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Aristoteles, Kant and John Stuart Mill developed different moral theories. Concrete moral questions can be analysed in accordance with different theories. It is then up to each one of us to decide how to act.
Aristoteles, Kant and John Stuart Mill developed different moral theories. Concrete moral questions can be analysed in accordance with different theories. It is then up to each one of us to decide how to act.

What is the use of moral philosophy?

New advanced doctoral thesis questions whether traditional moral theories are of any use to us at all.

Published

Do I have a responsibility in combating climate change? Ought I donate money to emergency aid charities? When is it morally wrong to offend others? How do I weigh my responsibility towards others against a concern for myself? Do animals have the right to be regarded with moral care?

All these questions are moral questions, that is, the kind of questions with which one is concerned in moral philosophy.

But how can moral philosophy contribute when we attempt to answer these and similar questions? Is it able to provide us with answers? Or does moral philosophy provide an entirely different kind of help?

In very general terms, one might ask: what is the role of moral philosophy and its relation to our ‘everyday morality’ and to the life that we are all living?

One may think that philosophers would have a common understanding of how to answer these questions. But that is not the case, and this is the background of the advanced doctoral thesis in philosophy that I successfully defended in April 2019 at the University of Southern Denmark.

Traditional moral philosophy is being challenged

Moral philosophy is at a crossroads – a kind of identity crisis, one might say.

In the 20th century, there was a generalised consensus among philosophers concerning the role of moral philosophy. It was to develop a moral theory that was able to offer a simple and unified justification of morality and, at the same time, provide answers to pressing moral questions.

According to this understanding, which we may name the traditional understanding, it was the role of philosophy to develop theories that provided guidelines for moral action.

The traditional understanding of moral theory has nonetheless come under pressure in recent decades. A long list of philosophers have criticised the different moral theories for not relating to our moral lives, for not taking into account the particular and the concrete and for not being able to provide authoritative guidance to action (see, e.g., Murdoch 1956, Williams 1985, Diamond 1991, Annas 2011).

This critique challenges the idea that moral philosophy can provide relevant answers to moral questions. And it raises doubts as to how we are to understand the role and status of moral philosophy and its theories.

‘The moral life’ is many things

That was the question I ventured out to examine in my thesis. But the question is not that easy to answer, because the answer depends immensely on what it is that moral philosophy is investigating – what its particular area is.

In my work, I have chosen to call this area our ‘moral life’; a phrase which is helpful because it underlines how morality is an integral part of every human life.

A fundamental feature of morality, understood in this fashion, is that it is composed of many different dimensions. When we pose moral questions, we are - among other things - interested in the following:

  • what results in good consequences (‘how can we minimise climate changes?’, for example), but we are also interested in
  • a series of fundamental values (‘how do we prevent climate changes while taking into account fundamental human freedom and dignity?’), and
  • what a good human being is (‘which virtues assist us in acting in relation to climate changes?’), and so on.

According to the traditional understanding of moral philosophy, one must attempt to overcome this plurality and find the most central or most fundamental element in morality. The essence of morality, one might call it.

Many utilitarians will, in this manner, reduce other moral concerns to a question of maximising good consequences, while many virtue ethicists will claim that all moral concerns can be met by developing the right virtues.

However, such attempts at reducing the complexity of moral life have never been very successful, and my suggestion is that the very approach is wrong. In moral philosophy, we have to recognise that moral life contains many different aspects and not attempt to eliminate its complexity.

It is our moral life - no matter what the theories say

Another important feature of our moral life is that it is essentially ours!

As the British philosopher Bernard Williams describes it, the aim of moral thought is » to help us construct a world that will be our world, one in which we have a social, cultural and personal life

But if ethics is about our world, our life, then moral theories have no special authority in determining what the morally right thing is, for what is moral must always be something that we ourselves can subscribe to.

Moral theories, then, have no special authority when it comes to demand changes in what we already understand as morally right - that is, in our moral beliefs and commitments (at least not if these are well founded).

Multiple moral theories can exist at the same time

This has wide ranging consequences for how we should understand moral theories. If moral philosophy does not have a special authority to change the plural, dissimilar and incompatible elements that make up our moral lives, then these elements cannot be unified in one consistent theory.

Therefore, I have developed a new understanding of moral theory. Here, the theories are general and abstract but also descriptive. Moral theories are not to explain or reduce moral life but to provide clear and manageable descriptions of select dimensions of it.

In this way, we can understand moral theories as models that provide an overview of diverse normative structures (for example, consequences, values or virtues) that may enable us to survey our moral views and that may also inform and develop these views.

A consequence of this understanding is that moral philosophers have to abandon the idea that one moral theory excludes the other. In moral philosophy, we cannot arrive at one overall ‘master theory’ but instead we must work with many different theories that exist at the same time in order to take many different moral considerations into account.

That also means that moral theories cannot provide us with guidance on how to act, and they cannot tell us what we ought to do. Instead, a concrete moral question can, in the vast majority of cases, be elucidated by a number of different theories from which it is up to each individual to decide how to act in the concrete situation.

More than moral theory

This revised understanding of moral theories is one of the primary results of my thesis. But it leads to another insight.

If theories cannot include all dimensions of morality, then moral philosophy must include more than just theories. Moral theories are useful but never sufficient in the work of moral philosophy, and we must also work to develop philosophical descriptions of concrete and individual features of morality.

In the second part of the thesis, I turn towards this task where I demonstrate how particular traits that are linked to our individual moral positions or our moral context may be significant to moral thinking.

This becomes apparent in, for example, the fact that moral thinking and judgement take the shape of an ability to compare the general and the abstract (which can be formulated in moral theories) with a concrete and specific understanding of a particular situation.

If I want to help a friend who is depressed, I need a fair bit of general moral knowledge, such as knowing that I have special commitments towards my friends and that these commitments are greater when my friend is in need.

But I also need a lot of concrete moral knowledge, such as knowing about my friend’s particular set of values and how much she appreciates autonomy, privacy, friendship.

I must have an understanding of both the general and the concrete. Only if I have both general and concrete knowledge will I be able to judge how best to help my friend.

Morality is both personal and formed by community

There are several reasons why the particular can become morally significant. One reason is that certain moral considerations have a special moral weight for some people.

Helpfulness, loyalty and self-development are universal moral values, but these values can come to have a particular moral weight or significance in some people’s lives.

Generally speaking, such particular moral considerations become a part of our personal identity or position through moral education. That is the reason why I have to know my friend’s set of values and her particular moral identity in order to be able to help her.

It may, therefore, be pointed out that morality also has a personal dimension.

Another reason why the particular can gain moral significance is that we also become embedded in a specific moral community through our moral education.

Our participation in a moral community is, on the one hand, the prerequisite for us to develop our capacity for moral thinking, assessment and critique. But, on the other hand, communities can also be a source of moral prejudice, distortion and corruption – just as it is the case with our particular, personal moral considerations.

Moral philosophy can provide guidance

As such, moral philosophy has a twofold task, that is, to clarify both the general and the particular traits of moral thought. In the last section of the thesis, I therefore develop an understanding of moral philosophy that is able to describe the interaction between these general and particular traits.

This brings us back to the question of the role of moral philosophy.

My most important contention is that moral philosophy can be said to play a practical role in relation to our moral life in three different ways.

Firstly, moral philosophy can help improve our moral orientation. Moral philosophy offers descriptions that help us identify all relevant features of our moral life and orientate ourselves in this life. Thereby, moral philosophy can help us create an overview of the often extremely complex network that our moral considerations constitute.

Secondly, moral philosophy can contribute to the development of our collective moral attention and make us aware of features of our moral life that we are prone to forget, overlook or push aside.

One might say that moral philosophy in this sense continuously reminds us of all that we cannot or do not want to keep in mind.

Moral philosophy helps us see the world in new ways

Last but not least, moral philosophy is practical since it contributes to the development of new forms of moral attention and thinking. It offers the possibility of thinking about the world in a new way, for example by offering us new moral concepts or models.

Classical examples are philosophy’s contribution to the development of the concepts of human autonomy and dignity, which opened up an entirely new way of understanding the human being.

More contemporary examples are philosophy’s contribution to the development of concepts like multiculturalism or the Anthropocene (a suggested title for the period in which the human being has affected the development of the planet), which help us understand societal developments and the nature of our impact on the planet.

In one sense, my thesis is ambitious because it includes questions of how to understand moral philosophy, moral theory and our moral lives - and the relation between the three.

The main ambition of the thesis is more modest, however – namely to present an understanding of descriptive moral philosophy as valuable in its own right, and as something that can help promote the debate about the role and status of moral philosophy in relation to our moral lives.

The title of Anne-Marie Søndergaard Christensen’s advanced doctoral thesis is 'Moral Philosophy, Moral Theory & Moral Life', read about the defence here.

Translated by Stuart Pethick, e-sp.dk translation services. Read the Danish Version at Videnskab.dk's Forskerzonen.

References

Anne-Marie Søndergaard Christensens profil (SDU)

Anne-Marie Søndergaard Christensens publikationer (SDU)

'Intelligent Virtue'. Oxford University Press (2011)

'The Realistic Spirit'. The MIT press (1991)

'Vision and Choice in Morality'. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes (1956)

'Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy'. Fontana (1985)