the purpose of moral philosophy

I think most of philosophers ask themselves why their chosen field is valuable. We all feel that is valuable somehow, but showing why philosophy is valuable is ITSELF a philosophical task, by which I mean that appreciating the value of philosophy and explicating that value requires careful thinking and perhaps, a life long investment.

Recently, I’ve gotten a little closer to an explanation of the value of moral philosophy that satisfies me.

There are two parts to it. One part is an analogy that I recently heard about that I’m going to read about further. I was talking to a friend who was telling me about the game of “Go” and one of the game’s great players. This player had what we might call a strategy for winning, but in reality it was philosophy. His philosophy/strategy was that winning in Go was determined by which player had the greatest overall vision of the board. In other words, this player would not be overly concerned with mistakes here and there, giving up position or a few pieces. Instead, he built success out of how holistically he could envision his strategy.

Philosophy tells us, I think, that our lives are like this. It’s not about individual interactions. What we say to someone in anger, or what job we pursue or who we pursue. These are all important, but what matters the most for success, happiness, meaning — whatever you think life is about — is how you think of your general strategy overall.

The other thing I want to comment on is a difference between types of philosophy.

Philosophy has advanced a lot in terms of linguistic and logic. Not only did philosophy give us linguistics, which promises to help teach us about the brain, but it brought us computers. Both of these things have and will continue to have an enormous impact on the average person’s life. The reason that these disciplines can have such success is that their subject matter is impersonal. Studying logic, math, and language, can yield insights regardless of whether most people ever understand those insights. For example, I don’t understand (very well) how electricity works, but because electricity concerns matters of fact, advances in understanding it can benefit me (computers, lights, etc.) without me knowing how it all goes down.

Moral philosophy on the other hand does not study the external, impersonal world. It studies us. It studies how we create lives, deal with suffering, judge others, and refine our own conduct. Thus, it is my growing conviction that moral philosophy can deliver be anything unless it tries to teach ordinary people about the different ways overall plans that one can adopt for a life. What sorts of responsibility one should take.

Here’s an example. When I teach undergraduates, one of the most common things that will come up is selfishness. Most students say that people only do things that benefit the person his or herself. This seems like a natural starting point, but it’s dead wrong. The arguments in favor of treating human beings as essentially selfish I think are some of the worst in philosophy, and most philosophers have, in almost all cases, come to the opposite conclusion: that humans are deeply social creatures and depend, for their happiness and flourishing, on the hardships imposed on them by others and their desire to answer these hardships and alleviate the difficulties of others.

What all this means though is that philosophy of the moral variety cannot produce gains to human society unless it reaches out and touches popular culture and provides a model of how things can be different and how imagination and integrity can be part of everything one does.

Philosophy of science, and science more generally responds to nature (causality is the fundamental building block of scientific theories). If nature has gravity, then science can understand and perhaps harness that force. Just as humans have done with fire, electricity, and nuclear power.

Philosophy of life — ethics and its brethren generally — responds to humanity (thus, its fundamental relationships are those which cannot be reduced science, concepts like “action” and “reasons.”). The ongoing project of living introduces new challenges, oppression, exploitation, excellence, and moral philosophy, when it is on the cutting edge, tries to keep up.


1 Response to “the purpose of moral philosophy”

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