how to save the Enlightenment Ideal

If there is such a thing as the “Enlightenment Ideal,” it says that individuals should hold general, publicly articulable, and correct moral principles that, in turn, guide all their opinions, statements, and actions. That is a view that–with some variations–Kant, Madison, J.S. Mill, and many others of their era explicitly defended. None of those writers was naive about the impact of “prejudice [and] voluntary ignorance” (Mill), “accident and force” (Madison), or “laziness and cowardice” (Kant) on actual people’s thought and behavior, but they presumed that ideals could have causal power, shaping actions. Reasons were supposed to be motives.

That assumption has seemed to recede into implausibility as evidence has accumulated about the scant impact of reasons or values on actions. It seems that people cannot articulate consistent moral reasons for their opinions. We choose our moral principles mainly to rationalize our decisions after we have made them.*

Scholars who reflect on this evidence seem either to dismiss the relevance of morality entirely or to defend a different model of the moral self. This alternative model presumes that our intuitive, non-articulable, not-fully-conscious, private reactions to situations can be valid, can affect our behavior, and can be improved by appropriate upbringings and institutions. The new model retains some Enlightenment optimism about the importance of morality and education, but at the cost of treating moral judgment as intuitive and non-discursive.

I would propose that we misinterpret the empirical findings and miss their normative implications if we rely on a dichotomy of conscious, logical, articulable reasons versus unconscious, emotional, private intuitions. There is more than one kind of valid, publicly articulable reason.

The Enlightenment thinkers cited above and their skeptical critics seem to share the view that a good moral reason must be highly general and abstract. They have in mind a kind of flow chart in which each of one’s concrete choices, preferences, and actions should be implied by a more general principle, which should (in turn) flow from an even more general one, until we reach some kind of foundation. This is not only how Kant thinks about the Categorical Imperative and its implications, but also how J.S. Mill envisions the “fundamental principle of morality” (utilitarianism) and the “subordinate principles” that we need to “apply it.” Consistency and completeness are hallmarks of a good overall moral structure.

But many people actually think in highly articulate, public, reflective ways about matters other than general principles and their implications. They think, argue, and publicly defend views about particular people, communities, situations, and places. They do not merely have intuitions about concrete things; they form reasonable moral opinions of them. But their opinions are not arranged in a hierarchical structure with general principles implying concrete results. Sometimes one concrete opinion implies another. Or a concrete opinion implies a general rule. That may not be post hoc rationalization but an example of learning from experience.

Moral thinking must be a network of implications that link various principles, judgments, commitments, and interests. We are responsible for forming moral networks out of good elements and for developing coherent (rather than scattered and miscellaneous) networks. But there is no reason to assume that the network should look like an organizational flowchart, with every concrete judgment able to report via a chain of command to more general principles.

I plan to support this argument by comparing two clear and reasonable moral thinkers, John Rawls and Robert Lowell. Both lapsed protestants who were educated in New England prep schools, drafted during World War II, and taught at Harvard, they shared many political views. In his writing, Rawls both endorsed and employed highly abstract moral principles, but Lowell was equally precise and rigorous. His moral thinking was a tight network of associations among concrete characters, events, and situations.

*One summary of the evidence, with an emphasis on sociology, is Stephen Valsey, “Motivation and Justification: A Dual-Process Model of Culture in Action,” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 114, no. 6 (May 2009), pp. 1675-1715.