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?1