VIDEO: Meaning

This discussion of meaning led by Owen Flanagan at the Moving Naturalism Forward workshop, October 2012, has recently been uploaded to YouTube, so we wanted to share it here as well.

Participants include Sean Carroll, Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Terrence Deacon, Simon DeDeo, Daniel Dennett, Owen Flangan, Rebecca Goldstein, Janna Levin, David Poeppel, Massimo Pigliucci, Nicholas Pritzker, Alex Rosenberg, Don Ross, and Steven Weinberg.

Owen Flanagan is James B. Duke University Professor of Philosophy at Duke University. He works in philosophy of mind, ethics, and comparative philosophy. His book, The Geography of Morals: Varieties of Moral Possibility was published in 2016 from Oxford University Press. Flanagan is a scholar with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Truth and Goodness and Rationality: Interview with Anselm Mueller


We’re pleased to share this interview with Anselm Winfriend Mueller, our 2017-18 visiting scholar, who is a visiting professor this quarter at the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. He spoke with Johann Gudmundsson, a doctoral student at the Universität Leipzig currently on a research stay at the University of Chicago, where he’s working on his dissertation on moral judgment and practical goodness.      

Johann Gudmundsson: For many years, you’ve been pursuing the thought that to act well is to act from practical reason. How are truth and goodness related to rationality? Do you think that there is a deep affinity between goodness and truth?

Anselm Winfried Mueller:  Can we reasonably ask whether what you ultimately aim at in acting, rather than just whatever happens to attract you, is really good? – I think we can. At least, we take it for granted that in principle the question has an answer. For, in a year’s time, you may think you were wrong to aim at what you aimed at (much as you may come to think false what you believed to be true a year before). Such a thought makes sense only if there is a standard of goodness by which to evaluate purposes objectively (much as beliefs are evaluated objectively by the standard of truth). So ascriptions of goodness will themselves be true or false.

What is the place of rationality in this context? – To manifest knowledge, a statement has, as a rule, to be based on adequate reasons. Theoretical rationality is to this extent the way we reach truth. But a statement can be true without manifesting knowledge. By contrast, the goodness that we achieve in acting well depends unrestrictedly on what reasons we respond, and don’t respond, to. To act justly, for instance, is: to be motivated by others’ rights; to act courageously is: not to be turned away from important pursuits by the threat of danger etc.

JG: In the mid-20th century, questions relating to ethical language were in vogue, and reflection on moral discourse and meaning was held to be crucial. For example, a central question was whether ethical statements, qua speech act, should be understood as full-blown assertions or not. Those questions have faded from spotlight in recent years. How do you estimate the significance of language for ethical thought?

AWM: Quite generally, the way we talk about things supplies significant hints at their correct understanding. This is so with talk about actions and their moral qualities as much as it is with talk about causes, numbers, social institutions, or whatever.

Now, in order to improve our grasp of the relevant concepts, attention has to be directed at the interaction between the ways we talk and the ways we act. What philosophy needs to get clear about is the different roles that different uses of words play in the wider context of human social life. So philosophers have rightly become critical of arguments based simply on “what we (don’t) say”.

But, as far as I can see, present day analytical philosophy suffers more from the opposite error: its practitioners are often insensitive or indifferent to the problematic character of formulations required or admitted by their theories, when by taking notice of it they might have discovered, e.g., that the phenomena they were hoping to cover by a unifying account were in fact more disparate than this account allowed.

JG: It seems that there are two kinds of good that pertain to human beings. On the one hand, there’s individual well-being or happiness. On the other hand, there’s moral perfection. Would you be happy to draw this distinction? If yes, how do you think individual happiness and moral perfection are related?

AWM: I can’t say that I would be happy to draw that distinction. Shouldn’t one feel honored to belong to a species noble enough to find their happiness guaranteed by adherence to reason realized in a life of virtue, as the Stoics taught?

Unfortunately, this doctrine is a sort of philosophical self-deception. It is indeed true, I think, that a person cannot be happy without attempting to lead a virtuous life. And also, that human happiness cannot but consist in the satisfying use of reason. But we just have to acknowledge that serious suffering tends to prevent the virtuous person from being happy.

Moreover, although the practice of virtue is typically a source of happiness, there are other things as well, such as family life or the successful pursuit of a worthwhile project, that may well be constitutive of the (limited) happiness a man is able to attain. I agree that it won’t make you happy to pursue such a project by evil means. But this does not mean that ethical virtue is the feature of your pursuit that secures your happiness.

So honesty requires us to answer your first question by acknowledging the distinction between happiness and moral perfection. The second question may be one of those that it is the task of philosophy to raise and keep alive although it cannot answer them. As Kant observed, we just cannot discard the idea that there “must” be a way in which the pursuit of virtue issues in happiness. This, too, honesty requires us to recognize. I suspect it is even part of virtue itself to think, with Socrates: It cannot, ultimately, be to my disadvantage to pursue it.

JG: You probably would agree that the aim of philosophical activity is to get clear on certain fundamental notions. The aim of practical philosophy then would be to clarify notions such as intention, reason, goodness and rationality. Do you think that practical philosophy can also be of practical guidance by providing answers to substantial moral questions? Or can such answers only be reached beyond philosophy, for example in public discourse, individual conscience or religious traditions?

AWM: It would be pleasant for practical philosophers to think of themselves as benefiting humanity by giving the kind of guidance you mention. But I think their ambitions have to be more modest.

I am not a skeptic about the possibility of showing that human life is in need of moral norms. But, first, such demonstrations remain theoretical: they explain moral requirements, and they give you reason to believe that doing this and avoiding that serves human flourishing; but they do not thereby already give you reason to do this and avoid that. And, second, nobody – philosopher or not – will adopt a moral norm such as: not to cheat, or: to take responsibility for one’s children, or: to refrain from cruelty, because of a philosophical demonstration; for one’s conviction of the need to comply with such norms will almost certainly be more certain than one’s confidence in any philosophical argument for them.

Nevertheless, philosophers need not despair of their public utility. On the one hand, people who already listen to the voice of virtue are in a position, and will be ready, also to learn, for their practice, from theoretical reflexion on what you call substantial moral questions – on how to carry on in view of considerations that may have escaped them. On the other hand, and possibly even more importantly, good philosophy is needed to refute the brand of bad philosophy that claims to show that morality is an illusion, or that what it enjoins is “authenticity” in the pursuit of your likings, or the like – the kind of claim that is sensational or shocking enough to make it into the media and is hailed by those already tempted to deceive themselves, or compromise, where moral requirements challenge their questionable inclinations.

I am not myself enough of a columnist to take on the task of facing popular versions of misguided philosophical claims. The job that your question well describes as clarifying “notions such as intention, reason, goodness and rationality” is (I hope!) more congenial to my temperament and talent. So I cheerfully resign myself to peaceful exchange with those enviable colleagues who engage in both “philosophizing for philosophers” and “philosophizing for the world”.


Johann Gudmundsson got his Magister Artium degree in Philosophy and German studies from the Universität Leipzig after having studied there and at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik. He then worked as a research assistant at the Universität Leipzig and as a coordinator of a project funded by the National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina on institutional and quality problems of the German doctorate, and now a doctoral student at the Universität Leipzig currently on a research stay at the University of Chicago, where he’s working on his dissertation on moral judgment and practical goodness.      

A stairway to heaven: A terror management theory perspective on morality

Congratulations to our Summer Session 2017 participant Andrea Yetzer, PhD student in Psychology at Northwestern University. She’s written a chapter for “Atlas of moral psychology,” out now from Guilford Press.
This chapter views moral values, judgment, and behavior from the framework of terror management theory (Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 1991, 2015). Terror management theory posits that as cultural animals, we seek to achieve the behavioral standards set forth by our cultural worldviews, from which we derive both self-worth and meaning, as they ultimately protect us from the anxiety aroused by thoughts of our own eventual death. From a terror management perspective, individuals care about living up to moral values because doing so enables them to view themselves as enduring, significant contributors to a meaningful world who will continue to exist after death–either literally by qualifying for an afterlife, or symbolically by contributing to something greater than themselves that will last forever.
Yetzer, A. M., Pyszczynski, T., & Greenberg, J. (2018). A stairway to heaven: A terror management theory perspective on morality. In K. Gray & J. Graham (Eds.), Atlas of moral psychology (pp. 241-251). New York: Guilford Press.

New and forthcoming books by our scholars

9781107155329Michael Gorman, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Catholic University of America is the author of Aquinas on the Metaphysics of the Hypostatic Union, June 2017, Cambridge University Press.

Kristján Kristjánsson, Deputy Director in the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues and Professor of Character Education and Virtue Ethics at the University of Birmingham, is the author of Virtuous Emotions, forthcoming in May 2018, Oxford University Press.

Heather C. Lench, Associate Professor & Department Head, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Texas A&M University, is an editor on the volume Functions of Emotion, Springer, in January 2018.


51fVH4MrJuL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg514VAhuihzL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgOwen Flanagan, James B. Duke Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Neurobiology at Duke University is the author of The Geography of Morals: Varieties of Moral PossibilityOxford University Press, 2017 and co-editor of The Moral Psychology of Anger, forthcoming from Rowman and Littlefield.




Nancy Snow, Director of the Institute for the Study of Human Flourishing, edited The Oxford Handbook of Virtue, Oxford University Press; it includes a chapter on Aquinas by Candace Vogler.


 Paul T. P. Wong,Founding President of the Meaning-Centered Counselling Institute, Inc., has a chapter in The Routledge International Handbook of Critical Positive Psychology, edited by Nicholas J. L. Brown, Tim Lomas, Francisco Jose Eiroa-Orosa. London, UK: Routledge.

Assessing the difference between meaning and purpose


This is part 4 of a 5-part series, “Don’t Ask about ‘the Meaning of Life’ (An argument in five blog posts)”.

Part #4: Assessing the difference between meaning and purpose.

In the three previous posts, we saw that the question of the meaning of life is a late 19th Century invention, which effectively displaced what had previously been the dominant question about human life, namely its purpose or goal.  Now we may take stock of the significance of this shift.


To suppose that the question of “the meaning of life” is a timeless, universal question, would be to insist that it captures what is formulated in terms of the question about man’s ultimate end or good or purpose.  This would be very hard to sustain.  The question of the purpose of life, if taken seriously, is intrinsically teleological and essentialist.  It presumes that there is such a thing as true human fulfillment, rooted in human nature, which reflects a definite purpose or intention of its maker.  In Aristotelian terms, the question implicates three of the four causes: in asking about the end (final cause) of man, it presumes that there is an essential human nature (formal cause), which has been communicated to man from an agent (efficient cause).


Put another way, to ask after the purpose or end of human life is at once to create a field for practical moral questions – How should we live? For what end should I act? – and to frame that field in the context of fundamentally metaphysical questions – what is the true origin, nature, and destiny of human beings?  This is exactly what we see reflected in the the design of the whole of Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae – which places the moral reflection of the Secunda Pars (previously mentioned) in relation to God, as creator of human nature (explored in the Prima Pars), and Who alone can lead us to the fulfillment of our end (explored in the Tertia Pars).


By contrast, the question of the meaning of life almost seems formulated precisely to avoid both the moral field and metaphysical frame.  Meaning is subjective, placing an emphasis on the interior life, feelings, emotions, awareness, consciousness.  What makes me feel purposive doesn’t necessarily speak to the question of an intrinsic, essential purpose.  “Meaning” does indeed suggest directionality – something is meaningful or significant if it makes reference to something else.  But this is not the directionality of action toward an end, rather it is the directionality of symbol to what is symbolized.  To ask about the meaning of life is almost to ask an aesthetic question: what will my life evoke, what will it represent?


As a consequence, notice what questions further arise after we open up the question of “the meaning of life”: is it the same for everyone, or a matter of individual perspective?  Do we make meaning, or discover it?  Do we entertain the possibility that there is no meaning?  If my life feels meaningful to me, is it really meaningful?  These are existentialist questions – questions of real moral seriousness, to be sure, but raised from a position disconnected from a moral or metaphysical framework.  By contrast, notice what further questions arise from the question of the purpose or end of life: where does it come from?  How can I achieve it?  Is this or that action compatible with it?  These are questions of theology and ethics – questions of moral seriousness strongly rooted in a metaphysical framework.  The question of life’s meaning places an emphasis on subjective fulfillment; the question of life’s purpose can include that, but relates the notion of personal fulfillment to a question that draws one outside of oneself: what is my life for, how can I bring my life into its intended order.  It is the difference between asking what might happen to make me feel fulfilled given my circumstances, and asking what should fulfill me in light of the true structure of reality.


So consider the kind of answers one could give to the old, more permanent question about the goal or end of life: virtue, happiness, union with God, life everlasting.  “Why did God make you? God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.”  No wonder the authors of the Baltimore Catechism, like Thomas Aquinas, could use the question of human purpose to structure an instruction in Christian wisdom.  Do answers like this even make sense as answers to the question of the meaning of life?  One would have to say, in Kierkegaardian fashion, only if one chose to make the leap of faith, to believe those answers, to make them meaningful for you.


Alasdair MacIntyre has defended a teleological approach to ethics by connecting it to the possibility of making life intelligible as a narrative.  This might sound like it is a version of making life “meaningful,” although MacIntyre strongly denies an easy equation between an Aristotelian purpose and existential meaning.  Simply finding meaning cannot be the telos of life.  True, if one is not aware of a purpose in one’s life, one will feel that one’s life is meaningless, but that doesn’t mean that “living a meaningful life” makes sense as the goal of life.  MacIntyre is even willing to allow that Kierkegaard, for instance, did have a teleological view of life.  Kierkegaard departed from Aristotle in his understanding of the mode of perceiving one’s actions as oriented toward a telos.  MacIntyrean narrative is a kind of rationality, but Kierkegaard (as Tolstoy) was eager to place “meaning” outside of rationality.  For Kierkegaard, man’s fundamental motives are more a matter of non-rational psychological mechanisms – hence Kierkegaard’s “ethical” reasoning is closer to “aesthetic” feeling than to more familiar forms of rational intelligibility.


So it is not a surprise that, even when taken seriously as the ultimate question of human life, it is widely recognized that the question of the meaning of life is highly personal.  Unlike the question of the end of man, which is a general question about the essential good of human nature as such, the question of the meaning of life is individualistic and particular.  The strength, and the weakness, of the question is that it seems to put the weight of responsibility on the one asking it to supply an answer from his or her own private, inarticulate resources.


As a consequence, those who take the question of the meaning of life most seriously seem to turn the question around, and make it less a question of abstract moral theorizing than a question of personal commitment.  As earnestly characterized by Viktor Frankl, the question of the meaning of life seems to transform from a common question about human life, to a personal question about finding one’s unique vocation.  Describing the challenge of life in the concentration camp, he says:

We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.


These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way.


So even for Frankl, concerned as he is with helping to find meaning in the face of what could so easily seem meaningless, the question of the meaning of life admits of no general answer, and is not even the right question to ask.




Joshua P. Hochschild is the Monsignor Robert R. Kline Professor of Philosophy at Mt. Saint Mary’s University.

Moral Realism in a Climate of Moral Doubt



A basic Aristotelian insight taken up and developed by Thomas Aquinas is that animals tend to move toward what is good for animals of their kind, and to avoid things that are bad for their sort of animal.  Aquinas recognized that, among animals, things are uniquely hard for human beings—the intellectual animals.  We get in the way of ourselves, even when we are fully grown and of relatively sound mind and body.  We get in our own way even when we are, as one says, highly functional.  Aquinas understands that even the best of us will have good reason to regret some of what we do or fail to do, say or fail to say, think or fail to think.  This is part of the burden and glory that comes of being the kind of animal that is accountable for a lot of what it does voluntarily, and that needs to figure out what to pursue and why.  It is difficult to manage self-direction in circumstances where even the most basic things about our lives seem increasingly to be matters of choice and it takes us a few years to so much as reliably to distinguish what is edible from what is inedible.  And humans are not just in danger of inefficiency or disappointment in their efforts to move toward what draws them, and avoid what they find repugnant.  They are at moral risk.  As medieval English poets used to notice, when the wolf is drawn to a thing, that thing will tend to be a good sort of thing for a wolf to seek.  When a man is drawn toward something, it could be morally disastrous.

Under these circumstances, young people I have known routinely move around difficult moral questions using the language of etiquette.  They are worried about imposing on others.  They don’t know how even to begin a discussion about topics that involve vital aspects of people’s lives—often aspects that seem at once crucial, emotionally charged, and intimate.  Sometimes they genuinely do not know how to begin thinking their way into a question.

I should note at the outset that rational enquiry into different understandings of good and bad in human life does not constitute an imposition, even if what it reveals is profound disagreement on some points.  It does not constitute failing to respect others.  If anything, thoughtful disagreement shows serious regard for one’s opponents.  And, when it comes to coping with a moral dispute, relying on the traditional point about good and bad can help.

It could be that people who occupy different positions across a vast divide are disagreeing about human good at every level.  I suspect that this is very rare these days.  That we need food, clothing, clean water, clean air, security in our persons, some form of community, something that counts as family, some reliable economic institutions, some measures of freedom of worship, assembly, and expression—that these kinds of things are good for intellectual social animals is usually a shared understanding among contemporary humans.  It is hard to imagine serious, reasoned disagreement on such matters.  But significant background agreement on these points will not be enough to settle all questions.  It is not even enough to settle all questions in personal life, much less in matters of public policy, and human life, lived in the varying contexts of human institutions, is often muddled, homely, and disappointing.

For all that, I suspect that when we find ourselves at odds with others over some moral question we will find substantial agreement about human good in general across the many divides that look to make consensus impossible.  In my limited experience, it helps to begin by acknowledging that more than one sort of good is at stake in moral disagreement, and to take seriously the genuine good or goods at issue in a dispute.  Where those goods are concerned, all of us will tend to be moral realists.


What are we Being Realists About?

How much realism do we get from the kinds of points that people are taking for granted in thinking that things have been bad in Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria made landfall?  That having access to food, water, fuel, electricity, and stable shelter would improve life for the people there?  We are tacitly committed to there being such a thing as human nature, to a recognition that humans are vulnerable creatures, to an indeterminate number of claims about the badness of the situation for human beings on an island in the wake of a catastrophic hurricane.

We know these things.

This is not a matter of ungrounded opinion.  Our inferences about the situation in Puerto Rico are not beholden to some sort of standard of rational justification that is relative to the cultural markings that we carry in virtue of belonging to this or that community.  Most people in Puerto Rico are struggling to deal with flooding and the like, but we are on solid ground as far as our sense that things have gone badly for them is concerned.

As I say, this kind of baseline is rarely enough to make much headway with difficult moral questions, but it is the sort of thing that does provide common ground across many deep divides.  Objective common ground.  Moral truth.


What of the Difficult Questions?  What About Relativism?

But, given that most of the moral matters that tear at us involve questions much more difficult than a question about whether victims of natural or manmade disasters have gone through something bad, how much comfort can we take in having unspoken, shared commitments of the sort that surface whenever anything terrible happens?  What of moral relativism, that specter that threatens to materialize in ordinary undergraduate classrooms at the drop of a hat in introductory ethics courses?

The most extreme form of moral relativism is moral subjectivism—the topic of the cartoons on this page.  This view—that claims to moral truth are merely subjective—lapses into incoherence as quickly as the cartoons suggest.  There are two other forms of moral relativism that have more bite.

Descriptive moral relativism centers on the claim that different cultural groups adhere to different moral codes, frequently embodied in different practices, different standards of justification, different kinship systems, different modes of work and leisure, and different customs, and normally systematically linked to members’ consciences.  This form of relativism has the advantage of being very likely true.  There are significant divergences in moral codes across diverse human communities.  If the first thing to notice about descriptive moral relativism is that it may well be true, the second thing to note is that its truth will not have any effect on moral disagreement.  For example, it says nothing about the relative soundness of the moral codes that diverge. It could be that some of those codes are better than others.  It may be that some are true and others are false.  To notice differences is not to say what we should make of those differences.

Normative moral relativism claims that not only will we find the kinds of divergence that the descriptive relativists highlight, but we ought to see divergence in moral codes in different societies.  Does normative moral relativism have any bearing on the possibility of coping with serious moral disagreement?  It will depend upon how the normative relativist fleshes out the suggestion that moral codes ought to diverge.  For example, one persistent site of significant moral divergence enters in through historical distance.  Even those of us who have come to love the Iliad or the Odyssey—to name two canonical European great books—will likely notice that the moral codes that seem to inform the Homeric epics diverge significantly from the codes we came to inhabit in our childhoods.  If the normative relativist explains this by talking about the dramatically different situations we find ourselves in now, and the social, material, and political worlds that form a kind of backdrop and context for ancient Greek warrior poetry, then the divergence may, to the extent that we can comprehend the differences, begin to feel like the sort of thing that is to be expected of human beings facing these different worldly circumstances.  The pressures on that (likely partly imaginary) civilization, the resources available, the modes of human connection and antagonism that were taken for granted in the poetry were so far removed from ours that the differences make sense.  This sort of observation is one form that normative moral relativism can take.  Again, it says nothing about our prospects for handling deep contemporary moral disagreement, except to suggest that we might do well to develop an imagination for the pressures that those who disagree with us face, and the resources that they have at their disposal for finding ways of pursuing collective goods, and avoiding bad, in their communities before declaring them utterly benighted.


The View from one Philosopher’s Seat

Alasdair MacIntyre—a contemporary Anglophone philosopher broadly concerned with ethics—has circled around the topics of relativism and cultural difference for many years.  He has written thoughtfully and well about communities, about the cultural contexts communities provide for moral development, about character, and about the peculiarly shrill tone of contemporary moral disagreement.  In an essay called “Moral Relativism, Truth and Justification”—there are long quotations from it on your handout—he takes up the topic of seemingly intractable moral dispute, linking disagreement to cultural difference.  He begins with an example taken from a 17th century Japanese Neo-Confucian called Kaibara Ekken.  Ekken argues that a man has sufficient grounds to divorce his wife if she is disobedient to her in-laws, if she gossips or slanders others, if she is barren or jealous, if she has a serious illness, and so on.  Ekken defends the view by pointing to role a wife was meant to play in society, to the structure of family life, to the place of that structure in the larger moral and political order, and to the cosmic order in which these institutional arrangements had their proper places.

MacIntyre turns next to the natural law tradition in European thought, grounded in Stoicism and Roman law and given significant development in medieval philosophy—most notably in the work of Aquinas.  MacIntyre points out that Aquinas does not see a wife’s fondness for gossip or friction with her in-laws as grounds for divorce, nor would Aquinas find a sound argument for divorce if she became ill or was barren.

Neither view, MacIntyre points out, seems to have the kinds of resources that would be needed to make its case in terms that the other view would accept.  Each position can be defended in its own terms.  But it looks like the gulf between the two views cannot be bridged by an argument that relies upon the modes of justification internal to either protagonist’s cultural milieu.  The prospects for Aquinas and Ekken settling their imagined dispute look dim, MacIntyre thinks.

Nevertheless, both sorts of view present themselves as true.  Neither of these two thinkers is a relativist.  How, then, are we to square the universalist claim at the root of each position with the difficulty in even imagining how Ekken and Aquinas might have a meeting of minds on the question of divorce?

MacIntyre goes at the question through a serious discussion of the nature of substantive views of truth—the only sorts of views of truth that he takes to be compatible with the tenor and tone of serious moral divergence.  It is a good discussion, and forms the basis of an almost uncharacteristically optimistic account of how we might handle ourselves in the face of seemingly intractable moral disputes.  At least, that is one way to read the essay.  One could also read it as a reduction.

Having insisted—and he is surely right about this—that the protagonists to a serious moral dispute must be seen as claiming truth for their positions, MacIntyre outlines three things that follow from the understanding that they are claiming to be teaching us moral truths:

First, they are committed to holding that the account of morality which they give does not itself, at least in its central contentions, suffer from the limitations, partialities, and one-sidedness of a merely local point of view, while any rival and incompatible account must suffer to some significant extent from such limitations, partiality, and one-sidedness.  Only if this is the case are they entitled to assert that their account is one of how things are, rather than merely how they appear to be from some particular standpoint or in one particular perspective….

Secondly, such protagonists are thereby also committed to holding that, if the scheme and mode of justification of some rival moral standpoint supports a conclusion incompatible with any central thesis of their account, then that scheme must be defective in some important way and capable of being replaced by some rationally superior scheme and mode of justification, which would not support any such conclusion.

Thirdly and correspondingly, they are committed to holding that if the scheme and mode of justification to which they at present appeal to support the conclusions which constitute their own account of the moral life were to turn out to be, as a result of further enquiry, incapable of providing the resources for exhibiting its argumentative superiority to such a rival, then it must be capable of being replaced by some scheme and mode of justification which does possess the resources both for providing adequate rational support for their account and for exhibiting its rational superiority to any scheme and mode of justification which supports conclusions incompatible with central theses of that account.

To make good on our convictions, he argues, we need to be committed to serious rational inquiry.  It will require both philosophical skill and a strong imagination to transcend those aspects of our own views that are one-sided, provincial, and otherwise stained with the local color that characterizes our position.  It is not impossible to do this, he suggests.  It is just very difficult, and it can only be done with the understanding that we may need to alter our own views in light of what rational enquiry reveals to us about our position.


Two Cautionary Notes from the Sideline

I am a great admirer of MacIntyre’s work, but want to suggest that this discussion of relativism and its possible remedy suffers from two sorts of exaggeration.  First, even though MacIntyre stresses the importance of open-mindedness and imagination in his account of how rational enquiry might help us to remedy our situation, I think that he overestimates the power of rational enquiry.  It may be an occupational hazard for philosophers.  I sometimes think that some of the best of us got into this business because we were hunting for the good argument that could stop manmade bad things from happening—the line of thinking that could settle disputes in our families, or put political strife to rest, or bring about peace and harmony in social life if only people would listen.  I don’t know MacIntyre well enough to have any view about his motivations on this score, but a lot of us who lived by our wits in youth hoped to make the world better by our wits as adults.  It could be that we need more than solitary acts of brilliant thought and imagination to sort out a real ethical tangle.  We might need more than collective acts of brilliance, even.  Some of the ground underlying central moral convictions may exceed the limits of even the splendid, repeated, enduring collaborative exercise of our intellectual powers and strengths.  Aquinas seems to have thought so.  The very first article of the very first question of first part of the Summa Theologiae, for example, urges that we need revealed knowledge to help us answer central questions about how we ought to live, that philosophy alone—by which he likely meant Aristotelian metaphysics—was not enough.  He was, himself, an enormously good philosopher with extraordinary powers of methodical rational enquiry and a vast and fertile imagination.  If he couldn’t do it, it is hard to see why we would expect to succeed.  I tend to think that accepting his counsel on this point is a good idea.

The standards MacIntyre provides for guiding our enquiry are clear analytic philosophical standards.  They are good standards.  But they may demand more of us than moral thought and practice can provide.  Why would one think that the kinds of intellectual standards that are the air we breathe in analytic philosophy are the ones that will help us when faced with deep moral disagreement?

This question brings me to the second place where I think that MacIntyre is inclined to exaggerate.  He has taught us all a lot about the kinds of unity we can find embodied in the people and practices that mark out distinctive moral communities.  And it is likely that some of his acuity in these matters owes a lot to his youthful adherence to some form of Marxism—again, I do not know him well enough to know which Marxism (or Marxisms) shaped his youthful social and political activism.  I don’t know if he read work by Antonio Gramsci or Louis Althusser, by Lenin or Rosa Luxemburg or Mao.  All of these activist thinkers found themselves coping with the fact that, contrary to what they might have expected, European wage laborers did not rise up to throw off their chains.  Worse, in the parts of the world where there were uprisings in the name of Marx, the people who rose up were not wage laborers, suggesting that the whole mode of thinking about class and class conflict that was not quite theorized by Marx—but was strongly suggested by his work—was somehow not quite right.  All of these thinkers, in different ways and with different emphases, urged that neither culture nor class interest was as singular or coherent as Marx seemed to have thought that it could be.  The social fabric, they claimed, was not a tightly woven bolt of cloth with a single seam that could be ripped out if only the masses could collectively recognize their interests.  Instead, the social fabric was a loosely woven, shifting, unevenly fraying thing that did not provide a single, coherent social script for anyone.

I have found some of this work very useful.  When MacIntyre writes about the wonderful community spirit in a remote small fishing village, or the way that ancient Greek thought about virtue had its natural home in the life of the polis, or even of the systematic coherence and wholeness of Ekken’s Neo-Confucian thought about marriage and divorce, to my jaded eye, at least, he has a tendency to see the weave of the relevant social fabric as tighter than social fabric tends to be.  Now if cultures provided something more like scripts and less like patchy, fraying collective contexts in which people seek ways of pursuing common good and addressing human needs and inclinations, then the analytic philosophical demands on standards of reason and argument would look more appropriate.  In dealing with disagreement, we would be trying to cope with a clash between divergent systems that came wrapped up in whole modes of rational justification that may or may not be of a kind that we can match.  Our task might look like the moral equivalent of trying to express Newton’s laws in the terms characteristic of Einstein’s theory of general relativity.  It is very hard to do, but with sufficient mathematical skill and imagination, it can be done without too great a loss of content.  If, however, like much of human life, moral thought and moral disagreement is a messy business carried out at the edges of ways of thinking that are in some ways underdeveloped and in many respects provisional, then it will look as though MacIntyre is not fully heeding Aristotle’s advice.  He is looking for something more determinate than what we have a right to expect in ethics.

The ways in which the views in the background of moral disagreement will tend to be less than fully developed and other than entirely logically systematic, however, provides us with real possibilities for moral engagement from that mundane kind of ground we have in our recognition that our opponents are fellow human beings who are working to pursue good and avoid bad.  We are, all of us, doing that.  All of us will fail sometimes.  All of us can use disagreement as a way of developing a better sense for both diverse human efforts to move toward good and the ways in which we can learn from each other’s successes and mistakes.  MacIntyre is dead right, I think, to urge that we approach moral disagreement with humility, honesty, and a willingness to engage in self-criticism at least as strong as our willingness to find fault with others.

Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and Principal Investigator for Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life. Vogler gave this talk at Vanderbilt University October 5, hosted by the Thomistic Institute chapter in Nashville. 

Candace Vogler to speak on moral relativism at Vanderbilt University October 5


Our principal investigator Candace Vogler will be at Vanderbilt University October 5 to speak on moral relativism, hosted by the Thomistic Institute chapter in Nashville. Here is the abstract for her talk.

Moral Realism in a Climate of Moral Doubt

The thought that good is to be pursued, and bad is to be avoided is a basic condition on the intelligibility of animal movement generally.  We are intellectual animals—the kinds of animals that need to figure out what to pursue and how to go about pursuing it.  And this means that pursuit and avoidance are harder for us than they are for other kinds of animals.  For all that, making sense of what we go for and what we fear or flee operates in the context of some understanding of what is good for human beings.  These days, in the face of stark and shrill disagreement among thoughtful people about some of the most basic aspects of our lives, it can seem as though people have lost any clear, common understanding of human good.  Moral disagreement can seem completely intractable.  In this talk, I will look at some serious, likely intractable examples of profound moral disagreement, with an eye toward learning how to think about and engage these topics in the secure understanding that disagreement is partly a function of the challenges that intellectual animals face in trying to see what is good for them, urging a kind of modesty that does not require setting aside one’s own convictions.