International Catholic University : Twentieth-Century Ethics

Lecture 10: Anti-Theory

David Solomon

Welcome back. In the last lecture, I talked about Alasdair MacIntyre's remarkable book, After Virtue, which has changed the shape of contemporary moral philosophy. That book, of course, is an instance of one of the three classical forms of normative theory which we distinguished in the 5th lecture. MacIntyre both argues that virtue ethics is our best normative option in the 20th century and offers us one way to think about what such a theory would look like in the modern world. One key part of this argument is that the Enlightenment Project, which dominated 17th- and 18th-century thought and continues to exercise considerable cultural influence, not only failed, but had to fail. We moderns, MacIntyre thinks, live amidst the ruins of this failure. MacIntyre thus paints a dark picture of the modern world. And yet, he holds out some hope for the modern world he suggests that we begin to form local communities that sustain meaningful human practices, and which make possible the living of rich human lives that are in touch with the great traditions of art, literature, and politics.

A number of philosophers have agreed with MacIntyre about the failure of modernity's attempts to justify morality, but have thought his attempt to recover the classical tradition of virtue ethics is also a failure. On their view, there is no hope that philosophical theory, as classically conceived, will offer us any assistance in confronting our modern moral situation. These philosophers are standardly called anti-theorists, and it is their work which I will focus on in this lecture. In particular, I want to talk about two important anti-theorists, Richard Rorty and Bernard Williams. Both of these philosophers were in their early 70s, though Bernard Williams has just recently passed away. Williams was regarded by many people, and certainly by me, as one of the three or four greatest moral philosophers in the last half of the 20th century. Richard Rorty is not of that stature as a moral philosopher, but has been remarkably influential in contemporary moral philosophy.

Despite their many differences, anti-theorists are united in their sense that there is something deeply misguided about the ambitions of many contemporary normative theories. When John Rawls revives normative theory, his ambition is to help us approach the contemporary dilemmas in social justice in a rational way. Those who follow him share his general aim of proposing authoritative responses to many of our real human problems. It is this ambition which worries anti-theorists like Rorty and Williams. Williams's great book, and this certainly would rank as one of the three or four most important books in moral philosophy in the 20th century, is called Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. Rortys greatest book, although he has written many, is called Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Another distinguished anti-theorist, Annette Baier, is most famous for having written an article called "Doing without Moral Theory". The titles of these works alone emphasize how the anti-theorists view the ambitions of moral philosophy in the 20th century.

Of course, the anti-theorists disagree about many things. Like the virtue theorists, they are a motley crew in various ways. Bernard Williams's last book, published just before he died, was called Truth and Truthfulness and was an all-out attack on Richard Rorty. So anti-theorists not only dislike theorists, they often dislike one another. They agree that philosophy cannot do theory, but they are in disagreement about what it should be doing.

Besides a general suspicion of theory, however, we can say something a bit more specific about what the anti-theorists do agree on. In a recent anthology on anti-theory, the philosopher Stanley Clark suggests that there are three claims which are characteristic of anti-theorists. First of all, they claim that theory is unnecessary in dealing with our moral life. Rather than building elaborate abstract theories of the moral life, we can get along perfectly well by just focusing on particular problems.

A second claim that many anti-theorists make is that theory is not only unnecessary, it is actually impossible. Their arguments for this claim are widely divergent, but a characteristic example would be something like this: When we move to the level of moral theory and start thinking in terms of rights or the principle of utility, for example, we are moving to a level of reflection which cuts us off from our particular desires and projects. It is very difficult, they think, for people to really care about the greatest happiness of the greatest number, whereas it is quite easy to care for your neighbor or your child or your friend. These particular relations, however, are unlikely to figure in a theoretical ethical construction. Given this, moral theory will be unlikely to connect to action, as it tends to cut off any connection it has with what actually motivates us to act.

A third, and final, characteristic anti-theorist claim is that moral theory is actually morally undesirable insofar as it tends to distract one from paying attention to the concrete needs of other people. A very good contemporary moral philosopher named Michael Stocker made an argument for this claim in a famous piece called "The Schizophrenia of Moral Theory". He asks us to consider the case of someone who has read his Kant and recognizes that it is important to do his duty. While visiting a friend in the hospital who is very sick and lonesome, he mentions to the friend that his visit has nothing to do with kindness; he has simply come because it is his duty to do so. Of course, it goes without saying that this is a socially awkward thing to say. Anti-theorists suggest that it also points out a way in which the retreat to theory can lead to serious character problems in which people do the right thing, but for the wrong reasons.

With this broad picture of anti-theory on the table, we can now move to a more specific discussion of Williams and Rorty. Let me being by talking about Williams and then move on to Rorty. Williams is British, and possesses a stereotypically English modesty, which I have always thought of as quite important to his anti-theoretical stance. He is a little embarrassed at the thought of being an important moral philosopher who goes around telling people what is right to do. This is not philosophically very important, but I do think it contributes to his attraction to anti-theory. And yet, there is another side of Williams, which I call his romantic post-modernism. Let me just read to you a passage from the introduction to one of his most recent books, Shame and Necessity, in which he talks about his view of the world:

We are in an ethical condition that lies not only beyond Christianity but beyond its Kantian and Hegelian legacies. We have an ambivalent sense of what human beings have achieved, and have hope for how they might live, in particular in the form of a powerful ideal that they should live without lies. We know that the world was not made for us, or we for the world, that our history tells no purpose or story and that there is no position outside the world or outside history from which we might hope to authenticate our activities.

In this passage, Williams describes exactly the modern view of the world which MacIntyre claimed served as the impetus for the Enlightenment Project. We have to acknowledge that the achievements of the scientific worldview have come at a cost -- we can no longer see the world as meaningful in itself. At times, this side of Williams embraces the romantic notion that modern life is without purpose and without cause, and that philosophers who try to use reflection and reason to convince us that something is important are dangerous and self-deceived. To know Bernard Williams is to recognize that this side of him cannot be philosophically discounted, and certainly contributed to his suspicion of philosophy.

Against the background of these general worries about the ambitions of philosophy, Williams brilliantly developed arguments against many particular theories. Like MacIntyre, he raises devastating objections, I think, both to Kantian-style deontological views and their consequentialist competitors. He also argues and this is where he differs from MacIntyre that any suggestion that we can revive the Aristotelian approach to moral philosophy through developing an account of the virtues is also bound to fail. Williams's general claim is that all of these great classical normative theories try to reach an Archimedean point, a point outside of human practice which could serve to justify the moral point of view. Unfortunately, he argues, there is no such Archimedean point. Because there is no point of view outside of our own practices, all of these attempts to show that morality is objectively authoritative are bound to fail, no matter what particular form they happen to take.

Not only can moral theory not provide an objective justification for our moral practices, it also fails in a number of other endeavors which moral theorists have typically assumed are central to its function. One thing moral philosophers have claimed that theory can do is make people more altruistic. Arguments, they think, can take people who are completely self-centered and make them care about others. Williams brings devastating arguments, most famously in a piece called "Egoism and Altruism," against the possibility of using mere arguments to make people care about others. To make people care about others, Williams says, you might have them read the right kinds of novels, treat them in the right way, send them to the right schools, or care about them. In any case, mere argument will not be enough. In a famous phrase he says:

to bring egoists to altruism is to think of it as Hume did, that coming to care about others, moving from egoism to altruism, is not a leap helped by philosophers but its a gentle slide where I first come to care about the person next to me then the person down the street and pretty soon I'll be caring about even those strangers in distant cultures.

Moral philosophy alone, then, cannot succeed in making us altruistic.

Other people have thought that it is the job of moral philosophy to resolve the many moral dilemmas with which our lives, and our greater culture, are fraught. Moral philosophy is filled with all sorts of cases in which we seem to have practical dilemmas concerning how to act. One of the most famous, which Williams himself discusses, asks you to imagine that you are in a position in which, if you directly kill one innocent person, then fifty other innocent persons will not be killed. If you refuse to kill the one innocent person, however, then someone else will kill the fifty other innocent people. Or to take a more outlandish example you might imagine that there is a button next to you, which, if you push it, will kill one innocent person in Idaho but miraculously save fifty innocent people who would otherwise have been killed in Taiwan. In both cases, the question is, do you kill the one to save the other fifty?

Many people think these constitute moral dilemmas which are very difficult to solve, and that it is the job of moral philosophers to solve them. Williams argues that moral theory typically cannot resolve these dilemmas. He argues, further, that there is no reason to assume that these dilemmas admit of any solution whatsoever. Rather, there may simply be situations in which, no matter what we do, we will be doing something terribly wrong. If these situations exist, they are what Williams calls tragic dilemmas. To suggest that these situations do exist, of course, is a very hard view; it is a view which has led to a complicated but fascinating discussion in contemporary moral philosophy. Are there tragic dilemmas? If so, what does this mean for the possibility of moral action, and for our responsibility for what we do?

Finally, there is a quite technical discussion within moral philosophy concerning whether arguments are capable of showing that people are bound by what Williams calls external reasons. An external reason, to put it simply, is a reason which originates outside of any individual's particular desires and motives, and which is authoritative no matter what those desires and motives may be. The importance of this question for moral philosophy is the following: Can we show that people are bound by duties -- that is, that they have reason to do what they are morally obligated to do -- even if they do not care about their duties? Williams has consistently argued that philosophy is incapable of showing this; there is no way to prove that there are external reasons of this sort. If someone does not care about justice, moral philosophers cannot show that he nonetheless has a reason to do what is just.

Thus, Williams not only argues that moral theory, in general, is impossible, he also argues that the typical particular ambitions of moral philosophers are doomed to failure. These failures, Williams thinks, are due mainly to two features of moral theory. Moral theory, as traditionally conceived, is both reductionist and abstract. It is reductionist insofar as it tries to suggest that morality, at its heart, is either just about rights, just about duties, just about virtues, or just about goods. All other considerations are to be reduced to the favored ethical notion of the particular theory at hand. Williams thinks this is precisely the wrong way to go; moral life is essentially constituted by a plurality of ethical and moral considerations. In this regard he is interestingly similar and interestingly different from MacIntyre. MacIntyre thinks of modern moral life as being constituted by fragments of traditions, and appeals to ethical notions from a wide variety of cultural sources. Williams agrees that modern ethical life is constituted by this heterogeneity, but takes this not as a fault of modern theory, but rather a reflection of the nature of the ethical itself. To fail to see this is to commit the sin of reductionism; a sin shared by all varieties of moral theorizing.

The other sin of ethical theory is the sin of abstraction. Abstraction occurs when normative theory tries to move people by appealing to considerations that are too distant from their particular lives, with their distinct desires, projects, and concerns. Williams thinks that part of the point of doing ethics is to give people reasons to go on living, and thus to pull them into the future. Much of contemporary moral philosophy is at fault for not accomplishing that. Again, MacIntyre and Williams agree on this. Where MacIntyre think there is hope to recover meaningful ways of doing ethics from within rich forms of local community, however, Williams remains skeptical.

Let me close this discussion of anti-theory by speaking briefly about another philosopher who, while not as significant philosophically as Bernard Williams, is at least as famous and quite a bit more influential in the broader cultural arena. Richard Rorty has written many things over the last twenty-five years, and not all of it has been academic. In addition to his strictly academic work, he writes columns in the paper, popular books, and makes it onto television. In many ways, he is contemporary philosophy's representative to the wider world.

In closing, I want to talk about just one article of his. It is a piece written about fifteen years ago called "The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy". The title suggests Rorty's theme. He is worried about philosophers, in particular about John Rawls, who attempt to provide philosophical arguments that justify the practices of liberal democracy. Rorty thinks such attempts always get things backwards in fact, the set of practices which constitute liberal democracy will always be prior to any attempt to justify them. The job of philosophy is not to justify such a way of life but simply to articulate it; justifications are impossible.

Luckily, Rorty thinks, justifications are also unnecessary. Rorty is a great fan of liberal democracy, in which we live with one another on terms of mutuality, reciprocity, and tolerance. This kind of community, however, can get along quite well without philosophy. What is more, philosophy can actually become a kind of danger to such societies insofar as it might encourage us to think that justifications are needed for our life together. Such justifications, if Rorty is right, are not going to be forthcoming, and so it is dangerous to encourage people to seek them. In contrast to this kind of outlook, Rorty often quotes a phrase from Rawls in which he suggested that we should stay on the surface, philosophically speaking. Rawls himself, Rorty thinks, did not take his own suggestion seriously enough we really should not be so concerned about finding philosophical or rational justification for our way of life. Embracing them whole-heartedly is enough.

I have not had time to give you Rorty's arguments for all of this though, to be frank, they seem to me not very good anyway. In fact, Rorty seems generally to be rhetorically powerful but lacking in substance. Perhaps this is not altogether surprising, given that Rorty counsels a complete retreat from the philosophical enterprise. What is surprising, given Rorty's view, is that he is so frequently to be found on the editorial pages of The New York Times, telling us all what to do. In our final two lectures, I want to continue exploring these issues about what place philosophy should have in our more general cultural debates. I will begin, in my next lecture, by exploring the applied ethics revolution, in the midst of which philosophers completely reject the advice of the anti-theorists and jump into our cultural problems with a vengeance.

Required Readings:

Richard Rorty, "The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy," in Reading Rorty, ed. Alan R. Malachowski (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1990).

Bernard Williams, "Persons, Character and Morality," in 20th Century Ethical Theory, eds. Steven M. Cahn and Joram G. Haber (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1995), pp. 634-646.

Suggested Readings:

Michael Stocker, "The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories," in 20th Century Ethical Theory, eds. Steven M. Cahn and Joram G. Haber (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1995), pp. 531-540.

Study Questions:

1. What are the characteristic claims of anti-theorists?

2. How does Williams's view converge with and diverge from MacIntyre's?

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