Morality and Moral Theory

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Morality and Moral Theory


    A Reappraisal and Reaffirmation


    New York Oxford OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS 1992


    Oxford University Press

    Oxford New York Toronto Delhi Bombay Calcutta Madras Karachi Petaling Jaya Singapore Hong Kong Tokyo Nairobi Dar es Salaam Cape Town Melbourne Auckland

    and associated companies in Berlin Ibadan

    Copyright ? 1992† by Robert B. Louden

    Published by Oxford University Press, Inc. 200 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016

    Oxford is a registered trademark of Oxford University Press All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval

    system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.

    Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Louden, Robert B., 1953- Morality and moral theory : a reappraisal and reaffirmation / Robert B. Louden.

    p. cm.

    Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 0-19-507145-X ISBN 0-19-507292-

    8 (pbk.) 1. Ethics. I. Title. BJ1012.L67 1992 170 -- dc20 91-21428 "Train in the Distance" ? 1981 Paul Simon. Used by permission of the Publisher.

    2 4 6 8 9 7 5 3 1

    Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper


    In Memory of Two of My Teachers

    WARNER A. WICK ( 1911-1985)

    ALAN DONAGAN ( 1925-1991)



    I would like first to thank the following friendly critics who read earlier drafts of this book and who contributed greatly toward its improvement. Robert Roberts and Robert McCauley each worked his way through an early version of the entire manuscript and mailed me copious criticisms. Louis Pojman and Mark Johnson provided numerous comments on the first half. Norman Dahl, Eugene Garver, John Kekes, Larry May, Steven Tigner, Derek Phillips, Michael Howard, James Robinson, Tony Smith, Mark McPherran, Larry Simon, and Bart Gruzalski all criticized various versions of different chapters.

    The reader for Oxford University Press, Joel Kupperman, also offered a number of extraordinarily helpful criticisms and suggestions. In this regard I would also like to thank my editor, Cynthia Read, particularly for her initial interest in the project; Peter Ohlin, assistant editor, for his prompt responses to a variety of queries; and Michael Lane, copy editor, for a job well done.

    The writing of this book was made possible by a 1989-90 American Council of Learned Societies fellowship, a 1989 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) summer stipend, and a 1989-90 sabbatical leave from the University of Southern Maine. I am very grateful to all three institutions for their support. I would also like to thank the late Alan Donagan, Martha Nussbaum, Lawrence Blum, and my colleague Jeremiah Conway for their support in writing recommendation letters for my fellowship applications. Some of the Kantian flavors in the first half of the manuscript were greatly enhanced by an invitation from Amelie Rorty to speak on Kant's views about virtue before the participants of her 1989 NEH summer seminar at Radcliffe College, Virtues and Their Vicissitudes.

    In the years immediately preceding the writing of the manuscript, I was fortunate enough to be a participant in three different NEH-funded summer institutes and seminars: Kantian Ethics: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (directed by J. B. Schneewind and David Hoy, Johns Hopkins University, 1983), The Practical Value of the Study of Ethics in Ancient Greek Thought (directed by Martha Nussbaum, Wellesley College, 1985) and Aristotle's Metaphysics, Biology, and Ethics (directed by Michael Frede, John Cooper, and Allan Gotthelf, University of New Hampshire, 1988). In hindsight these "summer camps for professors" have proved to be the most enjoyable as well as the most edifying part of my philosophy education, for it was here that I was able to


    study and converse with many of our most outstanding contemporary Kant and Aristotle scholars. Their writings have profoundly influenced my approach to many of the issues in this book.

    This study develops a number of ideas (and borrows an occasional phrase or two) from several of my previously published articles. Part I grew out of "Can We Be Too Moral?" (Ethics 98 [ 1988]: 361-78) and, to a lesser extent, "Kant's Virtue Ethics" (Philosophy 61

    [ 1986]: 473-89). Traces of part II can be detected in "Virtue Ethics and Anti-Theory" (Philosophia 20 [ 1990]: 93-114).

    Finally, a few less scholarly debts should also be noted: to my father, for helping me upgrade my computer system and guiding me through its mysteries and for reminding me that he wrote a book when he was my age (while his son practiced electric guitar in the adjoining room); to Yves Dalvet, for his precise piano playing at our Wednesday morning sonata sessions, which (I like to think) not only improved my meager violin abilities but also gave me a better sense of how things (including philosophy books?) should fit together; and last and most, to my wife, Tama, not only for watching our daughters, Elizabeth and Sarah, while I hid out in the attic behind a computer monitor and several small mountains of books and journal articles, but also for her work on the book cover and for her insistence that the project was not too crazy.

    Marburg, Germany


    July 1991



     Abbreviations , xiii

     Introduction , 3

     I Morality and Oneself , 13

     2 Morality, Lives, and Acts , 27

     3 Morality and Maximization , 45

     4 Morality and Importance , 61

     85 5 What Do Antitheorists Mean by Theory?

     99 6 Did Aristotle and Kant Produce Moral "Theories"?

     125 7 What Should Moral Theory Be?

     8 Why We Need Moral Theories , 143

     Notes , 163

     Bibliography , 211

     Index , 225



    References to Aristotle's and Kant's writings are given in the body of the text; all other references, in notes. For Aristotle, I use the standard Bekker numerals and generally rely on the revised Oxford translation of his works. The following abbreviations of Aristotle's works are used:

    Cael De Caelo

    De An De Anima

    Gen An De Generatione Animalium

    EE Ethica Eudemia

    Hist An Historia Animalium

    Meta Metaphysica

    MM Magna Moralia

    NE Ethica Nicomachea

    Pol Politica

    Rhet Rhetoria

    Top Topica

    For Kant, I cite the volume and page number in the standard German Akademie edition of his works, followed by a page number in a corresponding English translation of his work. Details on English translations are in the bibliography. The following abbreviations of Kant's works are referred to:

    A Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View

    Cl Critique of Pure Reason (references are to page numbers first of the 1781 A

     edition and then of the 1787 B edition)

    C2 Critique of Practical Reason

    C3 Critique of Judgment

    DV The Doctrine of Virtue

    "An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?" (in "Perpetual Peace" E and Other Essays)

    End "The End of All Things" (in Perpetual Peace and Other Essays)

    Ed Education

    G Grounding of the Metaphysics of Morals

    L Logic

    Lectures on Ethics (first page references here are to Paul Menzer German LE edition, Eine Vorlesung Kants über Ethik)

R Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone

    Science Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science

    "On the Common Saying: This May Be True in Theory, but It Does Not TP Apply in Practice" (in Kant's Political Writings)



    Morality is a subject that interests us above all others: We fancy the peace

    of society to be at stake in every decision concerning it; and 'tis evident,

    that this concern must make our speculations appear more real and solid,

    than where the subject is, in a great measure, indifferent to us.

    HUME, A Treatise of Human Nature

    This is a book about morality and moral theory -- about how, upon reflection, we ought to understand the nature and aims of morality and moral theory and about why the two are fundamentally important in human life. These are large topics; but readers who are wary of books about large topics may be relieved to hear that it is not my intent to offer an exhaustive, systematic analysis of either morality or moral theory. Rather, I shall be exploring certain select areas within the broad terrains of morality and moral theory, areas where I believe contemporary assumptions are unsatisfactory and in need of replacement. The areas to be investigated were chosen as part of a larger strategy for coming to grips with a variety of recent philosophical criticisms of both morality and moral theory.

    Contemporary philosophers have grown increasingly skeptical toward both morality and moral theory. The skepticism concerning morality stems from arguments that moral considerations are not always the most important considerations and that it is not always better to be morally better. The skepticism concerning moral theory stems from arguments that moral theory is a radically misguided enterprise, one that does not illuminate moral practice and fulfills no useful functions. Morality and Moral Theory is a

    response to the arguments of both "antimorality" and "antitheory" skeptics. My aim is to defuse such skepticism by putting forward alternative conceptions of morality and moral theory, conceptions that owe more to central texts within the canon of Western philosophical ethics (particularly Kantian and Aristotelian) than to sheer conceptual virtuosity.

    Reappraising Morality

    Again, the skepticism concerning morality with which I shall be concerned stems from recent arguments that moral considerations are not always the most im-


    portant considerations -- that we sometimes admire immorality more than morality, prefer to be less moral rather than more moral, recognize that aesthetic or personal or prudential ends may take precedence over moral concerns, care more about nonmoral ideals than about moral ideals, or believe with justification that we ought to do what is morally 1 wrong.

    At first glance, these antimorality arguments may not seem new: Thrasymachus, in book 1 of Plato's Republic, argues that injustice is better than justice; and history is riddled with intellectuals who advocate immoralist doctrines. However, the contemporary philosophical skeptics about morality whose arguments are the subject of the first half of this book are not immoralists who stand outside the pale of all moral considerations. They recognize that morality has a place within human life -- indeed, a significant place. Their view is, rather, that moral considerations are not the only important considerations to which human beings are subject: morality is not the only game in town. This is a softer view than Thrasymachean immoralism; and many readers may find it sensible, noncontroversial, and perhaps even trivially true. Still, for those of us who were taught (and continue to believe) that morality is supremely important in human life, it is a deeply troubling view.

    When we situate this scholarly debate concerning morality within contemporary American culture, the irony of a society obsessed with the morality and immorality of its politicians and business people in which accusations on both sides are fueled by frequent editorial warnings that we have lost our collective moral compass is difficult to ignore. Current academic as well as popular discourse reveals a great deal of talk about morality but little reflection concerning what it is we are talking about when we profess to be 2talking about morality.

    When I speak of "putting forward alternative conceptions of morality," I do not mean to imply that it is my view that moral conceptions are normally the sorts of things that people simply choose to pick up or discard at a moment's notice. On this point I agree with Bernard Williams that

    we cannot take very seriously a profession of [moral principles] if we are

    given to understand that the speaker has just decided to adopt them. The

    idea that people decide to adopt their moral principles seems to me a

    myth. . . . We see a man's genuine convictions as coming from somewhere

    deeper in him than that; and . . . what we see as coming from deeper in

    him, he -- that is, the deciding "he" -- may see as coming from outside him. 3

    At the same time, I also believe that Alasdair MacIntyre is largely correct when he asserts that many contemporary U.S. citizens possess mere fragments of competing ethical conceptions, "simulacra of morality" for which we lack the historical understanding of 4their various origins -- largely because, unlike MacIntyre, I do not think this state of

    affairs necessarily implies that our culture is in a state of "grave disorder." Morality is, in a sense, up for grabs at present; and while this is "a disquieting suggestion" for some, it may also be the case that we at this particular time and place are confronted with


    unique opportunities for conceptual exploration of moral territories. There are, as it were, different moralities out there, and in such a situation a certain amount of choice concerning one's moral conception is certainly possible and perhaps even inevitable.

    Reaffirming Morality

    Briefly, the alternative moral conception to be developed and defended herein is a broader, richer one. In chapter 1, I argue, in opposition to most modern theorists, that morality ought to be understood primarily as a matter of what one does or does not do to oneself rather what one does or does not do to others. Adoption of this self-regarding conception of morality enables us to bridge the gulf that many antimorality critics claim exists between morality's demands and the personal point of view, thereby defusing one prominent source of recent philosophical opposition to morality.

    5In chapter 2, I argue that morality's primary evaluative focus ought to be on agents and

    their lives rather than on right acts or optimific consequences of acts. Adoption of this agent or virtue conception gives morality a richness and pervasiveness that literally encompasses all voluntary and even indirectly voluntary aspects of people's lives, thus enabling us to draw upon a much wider body of moral resources. Here the gulf between the moral and the nonmoral is bridged by showing that all aspects of our lives over which we exercise at least some voluntary control have indirect (if not direct) moral relevance. In chapter 3, I argue, contra contemporary antimorality critics, that it is "always better to be morally better" and that we should strive to make our society as morally good as 6possible. Once morality is properly understood, we see that it does not make good sense to claim that individuals or societies can ever be "too moral." This commits me to what is often called a "maximizing" conception of morality, albeit one that is radically opposed to dominant consequentialist conceptions of moral maximization. Unlike most 7consequentialists, I do not believe that morality should be construed as an attempt to maximize values in action at all. Rather, I argue that the most moral persons are those who are more strongly disposed than the rest of us to stand fast by their reflectively chosen principles and ideals when tempted by considerations that are morally irrelevant. Additionally, morally excellent individuals recognize that certain fundamental constraints stemming from duties concerning the development of human capacities, beneficence, and promotion of justice must be placed on the content of chosen ideals and principles if they are to count as distinctively moral in character. Adopting this particular conception of moral maximization serves both to undercut the standard objections to morality as an object of maximal devotion and to reclaim the importance of ideals and aspiration in the moral life.

    Finally, in chapter 4, I contend that recent critics, as well as defenders, of the claim that morality is supremely important in human life have failed to appreciate


    the relevant properties of morality that make it important. The central importance of morality in human life stems not from the "nonoverridingness" of moral interests-vis-à-vis other competing sets of narrowly defined interests but rather from the fact that it is much more pervasive throughout human life than other interests, that it has, as Aristotle argued, an "architectonic" authority that other human interests lack, and from what Kant called the "primacy of the practical" over all other human interests. Science -- and, indeed, all forms of critical thought -- presuppose and depend on a commitment to basic moral norms. Morality is supremely important not because it "stands above" everything else but because it is literally underneath, as well as continually embedded in, all human cognitive efforts. Recent attempts to show that we would be "better off without morality" are thus 8 revealed to be suicidal.

    Reappraising Moral Theory

    The contemporary skepticism concerning moral theory with which I shall be concerned might appear to be a relatively distinct phenomenon, one that is perhaps of interest only to philosophers and other intellectuals who believe that theory is important and that theories about morality can and do perform valuable functions. For it is quite conceivable that someone could come to believe that morality itself is vitally important without also believing that we need moral theories. But on my view, part of the linkage between the

    morality and moral theory halves of this project lies precisely in the concept of importance. It is partly because morality is so important that we need to develop better moral theories. Theorists ought to devote their energies to developing theories about important, rather than trivial, matters.

    In the second half of this book I respond to the basic argument that we ought not to engage in moral theorizing or turn to existing moral theories for practical guidance -- that the aims of moral theory are radically misguided and impossible to fulfill because moral thought and practice are not the sort of phenomena that theory can illuminate. What is needed are people with moral sensitivity rather than people with moral theories, and

    exposure to theory is by no means a prerequisite to -- indeed, is often an impediment to -- 9the acquisition of moral sensitivity. Here, too, there is a sense in which such claims do

    not seem new. Many of Socrates' contemporaries thought he was wasting his time in trying to disclose the nature of virtue, and numerous critics have noted that the collective achievements of subsequent moral theories are slightly less than staggering. What makes the current antitheory movement somewhat novel is that it is an academic philosophers' movement: professors who teach and write about ethics are themselves calling for the end of moral theory.

    Just as current philosophical doubts about the place of morality in human life reveal a great deal of disagreement and uncertainty as to what exactly is meant by morality, so,

    too, do contemporary skeptical attacks on moral theory serve to underscore the fact that moral theory itself is a contested concept. There exists no detailed, univocal definition of the term that is employed faithfully by


    all who have professed to be moral theorists. And just as my basic strategy in part I is to offer an alternative moral conception that will provide us with stronger reasons to affirm the supreme importance of morality in human life, so ray strategy in part II is to offer an alternative conception of moral theory that will defuse the antitheorists' objections to moral theory and allow us to reaffirm the significance of moral theory.

    A further parallel should also be noted. Just as the conception of morality I shall advocate is one that is closer to a classical and widely accepted understanding of morality than are contemporary philosophical constructs (or so I shall argue), so the particular conception of moral theory to be advocated in this book is one that captures more of the essential features of the best work done in the canon of Western moral theory than do current assumptions concerning the nature of moral theory. In both cases, certain peculiarly modern assumptions regarding both morality and moral theory are in need of replacement. The alternative conceptions of morality and of moral theory to be advocated in this book are therefore not entirely constructions of my own making: they are not made out of whole cloth. Rather, this undertaking is in part an exercise in recollection. I am asking the reader to recall certain occasionally forgotten chapters in our moral history, and I believe such an effort will demonstrate that to some extent we already possess the conceptual

    resources to defuse contemporary moral skepticism.

    The occasional excursions into canonical texts in Western philosophical ethics are therefore not meant as scholarly meanderings but rather as amplifications of the central argument. At the same time, my references to older works in moral theory are quite selective and, some may feel, idiosyncratic. I am primarily concerned with Aristotelian and Kantian ethics -- two philosophical traditions that for many of us represent the highest achievements within ancient and modern ethical theory, respectively. At present it is widely assumed that Aristotelian and Kantian ethics differ radically from one another. Indeed, an important subtheme in much of the recent antimorality literature is that contemporary "Kantian" moral conceptions (if that is what they really are) need to be replaced by a less problematic Aristotelian notion of the practical. My opposing view is that the moral conceptions of Kant and Aristotle share much more in common with one another than contemporary wisdom allows; and while I am strongly sympathetic to the recent reappreciation of ancient Greek moralists by contemporary ethical theorists, I do not believe that allegiance to this tendency, in most instances, necessitates rejection of Kantian-influenced moral conceptions. Much contemporary argument in ethics depends on oversimplified pictures of Aristotle and (particularly) Kant. Such argumentation posits exhaustive alternatives that fit neither Aristotle nor Kant but only lesser thinkers. An available richness is therefore missing from current moral argument, and part of my aim is to recover it.

    But it should also be noted that my own views about morality and moral theory are in many ways quite different from those of either Aristotle or Kant. For instance, to a much stronger degree than either of them, I am a pluralist in ethics in the following two senses:


    1. I believe that moral evaluation needs to incorporate fundamentally different kinds of

    values, values that cannot always be compared to one another on a common scale.

    2. I believe the existence of conflicting types of ethical theories is both intellectually

    healthy and close-to-inevitable.

    Similarly, in appealing to certain aspects of a classical moral conception and to canonical texts within this tradition, I do not wish to be interpreted as asserting that only "the good old Great Books approach" can save us, that students should read canonical books about morality and no others, or that people "cannot hear what the great tradition has to say" as 10 Rather, my view is simply that certain aspects of long as they listen to rock and roll.

    these older traditions are arguably superior to contemporary moral conceptions and that we have good reason to reappropriate them (in our own way, in our own time, to address our own needs) once we reexamine their merits in light of current concerns.I remarked earlier on the irony of a culture that apparently enjoys the ubiquity of the word morality

    but in which the word itself has very little determinate meaning. A similar irony is evident with respect to moral theory. During the same time in which contemporary philosophers have been aiming some extremely heavy artillery at the very notion of moral theory, educational reformers have succeeded in instituting required ethics courses in many of our country's graduate professional schools. Many of these courses are taught by moral philosophers who loan themselves out to schools of law, medicine, business, and public policy; all are at least taught by academicians who have suffered severe exposure to moral theory. If moral theories are useless, impossible, and (as one 11antitheorist puts it) "threats to moral sanity and balance," it would seem that those who

    teach such courses are committing an enormous act of bad faith.

    Reaffirming Moral Theory

    The alternative conception of moral theory defended in part II is a less reductionistic and more empirically sensitive conception than that assumed by antitheorists -- one that recognizes both the irreducible plurality of moral values and the reality of unresolvable moral conflict and one whose interest in moral deliberation is not distorted by an extremist faith in a universal decision procedure. At the same time, this alternative conception -- or so I shall argue -- is in fact much closer to Aristotelian and even Kantian understandings of moral theory than is that of contemporary antitheorists.Part II begins by asking what exactly antitheorists have in mind when they talk about moral theory. In chapter 5, I analyze numerous antitheory writings with an eye toward this basic question, concluding that by moral theory their authors mean a project that adopts six assumptions

    and aims:

    1. All correct moral judgments and practices are deducible from universal, timeless

    principles, to articulate which it is theory's job.

    2. All moral values are commensurable; that is, they can be compared with one


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