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Moral FailureReview - Moral Failure
On the Impossible Demands of Morality
by Lisa Tessman
Oxford University Press, 2014
Review by Brandon D. C. Fenton
Mar 1st 2016 (Volume 20, Issue 9)

Prominent feminist moral philosopher Lisa Tessman's most recent work is boldly aimed at exposing and acknowledging some of the more difficult and troubling features and demands of our moral lives and agency. As with her earlier book Burdened Virtues, Tessman again confronts and examines frankly some of the harsh realities of moral and social life without evasion or resorting to naïve optimism. Moral Failure is an intricate book that makes use of many more complicated and interconnected arguments than can be covered in much detail here, but Tessman expertly navigates the relevant prominent debates and carefully assembles the component pieces of her overall argument by drawing upon a wide range of philosophical and empirical resources.

In Moral Failure, Tessman's project is framed by a metaethical commitment to a natural, non-foundationalist, constructivist, and value pluralist view of morality. She conceives of morality as something that humans have created over time as evolving and highly social creatures that are influenced by a host of factors that give shape to their evaluations--neither of which occupy the position of supreme or unifying value, and none of which functions as an essential basis for moral value. Most central to Tessman's overall project is the critical insight that 'ought' does not always imply 'can'. Indeed, her challenge to the widely (and often uncritically) held moral belief that 'ought implies can' (sometimes called the Kantian principle) is presented first and foremost as a kind of ubiquitous moral experience wherein an agent comes to an evaluative judgement that "I must" coupled with the practical recognition that "I can't" and thus endures the concomitant distress of unavoidable moral failure.

One of the ways in which experiences of moral failure are generated, according to Tessman, is that at times, in regular moral life, we are confronted with what she calls "non-negotiable moral requirements" to which, given certain actual circumstances that we may find ourselves in, we simply cannot respond. Sometimes, this state of affairs is the result of a legitimate moral dilemma, while in other cases it may reflect more of a lack of choice or effective personal agency. In each case, for Tessman, our inability to respond to such demands does not spare us from the anguish of having failed to fulfill them. Whereas it is often presumed in moral theorizing that the mere impossibility of answering a given non-negotiable requirement effectively eliminates its claim upon an agent, for Tessman, the simple fact that it is impossible to address does not alleviate the binding nature of the moral demand, and what we are left with in such cases is the experienced woe of an unfulfilled 'moral remainder'. Tessman's commitment to remain a present witness to the tragic encounter with unavoidable moral failure is in keeping with the spirit of the work of Bernard Williams whose inspirational influence can be felt throughout. In fact, her resolve to confront some of the more distressing aspects of moral experience as it is actually lived, along with her recommendation that philosophy remain present with and receptive to these unresolved and unredeeming features of our ethical lives, amounts to a significant contribution to moral theory.     

Another important component of Tessman's project of uncovering and making sense of moral failures is her engagement with the empirical work of moral psychology and cognitive science. Here, Tessman draws upon recent work in dual-process theory to highlight an important distinction between the cognitive systems responsible for moral reasoning and moral intuitions. System 1 (as it is commonly referred to by cognitive scientists), is characterized (in very rough outline) as fast, automatic, unintentional, and inaccessible. This system is taken to be responsible for our intuitive judgments and the bulk of our moral verdicts. System 2, on the other hand, is typically characterized as slow and effortful, intentional and controllable, accessible and demanding upon attention. This system is seen as responsible for our more deliberate sorts of reasoning which may be used to produce moral judgments but, as it turns out, is not commonly directed towards this purpose. How these systems connect to our concerns with moral failure, according to Tessman, is that they sometimes come into conflict and generate irreconcilable moral verdicts that can be simultaneously experienced by the agent.

Generally, rationalist moral philosophers will argue against according any weight to the intuitive side of our moral determinations in such conflicts so as to eliminate the perceived impossible moral demands that their clashing with more reasoned judgments tends to produce. However, Tessman carefully defends the intuitive side of our moral experience, arguing that some of the values that we express intuitively have been 'sacralized' (a term she borrows from Philip Tetlock) such that their significance to us is so great that their sacrifice is 'unthinkable' (a notion adopted form Harry Frankfurt). It is clear that she does not advocate the abandonment of moral judgments arrived at by rational processes, but rather that she intends to create an additional space for a recognition of the value that our intuitive moral judgments--many of which amount to expressions of sacralized values--offer to our lives. For instance, she takes human attachment and love to be partially reliant upon the sacralizing of certain values and thus, the protection of these values and an acceptance of the intuitive judgments that align with them appears warranted. Nevertheless, Tessman recognizes that some sacralized values may be the result of harmful ideology or indoctrination and thus not all sacralized values deserve protection. But the project of sorting those sacralized values that deserve to be protected from those that merit deletion is not a simple matter. Here Tessman argues that although it may be unthinkable for a given agent to rationally reconsider their own sacralized values, being a part of a larger community that embodies a plurality of different values can function to revise some of one's less desirable sacred values by exposing one to different perspectives that embrace other hopefully more worthwhile values. Whether or not readers will be convinced by her arguments in this section is uncertain, but the issue of sacred values and their role in our moral economies would have benefitted by a more sustained treatment.

Briefly moving away from the theoretical towards more practical encounters with moral failure, Tessman entertains several examples from both real and fictive cases of Holocaust survivors. These cases are very difficult to consider in terms of the distress that such experiences evoke not only for the survivors but also for readers who are made to bear witness. Nevertheless, I commend Tessman for bringing these cases to our attention and for her uncommon courage to stay with them in a way that does not attempt to minimize the horror nor draw falsely optimistic lessons from them as is so often the case with writers attempting to deal with the unconscionable monstrousness of human behavior and history. Although such cases certainly produce a strongly felt impression of moral failure, it seems that the addition of more mundane examples of moral failure would have helped Tessman to make the case that moral failure is a more commonplace phenomenon instead of something that occurs primarily in rather extreme circumstances.

As mentioned, Tessman covers far more ground than can be sufficiently addressed here. For instance, she also examines some of the shortcomings of both ideal and nonideal theory and what a notion of moral failure might have to offer to work being done in this area. Tessman also dedicates a significant amount of space to examining supererogationist views of moral demandingness towards the end of the book--though some might find this section somewhat overdrawn in terms of its relative importance to the overall argument made.

The minor noted quibbles notwithstanding, this is an important book. And regardless of one's commitments or views on morality, one is likely to notice many well-crafted, interesting, and creative arguments as Tessman makes the case for the significant and underappreciated tragic aspect of our ethical lives that is the experience of moral failure.                   

 

© 2016 Brandon D. C. Fenton

 

Brandon D. C. Fenton


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