Saturday, January 3, 2009

Practical moral philosophy

This is a follow-up on an earlier post.

There should be a practical branch of human knowledge about how in fact to attain moral excellence and act well. This discipline would be related to theoretical moral philosophy in, very roughly, the way engineering is related to physics. We might call this practical moral philosophy. This is distinguished from applied ethics. For instance, the military sub-branch of applied ethics may tell us, for instance, what it is permissible for us to tell the enemy when we are tortured, but applied ethics is itself primarily a theoretical discipline, and does not give us much help in knowing just how to withstand torture.

Practical moral philosophy subdivides into two studies: (1) how to attain moral excellence and act well oneself, and (2) how to lead others to moral excellence and good action. The study of the second is a recognized part of contemporary philosophy: it is the study of moral education. But the first has not, I think, been sufficiently developed, at least by analytic philosophers. It has, however, been deeply developed within religious traditions, again with a subdivision into the helping oneself (I do not know the name for this discipline, but within the Christian tradition, many of the practitioners of the discipline are called "spiritual writers") and helping others ("pastoral theology"). (A difference is that in the religious traditions the goal can go beyond natural moral excellence.)

It is not completely clear that this is really a branch of philosophy. Perhaps it is a branch of psychology? It is, indeed, related to "positive psychology". Still, it is not just a branch of psychology in that it depends crucially on the ethical judgment of what moral qualities are in fact excellent and what actions are in fact right.


Sardonicus said...

So, how would the branch known as virtue ethics relate to this?

Anonymous said...

I think there is a deep hunger for this.

When people say leadership is lacking in this world, they mean they don't know where to start.

What are your plans for this blog and how can I help?

Anonymous said...

For a while I've had a little theory that something happened to cause practical moral philosophy to fall out of favor among philosophers.

I take it that the ethical manuals produced by Thomists in the centuries after the Middle Ages and until the 20th century are (in the West) about the closest thing to practical moral philosophy since the writings of the Stoics.

Alongside the scholastic works and manuals, however, there does seem to have been a secular tradition of practical moral philosophy: Gracian's The Art of Worldly Wisdom (which as I understand it belongs to a tradition of works aimed at advising princes how to behave) and George Washington's Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior In Company and Conversation, spring to mind. In my own opinion these last two works are not as helpful as the scholastic treatments; they focus so much on external behavior that the rules for behavior laid down in them seem unattached to any theoretical underpinning, and THAT comes off as at best queer (Washington's #35: "Let your Discourse with Men of Business be Short and Comprehensive," but no "why" is given) and at worst affected and even conniving for the sake of advancement.

When psychology broke away from philosophy and developed into an independent field of study, it took with it much of whatever practical moral philosophy existed in philosophy at the time, and practical moral philosophy began to be done on the basis of the theories of personality that were being formed in psychology (these theories of personality determined what was healthy rather then explicitly what was good, but I take it health comes close to excellence, flourishing, arete, the correct functioning of the rational capacity, right reason and so forth, which traditionally have been "ethical enough" to figure importantly into some ethical theories). My understanding is that Freud's ideas about the unconscious arose from his treating patients with certain disorders (witness the striving, at least, of psychological theories to be empirically grounded), and I presume he never developed the theory at any stage but with an eye to applying it to further patients; just pointing out the intertwining of theory and practice in psychology from the beginning.

Just at the time, at the turn of the 20th century, that psychology was developing into an eminently practical discipline (i.e. not only were the theories extended into practical applications, but institutions, e.g. the patient-therapist relationship, arose that are explicily committed to a practical function), moral philosophy largely turned metaethical (e.g. Moore, positivism, etc.). I know this is myopic in that it's limited to English-speaking philosophy, but my sense is that non-English-speaking philosophers weren't doing much either in terms or practical moral philosophy.

I think self-help and New Age books both have to be mentioned in this conversation, since they seem to have been among the main things to have filled the vacuum of practical moral philosophy extending from properly philosophical moral theories. Personally I don't see why a lot of these books wouldn't qualify as philosophy; the self-help stuff is usually based on a theory of personality (e.g. the division of the mind into Parent-Child-Adult in I'm OK, You're OK) which I take it is just a description of the makeup and functioning of the mind (not with reference to how knowing simpliciter occurs or something, but with reference to other mental acts). The New Age stuff is based on a metaphysical outlook of one sort or another. My sense is that all of it is more "good life" than other-directed rule-based conduct, but it'd still be philosophy then. Of course works from both sides make some unjustified (but not necessarily unjustifiable) assumptions, but who doesn't? I imagine Joel Osteen's Become a Better You and Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth were in 2008 more widely read than any of the works traditionally meriting the name philosophy. Which is only to point out where the public are turning for practical instruction about how to live and how to achieve the good life.

I take it philosophical counseling represents an attempt to institutionalize something like (2), the leading of others to moral excellence and good action.

A website about it:

Now I realize I haven't said anything about why analytic philosophers themselves have ignored practical moral philosophy. There are some obvious but very shaky speculations to be made: that to expound on (1) one needs to have become morally excellent oneself; but very few people are morally excellent; so very few philosophers expound on (1) (assuming the proportion of morally excellent philosophers to be no higher than the proportion of morally excellent people). Second, that there exists a culture that derides practical moral philosophy and that therefore discourages its development as a field. (If Osteen and Tolle are doing practical moral philosophy, as I think they are, then imagine the average analytic philosopher's opinion toward either of their books.) While the gates of speculation are open: this attitude of derision is based not on the low quality of the work derided but rather is a defense mechanism aimed at warding off sincerity (a value that pervades the works mentioned) and the difficulty, in terms of emotion and will-power, involved in becoming morally excellent. Third, that the deeply personal aspect of becoming morally excellent prevents even those who ARE morally excellent from expounding on moral excellence, as it's too personal a philosophical topic to open up about (this may or may not verge on being a vice of excess with respect to the virtue of humility). But I really don't know.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I think virtue ethics can offer some help, but in practice I have not found it all that helpful myself. That could just say more about me than about virtue ethics.


Thank you for a response that is much more in-depth and thoughtful than my post. At first sight, everything you say seems true and important.

If we see the self-help literature as doing practical moral philosophy, then the authors of self-help literature would benefit from more sophisticated philosophical training, particularly in regard to theoretical moral philosophy, the theory of the person, and in general analytical tools. It sounds to me like this is an area for some good collaborative work.

Finally, your mention of self-help brought to mind a person whose work in this area should not be neglected: Tom Morris.

Heath White said...

I am largely in agreement with casey981. I think the practical aspects of moral philosophy are or were largely located in psychology in the 20th century. 20th-c psychology has a strong salvific streak running through it, which has now so far as I can tell largely burnt out. To a lesser extent, one can look at the practical problem as a social not personal problem, and certain aspects of anthropology and sociology have also aspired to be, in essence, practical moral philosophy.

Historically, I think Pierre Hadot has shown convincingly that Hellenistic philosophy, taking off from early Greek philosophy, thought of itself as "care for the soul." In his last days Foucault began thinking along these lines. But I agree with Alex's original point that the Christian tradition is actually far stronger.

As for why 20th-c analytic philosophy ceded all this ground, I think we have the positivists to thank, largely. Anything in this field would be nonsense. Anything important to be discovered would be ineffable. Etc.

There is a somewhat more difficult question about why modern philosophy ceded all this ground. I think it has a lot to do with strong rationalist assumptions--the idea that the only thing necessary to do the good is to know it (no weak will), and the only thing necessary to know it is to be in a position to know it (no self-deception, averting the mind's eye, etc.) These are of a piece with the very positive view of human nature the Enlightenment had and not of a piece with the rather more negative view in the Christian tradition.

I should add that I think these assumptions persist in at least some quarters in higher education: this is the only justification I can see for the widespread requirements for ethics courses. (The alternative explanation is that, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Maybe both are right.)

Sardonicus said...

Prof. Pruss,

I've read Morris's Making Sense of it All (on Pascal) and Philosophy for Dummies, and found them both quite good.

With that said, one other direction to look is Fr. Servais Pinckaers, OP. His book "Sources of Christian Ethics" is extremely important in recovering the Thomistic tradition in ethics prior to adulteration by the manual writers. I recommend it highly.


Anonymous said...

Just one more word on this, specifically on where philosophy might most profitably link up with some of the more popular practical moral philosophy being done today.

A few years ago I had to take a class in one of the most popular programs designed to help people succeed in life: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The first habit is Be Proactive, but the second habit is Begin with the End in Mind, which of course basically means Set Goals and Work Toward Them.

I see that the first C of Tom Morris' Seven C's is "A clear Conception of what we want, a vivide vision, a goal clearly imagined."

One area of research that deals with highly successful people focuses on "deliberate practice," nearly all of the conclusions of which seems to parallel the way in which Aristotle says virtue is acquired by gradual habituation. A recent interview on the idea:

The thing is, these approaches don't inform us as to what goals we should set ourselves in the first place. (Deliberate practice would be unlike Aristotle in that respect, true.) For anyone tinged with sentiments of Heidegerrian thrownness or Sartrean abandonment, the admonition to set goals can border on cruelty! I know that this is a practically relevant issue, because I have a friend who just graduated from college (with a degree in Philosophy) but who has actually sunk into a depression because he has no clue what goals to set himself.

There are probably some resources in the approaches above that try to address the question of what goals to set, but if they don't go deeper than "Well, what are you passionate about?" then there seems to be a serious need for deeper philosophical input. Part of that input would concern a picture of human nature (an Aristotelian approach), but it would probably also have to get right down to in what comprehensive worldview the goals are being set, since there is a debate about whether any goals can be meaningful in certain worldviews (i.e. Pascal/William Craig on the meaninglessness of human action on naturalism).