analytical moral philosophy as a way of life

(These thoughts are prompted by Stephen Mulhall’s review of David Edmonds’ book, Parfit: A Philosopher and His Mission to Save Morality, but I have not read that biography or ever made a serious study of Derek Parfit.)

The word “philosophy” is ancient and contested and has labeled many activities and ways of life. Socrates practiced philosophy when he went around asking critical questions about the basis of people’s beliefs. Marcus Aurelius practiced philosophy when he meditated daily on well-worn Stoic doctrines of which he had made a personal collection. The Analects of Confucius may be “a record of how a group of men gathered around a teacher with the power to elevate [and] created a culture in which goals of self-transformation were treated as collaborative projects. These people not only discussed the nature of self-cultivation but enacted it as a relational process in which they supported one another, reinforced their common goals, and served as checks on each other in case they went off the path, the dao” (David Wong).

To practice philosophy, you don’t need a degree (Parfit didn’t complete his), and you needn’t be hired and paid to be a philosopher. However, it’s a waste of the word to use it for activities that aren’t hard and serious.

Today, most actual moral philosophers are basically humanities educators. We teach undergraduates how to read, write, and discuss texts at a relatively high level. Most of us also become involved in administration, seeking and allocating resources for our programs, advocating for our discipline and institutions, and serving as mentors.

Those are not, however, the activities implied by the ideal of analytic moral philosophy. In that context, being a “philosopher” means making arguments in print or oral presentations. A philosophical argument is credited to a specific individual (or, rarely, a small team of co-authors). It must be original: no points for restating what has already been said. It should be general. Philosophy does not encompass exercises of practical reasoning (deciding what to do about a thorny problem). Instead, it requires justifying claims about abstract nouns, like “justice,” “happiness,” or “freedom.” And an argument should take into consideration all the relevant previous points published by philosophers in peer-reviewed venues. The resulting text or lecture is primarily meant for philosophers and students of philosophy, although it may reach other audiences as well.

Derek Parfit held a perfect job for this purpose. As a fellow of All Souls College, he had hardly any responsibilities other than to write philosophical arguments and was entitled to his position until his mandatory retirement. He did not have to obtain support or resources for his work. He did not have to deliberate with other people and then decide what to say collectively. Nor did he have to listen to undergraduates and laypeople express their opinions about philosophical issues. (Maybe he did listen to them–I would have to read the biography to find out–but I know that he was not obliged to do so. He could choose to interact only with highly prestigious peers.)

Very few other people hold similar roles: the permanent faculty of the Institute for Advanced Study, the professors of the Collège de France, and a few others. Such opportunities could be expanded. In fact, in a robust social welfare state, anyone can opt not to hold a job and can instead read and write philosophy, although whether others will publish or read their work is a different story. But whether this form of life is worthy of admiration and social support is a good question–and one that Parfit was not obliged to address. He certainly did not have to defend his role in a way that was effective, persuading a real audience. His fellowship was endowed.

Mulhall argues that Parfit’s way of living a philosophical life biased him toward certain views of moral problems. Parfit’s thought experiments “strongly suggest that morality is solely or essentially a matter of evaluating the outcomes of individual actions–as opposed to, say, critiquing the social structures that deeply shape the options between which individuals find themselves having to choose. … In other words, although Parfit’s favoured method for pursuing and refining ethical thinking presents itself as open to all whatever their ethical stance, it actually incorporates a subtle but pervasive bias against approaches to ethics that don’t focus exclusively or primarily on the outcomes of individual actions.”

Another way to put this point is that power, persuasion, compromise, and strategy are absent in Parfit’s thought, which is instead a record of what one free individual believed about what other free individuals should do.

I am quite pluralistic and inclined to be glad that Parfit lived the life he did, even as most other people–including most other moral philosophers–live and think in other ways. Even if Parfit was biased (due to his circumstances, his chosen methods and influences, and his personal proclivities) in favor of certain kinds of questions, we can learn from his work.

But I would mention other ways of deeply thinking about moral matters that are also worthy and that may yield different kinds of insights.

You can think on your own about concrete problems rather than highly abstract ones. Typically the main difficulty is not defining the relevant categories, such as freedom or happiness, but rather determining what is going on, what various people want, and what will happen if they do various things.

You can introduce ethical and conceptual considerations to elaborate empirical discussions of important issues.

You can deliberate with other people about real decisions, trying to persuade your peers, hearing what they say, and deciding whether to remain loyal to the group or to exit from it if you disagree with its main direction.

You can help to build communities and institutions of various kinds that enable their members to think and decide together over time.

You can identify a general and relatively vague goal and then develop arguments that might persuade people to move in that direction.

You can strive to practice the wisdom contained in clichés: ideas that are unoriginal yet often repeated because they are valid. You can try to build better habits alone or in a group of people who hold each other accountable.

You can tentatively derive generalizations from each of these activities, whether or not you choose to publish them.

Again, as a pluralist, I do not want to suppress or marginalize the style that Parfit exemplified. I would prefer to learn from his work. But my judgment is that we have much more to learn from the other approaches if our goal is to improve the world. That is because the hard question is usually not “How should things be?” but rather “What should we do?”

See also: Cuttings: A book about happiness; the sociology of the analytic/continental divide in philosophy; does doubting the existence of the self tame the will?

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.