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Often moral philosophy classes begin with an attempt to say precisely just what the subject matter of the course will be. Definitions, like this, "Morality is, at the very least, the effort to guide one's conduct by reason -- that is, to do what there are the best reasons for doing -- while giving equal weight to the interests of each individual who will be affected by one's conduct." (James Rachels) or, this "The ground of obligation here must be sought not in the nature of the human being or in the circumstances of the world in which he is placed, but a priori simply in concepts of pure reason." Or following Hume, we might argue that reason can never provide the basis for morality and that at best it can serve the desires and impulses, moral or otherwise, that arise in us for non-rational reasons. On this view, as Hume put it, "Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions."
And then an attempt to say what counts as a moral act -- usually a distinction is offered at this point between acts that are conventional and acts that are moral. Driving on the right side of the road in North America is obviously (adverbs begin to appear) conventional while intentionally driving your vehicle into an innocent pedestrian to see how far the body will fly is more than conventional -- it is wrong. A moral vocabulary emerges: wrong, right, permissible, prohibited, good, evil. Questions arise: Where does obligation come from? What is the role of religion in morality? Is an act good because God says so or does God say so because it is good? What about the influence of my tribe? Does one's culture dictate what is good and what is bad?
And then, is the study of moral philosophy anything other than a history of ideas? Doesn't our new knowledge of neurotransmitters, for example, show us that we cannot act out of free choice because actually our brains make decisions before we do? Is there any advance at all in moral philosophy?
On the one hand we have the naturalists, who, armed with evidence, argue that morality like language, is innate, a part of human nature developed evolutionarily over the millennia. But they are countered by the constructionists who, armed with evidence, argue that it is not human nature (which probably does not exist) but the human condition (culture bound) that dictates our actions.
And then, of course, there is the matter of who or what gets counted as a moral agent. All living things? All animals? Only human animals? Only men? Only men from my tribe? And if the dimension of the "moral circle" has changed over time how do we explain that? In Canada the Royal Mint just issued a commemorative coin to celebrate the fact that 100 years ago women became persons and could vote.
In short, is it possible to develop a course in moral philosophy that can tackle all of these difficult questions? Webb Keane's "ethical life" provides an excellent discussion of all of these problems and argues for a synthesis that provides for realism without determinism and society and culture without the capacity to construct reality. The human propensity to take an ethical stance toward oneself and others is found in every known society, yet we also know that values taken for granted in one society can contradict those in another. Does ethical life arise from human nature itself? Is it a universal human trait? Or is it a product of one's cultural and historical context? Webb Keane offers a new approach to the empirical study of ethical life that reconciles these questions, showing how ethics arise at the intersection of human biology and social dynamics.
Drawing on the latest findings in psychology, conversational interaction, ethnography, and history, Ethical Life takes readers from inner city America to Samoa and the Inuit Arctic to reveal how we are creatures of our biology as well as our history—and how our ethical lives are contingent on both. Keane looks at Melanesian theories of mind and the training of Buddhist monks, and discusses important social causes such as the British abolitionist movement and American feminism. He explores how styles of child rearing, notions of the person, and moral codes in different communities elaborate on certain basic human tendencies while suppressing or ignoring others.
A good social scientific theory of ethical life would need to be compatible with both our current understanding of human evolution and the brute fact of cultural diversity. It would need to show how natural selection could give rise to human ethics. And it would need to show how human history could lead to variation and change in ethical life. It would somehow have to square universalism and historicism. That is a tall order, but that is the aim of Webb Keane's Ethical Life. Keane employs his notion of "affordance" as a useful concept in his project. An affordance has an objective existence but can be used by an agent in different ways. Example: a chair has an objective existence and "invites" you to sit, but you choose what to do with it, stand on it, stack books on it, etc.
As a linguistic anthropologist, Keane is especially interested in the ethical affordances created by human language. He puts particular stress on abstraction and generalization. Like joint attention, language probably first evolved as a means of coordinating action, rather than labeling things. But the one afforded the other. And once humans began labeling, they were already on the road to generalizing.
There is an online webinar here which is introduced: This webinar is based on Professor Webb Keane's (University of Michigan) recently published book, Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories, whose introduction is available at the link below. The book can be read as an example of how a critical realist approach might work in practice. It responds to the challenge posed by competing claims between naturalist and constructivist depictions of human ethical life, the one grounding it in universals of psycho-biological development, the other in particular political, cultural, and social histories. The book draws on both approaches, arguing that the concept of affordances can provide an alternative to reductionism, determinism, and strong forms of constructivism.
Two of the slides from the webinar:
I urge readers to check out the webinar and then to buy and study the book. The book is readable and provides a new way of looking at the many problems of moral philosophy.
© 2016 Bob Lane
Bob Lane is an emeritus professor of philosophy and religious studies at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.