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Dan Sportiello | Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I had served as a teaching assistant in philosophy for some time before it occurred to me to wonder what it was, exactly, that I was teaching. The answer, when I finally found it, was rather more sinister than I had expected.

Alasdair MacIntyre, in his After Virtue, reminds us that “some of the college-educated public are haunted by vague cartoon-like memories of Philosophy 100” — and, for this, we teachers are surely to blame: full of a drunken glee, we frighten our students with brains in vats and exhort them to embrace their inner Cartesian demons — without bothering to teach them the context that would make these fantasies more than intermittently unsettling. For better or worse, however, we occasionally sober and insist that our discipline is serious business: MacIntyre admits that “professors of philosophy do from time to time seek to wear the clothes of relevance” — and these clothes are those of the moral philosopher.

But moral philosophy is hardly a discipline that has reached anything like a consensus. “The most striking feature of contemporary moral utterance is that so much of it is used to express disagreements,” writes MacIntyre, “and the most striking feature of the debates in which these disagreements are expressed is their interminable character.” And so — after mentioning Kant and Mill — we introduce our students to the moral debates that rock our society: those over abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, health care reform and the like. And because these debates have proven both profound and interminable, we do not pick sides: Reveling in our impartiality, we marshal what we take to be the very best arguments on each side of each debate, leaving our students to decide for themselves.

And our students love this: After months grappling with the present King of France, they finally recognize something that just might have bearing on their lives. They throw themselves into these debates: In discussion, they shout at one another with obvious delight as they hurl utility or autonomy across the room. And we teachers swell with pride in our students and in ourselves: they are no longer chained to the suburbs in which they were raised — no longer chained, that is, to the lessons of their parents — for we have forged them into men and women eager to think for themselves, to question all that had, until now, seemed unassailable. Soon, no doubt, they will even be driving hybrid cars.

Standing behind this method of teaching — a method especially typical of courses in applied ethics — is the implication of objectivity: We teachers present the arguments on both sides without evaluation — a task left to the students themselves. Because we do not force them to take one side or the other, we assume that they will seek the better side: With enough discussion — in the classroom at first, though later in politics — they will make salient points, invent new arguments and, sooner or later, find the truth.

That this method is problematic, however, should strike us immediately: Even if our students do seek the better side — rather than, say, the side that would benefit them most were it victorious — our society lacks an impersonal moral criterion that would allow our students to compare the arguments of the two sides in a way that is not utterly arbitrary. “There seems to be no rational way of securing moral agreement in our culture,” writes MacIntyre — an insight that is as profound as it is, in hindsight, obvious.

Moral concepts — right and wrong, for example — seem to present impersonal obligations: To say that some action is right or wrong is not just to command or forbid it — that is, to express a subjective will — but also to offer some reason for commanding or forbidding it — that is, to state an objective fact. Consider the example of abortion: If I say to you that “I would not have you abort your child,” I have offered you only an expression of my subjective will — one which, if our wills differ, you will blithely ignore — but, if I say to you that “abortion is wrong,” I have implied that there is an objective reason for anyone to avoid abortion — and you may ask me, with either curiosity or anger, what the reason is. Even if you ignore me, however, you will not do so blithely: You will have recognized that my words make a claim upon you — and that your defiance of my words contradicts them. The difference in meaning between the two statements is as obvious as the difference between your responses to them.

If you do ask me the reason that abortion is wrong, I will likely answer that “it ignores the dignity of your child” or that “it shows no courage” or even that “it violates the law of Almighty God” — but your response is likely to be that these reasons do not matter to you, that you can make no sense of them. That, whatever I say, you have the right to do with your body what you will. What I implied were objective reasons — ones that would convince everyone — were subjective after all. Whether intentionally or not, I was using moral language in order to express my subjective will — in order, that is, to cause you to act in a certain way even though I could not offer you a convincing reason to do so.

We live, MacIntyre argues, in an emotivist society — one in which the loss of an impersonal moral criterion has caused moral language to degenerate from the statement of objective fact into the expression of subjective emotion. In such a society, all moral language is fundamentally manipulative: “[E]valuative utterance can in the end have no point or use but the expression of my own feelings or attitudes and the transformation of the feelings and attitudes of others. I cannot genuinely appeal to impersonal criteria, for there are no impersonal criteria. I may think that I so appeal and others may think that I so appeal, but these thoughts will always be mistakes. The sole reality of distinctively moral discourse is the attempt of one will to align the attitudes, feelings, preference and choices of another with its own.” The moral language of an emotivist society is manipulative because its meaning — which promises one an objective reason to act in a certain way — has become detached from its use — to cause one to act in that way despite there being no such reason. When I use moral language, in other words, I control your actions by promising a reason that does not, in fact, exist. And this is true whether I think such a reason exists or not.

This argument woke me from my dogmatic slumber. If it is sound — and I confess that I know of no other way to explain the interminable and profound moral debates that rock our society — then we, as teachers, have deluded ourselves: All of our impartiality cannot yield objectivity. In shouting at one another across the room, our students do not find the truth: They merely shout at one another. If they do forge a consensus, its foundation is not reason but force: Whichever side shouts louder wins — for there is, as MacIntyre reveals, no other criterion for victory.

In teaching our students of the moral debates that rock our society, we are teaching them to manipulate one another: Since we possess no impersonal moral criterion, none of the arguments that we teach our students can actually deliver the reasons that they promise. And so, if one student uses an argument to convince a second who previously disagreed with her, the first student merely overwhelms the second by sheer force of will — even if the second does not realize it.

This logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end: We should ultimately teach our students to change the very questions that they ask, to rebuild their society and themselves upon a genuinely impersonal moral criterion — not upon how they subjectively feel, that is, but rather upon who they objectively are. In the meantime, however, our duty is clear: If we should not teach our students to manipulate one another, we should not teach them applied ethics. We should teach them instead to guard themselves against manipulation — to see, that is, the fundamentally manipulative character of our society for what it is. To do less is to fail them as teachers.

Daniel John Sportiello is in his fourth year in the philosophy Ph.D. program. Listen to his radio show on WVFI on Sundays at 2 p.m. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.