Owen Flanagan’s The Geography of Morals

I am a big Owen Flanagan fan and have just finished reading his most recent book, The Geography of Morals (Oxford UP, 2017).  Because I am an academic, with all the pathologies of my tribe, I will have a bone to pick with Flanagan in my next post.  But praise should always precede criticism–and there is so much to praise in this book.

Flanagan has worked for years to broaden the scope and interests of moral philosophy beyond the sterile deontologist/consequentialist debates into which so much moral philosophy has cornered itself.  Of course, he has plenty of company in that quest, with Alisdair MacIntyre, Bernard Williams, Martha Nussbaum, Richard Rorty, and Charles Taylor the most notable writers to walk away from “technical” philosophical ethics.

I think it is fair to say that the five philosophers just mentioned all, to some extent, pay attention to the emotional bases of ethical judgments in order to downplay the idea of a rational deliberating self, whose actions follow from a weighing up of reasons (whether those reasons be Kantian or Millian).  Flanagan’s persistent interest (over the past 25 years at least) has been in “moral psychology.”  He wants to identify the psychological processes–both emotional and rational–that generate moral conviction.

He has two persistent reasons for wanting to pursue questions of moral psychology.

1.) He wants a realistic, empirically based sense of the constraints underlying human behavior.  His version of “ought implies can” is to identify deep-seated tendencies in human reasoning and human responses to environment that will, at least, suggest (I use this weaker word advisedly) limits to human capabilities and things that will prove difficult for humans to accomplish.  His favorite example here is in-group prejudice.  He takes it as universally true that humans care more for their family members and for a limited range of others.  Thus, it is difficult, although not impossible, to extend the set of others to whom humans will offer sympathy and care.

2.) Flanagan insists that any individual’s morality is developed within a “form of life.”  He adapts the word “ecology” to describe the environment in which moral intuitions, convictions, reasons, and emotions emerge in individual humans.  We are born into “a preexisting but ever-changing cultural ecology.  The ecology is the normative force field in which we grow and develop, and it is authorized, regulated, and maintained outside the head, in the common, but possibly fractious, social ecology” (93).  Following Wittgenstein’s thoughts on private language, Flanagan’s position is that worries about subjectivist moralities are entirely misplaced.  No one invents–or could possibly live by–a private morality.

Several important consequences follow from Flanagan’s approach.  The first is that morality is about persons-in-relation (to other persons, to the environment, to animals, to the traditions and cultures into which they are “thrown”—to use Heidegger’s term.)  Morality is social, inter-subjective, inter-species, inter-relational through and through.  Flanagan mentions Williams’ famous distinction between morality as applying to norms of social interaction as contrasted to ethics as pertaining to the individualistic question “What is the good life for me”?  But Flanagan, correctly in my view, finds that distinction only moderately useful (in certain contexts) because it is almost impossible to conceive of a good life that doesn’t have establishing good relations with others, the environment, animals etc. at its core.

A second consequence of focusing on relations is to knock morality off a pedestal—either one that imagines us all doing some kind of Kantian deduction to reach the categorical imperative or worrying about which switch to pull on runaway trolleys.  Morality is mundane, implicated in the minute-by-minute monitoring and adjustment of our relations to all in which we are immersed.  “The moral problems of life vary with age and circumstance, but they are mostly . . . matters of tender mercies, love, attention, honesty, conscientiousness, guarding against projection, taming reactive emotions, deflating ego, and self-cultivation” (10).  Morality is ordinary.

A third consequence is the breakdown of barriers between philosophy and the human sciences.  Flanagan quotes Dewey (from Human Nature and Human Conduct) approvingly: “Moral science is not something with a separate province.  It is physical, biological, and historic knowledge placed in a humane context where it will illuminate and guide the activities of men” (44 in Flanagan).  Whatever the human sciences can tell us about human beings is relevant to thinking about how humans construct and structure “forms of life” that include “normative orders.”  Here’s Flanagan’s description of the latter.  “The normative order uses both the capacities of individuals to acquire reliable dispositions inside themselves—typically conceived as virtues–to do what is judged to be good, right, and expected, as well as public institutions and structures, such as law and tax codes, to accomplish, regulate, and enforce regiments of order and justice that individuals might not find easy to abide from reliable inner resources” 25-26).

As the appeal to “dispositions” indicates, Flanagan is firmly in the neo-Aristotelian camp.  Forming the right dispositions, cultivating virtues, is the primary moral work in his view—and his appeals to psychology are in service of that cultivation.  What are effective methods of creating dispositions—and what are the limits on what those methods can achieve?

But you will have noticed that the definition of “normative order” is content-light in terms of designating what the good or the right is.  That’s because Flanagan accepts that there is more than one “form of life” on the planet. The good and the right is not a constant, nor is it the same in all contexts. As the title of his book indicates, he wants to explore the possible variations in normative orders that history and geography offers us.  What might Western moral philosophy, in particular, learn from an encounter with Eastern sources, especially Confucianism and Buddhism?

Much of the book is devoted to this comparative work.  Specifically, three chapters are devoted to thinking about anger.  To what extent is anger an “inevitable” human emotion; to what extent is anger (in fact) part and parcel of morality insofar as moral indignation can seem to be the baseline moment of moral judgment; and, if there are alternatives to anger’s role in moral judgment, would we be better off adopting those alternatives?  Those chapters justify both Flanagan’s focus on moral psychology and his exploration of moral traditions that take fairly different approaches to similar problems.

Flanagan is, however, not simply an Aristotelian.  He is also a Darwinian.  And it is that aspect of his thought that I will examine in my next post.



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