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“Everyday” and “Alienated” Approaches to Moral Theory

This post is partly a “bleg” and partly an invitation for people to give their two cents on what strikes me as a very deep and important divide among moral theorists.

Consider so-called “common-sense morality”. It consists of claims like, “It’s wrong to take someone else’s property”; “You shouldn’t handle others’ bodies without their consent”; “The job should go to the person who deserves it”; “Academic censorship is wrong because it goes against the very purposes of the university”; “It’s worse to do harm than to merely allow it to occur”; “You shouldn’t make a promise that you don’t intend to keep”; etc. It gets called “common-sense” mainly because it’s thought to capture the moral leanings of the person on the street. But it’s also fair to call it “common-sense” just because of the way it conceptually carves the world for evaluation in terms of “should”, “worse”, and so on — namely, in terms of “property”, “consent”, “job”, “point”, “do/allow”, “promise”, “intend”. These are common-sense conceptualizations because they are the conceptualizations that common-sense morality employs.

These common-sense conceptualizations may stand in certain tight relations to some less-common conceptualizations that would typically be regarded as having a different sort of evaluative salience, or indeed none at all. For example, Jonathan Bennett has famously argued that the distinction between making something happen and allowing it to happen can be roughly analyzed as follows: I make something happen when: (a) very few of the ways in which I can move my body are such that, if I move my body in one of them, that thing happens when and how it does, and: (b) I move my body in one of those very few ways. I allow something to happen when: (a) most of the ways in which I can move my body are such that, if I move my body in one of them, that thing happens when and how it does, and: (b) I move my body in one of those ways.

Note that it’s the conceptualization or the description that’s alien to common-sense morality, not the lexical concepts taken individually — e.g. “body”, “happen”, and “way”. And contrast Bennett’s analysis of doing/allowing with some of the competitors he discusses in his book The Act Itself — notably, Frances Kamm’s and Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “threat”-based accounts. These views understand doing/allowing in other terms, to be sure — but not in terms of conceptualizations or descriptions that are alien to the canons of common-sense morality.

Now, Bennett has in mind that the kind of tight link here is conceptual — it consists in a relation at the level of sense, or cognitive significance, between the concepts “making” and “allowing” and the concepts “way of moving my body”, “most”, and so on. One might tell a similar story couched in terms of the metaphysics of the things picked out by these concepts: the event of my making something happen is identical to the event of moving my body in one of the few ways, yada yada. Or both descriptions might be ways of “filling out” the same non-conceptual representation of the world. Lots of options. Similarly, there’s clearly an interesting relationship between the concept of property, say, and the concepts of the rights that constitute the well-known “bundle”, and plausibly one between the concept of consent or that of the will, and certain phenomenal or causal concepts. And so on.

What I’ll call the “everyday” approach to moral theory would have us train our evaluation on the world as common-sense morality conceptualizes it — i.e. in terms of “consent”, “promise”, “property”, “do/allow”, and so on. The everyday theorist may take an interest in how these concepts or the things they pick out may be analyzed or reduced or what-have-you, but that is not because he thinks we should revise judgments involving everyday conceptualizations on the basis of judgments involving their non-everyday analysans. (He would reject Bennett’s argument against the moral significance of making/allowing, for instance.) Rather, it is typically because he thinks that by doing so, we can settle controversies about when these everyday concepts are properly applied — Is this really consent?; Does that really count as a promise?; Is the moral improvement of students among the university’s purposes?; Is “intellectual property” really property?

What I’ll call the “alienated” approach, by contrast, would have us focus our evaluation on the world as conceptualized in these less-common ways, with which the everyday ways are tightly linked. And on the basis of these evaluations, the alienated theorist is willing to overturn judgments couched in terms of the descriptions employed by the everyday theorist. The alienated theorist cares about these analyses and reductions not because she thinks promises matter fundamentally and so we’d better find out whether a promise has been made; she cares about them because she’s poised to overturn her judgment that promises matter on the basis of judgments couched in terms of, let’s say, the non-obvious, non-common-sensical analysans of “promise”.

It is not hard to see how the alienated approach provides more fertile ground for revisionary moral theories than does the everyday approach. After all, to work within the former is to step away from the ways of describing the world that partly constitute what philosophers call “common-sense morality”. And more specifically, it seems clear to me that the alienated approach is more amenable to consequentialism than is the everyday approach. If I were interested in offering a deep defence of consequentialism (which I am), I would try to show that the alienated approach is superior to the everyday approach (which I’m thinking about how to do).

As you may know, Bennett himself adopts something like the alienated approach. But in The Act Itself, he calls his method “analytic” instead. I choose a different label because I think the advantages of theorizing primarily in terms of these non-common-sensical carvings of the world do not accrue only if they serve as conceptual analyses of the everyday ones, and do not accrue mainly in virtue of so serving. By contrast, while Bennett offers lots of suggestive little briefs for his approach, the main advantages he claims for it *do* seem to depend on the fact that he’s offering a conceptual analysis. For example, he frequently claims that we should pursue moral theory in terms of his account of making/allowing on the grounds that this account, unlike the competitors he discusses, helps us to “understand” or fully “grasp” the notions of making and allowing.

While many have criticized Bennett’s argument against the moral significance of doing/allowing, few have argued expressly against his “analytic” methodology. Warren Quinn offered some *very brief* criticism of Bennett’s earlier employment of the “analytic” approach, to which Bennett *very briefly* responds in The Act Itself. But, for example, Jeff McMahan’s influential review of The Act Itself does not address the methodological question. And in her excellent recent book Doing and Allowing Harm, Fiona Woollard employs and argues for something like Bennett’s methodology, even as she comes to the opposite conclusion about the significance of doing/allowing. And to my knowledge — which is embarrassingly limited — there has been very little criticism of either the “analytic” or “alienated” approaches applied elsewhere.

But it’s not hard to imagine the sorts of philosopher who might take up the banner of “everydayism”. An ordinary-language philosopher might grant moral commonplaces like those above a kind of default or criterial status. Some might favour concepts like “consent” and “promise” because they have one foot on each side of the “is-ought” gap. And of course anyone, including partisans of “alienation” like me, should be worried about putting weight on evaluations targeted at under-informative descriptions of the world. It’s easy to “take the bloom off the rose” by decribing it as “just, like, some red flower”, but no reasonable person would think this tells against the beauty of a rose. What counts as “under-informative” is going to be a major bone of contention, I suspect.

I am curious, then: Does my distinction between the “everyday” and “alienated” approaches give voice to something familiar? How should it be altered or filled out to make it clearer? Do you find yourself more attracted to one approach than the other? On what grounds? (I realize I’m asking you for arguments without giving any of my own — but I can say something in the comments if you’re curious.) And finally, the “bleg” — do you have any other examples of: (a) other theorists who seem to have adopted the alienated approach; or (b) philosophers who discuss the merits of either of these approaches?

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15 Responses to “Everyday” and “Alienated” Approaches to Moral Theory

  1. Alex Gregory says:

    Interesting topic! One small thought: It would be interesting to hear how this relates to debates about reflective equilibrium and how to balance our considered judgements about particular cases against theoretical virtues and/or certain abstract principles. The issues look fairly similar.

  2. Jack Woods says:

    I had a similar thought to Alex; I remember in grad school talking to Michael Smith about the virtues of a Quinoid web-of-belief-y picture where we take as our heavily weighted fixed points things like ”don’t stab folks” instead of highly abstract theoretical notions or particular judgments like ”Don’t stab that guy in the corner.” This kind of picture makes it look like your question is really about the relative weighting or ”depth” of commonsense morality v abstract principles.

    Anyways, that’s my 2c.

  3. Alex and Jack — Thanks very much for your comments. I don’t think the distincton between the alienated and everyday approaches is quite the same as the distinction between the approaches that privilege general judgments and those that privilege judgments about particular cases. I’ll say why in a moment, but first, a clarification prompted by your mention of particular cases. Obviously, the conceptualizations or descriptions employed in many particular-case judgments aren’t those of common sense morality. Consider “Kanye ought to be named ‘Donkey of the Day'”. This isn’t part of common-sense morality — although its truth could arguably be grounded in the canons thereof — but that’s only because it’s too specific. The contast I had in mind, then, was between theorists who privileged general principles that carved the world up in the ways that common-sense morality does (over those general principles that don’t), and theorists who privileged general principles that don’t (over those that do).

    By his own characteriation, Bennett’s aim was “to take warm, familiar aspects of the human condition and look at them coldly and with the eye of a stranger”; and so, e.g., he criticized Alan Donagan’s approach of granting “making/allowing distinction a moral significance that [Donagan] did not regard as defeasible by analysis.” But it’s not as if he was thereby granting any more weight to general principles AS SUCH than were Donagan, Kamm, Foot, Quinn, etc. Maybe that helps.

    Or, here’s another example: The alienated theorist might try draw a connection — maybe an analysis, maybe something else — between the concept of the will and a certain phenomenological/ causal description (D1) , and then between the concept of a wish and a certain phenomenological/causal description (D2). Then she might argue that we ought to afford no more moral significance to a person’s will than to a person’s wishes, and base this on her judgment with the content “D1 is no more morally significant than D2”. But this doesn’t involve privileging general moral principles any more than someone does who regards the moral significance of the will as not “defeasible by analysis”.

  4. Interesting stuff!

    I think this division is really interesting and I agree that it is operative within ethics. I suppose I tend to think most global theories of normative ethics are prepared to tolerate some degree of revision, but there nevertheless remains a big difference in degree of toleration or orientation about this. This also seems true within those parts of ethics that are less about Big Theory and more about theorizing about some specific applied problem (abortion, global justice, etc.).

    On whether there is work on this, I don’t know of a lot of things directly on this in normative ethics, but there is a pretty substantial body of work on these questions in a cognate field, namely moral responsibility (where some of these questions grew out of debates in free will and fights over what ordinary notions of freedom came to). These issues have been pursued within the context of disagreements over revisionist theorizing, and what sorts of methodological posits govern debates about moral responsibility and free will.

  5. Or here’s another example of how things look from the “alienated” point of view: I’m dead-set against assigning any significance to points, purposes, functions, teloi — any of that business. And one of the main reasons I’m not is that I have thoughts *roughly* along the lines of: “Okay, so for something to be the point, purpose, function, of something is for it to be the case that P; But it’s of no moral significance whether P. So points, purposes, etc. don’t matter.” But it’s not hard to imagine the “everyday” theorist responding: “Yes, well when you think of things simply in terms of P, you’re not using a description under which the significance is manifest. But that shows that for purposes of moral theory, the description in terms of P is improverished, not that teleological features don’t matter.”

  6. Manuel — Re: the applied questions: Yes, I think that’s right. For example, I think that the kind of distinction that I’m gesturing at is at least one of the things that distinguishes so-called “traditionalists” about just war theory from “revisionists” about it. An alienated approach is more likely to militate in favour of the “revisionist” approach. Relatedly, I think that the alienated approach may be hostile to the very idea of poliical philosophy as an autonomous area of inquiry.

    Re: the same issues in moral responsibility/free will — This is extremely helpful; thanks very much!

  7. Jack Woods says:

    Andrew, sure. The real point I was making is that there’s a way of cashing this out this difference in terms of how heavily you weight the stability/revisability of various judgments (form non-withstanding). Of course, most of commonsense morality is of the middle-form type; that’s what we learn at our parents knees. But there’s something natural to be said about cashing out this difference in terms of being reluctant to revise ”web central” judgments and, moreover, claiming that these are the findings of common sense morality.

    But maybe I’m still missing the point?

  8. Andrew Sepielli says:

    Jack — Yes, you can certainly cash out privileging in terms of Quine’s metaphor (or at least, I have no objection to doing that). And what the everyday theorist is putting at the centre has something to do with common-sense morality, that’s right. But qua everyday theorist, what he’s putting at the centre are not the judgments of common-sense morality, but simply judgments that conceptually carve the world in the way common-sense morality does. Correspondingly, it’s judgments that carve in other ways — not particular-case judgments; not simply judgments that are at odds with common-sense morality — that get assigned to the periphery.

  9. David Kaspar says:

    This is quite an interesting post, Andrew, giving us much to think about. To cover the matter from quite a different perspective, I think there is at least one deeper, yet related, division in approaches. My thinking here, especially about what you’re attempting, is admittedly hypothetical. And I state in advance I might be unaware of a portion of your program that you’re not discussing in this post.

    On the one hand, there are theorists who place a very high importance on striving to find the fundamental moral proposition(s)with the highest epistemic credibility, and those who think either that it’s a lower priority matter, or not really a matter for moral theorists to consider at all. In the former group are most of the modern moral theorists from Price to Kant to Mill to Sidgwick to Moore to Ross. In the latter group are the majority of recent and contemporary theorists. Contemporary supreme principle theorists, unlike their predecessors, seem hesitant to claim that they know, say, the generic principle of utility. Instead, they will focus on the explanatory promise of the principle, of which there is a great deal.

    What is the connection to the common sense-alientated approaches? The more that theorists and laypeople move away from the propositions that have the greatest intuitive persistence, the more what is theorized, or discussed, will appear alien to what they really morally think.

    However, if one could show that the generic principle of utility is, indeed, the moral proposition with the highest epistemic credibility, then the kind of explanations you’d like to provide would no longer be clearly alien. So in my opinion we should hesitate to affirm the category of the ‘inherently alien’ among promising moral theories.

  10. David — Thanks very much for this comment. Can I just ask for clarification on a couple of things: 1) How are your notions of “epistemic credibility” and “intuitive persistence” related, if indeed they are?; 2) Re: your contrast between the old school theorists and the contemporary ones: Are you claiming that (a) the old school ones are more *generalist* than the newer ones, such that they find it more plausible that all of the moral truths are subsumable under very few fundamental moral laws or what-have-you?; (b) the old school ones were more, shall we say, *Cartesian*, in the sense that they place a higher priority on achieving certainty or maximal “epistemic credibility”; or (c) the old school ones were more *veritistic* in that were interested more in truth, whereas the newer ones are more interested in non-veritistic goods like explanatory power for its own sake? Or more than one of (a), (b), and (c)?

    Re: contemporary theorists’ reluctance to claim that they *know*, e.g., that utilitarianism is true — It’s all referee #2’s fault!

    And re: your suggestion about the connection between your distinction and mine — Perhaps, but here’s what gives me pause: I don’t think that showing that utilitarianism is true or has the highest epistemic credibility would have any effect on which moral claims are “alien” in my sense. Two reasons for this: First, the notion of having high epistemic credibility and that carving up the world for evaluation in the way that common-sense morality does are very different notions. That a moral claim possess the former is irrelevant to whether it does the latter. Second — and I don’t know if you thought otherwise here or not — utilitarianism counts as carving the world up in an everyday way, non-alienated way by my lights. Of course the theory is not part of common-sense morality, but conceptualizing the world for evaluation in terms of how much happiness various actions produce is a way of conceptualizing it that is characteristic of common-sense morality. Contrast that, again, with the way Bennett’s analyses describe the world.

    I’ve got to run, but maybe later I’l say a bit more about why I’m attracted to the alienated mode of theorizing — and if people can stand the gushing, more about Bennett.

  11. Jack Woods says:

    Sorry Andrew, I don’t follow. What do you mean by the contrast in: But qua everyday theorist, what he’s putting at the centre are not the judgments of common-sense morality, but simply judgments that conceptually carve the world in the way common-sense morality does.

    (also, for the Quinean metaphor, observational judgments/particular case judgments are always peripheral since they’re the easiest to revise. But I take the point!)

  12. Jack — Some examples may help: “Ceteris paribus, doing harm is no worse than allowing it” or “You can handle others’ bodies if you have either their consent or their parents’ consent” or “Forbidding vandalism goes against the very purpose of the university” or “You should keep promises only if it makes you happy to do so” or “Ceteris paribus, redirecting an existing threat is worse than initiating a new one” are not parts of common-sense morality (at least where I come from). And yet someone who thinks these things is thereby conceptualizing the world in the way that common-sense morality conceptualizes it — i.e. in terms of whether an act is a doing or an allowing; in terms of whether one has another’s conent, in terms of the point of this or that institution, etc. This is a way of thinking about the targets of evaluation from which Bennett wants to get critical distance, from which he wants to alienate himself by thinking about things in terms of the “behaviour” space and all of that. Not all those who are willing to toss out much of common-sense morality are doing what Bennett’s doing; consider, e.g., someone who wants to toss out one of the tenets of common-sense morality by showing that it has some counterexample.

  13. Quotes should be around “behaviour space”, of course. Bennett did many things, but he didn’t coin the word “behaviour”.

  14. David Kaspar says:

    Andrew. Thank you for your thoughtful and thorough response. I’m interested in the moral theory that can explain the most moral phenomena the best. And that includes all new phenomena that moral theorists discover, or reveal in the course of new projects. So I would favor a theory that explains why one approach would seem ‘alienatied’ and another approach would seem ‘non-alienated’.

    The foundations of such a theory should be the fundamental moral propositions with the highest credibility. Extensive severe reflection on candidate propositions, and introspection of our mental responses to candidates, results in propositions with intuitive persistence. These have the highest epistemic credibility, to our knowledge. Openness to what those results might be for an ethicist does not exclude what the ‘person on the street’ believes. We just have two largely overlapping data sets. That is part of why, as an intuitionist, I think the matter of ‘common sense morality’ should be handled with much more care than it has been. Intuitive principles, such as lying is wrong, murder is wrong, rape is wrong, can be a destination for the skeptical ethicist every bit as much as they can be a starting point.

    In my view, what we really morally think, or know, is going to correspond to how the moral world is carved. So I don’t think the two are irrelevant, although they are clearly conceptually distinct. That’s not a special feature of moral inquiry. What we know in biology informs us of how the biological landscape is carved. So if the principle of utility is knowledge, and can be shown to be such, the world is carved differently than we think, even if it takes us generations to see things that way. Does that cover your responses?

    You raised some interesting possibilities about old school ethicists. The short answer is that I think *we should* be aiming for maximal knowledge, truth, explanatory power, and even action-guiding capability. Without endorsing the details of the theories of old school ethicists, I think at least similar aims should not be excluded from consideration.

    Bennett has given some important challenges to deontologically-minded moral theories that have yet to be met. They should be.

  15. Jack Woods says:

    Andrew: Thanks, that’s really helpful in seeing what you’re up to here.

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