Rather than starting from theory and applying it to the world, should we go about things the other way round? A new strain of philosophical thinking argues just thatby Linda Zagzebski / July 31, 2017 / Leave a comment
Questions about morality can fascinate us. What kind of a person do I want to be? What is the moral course of action in any given circumstance? Can I trust my emotions as a guide to morality, or should I rely solely on principles that come from a philosophical theory?
In answering these questions, philosophers often seem to provide theories which are useless in real life, with a gulf between theory and practice. It’s OK if those of us who are philosophers think in the abstract, but it is even better if a theory can be constructed in a way that is useful for self-improvement and moral training.
The question, then, is how do we construct a theory that serves both theoretical and practical purposes? “Exemplarist moral theory” (sometimes just called exemplarism), the subject of my latest book, is intended to do just that. Instead of starting with a concept, such as the concept of happiness, or a good will, or a flourishing life—all of which are contested concepts in philosophy, the foundation of the theory is a set of admirable people: exemplars. The entire theory is constructed around their features. This gives it some unique advantages—at least that’s the hope.
Exemplars are individuals we encounter in history or fiction or in our personal lives whom we find supremely admirable. Some of them may be known the world over, say, Confucius, Socrates, Jesus, or the Buddha. Others are not so famous, but widely admired among those who know their stories, like those who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, or volunteers in L’Arche communities for the mentally disabled. Still others are known and admired by only a small group of acquaintances, perhaps an elderly friend or grandparent.
These people, I think, can shed useful light in the realm of moral theory, but can also influence our ethical decisions day-to-day. We find out what they think and do, and how they feel and react by carefully observing them, and we can learn what virtuous behaviour looks like, what the right acts are, what a good motive is, what a good end is, and the varieties of good lives by observing them. Rather than starting from theory and applying it to the world, the idea is that we should go about things the other way round.
“Philosophers often seem to provide theories which are useless in real life”
But exemplars also serve the practical purpose of inspiring us to become better people: emulation, after all, is the natural response to admiration. Crucially, the moral impact exemplars have is cumulative. Admiration in past ages is transmitted to us through stories of great moral acts performed by virtuous people. We’ve all heard them. These help us to develop the ways in which we feel admiration, and also reveal to us the features of exemplars useful in mapping the moral domain.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, once wrote: “don’t think, look!” when putting forward his philosophy of language. This isn’t exactly what I’m proposing, but as basic instructions go it’s not a bad start!
Now comes the tricky part. This theory is built on a famous semantical theory about the meaning of words and the way those words relate us to the world, originally proposed by world-renowned philosophers Saul Kripke and Hilary Putnam in the 1970s. More specifically, my theory is based on their direct theory of reference.
Kripke and Putnam’s argument concerns our definitions of certain substances, say, “water,” “gold,” and “tiger.” The basic idea of direct reference is that “water” does not have a descriptive meaning that we could find in a dictionary and carry around in our heads. Instead, it should be defined as “stuff like that,” “tiger” is defined as “creatures like that,” and so on, where in each case the word “that” is used to point to real objects.
Direct reference revolutionised semantics because it suggests that we are not connected to the outside world through a mental description. Rather, we are connected to it directly. What we are talking about when we say “tiger” or “water” or “gold” is determined by observation of something we can pick out in the world.
The theory was also revolutionary because it linked semantics with empirical science. The semantics tells us where to look. The scientist then does the observations that tell us that what makes water water is that it is H2O, what makes gold gold is that it is the element with atomic number 79, what makes a tiger a tiger is that it has a certain biological structure. “Water” does not mean “odorless, colorless liquid that we drink,” “gold” does not mean “shiny golden-colored metal used in making jewelry.” Scientific observation has a role in telling us what our words mean.
“Philosophical ethics does not need to be an arm-chair discipline”
This is where the theory of exemplars comes back in. Using the same model, the argument is that moral exemplars are persons like that. We point directly to exemplars of goodness like Confucius, Socrates, Jesus, or whoever else. We pick them out through admiration, not by applying a descriptive concept in our heads. We then find out what makes them admirable by observation, just as we find out what makes water the substance that it is by observation.
Obviously there are differences between the observation of admirable persons and the observation of water. The psychological structure of an admirable person is much more complex than the physical structure of water, and individual exemplars differ from one another. We cannot simply put admirable persons under a microscope, although it is interesting that neuroimaging of some exemplars has recently begun. But the point is that ultimately we do not need a descriptive meaning for terms like “virtue” and “a good life” any more than we need a descriptive meaning for terms like “water” and “gold.” That’s the claim.
Using direct reference to exemplars to create a moral theory has a number of advantages. It permits us to create a theoretical map that links together our basic moral terms—terms like “good motive,” “right act,” “good person,” without having to agree upon a particular conceptual foundation that philosophers have been debating for millennia. It also connects to a natural way people learn how to behave themselves: through emulation of their parents and role models, for instance. And since exemplars are identified through admiration and admiration is motivating, the motive to become a good person, something which drives almost all of us, is embedded in the foundation of the theory.
Philosophical ethics does not need to be just an arm-chair discipline. If we can construct an argument that connects with a natural way people learn morality and with the work of empirical researchers while still satisfying the requirements of good theory, we should strive to do so.
Linda Zagzebski’s new book is Exemplarist Moral Theory (OUP)