Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Upcoming Toronto Conference

Later this week I will be giving the talk above at the University of Toronto.

In the 60 minute talk I aim to do two things. The first is to offer some general thoughts on methodological issues in normative theory. And the second is to argue for a substantive conclusion that I hope illustrates the points addressed with respect to the first (methodological) point.

I expand upon these two things here, to help me clarify and prepare my thoughts for the talk.

(1) In the first 15-20 minutes I will consider the question "What constitutes success in normative theory?" I will suggest that this perhaps the most significant and foundational question any moral or political theorist can ask himself or herself. And yet, paradoxically, that question is among the least discussed and debated topic in the field. I was never encouraged to ask, let alone seriously reflect upon or write about, this question as a student. And I did not seriously think about it early in my career as a professor. It was only when five professional developments occurred together over a period of about 10 years that I realized I had neglected a question that I had to address and answer more than any other (for the answer to this foundational question determines other, more specific, issues and questions one should try to answer).

Those developments where:

(1) deciding to write a textbook on contemporary political theory (which requires an author to ask herself "why should students learn this material?" "Why cover some theorists and issues and not others?", etc.).

(2) I switched from teaching in philosophy to political science (which meant new questions and considerations were raised in class that made me look at the material in a fresh, new light).

(3) My growing interest in, and understanding of, biology (especially evolutionary biology) convinced me that armchair normative theorizing was inherently problematic, and it would be much more interesting to see what normative prescriptions could be derived from an account of morality and justice that was predicated upon an accurate understanding of the human species and the health challenges of today's aging world.

(4) My love of teaching the cannon of political theory has grown exponentially over the past decade. When I first started teaching political theory I had the (what I now consider erroneous and rather naive) view that the greatest insights from theory came from more recent contributions to the field, and learning the classics was something that had to be done (jumping through hoops) before one could get down to the real serious business of debating and arguing about 20th century political philosophy. Now I have the opposite view. The professionalization of contemporary moral and political philosophy has (in my humble opinion) impoverished rather than enriched these disciplines. And so I think students will learn much more by engaging with the great thinkers of the past few millennia than they will from the great thinkers of the past few decades. This is not surprising because the former represents a much more diverse and larger pool of thinkers (and I think this epistemic diversity can trump (especially for undergraduates) the benefits of the specialization offered by more contemporary work, though ideally one learns both).

(5) The fifth development that influenced my more critical stance of contemporary moral and political philosophy is that I discovered the beautiful mind of John Dewey. Dewey inspires me as a teacher and scholar. Deweyan education is “the continuous reconstruction of experience”. Rather than emphasizing abstract thought experiments that make my students hyper-sensitive to their innate moral intuitions, I think it is much more important to get them to reflect on how the context of one's situation is important for determining how we should act. And so learning about the past, and thinking about the future, can help them appreciate how some circumstances change and evolve over time, while others may persist. And being attuned to these empirical considerations is an essential element of sound moral reasoning.

Considering Plato's reaction to the experiment of Athenian democracy, Hobbes's speculations about life in the state of nature, Rousseau's diagnosis of the creation of inequality, Wollstonecraft's response to patriarchy, or Marx's critique of capitalism-- these are amongst the best illustrations of how the human mind can open our eyes to new moral insights concerning how we should live our lives. By transcending their geography and time by considering (and engaging with) these great thinkers from the past, students can gain valuable insights into the way different moral values and empirical assumptions and insights can inform (for better or worse) our normative aspirations.

OK, back to the original question: "What constitutes success in normative theory?" No doubt there will be many different answers theorists will advance to answer this question. Here is mine: the success or failure of any normative theoretical framework or distributive or moral principle should be measured by the extent to which it facilitates or stifles the exercise of phronesis (practical wisdom). This vision of ethics and politics is an ancient one (going back Aristotle), a vision that has been lost, due in large part to the professionalization of the disciplines of philosophy and political science.

Phronesis (practical wisdom) is a higher-order virtue. Within the virtue ethics tradition, "A right act, all things considered, is what a person with phronesis might do in like circumstances" (see Virtues of the Mind). Virtue ethics is often criticized because it leaves the details of "what constitutes a virtuous agent?" sketchy and indeterminate. But I believe the emphasis on complex character traits, and the context of particular circumstances, is a distinctive strength of the virtue ethics tradition. Phronesis requires the exercise of many distinct moral and intellectual virtues. I don't plan on detailing a complete list of these virtues here. Instead, it is worth first asking how is it even possible that humans could be moral. Evolutionary psychology suggests there are several innate and universally available psychological systems which provide the foundations of “intuitive ethics”. Three of these are worth noting here: care, justice and liberty.

Some of the most prominent normative theories of the past 4 decades are based on these innate intuitions. Singer's principle of preventing bad occurrences is predicated on care, Rawls's account of "justice as fairness" on fairness (with connections to care and liberty as well) and Nozick's libertarianism on liberty. When Singer asks us to envision the drowning child in his thought experiment he is appealing to our innate concern for care. When Rawls constructs his original position he hopes it activates our intuitions about fairness. And when Nozick constructs his story of initial just acquisition and the Wilt Chamberlain example he turns up the dial on our concern for liberty. But can an appeal to any one of these intuitions help us achieve phronesis? I remain skeptical. These intuitions have evolved from thousands of years of evolution in hunter gatherer societies. Rather than derive principles and theories from abstract scenarios that make us hyper-sensitive to primal moral intuitions, I believe a greater emphasis should be placed on the intellectual virtues and the aspiration to reasonably balance different moral sensibilities in a manner fitting to the circumstances. So rather than minimize context by constructing abstract thought experiments, the normative theorist should bring to the fore the most significant and relevant empirical considerations and examine how and why they are relevant when weighing up the different reasons for different courses of action.

Three particular intellectual virtues will be central to the argument I advance in the second part of my talk. These are (from Virtues of the Mind):

(1) The ability to recognise the salient facts; sensitivity to details
(2) Adaptability of intellect
(3) The detective’s virtues: thinking of coherent explanations of the facts

Idealized discussions of morality and justice that bracket important contextual elements of real life (like the fact that people get sick and are vulnerable to disease, that society is not closed, etc.) stifle the exercise of these intellectual virtues. Because Rawls (at least initially) assumed all members of society are healthy and productive, he gives us a theory of distributive justice that ignores the reality that people age and become susceptible to a host of diseases and disorders. So the importance of "well-ordered" science is neglected, and instead our intuitions about the importance of liberty and fairly distributing money are stimulated by his thought experiment. Some have tried to salvage the Rawlsian project by keeping the principles of justice he defended, but simply adding things like healthcare to his principle of fair equality of opportunity. But something as complex and challenging as healthcare cannot adequately be addressed by a theoretical project that is predicated upon a highly idealized and abstract analysis. Instead, a defensible account of justice ought to emphasize (rather than ignore) the facts of human morbidity and mortality. The considered judgments the theorist advances are thus more likely to be something that can be assessed in terms of whether or not a virtuous agent would come to similar conclusions in those circumstances when the important details of the circumstances are a central part of the normative analysis. That is a very different approach than one which treats the primal intuitions we have regarding the distribution of resources as a reliable moral compass for addressing the complex issues of the 21st century.

Adaptability of intellect means the normative theorist, while they cannot escape make at least some appeal to our and their innate moral sensibilities, must always be cautious and provisional about the weight to place on those sensibilities. Which moral foundation to invoke, and how much weight to place on them, depends on context. We cannot say "liberty always trumps everything else" in the abstract. The intellectual virtues must be central to the normative project.

And finally the detective's virtues compels the normative theorist to adopt an interdisciplinary outlook, they must be attentive to the relevant explanations and insights provided by the natural and social sciences. Again, this is reason for caution and skepticism about armchair idealized normative theorizing. Intellectual humility suggests that many of the grand ambitious of theories of distributive justice are simply untenable. This does not mean that normative theorizing cannot be aspirational. It can and must be. But the reason it has the aspirations it has stems from the fact that the theorist has a solid understanding of (a) why the factors that impede the realization of these aspirations exists and persists, (b) why overcoming these obstacles is important in terms of our potential to flourish and (c) what prescriptions it would be reasonable to pursue to help us realize (b).

In the second, and main part of my presentation, I advance a central aspiration I believe a virtuous agent would endorse pursing today-- age retardation. Some of the relevant facts are:

(1) chronic disease is the leading cause of death in the world.
(2) life expectancy at birth for humans on this planet now exceeds our biological warranty period (70 years).
(3) there will be 2 billion people over age 60 by the middle of this century.
(4) when (3) happens it will be the first time that the number of people age ≥ 60 will outnumber the number of children (0-14) in the world
(5) the rate of aging is not fixed, it can be slowed (for example, by caloric restriction).
(6) slowing aging by just a few years would yield a larger health dividend that eliminating any single disease of aging.

The video presentation below captures the main points I will emphasize in this part of the talk (which I presented in Arizona in January):