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Dan Sportiello | Wednesday, October 5, 2011

There is a price to be paid for reflection.

Consider two very different conceptions of knowledge. According to the first, to know that some action is right in some situation is to respond to that situation, whenever it occurs, by performing that action. According to the second, to know that some action is right in some situation is to have a justification for performing that action in that situation.

The first conception is of knowledge as consistency; the second conception is of knowledge as reflection. Bernard Williams, in his Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, argues that the second tends to subvert the first — that reflection upon one’s moral concepts, in other words, tends to destroy one’s consistency in the application of, and in the response to, those concepts.

Moral concepts, Williams argues, are thick — are, that is, “at the same time world-guided and action-guiding;” societies that employ such concepts agree upon when they are to be applied and what is to be done when they are applied — they agree, that is, on an impersonal moral criterion. Williams argues that this agreement will survive within any “society that is maximally homogenous and minimally given to general reflection” — within, that is, a traditional society. The members of such a society would use the same thick concepts in the same situations: Their moral beliefs would, in one sense, “track the truth.”

In another sense, however, their moral beliefs would be systematically false, for the thick concepts of traditional societies typically have implications that, upon reflection, are false. Suppose that the members of our traditional society follow what they take to be a divine law — and that they agree, moreover, regarding the content of this divine law. Perhaps they refuse to practice abortion, for example, because they believe that their god will punish it. But those who are, like us, outside of this society are unlikely to be certain that such a god even exists — and given that “we have rejected the descriptive half” of their moral beliefs, “is there any reason to accept the other half?” One is tempted to deny, therefore, that the members of the society ever had moral knowledge in the first place.

Williams points out, however, that “there is a minimal sense in which the locals think it ‘all right’ to act as they do, and they do not merely imply this, but reveal it, in the way they live. To say that they ‘think it all right’ at this level is not to mention any further and disputable judgment of theirs; it is merely to record their practice.” Williams denies that the members of the society must accept the reflective judgment that abortion is wrong by citing the existence of their god — or, for that matter, any of the general implications of their moral beliefs: They have not yet engaged in a practice of reflection upon those beliefs in an attempt to derive from them reflective judgments — that is, a moral system. The members of the traditional society simply live in the way that they live; in being trained in that way of life, they learn how to apply their thick concepts in a way that tracks the truth — and is, in that sense, moral knowledge.

But it is highly likely, Williams suggests, that the thick concepts of a traditional society have false implications — and that, therefore, reflection can destroy moral knowledge. “If we accept that there can be knowledge at the [traditional or] unreflective level; if we accept the obvious truth that reflection characteristically disturbs, unseats or replaces those traditional concepts; and if we agree that, at least as things are, the reflective level is not in a position to give us knowledge we did not have before — then we can reach the notably un-Socratic conclusion that, in ethics, reflection can destroy knowledge.”

Reflection destroys moral knowledge not by showing that one has been deploying one’s thick concepts incorrectly, but rather by rendering one unable to use those concepts at all, given the false implications of any use of those concepts. Consider again the traditional society and its refusal to practice abortion. That abortion should be permitted or forbidden at all implies that there is a god who permits or forbids it. If the traditional society comes to doubt, upon reflection, that there is such a god, then no one in that society can believe of abortion — or anything else — that it is either permitted or forbidden.

Even given that reflection is likely to destroy their old moral concepts, however, one might wonder whether reflection might lead our society to new moral concepts. While they can no longer use those thick concepts that they had inherited — which they knew well how to apply — perhaps they can learn to use more general concepts that are similarly guided by the world. Williams notes, however, what characteristically happens when consensus is sought between different groups with different thick concepts: “Discussions at the reflective level, if they have the ambition of considering all ethical experience and arriving at the truth about the ethical, will necessarily use the most general and abstract ethical concepts such as ‘right,’ and those concepts do not display world-guidedness.”

Williams worries that, in the end, the only ethical concepts on which all will reflectively agree will be devoid of any standard of application. MacIntyre believes, of course, that this is just what happened to ethics when the medieval consensus on the thick concepts of Aristotelian philosophy collapsed. And this collapse brought, not coincidentally, a collapse in virtue: What Williams calls moral knowledge is just the tendency to respond to certain situations in certain ways — what MacIntyre would call virtue.

Suppose that the members of our newly reflective traditional society — which just is, as I hope is now clear, our society — finally realize that those who violate what they took to be the divine law do not, in fact, incur punishment. Suppose that some of them — that is, some of us — come to believe that actions are right or wrong for different reasons entirely — because, say, they promote or inhibit the flourishing of societies and their members. And suppose that we conclude, after centuries of reflection, that some action — say, abortion — definitively inhibits the flourishing of our society and its members.

But suppose also that this conclusion remains, among those who do not share our criterion of flourishing, highly controversial. The thing to do then, I argue, is not to send our children off to college so that they can study both sides of the question. This will tempt them, especially when they are very alone and very afraid, to do precisely the wrong thing — it will, that is, eviscerate whatever virtue we may have so far cultivated in them. The thing to do is, rather, to teach them how both sides of the question — founded as they are upon two arbitrary rights — are subjective will masquerading as objective fact. The thing to do is, in other words, to warn them that those who argue either side seek only, intentionally or not, to manipulate them.

For an education in virtue requires a tradition. It requires a thorough familiarity with a set of thick concepts that leaves no question as to the right thing to do in those situations that are of the greatest importance — which tend to be, not coincidentally, those situations of the greatest temptation. In these situations, it requires certain options to be unthinkable — for them not to be, that is, options at all. If an education in virtue is to sustain itself within an emotivist society, therefore, it must include a thorough understanding of the ways in which that society will attempt, through manipulation, to hijack it.

But this is not a call to the enforcement of naïveté. Even were it possible to keep our students from reflection — and it is not — to do so would be profoundly evil, for it is precisely in reflection that we reveal ourselves to be human. If the virtue into which we educated our students did not survive reflection, we would have failed them as teachers. But we have reasons to conclude that vicious action will make our students wretched — and reasons to conclude that this is what matters. We should encourage, rather than discourage, our students to reflect upon these reasons — that is, to justify the virtue that we teach them. For only when virtue survives reflection will it survive temptation.

It is our social framework — the very social framework that imposes perpetual warfare between the pro-life and pro-choice camps, between one arbitrary right and another — that does not survive reflection. To teach our students to be virtuous is not enough: We should also teach them the extent to which our society, founded as it is upon manipulation, is incompatible with virtue. We should teach them, if it does not prove impossible, to remake that society, to resolve the contradiction within it — not by taking either side but rather by exposing and uprooting the emotivism from which both sides grow. Only then will reflection be worth the price.

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.