1. he finds himself unable to explain very well to ordinary people what his discipline is all about (perhaps in part because)Some of this might just be Cowley's personality. And there's a sense in which he is not "fair" to Benetar (though his question is whether there is any reason to be). I don't know; at times, I'm quite sympathetic with much of what Cowley (and Gaita, from whom he draws in places) has to say about these matters. I find it embarrassing to be introduced (say, by my wife to others) as a philosopher. And perhaps it is because there is a risk that doing philosophy (perhaps moral philosophy or otherwise) can turn into comical navel-gazing. Perhaps one way to read Cowley is that when moral philosophy takes this turn, it isn't so comical, but rather shameful. Perhaps this is related to the feeling (that I have at times, as I'm sure others do) that it's important to do something that matters (something "serious" in Aristotle's sense in Book X of the Nicomachean Ethics), and while philosophy almost inherently involves trying to understand and solve (or dissolve) certain kinds of puzzles, puzzle-solving itself can seem to lack seriousness as the puzzles get stranger and more abstract, and harder to bring back to the "real world." I'm sure that's why Aristophanes depicted Socrates as a buffoon.
2. he is embarrassed that he is associated (by trade) with "the excesses of 'technicians'" and here he singles out David Benetar and his recent book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. (Cowley how a work like this can be seen as a serious work of moral philosophy.)
3. he is embarrassed by the "crusading 'ethicists'" like John Harris and Peter Singer who seem to think of 'ethicists' as moral experts (perhaps, a secular moral clergy of sorts)
4. he is embarrassed by his feeling that his "philosophy and wisdom" are nothing to the beggars and the afflicted in the world, that for all his study he still "[does] not know how to deal with these sorts of people" and he seems to worry that this is an endemic problem for philosophers.
Thursday, February 17, 2011
The Embarrassments of Moral Philosophy
Chris Cowley has recently published an interesting paper called "Moral philosophy and the 'real world'" at the online journal Analytic Teaching and Philosophical Praxis. I've been meaning to mention it, but I'm still not sure what to say, except that it certainly made me think about what I'm doing and what I do (as a philosopher--which is a title that I, like Cowley, find a bit uncomfortable). Cowley offers four things which embarrass him about being a moral philosopher: