Monthly Archives: March 2003

what is moral philosophy?

My Dante book (in progress) is really an essay

on the limitations of moral theory. But what is that? I’m playing

with the following definition: Moral theories are collections of descriptive

terms, each of which has a known moral valence. For example, "unjust"

is a descriptive term with moral significance. We might argue that anything

that is "unjust" is wrong—at least all else being equal.

In that case, the moral valence of the term "unjust" is negative;

calling something "unjust" pushes us toward rejecting that action

(or institution, or character).

Knowing the moral valence of a descriptive term does not always tell

us what to do, because a single act can be described in multiple ways.

A given action may be "unjust" but also "loving."

(For example, a parent might favor her own children over others.) In such

cases, the negative moral valence of injustice is countered by the positive

moral valence of love, and we have a difficult decision to make. In another

kind of situation, an action may be "unjust" but also "necessary";

and if something is necessary, then we may have to ignore moral considerations


Few (if any) philosophers have ever believed that moral theories could

be sufficient to determine action; we also need judgment to tell us which

moral terms to apply in particular cases, and how to balance conflicting

terms. Nevertheless, philosophers generally think it is useful to have

a moral theory composed of terms with known moral valences.

A moral theory can simply be a list of such terms (this was W.D. Ross’

view); but preferably it is an organized structure. For example, a theorist

may argue that some moral terms underlie and explain others, or trump

others, or negate others. The more the full list can be organized and/or

shortened, the more the theory has achieved.

talking about race

During our high school class today, we had a good and useful time talking

about statistics on race and school enrollments. The bottom line

is that the proportion of African American students in Prince George’s

County school soared upward by 72 percentage points from 1960 to the present.

Around 1980, the Black and White student populations were about equal.

Since there was mandatory busing in those days, we assume that a lot of

students attended truly integrated schools. Then the White students left,

at a faster rate than the White population of the county. Now the "exposure"

of Black students to White students (as measured by civil

right lawyers) is very low compared to other counties.

I think our students learned a fair amount about statistics and were

intrigued by the facts. But when we started asking them what they thought

about the trends, they clammed up. The history of school desegregation

in this County could be viewed as a temporary success (until the 1980s)

and a long-term failure because schools are almost as segregated today

as they were in 1960. Or one could say that the departure of White students

is not bad news at all, since the Black population is extremely diverse

(65 languages are spoken at Northwestern High School alone), and the median

income of the County is much higher than the national median—so there

are plenty of resources for an excellent school system. Our students wouldn’t

say what they thought, and I don’t blame them. Not only is this a difficult

issue, but three White college employees were suddenly asking them for

their candid opinions of a sensitive racial issue—a really unfair

demand. Yet I was disappointed, because I would like to know what they


a civic approach to local history

The Civic Mission of

Schools, our report on civic education, has been getting

quite a lot of press—most of it positive. But Chester Finn wrote

a critical review

that has been provoking some discussion in the civic engagement world.

Over lunch today, my colleagues and I planned a deliberative Website

on the history of desegregation in Prince George’s County. We’re thinking

that the "intro" will show class photos from Northwestern

High School, each year gradually morphing into the next as the school

moves from segregated white, to white with one black student in 1955-8,

to today’s mosaic of ethnic groups. Next, visitors will be invited to

explore a page that our high school students have already constructed,

with a timeline of County history and interviews of participants in the

integration stuggle. Visitors will then be able to move to a page that

presents three contrasting answers to the question: "What should

the County have done in 1955 to address school segregation?" Finally,

they will be transferred to an online discussion forum to post their opinions.

A major goal is to help our students see history not only as the record

of state actions, powerful people, and downtrodded victims, but also as

a story of communities making difficult decisions.

what Dante knew about Francesca

Notwithstanding all this civic engagement stuff I try to do, I’m actually

a moral philosopher. I have an incomplete manuscript of several hundred

pages on the story of Paolo and Francesca and what it means for moral

theory. (See this webpage.) It occasionally bothers

me that I have left so much material untouched for so long. Today I sensed

a lull and took out chapter one. It’s a mess, but I enjoyed starting to

reorganize it.

Dante ended his life in the household of the lord of Ravenna, one Guido

Novello da Polenta. Dante was Guido’s close friend and courtier. Guido’s

aunt was Francesca do Rimini, one of the most famous damned souls in Dante’s

Inferno. So it’s intriguing—although not profoundly important—to

ask whether Dante was already close to Guido when he wrote about Francesca.

I spent this morning organizing the available (scanty) evidence: a nice

break from more current concerns.