Lebenskünstler

Kant didn’t just screw us with aesthetics, but ethics as well – Wisdom and the particular vs. Knowledge and the universal

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 02/21/2013

Godless yet good – Troy Jollimore [I am happy to see Murdoch get some well deserved attention, but surprised that her friend and colleague, Mary Midgley ‘s work isn’t mentioned. See this for example. And what about Nel Noddings?]

This emphasis on being attentive to concrete reality tallies with the idea that it is the emotions (compassion and sympathy in particular), rather than abstract rational principles, that are doing the motivating when it comes to ethical behaviour. Together they embody a critique of moral views, such as Kant’s, which rely on inflexible ethical principles allegedly derived from logic itself. In the work of McDowell, this critique is developed into a position called ‘moral particularism’, which rejects altogether the idea that we might one day compose or possess an ethical rulebook that would define the right thing to do in any conceivable situation. After all, what can count as a moral reason in one context might fail to be a reason in another, or might even be, in certain contexts, a reason pointing in the other direction.

…However, more recent investigators tend to prefer a picture in which several distinct and perhaps incommensurable factors make contributions to a person’s happiness. This fits in well with the particularists’ view that evaluation is always a holistic matter. It is worth remembering, too, that Aristotle understood eudaimonia, which is frequently translated into English as ‘happiness’, as something considerably broader and less subjective than pleasure or momentary satisfaction. Instead, it has to do with the general quality of one’s life as a whole.

For particularists, then, individual perception and judgment are always necessary to decide difficult ethical questions: there is no theoretical ethical system that can do the work for us. Principles are useful, perhaps, but only as rules of thumb, practical guidelines that hold for the most part, but to which there will always be exceptions. At the foundational level, ethics is built not on a system of rules, but on individual human beings who possess character, judgment, and wisdom.

Particularism re-opens the door to the idea of wisdom. It is an idea that Kantian and utilitarian ethics — and, for that matter, the modern world in general — have great trouble taking seriously. Wisdom, as opposed to knowledge, might seem a somewhat quaint notion in the contemporary world. (Indeed at this point even the word ‘knowledge’ sounds quaint to many people, who prefer to talk about ‘data’ or ‘information.’) The modern desire to replace individual wisdom and judgment with more objective, scientific methods of decision-making and evaluation has had profound effects on many aspects of our lives. In the field of education, where I work, it has led to ever-increasingly complex systems of rules and standards for professional conduct, for assessing teaching effectiveness, for making promotion decisions, even for designing courses and course curricula. The prevailing attitude is that we need a system of rules and principles to make and justify every decision, because we cannot trust the individuals involved enough to leave it up to their good judgment — even when the individuals involved are highly trained experts and just the sort of people capable of discerning how rules and principles should be implemented, and when they should be ignored or adapted. Similarly, the current plague of standardised testing inflicted on students leads to the slighting of skills and traits that are difficult to quantify: artistic talents, creativity, and moral attributes, among many others. This prevailing attitude is one that many Kantians and utilitarians would applaud, and one that Aristotle would deplore.

 

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