Moral Theory and Moral Life
by Daniel A. Kaufman
A venerable strategy in arguing against theism involves the observation that the world looks exactly as you’d expect it to, if there is no God and not at all like it should if there is one. I want to say the same thing here about moral life and traditional moral theories. Moral life looks nothing like you’d expect it to if traditional moral theories like Utilitarianism or Kantian Deontology were true and exactly like you’d think it would, if they were not.
By “traditional moral theories,” I mean theories that purport to identify general, defining characteristics of moral rightness and wrongness, for the purpose of developing moral principles, from which specific moral obligations can be derived. Thus, the Utilitarian identifies positive or negative effects on the general welfare as the general, defining moral characteristics, from which comes the principle of utility that is then deployed to instruct us on how to act, in particular cases. And we can tell a similar story about the Kantian deontologist, one that will differ only with respect to what is taken to be the relevant defining moral characteristic, which, for Kant, was whether or not the principle or “maxim” on which one is acting satisfies the condition of rational universalizability.
Now, it seems to me that if any such theory was true – by which I mean any theory that has this general form – one would expect that the moral life would look like the following:
(1) Once one has determined which of the competing moral theories is true, the only real epistemic challenge one faces in the conduct of one’s moral life is that of determining which actions conform to the defining principle laid out in that moral theory – i.e. whether or not this action will maximize utility or whether or not that principle conforms to the Categorical Imperative.
(2) The only real personal challenges one faces in the conduct of one’s moral life are akratic. That is, they revolve entirely around self-control related difficulties in making one’s behavior conform to one’s duty, as defined by the relevant moral theory.
(3) Coming to the right moral view on any particular occasion is an entirely intellectual affair, as it involves nothing more than determining (a) which moral theory is correct – i.e. whether Kant or Mill or whomever is right about the defining moral characteristic – and (b) which actions conform or fail to conform to it.
(4) There isn’t much (if any) need for practical reason. In order to live a moral life, all that one needs to do is (a) hold the right moral theory; (b) identify which actions conform to it; and (c) have sufficient control over oneself to act accordingly. There literally is nothing to figure out, beyond the matters indicated in (1), so the role that practical reason is supposed to play in moral life is obscure.
(5) Moral life, in light of 1-4, should be relatively easy. I don’t mean to suggest that self-control may not be difficult or that determining which moral theory is true may not constitute an intellectual challenge, but rather, that moral decision making itself should not be a particularly wracking process since, according to traditional moral philosophy, it is simply a matter of following instructions; of sticking to the recipe for moral life.
The trouble, of course, is that any serious, honest reflection on moral life reveals that it is profoundly difficult; that beyond the challenge of conforming one’s behavior to what one deems right or wrong on any particular occasion, the very determination of what one’s obligations are in the various, varying circumstances of one’s life is itself often fraught and even sometimes, tormenting. This is because moral life is not aptly characterized in the manner just described, but rather, as follows:
(6) The general characteristics by which traditional moral theories define obligation may all be morally significant and compete for one’s consideration, in morally charged situations. There is no one who has not faced circumstances in which considerations of utility and considerations of principle imply contradictory courses of action, and in such situations, the moral theories themselves provide no guidance. Whether in this particular instance the general welfare is more pressing than acting on right principles is something that I will have to decide, and moral philosophy is of no help in doing so.
(7) Not only is practical reason absolutely central to the successful navigation of moral life, but so is what can only be deemed a kind of moral perception – reasoning, after all, never gets a person down to the truly particular, but must always, at some level deal in generalities. What the most pressing element in the current situation is and thus, where my obligations lie, ultimately is something that can only be seen and not deduced.
(8) Beyond sound moral reasoning and perception there is the further point that all the force of an obligation lies in the extent to which it is actually felt by the obligated party. When the work of the intellect and the perceptual faculty is done, the emotional work still remains, in that one also must be moved, if the obligation is not to remain inert and impotent; nothing more than an expressed or unexpressed imperative.
(9) Moral life, then, is one for which there are no recipes for success; no instructions that if followed will ensure that one’s behavior will be moral rather than immoral. Because our practical reasoning can be faulty; because we can misread a situation; because we can misidentify what is most pressing in a particular case; because sometimes, regardless of how carefully one has considered things, clarity only can be found in hindsight; and because even with all of this going perfectly, one may still find oneself unmoved; for all these reasons, real moral life, as opposed to the simplistic, rationalistic version of it imagined by moral philosophy, is characterized by the persistent, perennial, and very real possibility of getting things wrong and sometimes terribly so. Contra (5), then, moral life is not easy but extremely difficult and a source of constant and appropriate anxiety and concern.
Readers will remember that in the past I have singled out for praise the ethical works of both Aristotle and W.D. Ross, and it is because their approach to moral questions is anti-theoretical, (largely) non-rationalist, and strongly cognizant of the fact that moral life is difficult and marked by the constant possibility of failure, even when we have been as conscientious in the pursuit of our duty as we could possibly be. Our actual experience of our own moral lives confirms the picture they paint, and contradicts that painted by traditional moral philosophies.