral reasoning. And he doesn’t slot it so much as jam it in with a crowbar.

The inability to cope with the messiness of real life is the failure of any universally generalizable statement about moral practice. Practice involves sorting through the messiness, and the only way to make a statement truly universal is to abstract it so much from any detail that would suggest guidelines for practice that universal moral knowledge is genuinely useless. Since moral philosophy is supposed to be about developing guides for right action, then abstraction of moral guidelines to the level of genuine uselessness goes against the goal of moral philosophy itself.

From here, empiricism about morality would seem to be the only solution. More later.

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