Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Isabel's Moral Philosophy (by Dani)

In the the first meeting I ever had with my PhD supervisor we discussed possible research areas. I said that I was open to lots of different options, but didn't want anything to do with moral philosophy. I'd always found it tedious, messy, and unhelpful. He, in return, stated that he wasn't interested in supervising an ethics thesis, so all was well. (By the way, I'm using the words 'ethics' and 'morals' to mean the same thing.)

After such a beginning, you won't be surprised to hear that that's more or less what I ended up studying, so Isabel Dalhousie and I have something in common. We also have in common the desire to live morally – to make informed moral decisions about the right thing to do, and have the will to act on them. And we both fail in both these things sometimes. Just as Isabel finds it hard to decide whether or not to tell Cat about Toby's unfaithfulness, I sometimes can't tell the best thing to do and find myself weighing up pros and cons of possible options. And sometimes even when I decided to act one way, I put my foot in it and do the opposite, like Isabel when she blurts out Toby's affair to Cat in spite of her decision not to.

But Isabel and I also have our differences. One big difference is that God is given no place in Isabel's moral thinking, whereas he's integral to mine (we'll come back to this in a later post ). Another is that Isabel's interest is mainly in applied ethics – questions like Is gambling wrong? and Should you always tell the truth? – whereas I’m more philosophically interested in metaethics. Metaethics considers what it is that makes something good or evil (consequences? intentions? cosmic order? divine command?), and how we can know one from the other (reason? experience? innate knowledge? revelation?). Like everyone else, of course, I can’t avoid grappling with applied ethics all the time, after all, making moral decisions is normal part of life. But how we approach these practical questions depends on our metaethics so I think it’s worth thinking about!

Like most of us, Isabel apparently doesn't have a single, settled metaethical position. We do know bits and pieces though: she's not very impressed by moral relativism or Kant, but is sympathetic to Hume; she’s happy to claim the legacy of Scottish common sense philosophy and American pragmatism; she's grown out of Wittgenstein, and isn't keen on “petty Calvinism.” In my next three posts, I'll have a quick look at some of these. Please keep in mind that I'm only giving brief accounts which gloss over a range of complications. I'm including some further reading for those whose appetites are whetted for more!


Anonymous said...

Hi Dani & Nicole & the rest of the Equip Book Club,

I've really enjoyed reading the posts for The Sunday Philosophy Club.I have what I think you'd call a love-hate relationship with all of Alexander McCall Smiths fiction books. On the one hand they are gentle, witty, escapist recreational reading. I love the humanity of the characters, their struggles within the ordinariness of every day life & their desire "to live life right". But I find it so very frustrating that they rarely have a personal philosophy that transcends time, place & culture. As Dani comments, they have no meta-ethic. In the end, the characters ethics are pragmatic, humanistic & individualistic. And I can tolerate that in fiction, but in real life, that's just so scary! And last Friday, I experienced a real life example of that.

I was driving to our church's seniors picnic, & caught most of Richard Fidler's "Conversation Hour", with the independent senator Nick Xenophon (listen to the full interview on the web ABC Radio 702).
Towards the end of the interview Fidler tried asking the senator to explain his personal philosophy, the basis for his decision making in parliament, on matters such as gambling.

When really pushed by Fidler, the senator concluded he didn't really know if he had a thought-out foundation for his decision making, it really depended on the issue. He vaguely mentioned things like "family upbringing", not liking to see the little guy "done over", "being fair to people & doing the right decent thing".

I find that approach to decision making, from one of the most influential law makers in the nation frightening! And I'm fairly confident he's not the only mover & shaker in our society who thinks like that. There'll be people who shape education, law, health, social welfare, & the media in Australia who think like that, too. Personal philosophy really matters!

I've been moved to pray for our Christian brothers & sisters who move in these circles & have positions of influence in policy & law making & those who are in positions to influence & engage with the media. And it highlights the need for us as Christians to think through the basis for our own personal morality & to engage with each other &, where possible, with our unsaved friends - is our personal philosophy "me-generated", pragmatic, reactionary & humanistic. Or is it grounded in the revealed Word of God?
Sorry this is so long, but it was fascinating & challenging to see fiction intersect with Christianity & contemporary life!

Alison Blake

Anonymous said...

Thanks Alison, I'm glad you're finding the SPC posts stimulating. I heard the interview with Nick Xenophon too, and thought it was a bit odd that he was so reticent to talk about his religion and basis for decision making. I wondered at the time if he didn't want to say publically what his stance was in case it was something that would people would use against him, but perhaps your interpretation is right and there was nothing to say! Either way, praying for him (and other decision makers) is a great response!

And I'm all for Christians -- anyone in fact -- thinking more about the moral basis of their decision making. Unlike some of the more 'ivory tower' areas of philosophy, this is one that's relevant to all of us.

I'll be interested to see what you make of some of the later posts when I offer some thoughts on the relation between Christianity and ethics.