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