Wednesday, June 12, 2019

On moral philosophy—or ethics—and moral psychology (and the general irrelevance of scientific or academic psychology)

Pollock number-26-1949
Moral philosophy is the mirror that self-consciousness holds to morality
, and it tends to distort that which it reflects. It idealizes it. It gives it a cohesiveness or a clarity that it lacks, and it exhibits it as uniformly benign, which it isn’t. It gets away with this because it ignores or obscures the story of morality. Restored to its proper place in the life-history of the individual, morality does not, self-evidently, or even evidently, have the features that moral philosophers have given it. — Richard Wollheim, The Thread of Life (Cambridge University Press, 1984): 199.

There is a set of apparently anomalous psychological activities—self-deception, akrasia, the irrational conservation of the emotions, agent regretthat present problems for theories of rational agency. Having put aside [in the first half of her book] the distinctions of faculty psychology, and having placed cognitive, rational, activities within a larger psychological context, we are in a better position to understand why such apparently wayward activities are so common, and why they resist correction. They areby-products of common, highly functional psychological activities: their analysis reveals the structures and operations of the self, operations largely ignored by reconstructive, rationalized accounts of psychological functioning. — Amélie Oksenberg Rorty, Mind in Action: Essays in the Philosophy of Mind (Beacon Press, 1988): 195.

… [P]hilosophy has nothing to fear from psychoanalytic thought, and may even have something to learn from it. But one may go further and argue that a sound philosophy can hardly subsist without it. Thisis particularly and obviously applicable to moral philosophy; for in so far as the task here is to establish how humans should best live, a proper understanding of the passions and their role in our choices and decisions is absolutely crucial. And given the opacity of the passionsthe way in which they so often mislead us because they carry a resonance from forgotten early experience of which the subject is typically unawareany recipe for the good life that fails to find room for systematic self-scrutiny and reflective analysis, in short for a broadly psychoanalytic programme of self-discovery, will be found to be seriously impoverished. 

Let us assume, for the moment, that it is a moral truth that humans cannot live well if they reject the demand for progressive moral improvement. On a personal and psychological level, the problem of responding to that demand will now immediately become one of achieving integration and wholeness. For as long as there is a psychic split between what I feel like doing and what I am morally called to do, as long as there is part of myself that sees the ethical demand as something alien, something harsh and tyrannical that risks interfering with my personal comforts and convenience, then there will be an unresolved tension at the heart of my moral nature. In psychoanalytic terms, this split is characteristically described as a compartmentalization or division of the selfthe root of all instability, encompassing the full range of disturbance from minor psychic irritation to entrenched neurosis and even potential catastrophic breakdown. In existential terms, the result will be something variously described as Angst, a sense of dread, fear and trembling, nausea. In theological terms, what is involved is the idea of sin, the inherent sense in each human that it has fallen short of the normative pattern laid down for each by the creator. 

If the sense of a gap between our ordinary human capacities and what we might best achieve is an ineradicable part of what it is to be a reflective adult human being, then it must be among the most fundamental moral aims for humanity to form some kind of strategy for addressing the problem of that gap. And this is what the psychoanalytic programme, in its broadest sense, sets out to achieve. The psychoanalytic project of self-discovery aims at integration of the demands of conscience and morality into a fully adult awareness: the passions that may push us in a direction contrary to those moral demands are neither repressed or denied (for that would be a recipe for instability), nor wantonly indulged (for that would be a recipe for chaos), but rather brought to the surface so that their character, theirallure,’ is properly understood. The psychoanalytic project, correctly construed, is a deeply moral project, since it involves nothing less than a radical transformation of the self, a kind of re-birthing or re-education process, where the harsh imperatives of the superego on one side, and the raw urgency of our instinctual impulses on the other, are systematically scrutinized, and brought together into an integrated whole where they lose their threatening and destructive character. — John Cottingham, from his essay, “A Triangle of Hostility? Psychoanalysis, Philosophy and Religion,” in Louise Braddock and Michael Lacewing, eds., The Academic Face of Psychoanalysis: Papers in Philosophy, the Humanities, and the British Clinical Tradition (Routledge, 2007): 103-104.
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The passages above explicitly and implicitly provide us with a nuanced and profound assessment of the impoverished nature of moral philosophizing and ethics when bereft of a plausible moral psychology. And this is why any ethicist or moral philosopher who aims to be practical, realistic, pertinent, or simply speak with conviction and suasion to those outside academic philosophy proper, need to accord moral psychology (i.e., ‘the study of the growth of moral sentiments, moral beliefs, and moral habits in the typical life-history of the individual’) a central role in their philosophizing. To some extent, philosophers working in virtue, feminist, and care ethics have moved in this direction, but their work as well is often subject to the regnant standards and constraints of their profession which effectively ignore, marginalize or even trivialize questions of moral psychology, if only because of a de facto or normative submission to the academic division of labor (interdisciplinary studies notwithstanding). The relevant moral psychological topics are addressed in one way or another in psychoanalytic theory and therapy, earlier by French moralists, by novelists and playwrights, and to some extent by contemporary philosophers dedicated to the study of the emotions. Some religious worldviews and those philosophers committed to same (e.g., Buddhism, Pascal, Kierkegaard), are likewise capable of speaking to questions of moral psychology with a relevance that extends beyond the specific tenets of their traditions. 

As Ilham Dilman has argued in a couple of books, the moral psychology Wollheim refers to here is critically and crucially distinguishable from that which looks to experimental or scientific or academic (i.e., empirical) psychology for its bearings. The latter psychology, in Dilman’s words has, so to speak, “no soul.” Thus, for instance, the entry on “moral psychology” in the SEP (the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) exemplifies a scientistic or unrealistic conception of moral psychology:

“Progress in ethical theorizing often requires progress on difficult psychological questions about how human beings can be expected to function in moral contexts. It is no surprise, then, that moral psychology is a central area of inquiry in philosophical ethics. It should also come as no surprise that empirical research, such as that conducted in psychology departments, may substantially abet such inquiry. Nor then, should it surprise that research in moral psychology has become methodologically pluralistic, exploiting the resources of, and endeavoring to contribute to, various disciplines.” 

The demarcation and specification of “moral contexts” alone shows the enterprise has gone awry, as it is based on a fundamentally mistaken assumption or premise, as the late philosopher and writer Iris Murdoch suggests in this passage from her book, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992). For the moral life or “ethical living” in one very important sense, and in which questions of moral psychology are paramount, is “not intermittent or specialized,” cabined by circumstances or situations, even if these are sometimes appear or are in fact, more morally conspicuous or salient or urgent than other times and places in our lives, for the moral life has to do with the person qua person. Thus the moral life is not a    

“peculiar separate area of our existence. [….] Life is made up of details. We compartmentalise it for reasons of convenience, dividing the aesthetic from the moral, the public from the private, work from pleasure. [….] Yet we are all always deploying and directing our energy, refining or blunting it, purifying or corrupting it, and it is always easier to do a thing a second time. ‘Sensibility’ is a word which may be in place here. Aesthetic insight connects with moral insight, respect for things connects with respect for persons. (Education.) Happenings in the consciousness so vague as to be almost non-existent can have moral ‘colour.’ All sorts of momentary sensibilities to other people, too shadowy to come under the heading of manners of communication, are still parts of moral activity. (‘But are you saying that every single second has a moral tag?’ Yes, roughly.) [….] [M]uch of our self-awareness is other-awareness, and in this area we exercise ourselves as moral beings in our use of many various skills as we direct our modes of attention.” 

When the authors of our SEP entry conclude that “empirical research … conducted in psychology departments” is “substantially abet[ting]” the interdisciplinary research into moral psychology conducted by ethicists, this should give us pause, indeed, it might prompt us to refrain from imbibing in the enthusiasm (at least the kind of enthusiasm permitted professional philosophers in their academic work) that marks their conclusion. Furthermore, the claim that this field of study has become, of necessity, “methodologically pluralistic,” sounds agreeable if not heartening, but this pluralism is predictable if not banal, for these “empirical approaches” fail to encompass psychoanalysis, the humanities, religious worldviews, the French moralists, the work of novelists and playwrights, all of which are, I and others would argue, far more enlightening and helpful when it comes to integrating moral psychology into moral philosophy and ethics. And thus I am reminded of something Jon Elster wrote in Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions (1999):

“I believe … that pre-scientific insights into the emotions [we could substitute ‘moral psychology’ for ‘emotions’ without altering the point] are not simply superseded by modern psychology in the way that natural philosophy has been superseded by physics. Some men and women in the past have been superb students of human nature, with more wide-ranging personal experience, better powers of observation, and deeper intuitions than almost any psychologist I can think of [I am assuming Elster has in mind here a practitioner of what we know as ‘scientific psychology’]. This is only what we should expect: There is no reason why one century out of twenty-five should have a privilege in wisdom and understanding. In the case of physics, this argument does not apply.”


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