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Allen Wood on Ethics (2): Political Realities

Allen Wood Last week I talked to Professor Allen Wood about Kant's Groundwork, the diversity of moral theories available today, and the common misunderstandings about Kantian ethics. This week, the discussion moves from discussion of realism towards issues of contemporary politics.

Chris: You were one of a number of philosophers who provided feedback to Derek Parfit on his monumental On What Matters – and your essay in the second volume of that great work was absolutely phenomenal! It is without a doubt my favourite moral philosophy paper of all time – it completely changed the way I thought about 'trolley problems' (or 'lifeboat problems'), and about the costs inherent in reducing moral issues to mathematics. But it seemed to me that Parfit didn't really wrestle with the challenges you raised there – was that a disappointment?

Allen: I am a great admirer of Parfit's book On What Matters, which deserves the praise it has been given, and does not deserve the criticisms some of its detractors have quite predictably levelled against it. But I admit I am more in agreement with his realist meta-ethical arguments in the second volume than of his attempts to construct a moral theory in the first volume. I can't speak for him, of course, and don't know why he chose not to respond to my criticism of the use of 'trolley problems' in present day moral philosophy. But I do think that his use of these kinds of examples is not really fundamental to his project, so I would be the last to reproach him for his choice to talk about other matters in his reply to me.

Chris: What I loved about your essay in Parfit's book was the way it tilts at something that is seductively appealing – accessible thought experiments – and demonstrates that to make the answers intuitive, we end up throwing away all the context that perhaps really ought to be our focus.

Allen: The currently fashionable model for doing moral theory – the model that attempts to formulate principles that capture our 'intuitions' or 'considered judgments' – was really invented by Sidgwick, and then brought into general use by Rawls. It is understandable that people have found it useful in moral argument between people who cannot agree on deep foundations and are also at odds on the urgent moral issues and decisions we face immediately in daily life and politics.

Chris: There's a sense of desperation sometimes in contemporary politics that despairs of agreement, and so will consider any route that might help attain to it.

Allen: Philosophers using these kinds of techniques look to opinions on which we think we can get general agreement, and try to use these to justify more basic principles that can then be applied to the urgent issues and decisions. The pragmatic utility of this procedure is obvious, but I think this too can be overestimated.

Chris: I confess I misread your essay as being more critical of Parfit than it now seems is the case.

Allen: My friend Philip Kitcher has written a very critical review of Parfit, arguing that a truly pragmatist approach – in the Deweyan tradition – would look quite different, and he cites my remarks about 'trolley problems' in support of his argument. My own view, different from both Parfit's and Kitcher's, is that we need to face the fact that ethics has and requires basic foundations, and cannot be honestly done in ways that avoid the (admittedly hopelessly problematic) questions these raise.

Chris: Even within one tradition, such as Kantian ethics, there are no easy answers; no shortcuts for agreement.

Allen: I admit my view does not leave us with any good prospects for immediate agreement on ethical questions. If we are honest, I think we have to admit that such prospects are bleak.

Chris: I'm perhaps more optimistic than you, in so much as I don't see agreement on foundational principles, or their implications, as either necessary or desirable – I get a little squeamish about realism being used as a big stick to beat people with. After Parfit's Reasons and Persons, there was talk about his moral theory being used to mandate a kind of paternalism – that kind of attitude terrifies me more than moral disagreements.

Allen: One of the basic objective values we Kantians believe in is the external freedom of persons – in particular their freedom from having other people decide for them what their good consists in and their right that nobody should try to dictate through coercion what they ought to believe. People should believe what evidence and argument indicates is true, according to their own free judgment. It would be patently absurd to suggest that these propositions about what is objectively right could 'mandate' paternalism or browbeating.

Chris: The Parfit of Reasons and Persons isn't yet a Kantian, however – he's much closer to utilitarianism at the time, which notoriously lacks the amicable restraint of Kant's philosophy. But either way, meta-ethical realism sometimes makes me nervous because of the possible risk of tipping over into dogmatism, conservatism, or paternalism. Can I take it you'd dismiss this as a misconception?

Allen: I guess so, at least if the realist's substantive views are exactly the opposite of all these '-isms'. I see it as a sad fact that people sometimes form their views about philosophical questions based not the merits of the arguments and evidence for them, but instead on how they think the rhetorical act of stating a view might sound. Is that your complaint about Parfit's meta-ethical realism – that (judged rhetorically) it sounds "paternalistic"? Or it sounds to you as if Parfit might want to beat somebody over the head with a stick?

Chris: It's rather that I read some papers responding to Parfit noting that possibility – even though Parfit clearly doesn't say anything that strong himself.

Allen: What sounds one way to one audience may sound exactly the opposite way to another, and no one should let their philosophical position be dictated by such considerations. Politicians often lie about their positions; they show one face to one audience and a different face to another. The press then congratulates them for their political skill. By contrast, a politician commits a political 'gaffe' when he blurts out the truth to the wrong audience. In politics, lying is rewarded and truthfulness is punished.

Chris: Spoken like a true realist!

Allen: I think most metaethical anti-realists would agree just as strongly, as long as they hold the attitudes that most philosophers do about truthfulness and deception. I think it is one of Jane Austen's characters who says of a candidate for public office that she pities him, because he has to try to make everyone like him. This is a good reason why we philosophers should also pity politicians – and should not imitate them!

Chris: Given the way Nietzsche's philosophy was abused by the Nazi party, you can understand a certain reserve about the possibility that one's philosophical views could be misused or misrepresented.

Allen: Of course this happens, but I think it is pointless to let your views themselves be dictated by such worries: because this can happen to any view – any view. I think most philosophical views that people have found credible have in fact been abused in this way at some time or other. Once you realize that no view is immune, you should recognize that it should not count against any view in particular that it can be so misused. It would be intellectual bankruptcy and moral cowardice not to state a philosophical truth because you are worried that certain people (sometime, somewhere) might twist or abuse it. If that terrifies you, then you could say nothing at all. What should be avoided are views that might lead to monstrous results without being abused or misinterpreted. I am afraid that may be true of some of Nietzsche's glorifications of cruelty and war and his advocacy of the domination of some individuals and groups over others. Even this, however, should not lead us to reject Nietzsche's ideas blindly where they are genuinely insightful and challenging.

Chris: Kant believed that 'moral law' was an objective fact – for all that individuals and societies might fail, in various ways, to attain to it. Parfit is another example of what I would call a Law Ethicist – he not only believes that there is (in principle) a correct answer to moral questions, but he is concerned that if this were not so, we would be doomed to fall into Nietzsche's nihilistic abyss. You, on the other hand, are much harder to read in this way. You appear to share many of Kant's views (while critiquing and updating many others), but I'm not entirely convinced you believe that there are, in principle, definite answers to moral questions. Is that a fair claim?

Allen: I agree with Parfit that there are objective truths about what matters, about good and evil, right and wrong. I reject the nihilistic position some find in Nietzsche, or the expressivist, emotivist and more generally anti-realist position you find other philosophers adopt nowadays, often on what they call 'naturalistic' (that is, empiricist-scientistic) grounds, but usually without Nietzsche's more honest insistence that this nihilism (a term such philosophers avoid like the plague) threatens to make human life quite unliveable.

Chris: Yes, I'm often shocked that some philosophers working today somehow take Nietzsche as having declared open season on nihilism, without noting how hard he worked to try and establish ways to avoid it. I've noticed that one of the advantages you suggest can be found in foundational principles for ethics, such as those Kant offers, is that they allow people with different viewpoints to frame their arguments cogently – is this an admission of the inevitability of moral diversity? Or simply an acceptance that we still have a long way to go?

Allen: It is certainly true – isn't it obvious and undeniable? – that the human species has a long way to go in finding a way to live with one another on this little planet. Our cultural traditions, based largely on religious superstitions of one sort or another, our political and economic traditions, based largely on the unjust domination of the vast majority by those in possession of wealth and the means of violence, are pretty clearly opposed to basic moral values, no matter how you approach these – if only you look at the matter with basic rationality and honesty.

Chris: I'm perhaps more forgiving than you when it comes to religion and cultural traditions, but I share your concern that we have an urgent need to do better.

Allen: The question is whether we will make any progress on these matters before the short-sighted and irrational behaviour of our species in relation to the natural environment has resulted either in our extinction or at least in a regression to a desperate stage of want and scarcity that it looked like we had overcome for good between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries.

Chris: But presumably you think moral philosophy can help avert the worst of the catastrophe we have become embroiled in?

Allen: I do think that basic ethical values, such as human flourishing and the dignity of human persons, have a role to play in helping people to think better about the terribly problematic situations that face us.

Chris: Why not take to the political stage yourself, like (say) Charles Taylor did in Canada? Philosophy and politics can (occasionally) mix!

Allen: If I had a talent for politics – which I don't – I would use it to struggle against the inhumanity and inequality in present day society, and against the utter barbarism that many in our political system favour based on greed, fear and religious superstition. The U.S. Republican party is not only a political engine of backwardness and oppression, but even a mortal threat to the long term survival of the human species. I think that last statement is not the least bit exaggerated.

Chris: I can definitely appreciate your concerns, although I'm afraid I don't really find the Democratic party in the US to be that much better, and I'm nervous about a politics of opposition – whereby people fight against things instead of finding things to fight for. Isn't that what moral philosophy can offer to politics? A clarification of what matters, what is worth fighting for?

Allen: It is a sadly common mistake to equate the two U.S. parties, simply on the ground that both parties are obviously far to the right of where we are. What I say about this is that the trouble with the Democrats is that you cannot trust them: on many issues, they take the right view, but on others they don't, and they are too willing to give in and compromise their principles. "They lack backbone," as it is sometimes put. But the trouble with the Republicans is that you can trust them: They hold the wrong view and the wrong policies – as wrong as it is possible to be – on every single issue, right down the line. And they are fanatical; they will not compromise.

Chris: The inability to compromise is the most shocking thing about U.S. Republican party politics to me – especially as this is often seen by their supporters as their strength!

Allen: They will settle for nothing except the complete tyranny of their party and their ideas over everyone else. (In this respect the American right is at present a kind of grotesque mirror image of early twentieth century Russian Bolshevism.) The very existence of a party with such extreme and such misguided views, and such irrational and uncompromising resoluteness, is a danger to the U.S., and – given U.S. economic and military power – to the rest of the world as well. In the face of such a world-historical danger, it seems to me rather obtuse to talk in abstract and high-minded terms about its being better to be 'for' rather than 'against' something.

Chris: I can understand the importance of resistance, but I meet too many politically active people in the US who worry me because I just cannot see what they could really believe they are fighting for. In your case, however, it's very clear what your positive values are – and why you feel the need to vehemently oppose the political right – precisely because you explicate an extremely coherent ethical system, with very distinguished roots.

Allen: Certainly, my own talents run more to helping us to understand some of the basic ethical values that we have inherited from philosophers such as Kant. We each must do what we are able, and not foolishly take on tasks – however important – for which we are unsuited.

Allen Wood's book Kantian Ethics is available from Amazon and all good booksellers.


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