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  • Writer's pictureRicky

Let a thousand flowers bloom

Last week, we saw Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry square off head-to-head.

(I’ll try not to get too technical, but I wanna lay out the heart of this really interesting book!)

Let’s go back to when philosophers were saints

The Thomist (”toe-mist”) thinks moral enquiry is, at its heart, a theological project aimed at understanding the nature and designs of God, just like everything else. St. Thomas Aquinas made the last great effort to bring together Aristotle and St. Augustine, two great philosophers from incredibly different traditions, by constructing an overarching worldview in which everything hangs together around God.

I need to get better at making words in circles look good.

Then, in the first universities, disciplines like natural philosophy (proto-science) got a bit more autonomy and independence from the theology department. It was assumed that as everyone developed in parallel, they’d all get along in the end by rediscovering God in every aspect of the world.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, our understanding branched into a variety of increasingly autonomous and secular disciplines that could seemingly disagree with one another.

Enter the Encyclopaedist (wow, look at all this British English), who thinks moral enquiry is, at its heart, a rational project aimed at showing how previous moral efforts like Thomism made incremental progress within the same kind of intellectual program we’re working in today.

MacIntyre thinks the 9th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica from 1875 really exemplifies this attitude.

Even though moral enquiry has become more secularized and our moral understandings have changed, we’re still studying the same thing (morality). And pat yourself on the back because, by prioritizing reason over dogma, moral enquiry is better today than ever before!

The Thomist thinks we’ve lost our way. By removing God from the very center of our worldview, we’ve lost track of what moral enquiry even is.

But of course they think that, says the Encyclopaedist! That just reflects the Thomist’s earlier, less sophisticated understanding of moral enquiry, whose shortcomings are all the more visible to us in retrospect as the various disciplines continue to secularize and move apart!

Is hindsight really 20-20?

But this is really interesting: Where the Encyclopaedist sees one unified history (Moral Enquiry secularizing over time), the Thomist sees two (theologically-grounded Moral Enquiry, and the hopelessly confused Schmoral Enquiry of later seculars).

Enter the Genealogist, who sees a unified history of moral enquiry, alright. But it isn’t one the Thomists or Encyclopaedists are gonna like.

Sorry not sorry.

The Genealogist sees their own enquiry into morality as a historical (usually power-tracing) discourse enabling them to unmask everyone else’s moral enquiry as deeply fraudulent.

Moral injunctions are wielded by powerful and holy men to shape society. Morality itself deceives and weakens us by concealing truth and engendering servility. If we can look at ourselves with courage, the Genealogist insists, we’ll see the need to reconsider these received discourses and question our deepest values. Maybe we’ll even be strong enough to begin again from radically new grounds. (Okay I’m just talking about Nietzsche now but you get the idea.)

Honestly that’s a pretty cool move.

I actually don’t think the Genealogist wants to abandon ethics. They still think there are better and worse ways of living and relating to others, and that’s precisely why they argue that passively accepting these received moralities of meekness is so weak and pitiful and unhealthy for us!

We are called upon to witness the inhumane and do better. Think for yourself!

Of course, the Thomist and Encyclopaedist both hate this.

But I bet the Genealogist is loving it.

The Thomist can try to run a counter-genealogy on the Genealogist and say, no your discourse is one of power concealing your own weakness: the Sin of Pride. You are so proud of yourself for not believing in God that now you want to tell a story where you get to play Him.

And the Encyclopaedist can try to fold the Genealogist back into their unified history of rational moral enquiry. Ah, the Genealogist invites us to attend to historical contingencies, material conditions, and relations of power. Maybe we should pay attention to that stuff, too! Thanks for helping us ask new questions and make even more progress!


Okay, so who wins?

What’s at stake here isn’t just Who got morality right?

Before we can begin to answer that, we have to figure out

What’s morality? and

How do we study it?

What this means is that a big part of moral enquiry is figuring out

What moral enquiry is and

How to do it well.

In other words, we don’t just disagree about how to apply the standards of moral enquiry. We disagree about what those standards are.

Fortunately, we can begin assessing the standards by inspecting the fruits of their study.

This happens a lot in science, too.

Remember natural philosophy?

I’ve mentioned before that under Aristotle, we looked to physics to learn about our proper place in the cosmos. But prediction wasn’t always such a big deal. Aristotle just said heavier stuff falls faster, but did anyone bother to check?

Then, when Galileo suddenly got way better at predicting stuff we went, wow, maybe prediction is a bigger deal in science than we thought. Since then, science has gotten really good at predicting, and not so good at telling us how things should be.

Today, we don’t bother asking science to teach us about our ethical place in the universe at all. The fruits of Aristotelian physics ran dry, while the fruits of contemporary physics are stunning.

Consider quantum mechanics, which really stretches our ability to make sense of reality (much less our place in the cosmos) to the absolute limit. Quantum mechanics does such tremendous violence to our conceptual understandings of space, time, and causation that even Einstein rejected it, insisting that God doesn’t play dice. It’s such a radical framework we would never go for it—except that it’s one of the most experimentally-vindicated branches of science we have!

And you know what?

Having rival versions of scientific enquiry is great, because it lets good ideas bear fruit and demonstrate success on their own terms relative to one another. Different versions of enquiry have different strengths and weaknesses. And when we go wow, quantum mechanics and relativity are both getting things right at vastly different scales, we can ask cool questions like: How do we fit those two together?

Why wouldn’t the same be true for moral enquiry?

Let a thousand flowers bloom so we can see the fruit each mode of enquiry bears. (Enquiry, not hate speech.)

Good book. (2/3 stars)

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