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NDPR Discussion Forum on Owen Flanagan’s The Geography of Morals

Welcome to our discussion thread on Owen Flanagan’s The Geography of Morals, recently reviewed by Regina Rini for NDPR. We have invited Owen and Regina to provide any comments they’d like on either the book or the review, and we hope other readers of PEA Soup will chime in with thoughts on either the book or the review as well.

From the OUP blurb: “The Geography of Morals is a work of extraordinary ambition: an indictment of the parochialism of Western philosophy, a comprehensive dialogue between anthropology, empirical moral psychology, behavioral economics, and cross-cultural philosophy, and a deep exploration of the opportunities for self, social, and political improvement provided by world philosophy.”

From Rini’s review: “Overall, the book does an excellent job of stretching the acknowledged possibility space of morality. Flanagan convincingly shows that we cannot responsibly conduct ethical inquiry in ignorance of cultural diversity. But I remained frustrated by the book’s unclear positive answers to normative questions. Flanagan himself puts the challenge well: ‘How do we tell when a genealogy of morals has not just produced a morality — that is guaranteed — but a good one, a morality that is ethical, an ethical morality, a truly good way of living, of being human?’ (106) This is exactly what we need to ask, once our cross-cultural surveying has laid out the genuine possibilities. But Flanagan never entirely answers.”

12 Responses to NDPR Discussion Forum on Owen Flanagan’s The Geography of Morals

  1. I am grateful to Regina Rini for her very thoughtful review of The Geography of Morals in NDPR, and to David Shoemaker and his crew at PEA Soup for making this discussion possible. I’ll kick things off by saying a little about the overall project.
    In 1991 I published Varieties of Moral Personality: Ethics and Psychological Realism (Harvard). The aim of Varieties was to advance an emerging conversation between philosophers and psychologists by introducing moral philosophers to relevant work from psychology, work on temperament, personality types, different conceptions of the self and identity, moral development, gender and morality, social psychology, and the virtues. The guiding ideas were that there are multiple ways to live good human lives; that morality is fragile, subject to vagaries of temperament, personality, gender, class, culture, economics, and politics; and that moral ideals are typically pictures of what kind of person from among the possibilities one ought to be, where “be” is intended in a deep, existentialist sense. Moral ideals call on one to be a person of a certain kind, not just to act in certain ways.
    This book, The Geography of Morals, is something of a sequel. To me it is “Varieties Two.” It might be subtitled, “Ethics and Anthropological Realism” or “Ethics and Historical and Cultural Realism.” The aim is to extend the argument for ethical inquiry that absorbs the insights of the human sciences and contributes to the human sciences, by bringing some of the main recent advances in culturally attuned moral psychology into conversation with cross-cultural or comparative philosophy. There are several reasons that compel me to write this book now.
    First, we live increasingly in multicultural, multiethnic, cosmopolitan worlds. Depending on one’s perspective these worlds are grand experiments in tolerant living, worlds in which prejudices break down; or they are fractured, wary, tense ethnic and religious cohousing projects; or they are melting pots where differences are thinned out and homogenized over time; or they are admixtures or collages of the best values, norms, and practices, the sociomoral equivalent of fine fusion cuisine or excellent world music that creates flavors or sounds from multiple fine sources; or on the other side, a blend of the worst of incommensurable value systems and practices, clunky and degenerate. It is good for ethicists to know more about people who are not from the North Atlantic (or its outposts). Or even if they are from the North Atlantic are not from elites or are not from “around here.” It matters how members of original displaced communities or people who were brought here or came here as chattel slaves or indentured workers or political refugees or for economic opportunity, have thought about virtues, values, moral psychology, normative ethics, and good human lives.
    Second, most work in empirical moral psychology has been done on WEIRD people (Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic) and there is every reason to think WEIRD people are unrepresentative, possibly the most unrepresentative group imaginable, less representative than our ancestors when the ice melted at the end of the Pleistocene (Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayen 2010).
    Alasdair MacIntyre offers this assessment of the overall state of moral philosophy in the twentieth century, which capturesmore eloquently that I can the concerns that both moral philosophy and moral psychology are extremely parochial despite universalist pretensions.
    For on the view that I have found myself compelled to take, contemporary academic moral philosophy turns out to be seriously defective as a form of rational inquiry. How so? First, the study of moral philosophy has become divorced from the study of morality or rather of moralities and by so doing has distanced itself from practice. We do not expect serious work in the philosophy of physics from students who have never studied physics or on the philosophy of law from students who have never studied law. But there is not even a hint of a suggestion that courses in social and cultural anthropology and in certain areas of sociology and psychology should be a prerequisite for graduate work in moral philosophy. Yet without such courses no adequate sense of the varieties of moral possibility can be acquired. One remains imprisoned by one’s upbringing. (MacIntyre 2013)

    So one part of the project is to mine other moral traditions for resources, for information about varieties of moral possibility that are undiscovered, underexplored, recessive or lost in our traditions, but that are good or useful, or both.

    In my next post, I’ll say something about what standards we can have for good solutions, good character, good values and virtues once one engages in cross-cultural philosophy and admits plural culturally specific standpoints.

  2. This morning I’ll say a bit about some of the benefits of cross-cultural ethics, about method, and about the implications for traditional normative ethics.

    First, benefits: In the first post I emphasized the ways in which doing cross-cultural philosophy (what others call comparative philosophy) opens up possibility space. In The Geography of Morals, I spend a fair amount of time talking about Stoic and Buddhist views of anger. This is not exactly because I think eliminating all anger is possible or desirable. It is because I think we Americans live in an orgy of anger and that most adults and students I speak with think that the ways we do anger are natural and normal. But they aren’t. How does one convey that there is possibility space to be different, better than we are? One idea is to think with Seneca and Shantideva on anger to see what reasons they give for eliminating anger, moral, epistemic, and metaphysical reasons, and to reflect on whether their reasons could be reasons for us to tone things down. One can also study the vast psychological anthropological literature on, in the present case, the ways other traditions moralize and mitigate anger. We WEIRD souls are outliers on the global anger spectrum – very angry and confident that we are entitled to it.

    The point is that are Stoics and Buddhists in our midst, as well as Confucians, Daoists, Muslims, Hindus, and Jains — people who embody these traditions in their blood and bones. So one task for ethics is to get these others.
    Besides basic respect born of verstehen and thick description, there are other benefits. When I teach Confucius, Buddhist, Hindu or African philosophical, psychological, or anthropological texts, I ask students what if any values or virtues they see in those texts or traditions (increasingly some students have first personal experience with these traditions), which they think would be good for us to have or have more of. They cite such things as xiao, filial piety, respect for the wisdom of elders; karuna, compassion; ahimsa or non-violence; ubuntu, the view that the self is communal. It isn’t just that students like these ideas. They see that the reasons given for these values or virtues are good reasons, and not just for the people of the particular tradition that prizes that value, virtue, or belief. This benefit is why Mark Siderits thinks of some cross-cultural or comparative philosophy as “fusion philosophy.” One incorporates the wisdom of others.

    Ok, what about method? When I approach a text, or a tradition, a culture, or a subculture that is not in the lineage that is “a series of footnotes to Plato,” I look for central values, virtues, reasons for each, hierarchies of value, and trump rules. One finding I am prepared to state is that there is a great deal of universality in values and virtues described abstractly. There is not nearly so much universality in the ordering of values and virtues. For example, peoples of the North Atlantic give pride of place to justice; Buddhists prize compassion most. Confucians value extended family in a way and to an extent that North Americans typically do not. There is also not universality in the fine-grained texture of values, norms, and virtues across cultures. In work I have done on anger since I finished Geography, I have gathered a list of twenty-five distinct but live normative regimens for apt anger. One can easily apply a formal doctrine of the mean to each set of tradition or culture specific anger norms (in fact each tradition does so), but they would differ in robust tradition/culture specific ways as to the appropriate triggers for anger, intensity of feeling, and appropriate angry responses.
    In her NDPR review, Regina Rini asks an important question. She writes: “Overall, the book does an excellent job of stretching the acknowledged possibility space of morality. Flanagan convincingly shows that we cannot responsibly conduct ethical inquiry in ignorance of cultural diversity. But I remained frustrated by the book’s unclear positive answers to normative questions. Flanagan himself puts the challenge well: “How do we tell when a genealogy of morals has not just produced a morality — that is guaranteed — but a good one, a morality that is ethical, an ethical morality, a truly good way of living, of being human?” (106) This is exactly what we need to ask, once our cross-cultural surveying has laid out the genuine possibilities. But Flanagan never entirely answers…. I suppose that wasn’t the purpose of this book; Flanagan is intently focused on prosecuting the case against parochial ethicists, which he does quite convincingly. Still, one attraction of parochialism must be that it seemingly obviates questions like these; if we assume that our morality is (more or less) the right one, then we know which one to follow. Perhaps an unintended lesson of this book, alongside its many significant contributions, is that parochial ethics will only be finally defeated when we have a positive account of how we are to choose among the many charted paths.”

    There is a lot here. Let me offer three conversation starters. First, I do not think there is one true morality, but rather a plethora of path dependent actual and possible moralities that are good enough, above a certain not too demanding threshold of adequacy (I suspect there will be chances to say more about this). Second, I do think at least one positive answer is offered explicitly in the book and rehearsed above. It is that we can look to other traditions, often traditions embodied in our midst, but ignored for familiar reasons of visibility, power, xenophobia, racism and sexism, and see practices and reasons for those practices that are or would be good for us (often particular others or subcultures) if we could internalize those reasons and change our practices.

    Third, cross-cultural philosophy does raise worries about the methods of ethics. Narrow reflective equilibrium is a relatively easy and sensible method to use for any philosophical tradition as embodied in a text, set of texts, or actual lived tradition – Confucian, consequentialist, Kantian, Daoist, or Akan. Wide reflective equilibrium where add our best metaphysics and empirical wisdom to the mix – Does the view of the self or person make sense? Does living this form of life actually lead to flourishing? – is also sensible and profitable when asking internal questions about a tradition.

    But here’s the rub: Reflective equilibrium, narrow and wide, track what “we” think. It is explicitly parochial. But what is this “we?” Who are the “we?” Almost all actual people to whom the claims of ethics are addressed are intersectional beings, Gay Catholics; Muslim women impressed by the secular enlightenment; “Black Lives Matter” activists who have read the Bible, Kant, Mill, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Dorothy Day; Chinese Americans who get both communism and Confucianism.
    Parochial ethics abstracts away from the ways traditions intersect in individuals and communities, screens out intersectionality, and typically offers rarified answers to moral questions as certified by texts with imprimaturs from a set of philosophical gatekeepers. It is thus typically not only parochial but also scholastic.
    What method should we use when traditions intersect, collide and disagree about values and norms? Disagreement might be due to embodying different comprehensive theories of the good, or because there are distinctive culturally inflected, identity constitutive ways of achieving some overall shared conception of the good (this is the topic of Chapter 7: When Values Collide: Pidgins, Creoles, and Smashdowns)?
    Reflective equilibrium, narrow and wide, works well when there is a “we” – a set of texts or a homogeneous cultural tradition. In NYC 37% of the people were born in a foreign county. Who is the “we?” Where are the “we.” Take the 37% foreign-born New Yorkers, and the 63% born in the USA. Is it credible to think that there is some reflective pose that captures how they think even ideally, especially that how they think is captured in the lineage of deliberately secular texts that philosophers consult? One familiar idea from political philosophy is that in such cases, we do not seek any kind of reflective equilibrium, but instead look for an overlapping consensus, areas of agreement about norms but without agreement about their exact forms or about the reasons for these norms.
    One response to these sorts of worries is to insist that it is just not the job of philosophical ethics to get this close to the ground or to explore the varieties of moral possibility in our midst or to make any judgments about better and worse when there are plural forms of life intersecting. This I think is not a good way to go. It draws philosophical ethics away from the world, rather than towards it.
    Excuse me I have to go pick up my daughter at the airport.

  3. Regina Rini says:

    Thanks for continuing this fascinating discussion Owen. And thanks, David and PEA Soup folks, for making it possible.

    Owen, it seems best for me to respond to the points in the order you’ve raised them. So:

    “First, I do not think there is one true morality, but rather a plethora of path dependent actual and possible moralities that are good enough, above a certain not too demanding threshold of adequacy (I suspect there will be chances to say more about this).”

    That’s fair, and I’m happy to take it as given for this discussion. In that case, my questions shift to how to understand that “threshold of adequacy”. Presumably it rules out some actual moralities. (If not, I’m not sure what ‘adequacy’ means.) How does it do that? How do we determine which traits a morality must include (or not include) in order to count as adequate?

    “Second, I do think at least one positive answer is offered explicitly in the book and rehearsed above. It is that we can look to other traditions, often traditions embodied in our midst, but ignored for familiar reasons of visibility, power, xenophobia, racism and sexism, and see practices and reasons for those practices that are or would be good for us (often particular others or subcultures) if we could internalize those reasons and change our practices.”

    So, this is positive in one sense, but not in another. It’s positive in the sense that it generates new practical possibilities – it allows us to see that certain ways of being and doing are possible for us, perhaps even appealing to us, when social obstructions might have kept us from seeing that previously. Again, I’m on board with that part of your project.

    But there’s another sense in which it is NOT positive. When you have a number of different options available to you, and some/all of these options are not practically compatible with one another, then you need some basis for choosing among them. And that’s what I’m looking for when I talk about a ‘positive’ account. How do we decide which of the various revealed possibilities is the best choice? Or, even if some are practically compatible, how do we know which ones meet the “threshold of adequacy”?

    It might be helpful here to return to an example I briefly discussed in the review – medieval Icelandic saga morality. This form of morality praised brute physical courage, sometimes taking forms that were cruel and painful to the weak. This sort of ‘honor’ morality exists in some parts of the world today, including among some sub-cultures in America, though it’s not the dominant form as it seems to have been in Iceland a millennium ago. It’s certainly among the moral possibilities we *could* pursue. So, do you think we should pursue it? Why or why not?

    I quoted the legal scholar William Ian Miller saying that he respects and admires the brutal saga morality. He concedes that he himself might not have the nerves to follow their lead, but imagine a variant person, Miller*, who really does set out to abandon squishy modern concerns about compassion and kindness, preferring to remold himself along the moral path of brutal honor. Suppose a group of like-minded individuals form around him, who share and sustain this neo-saga morality. They treat each other, and those they encounter from outside the group, in a way that respects risk-taking and physical aggressiveness rather than vulnerability. They are happy to ignore or even harm the weak.

    On your view, have Miller* and his group made any sort of mistake? If so, what kind of mistake is it? Why is it a mistake?

    “Third, cross-cultural philosophy does raise worries about the methods of ethics. Narrow reflective equilibrium is a relatively easy and sensible method to use for any philosophical tradition as embodied in a text, set of texts, or actual lived tradition …. But here’s the rub: Reflective equilibrium, narrow and wide, track what “we” think. It is explicitly parochial. But what is this “we?” Who are the “we?” … “

    I am very much on board with your critique of reflective equilibrium (for slightly different reasons, but close enough). I agree that reflective equilibrium, as practiced by analytic moral philosophers, is deeply inadequate for handling a globalizing world – or even for handling interpersonal relations in a moderately cosmopolitan city. In many ways, I think its methodological dominance in analytic ethics is harmfully distracting, given the lack of fit to our social reality.

    So, for my part anyway, I’m happy to concede that we need a different method. The problem is that I’m not seeing what other method you are suggesting. Hunting for an overlapping consensus has practical use at times, but I am not convinced that it can be relied upon. For instance, I’m not sure how much of an overlapping consensus we have with medieval Icelandic brutes, or their modern followers. So in some ways this part of the discussion reverts to the second point. Anyway, I’ll look forward to hearing your next set of thoughts on this – thanks again for the discussion, and the provocative book!

  4. Brad Cokelet says:

    Hi Owen and Regina,

    When the graduate students in my class and I discussed the Moral Teleologies lecture on which part of the book was based this last term, several of them noticed one point where Owen makes a claim about how to choose among the options. He is discussing the sprouts/modularity account of our moral psychology and the way that we can view different moral systems as developing these sprouts (extending them, combining them, ordering the impact of their deliverences in different ways, etc). He then considers what he wants to say about disgust and the idea that while disgust originally reacted to rancid food and the like, some moral systems have extended this sprout to generate disgust at homosexuals (we could add interracial love, hippies, etc). Presumably people with these extended disgust modules will also have “intuitions” about homosexual sex (etc) being bad or unnatural.

    Interestingly here Owen suggests how he will engage in normative assessment when he gives this appealing principle:

    “The Reasons for Extension: Allow a module, if there are any,some permission to range over the contents it was originally designed to range over and to have the scope it was designed to have by Mother Nature. But resist further extensions, unless there are
    good socio-moral reasons for them. When there are extensions in place that have occurred “under the radar,” or are unreflectively delivered on the wings of some tradition, feel free to examine their genealogies looking for dubious moral sources. Finally, require when it seems necessary that the extensions be justified or re-justified morally, i.e. by producing reasons that pertain to what produces well being, or what is good, or what is right.”

    Here is another related bit: “if an ancient setting of a sprout or module starts to be questioned because it is no longer an adaptation in current environments or because it is still fitness-enhancing but is in tension with other ends, for example, with flourishing, goodness, or rightness, then consider suppressing it or sublimating it.”

    I think there are two main questions about this approach.

    (1) Why defer to mother nature? I’m not all that worried about this, esp given the second quote.

    (2) Where do we get the conceptions of flourishing, goodness, or rightness that will ground our decisions about when extensions should be accepted or not?

    I worry that this question will be especially hard to answer once we take to heart Owen’s arguments. For example, I imagine many liberals would argue it was right to suppress the honor sprout extensions that lead to dueling culture and that we should suppress lots of other honor sprout extensions too, but if Haidt is right people in some (Southern) parts of the US might disagree because they are in more of an honor culture. I suspect that if we had these people apply Owen’s method they would still disagree because one’s views about flourishing, goodness, or rightness are in part determined by the extended sprouts one has and takes to be worth having. So there seems to be a kind of threat of circularity here when people try to assess extensions by appeal to their impact on flourishing, goodness, or rightness.

    Hope this makes sense, and, especially, that the parts of the lecture I quoted match what is in the book – I had a PDF of that but not the book so that was easiest to use! And glad to join this interesting discussion.

  5. Brad Cokelet says:

    One more, rather exploratory thought: I’m not sure how worried we should be about circularity of the sort mentioned in my first comment. Encouraged by Chesire Calhoun’s work, I’m tempted to think that we can roughly divide our normative thinking into individual ethical inquiry (how should I live?) and social-political inquiry (How should I respond to extant moral codes and institutions and how should “we” change them?).

    Perhaps we should, as good liberals, look for overlapping consensus among all the different moral systems that meet some minimal standard and use the resulting conceptions of the right, good, and flourishing when engaged in social-political inquiry. This would avoid the problem of circularity in this mode of inquiry.

    When engaged in individual normative inquiry, however, we could look around to other traditions because they might help us creatively question our starting ideas, provide insight into unconsidered possibilities, and help us deal with problems that we face in our current lives. When engaged in individual inquiry we presumably take ourselves to be trying to get things right but our assessments of what is most likely right will rely on our local intuitions and conceptions, grounded in whatever second nature we have developed or found ourselves with. On this view, individual inquiry should attend to all kinds of other ways of life for the same reason we should study great ethical systems of the past, and we need not think we will have some neutral way of showing which system is best or objectively right in order to view ourselves as aiming to get things right. Williams might say that we can then only hope to have confidence we are right (and not knowledge that we are right) and McDowell might disagree, but that is another issue. If something along these lines is right, then maybe the worry about circularity in my last comment is not a huge deal. Maybe in individual inquiry we should be unworried if our assessments of which sprout extensions and orderings are good or bad depend on the extensions and orderings we were raised with.

  6. Richard Kim says:

    This is a wonderful discussion getting at the heart of some of the hardest questions in ethics. I’m looking forward to seeing how it unfolds.

    At one point Professor Rini states, “When you have a number of different options available to you, and some/all of these options are not practically compatible with one another, then you need some basis for choosing among them. And that’s what I’m looking for when I talk about a ‘positive’ account. How do we decide which of the various revealed possibilities is the best choice? Or, even if some are practically compatible, how do we know which ones meet the “threshold of adequacy”?

    First of all, I’m not sure if there really are as many options available to us as we might think. For example, there’s a sense in which living as an Icelandic warrior is really not an option for me. But I guess Prof. Rini’s challenge is more about offering reasons or justifications for not adopting that way of life.

    Well, I’m not sure if there is an answer to this challenge, at least as I’m understanding it. One reason is that we are all operating from within a particular ethical perspective, framework, or tradition (and not all of us are liberals either!), and there are really complicated values, with sometimes radically different priorities that constitute these different outlooks. As this challenge is put, it seems almost like a search for a decisive reason (or set of reasons) that can be articulated in terms that everybody will accept, that will rationally persuade everyone, regardless of which moral tradition they belong to. I’m skeptical that there are such reasons, or at least reasons that everybody will find compelling, and I also don’t think that a search for something like that will be productive.

    But what else can we do? I’m inclined to think that the best we can do–at least for now–is offer the best reasons, arguments, explanations and characterizations we can of each moral tradition, fairly and accurately, with an eye toward fine details, and reflect very hard on what we might learn in the process. (I see Owen’s project as carrying out this kind of task, marvelously I would add.) We all have to work with what we have, with those values and commitments we have absorbed and reflected on, and carefully work out to the best of our ability a good life or good lives for others, with some fear and trembling, and deep humility.

  7. Good Morning Regina, Brad, and Richard.

    Thank you for your terrific reflections. Let me start with a challenge Regina posed first in her review and helpfully poses again. Yesterday she writes:

    “It might be helpful here to return to an example I briefly discussed in the review – medieval Icelandic saga morality. This form of morality praised brute physical courage, sometimes taking forms that were cruel and painful to the weak. This sort of ‘honor’ morality exists in some parts of the world today, including among some sub-cultures in America, though it’s not the dominant form as it seems to have been in Iceland a millennium ago. It’s certainly among the moral possibilities we *could* pursue.

    She asks two questions:
    1. So, do you think we should pursue it? Why or why not?”
    2. On your view, have made any sort of mistake? If so, what kind of mistake is it? Why is it a mistake?”

    My answers: I do not think we should pursue Icelandic morality as you describe it. The original advocates of Icelandic honor morality as described were trying to work out and abide their comprehensive theory of the good (I assume this is close to analytic). It might have made sense internally for all Icelandic people or for a certain elite among the Icelandic people (I know nothing about the case).

    As for contemporary advocates of this Icelandic morality in our midst. They are mistaken IF they think we will or should tolerate their morality. Why? Among other reasons we are people who have culturally evolved to “put cruelty first.” And we have experience with ubermensch types, and do not allow it/them. More could be said for both why (the reasons why) we put cruelty first and why we – where “we” reflect an overlapping or unforced consensus (but not unanimity) – will not tolerate this attempt to flourish in our midst.

    Is there an objective mistake? I wouldn’t speak that way.

    This sort of answer to Regina’s questions obviously expresses or embeds a set of ideas/assumptions that Regina, Brad, and Richard are circling. These include: 1. Moralities are functional social kinds that are designed in the first instance to enable social cooperation. My colleague David Wong is my “go to” for the development of this sort of view. See his recent interview at 3AM http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/the-pluralist-2/. 2. Some causes embed reasons. Due to markets, population growth, expanding scope of cooperative units pressures on schemes of social cooperation to accommodate the desires, preferences, hopes and aspirations of more and more diverse people. These pressures produce practical reasons for a modus vivendi. It is possible that Icelandic saga morality did promote well-being internal to Icelandic views of the good (maybe not). But it did not export well. 3. Moralities involve historical discovery and invention about what works to yield smooth cooperation within and across a multiplicity of human ecologies. In The Problem of the Soul, Basic 2000) I first described and tried to work out this idea of “ethics as human ecology.” 4. An ethical view might embed an objective empirical or metaphysical mistake. Typically there is a certain not too vicious circularity in the methods of ethics. I call this the “internalist predicament” (The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in the Material World, MIT 2007 & The Bodhisattva’s Brain MIT 2011). The standards of flourishing, as Brad worries, are embedded and encouraged in the fabric of very form of life that deems those standards and aims good. I don’t worry much about this kind of circularity because people who live the morality are still sensitive to whether it delivers what it claims it does, and there is always even in micro-moral ecologies (e.g., families sources of moral disagreement). Specifically on the issue of honor morality, Kwame Anthony Appiah’s, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen (2010), shows how combinations of internal and external pressures undid certain actual honor code practices without totally undermining the good idea of honor. 4. Moralities are path dependent. Not all possibilities or moves are sensible or permissible, at least not quickly or easily, from “here.“ Not all options are live options as Richard Kim’s points out. One very important general feature of moralities is that they are identity constitutive for the people who abide them, embody them, and to live them. This makes moral conflict high stakes.

    I could imagine this response to my answers to Regina’s two-part question. To say as I did about her imagined advocates of Icelandic saga morality in our midst that they are mistaken IF they think we will or should tolerate their morality is to invoke power not moral reasons.

    But that would be wrong if the metaethics I started to sketch is right. We have developed a form of practical cooperative life that would be really messed up as the cooperative form it is IF they were allowed. This is a reason, a good reason.

  8. Philip J. Ivanhoe says:

    Regina Rini has written a fair, thoughtful, and insightful review of Owen Flanagan’s The Geography of Morals: Varieties of Moral Possibility, and the subsequent discussion on this blog has addressed if not answered many of the questions that her review brought to my mind. I would like to pose a question about the range of issues analysed in Flanagan’s work from a practical point of view that is highly salient to those of us who have spent much of our lives studying and gaining an appreciation of both Western and non-Western philosophy; namely, is there any imperative to broaden the conversation and include the study of ethical values outside the West in the discipline of philosophy? I don’t think it inaccurate to say that the consensus among contemporary Anglo-American philosophers is that there is not only no imperative to include non-Western philosophy but there aren’t any good reasons to consider doing so. A primary aim of Flanagan’s book is to challenge such attitudes as forms of provincialism.

    In her initial reply to Flanagan’s remarks, Rini makes clear that she is “on board” with many of Flanagan’s arguments and claims—she sees some good reasons to consider non-Western ethical views—but she raises one issue in both her review and reply that remains as an impediment to accepting Flanagan’s overall approach, which sees the study of non-Western ethics as an imperative for contemporary philosophy. In her original review, she puts the issue as “parochial ethics will only be finally defeated when we have a positive account of how we are to choose among the many charted paths.” In the course of her exchange with Flanagan she agrees with his claim that there are a “plethora of path dependent actual and possible moralities” and so her question becomes “how to understand that threshold of adequacy.” In either case, she asks for some criteria or decision procedure for judging what values, practices, or ways of life are acceptable either as candidates for adoption and incorporation into one’s home form of life or as respected alternatives in a pluralistic world.

    Rini raises an important and difficult question, but before I make an attempt to answer it, allow me to note how far along the path toward comparative philosophy the conversation already has advanced. People are now talking about how best to evaluate competing alternatives and this suggests that we have at least a fairly thick and empathetic understanding of what these alternatives are like. One of Flanagan’s core points, and one that he illustrates in the course of his work as well as argues for, is that in order to take up the view he advocates we need to make a serious effort to develop fairly thick and empathetic descriptions of other forms of life. He sees this as one of the important tasks that contemporary Western ethics should concern itself with but that it currently ignores or rejects. An understanding of the alternatives leads one to see and appreciate how all forms of life are, as Quine made clear, webs of interdependent beliefs the strands of which come from a variety of sources (some biological, some historical, some products of reason, other of individual ingenuity etc.) and how different forms of life hang together and present particular constellations of values and practices. When one gains this perspective on and sense of different forms of life, one will understand not that one’s home tradition is arbitrary but that a good deal of it is contingent. Contingent does not mean that one cannot support and defend it, which is one of the things that philosophers tend to do, but it does mean it is not the only game in town, and this implies that the work of ethics should include and perhaps be thought of more as the task of critically studying, considering, sorting, comparing, and evaluating the various options that have sustained complex civilizations and satisfied the people within them over the course of time. Discussing how to sort, evaluate, and choose between alternatives is to conceive of the task of moral philosophy in dramatically new and different terms.

    Seen in this light, Rini’s challenge can and I believe should be understood as part of an emerging new conception of the proper work of ethics (and I mean an expansion of our current conception and not the wholesale replacement of current practices). How, though, do we respond to her challenge? I think by arguing that we make choices about what values, practices, or ways of life are acceptable either as candidates for adoption and incorporation into one’s home form of life or as respected alternatives in a pluralistic world in much the same way that we make choices about things like cuisine or wine. Of course, there are important differences in these two cases and especially concerning the kinds of reasons we offer and how we advance them, but let’s sketch how such a comparison might go and whether it might shed some light on how to answer Rini’s challenge.

    Some people stubbornly stick with the cooking they were brought up eating and regard other cuisines as unappealing or even disgusting, without ever having given them a chance. To adult people who have enjoyed more of what the world has to offer, this looks like a silly way to go through life for oneself and those you love, and it shows at least insensitivity and some degree of disrespect toward other people, who love their home cuisines and for good reasons that they are able to articulate to varying degrees, depending on their skills at description and training in the appreciation of cuisines. At the end of the day, we make our case for a given cuisine by asking others to give it a sympathetic try, while we do our best to explain what is good about such food and how they might cultivate a taste for it. What most people discover when they take up such a stance and practice is not that all cuisines are equally good but that there is a world of wonderful flavours out there that can enrich one’s own life as well as the lives of those one loves; moreover, they come to see that appreciating what other cultures have produced and cherish is an important part of what it is to respect the members of these cultures (and here we mean something much more robust than respecting them as persons—though we should do that too and for many good reasons we can and should share with them). What I am suggesting is that rather than deciding the acceptability of an ethical practice, value, or form of life by appealing to a principle or theory, one comes to such judgments largely through empathetic and imaginative consideration or actual experience and shared discussion. As we do in the cases of cuisine or wine we can’t even begin to assess a value, practice, or form of life until we grasp it for ourselves and gain some personal appreciation of what it is like. Relying exclusively upon principles or theories to adjudicate what values, practices, or forms of life are acceptable means never broadening the range of possibilities. This is because if we attempt to construct the kind of meta-theoretical account that Rini and others call for, an account that would enable us to choose among candidate ethical views, we would need to draw upon materials or bases to build it, and where are we going to get such materials or bases? If we take them from our home tradition, we run the risk of simply repeating the parochialism at a higher level than before. Applying this idea to my illustrative metaphor, this would be to build a theory of taste out of one’s home cuisine, and then building a more abstract meta-theory of the theory of taste, and yet another meta-theory on top of that (potentially ad inifinitum), all in order to discriminate among cuisines at the base level—but that process would just be building in the same prejudices all the way up, so to speak. Only if we start crafting the theory of taste by considering all the various cuisines as they are in the first place do we have a chance of avoiding parochialism. And so, too, it is only if we start by considering all the most promising ethical options at the base level that we have a chance of avoiding parochialism at the higher theoretical levels in ethics. Of course, seeking empathetic, thick understanding is necessary but not sufficient; it begins a process in which reasons, feelings, and styles of argumentation engage one another and one either is moved or not, greatly or minutely, to see the worth of other ways.

  9. Owen Flanagan says:

    Thanks for this P.J.

    It is very helpful. I get the analogy. But what do you think about this disanalogous aspect?

    Whereas we can show our appreciation of multiple cuisines by cooking them. Lucky, well off cosmopolitan types in big cities, go out and eat different cuisines when they wish, even on a whim: let’s eat Middle Eastern tonight!

    In moral appreciation we expect there to be a different kind of practical uptake than in the foodie case, so that there is — or might be – a categorical judgment of better or worse. For example, the moral appreciator judges that Confucians get the reasons for certain familial virtues, respect for parents, caring for them when old, etc.

    Then one is supposed to be that way, cultivate oneself to adopt that virtue, those set of values.

    I this this is one way moral apppreciation can work. You do too.

    I suspect that one concern that one might have to moral diversity overexposure is that it might make one lose confidence in one’s home morality and this is bad.

    I doubt it is bad. In fact, I think it good, even for little kids as I discuss in chapter 12 of Geography. Cross cultural ethics for kids does seem to require that the elders, teachers, etc. back off any and all talk of one true morality.

  10. Philip J. Ivanhoe says:

    Dear Owen,

    First off, I see that the footnotes I had put in my contribution were deleted by the format and would like to acknowledge the benefits I enjoyed from comments and suggestions by Ruth Chang and Eric L. Hutton.

    As for your comments, I see two particularly important issues: practical uptake and diversity overexposure. On the first, I agree with your point. In my post I noted that the analogy with cuisine only serves some purposes, primarily to help illuminate how we make choices. I did not intend the analogy to be tight. I think practical uptake occurs over time, incrementally, and often not at a fully conscious level, which is part of my point. As for diversity overexposure, while this is surely notionally possible and may occur in rare cases, my personal experience and judging from the many friends I have (including you) who have spent large parts of their lives studying and developing an appreciation of other points of view, I know of no one who ended up without a core set of strong moral beliefs many if not most of which come from our home tradition. Speaking for myself, I have come to feel more confidence in fundamental human rights and equality as basic features of any good human life. At the same time, I feel these do not necessarily entail the tendency toward hyper-individualism and self-centeredness that I see as characteristic of a lot of modern societies—East and West.

    pj

  11. Regina Rini says:

    Thanks everyone who has contributed to this conversation! There are a number of different threads I’d like to pick up, but I’m a bit time-pressed this week, so I will focus on following up my core question/challenge for Owen.

    As I understand it, Owen replies by disavowing any ‘objective’ correct morality, but argues that adherents of certain types of moralities do have sufficient reason to resist encroachment by other moralities. This is because certain moralities instantiate valuable social functions: they provide means of facilitating social cooperation.

    I’m wondering what *kind* of reason to resist encroachment this might be. To see what kind of reasons there might be, consider an analogy to another thing that fulfills a valuable social function: a bridge. Suppose we have a bridge, sited at the only suitable river-crossing point, that our community works to collectively sustain. But now some new members of the community demand that we tear down this bridge and replace it with a new bridge according to their preferred design. Here are some reasons we might resist their demand:
    1. Efficacy – we are confident that their proposed design is less functional than the existing bridge (e.g. it will fall into disrepair more quickly, is more vulnerable to natural disaster, etc.). They, of course, disagree.
    2. Practicality – we concede that their design is at least as functional as the current bridge, perhaps mildly better, but we are unwilling or unable to put up with the serious practical disruption that would be caused by going without a bridge during the replacement
    3. Identity – we concede that their design is at least as functional as the current bridge, perhaps even somewhat better, but we are committed to keeping our current bridge because it is OURS: it’s been part of our community for generations, its aesthetics reflect our values, we just don’t like the looks of that new design, etc.

    I take it that these are all legitimate reasons to resist replacing a bridge. Are they also all legitimate reasons to resist displacement of an existing morality?

    One reason to worry they might not be is that, as you say, the stakes are higher. When we deny the newcomers their replacement bridge, we force them to go without something they claim would be valuable. But when we deny newcomers the ability to continue practicing their morality (by refusing to honor the norms that sustain it) then we threaten something they already hold dear, and we force them to pay the same costs of Practicality and Identity that we are refusing to pay. Is this legitimate?

    It may help to have a more concrete example of moral conflict. Consider recent discussions regarding the niqab in Europe. Some Muslim communities say that women’s face-covering upholds moral values of modesty and piety. Meanwhile, some non-Muslims say that wearing the niqab offends against local traditions of laicite (in France) or the democratic value of being recognizable in public (in Britain). Here there is an unavoidable practical conflict: either it is or is not deemed socially acceptable to wear the niqab in public space. On your view, do the European traditionalists have a legitimate reason to resist the encroachment of new moral norms permitting public niqab-wearing? If so, which type of reason is it?

  12. Thanks Regina.

    I think that reasons of efficacy, practicality, and identity, are all important and legitimate kinds reasons that we give in situations of encroachment.

    One empirical regularity in empirical work on norms for apt emotions I call DOMINANCE. The finding is that e.g., in Belgium, Turkish immigrants, assimilate to Belgian norms within three generations. This of course has mostly to do with the power of the dominate culture.

    One main recommendation of GEOGRAPHY is that in the cases where rich cultural traditions meet, the children ought to taught to engage in rational reflection on a. what the other tradition has to offer us and b. the costs to the others IF we demand them to change because of some kind of reflexive insistence on a “when in Rome do as the Romans do” principle. If the kids are taught this, the adults will eventually be disposed to be appreciators of diversity, and not reflexive judges of what is odd, not the way we do things, not allowed.

    In chapter 7. “When Values Collide: Pidgins, Creoles, and Smashdowns,” I discuss the case from Jonathan Lear of where the white men did not allow the identity constitute form of life of the Crow Indians to continue. This is what I call a “smashdown.” They are common enough and almost morally completely insensitive and existentially ruinous.

    In the case you ask about of the naqib, you rightly point of the different specific values in France and UK that are behind the resistance, in addition to simple xenophobia. This is indicative of the very specific, analysis that is required to understand and think through such conflicts responsibly.

    I mention this case in the part of the book you call “the fireworks” and say that there is not enough effort to try to “get” the relevant Muslim form(s) of life. It is a good contemporary example where in fact and as you suggest there are all three kinds of reasons on both sides. My overall view requires at a minimum that the dominant culture engage in thick, emphatic understanding of the why and wherefores for the naqib. There is lots of excellent work by anthropologists like Unni Wikan and Lila Abu-Lughod that undermines the glib judgment that wearing the naqib is like my students wearing baseball caps to class.

    In modern nation states, there will be political mechanisms to resolve such issues that may or might not show sensitivity to what cross-cultural ethics demands.