Phenomenology and Moral Realism

My engagement with Scheler’s work led me to conclude a particular version of moral realism that I have spent great pains trying to articulate to those outside of phenomenology; I call it participatory realism. Values are brought into being via the constituting function of affective intentionality that underlies all experiencing and then realized into the world through our shared comportment and feeling-directedness of these experiences. Action and feeling cannot be explained without this meaning-bestowing function of affective intentionality just as much as the often naturalist cannot explain away the fact that scientific knowledge is a subjective accomplishment of an intentionally-directed transcendental ego (See David Carr’s work for a systematic reversal of priority of explanation that shifts the burden to the naturalist and not the phenomenologist, the source of meaning is the first-personal subject, not the world). Persons participate in their own emotional life and the life of others. In Scheler’s language, we participate in the intentional feelings acts of ourselves as persons and intentional feeling opens us up to a whole sphere and range of other moral acts we feel. Some of these intentional acts have no content and efficacy if others are not present. Scheler calls these intentional acts social acts. For example, love always requires an other (it’s a separate question whether that other is an impersonal other like a nation, or a clan, or a pesonal other like someone’s partner). 

In this post, I am really trying to get clear on what participatory realism is not. In one version of moral realism, moral properties are non-natural. Consider Allan Gibbard in the 2011 Oxford Studies in Metaethics in his “How Much Realism.” 

Many of us find non-naturalism baffling. I do take myself to understand talk of warrant and of reasons to do a thing or believe things. I am puzzled, though, why I should think that the universe contains properties that are non-natural, or how a primitive non-naturalistic concept could be a legitimate part of our thinking (p. 34-35)

Gibbard is just about to explain what he failed to do in his 2003 book, Thinking How to Live, and how he thinks that some of what the non-naturalists find intuitive can be explained by introducing directive concepts. We evolved to have “directive concepts.” They are to feature in our actions. Normative beliefs are part of a “normative control system” that we all have “as part of our psychic make-up, but it can be overwhelmed by appetite, dread, and the like” (35). In this way, normative beliefs are much more restrictions on our acting and deliberations. Notice here that the philosophizing isn’t bad. Gibbard is clear, concise, and succinct in his thinking, a thinking that resists non-natural concepts altogether, yet admits several claims about moral concepts that seek to explain moral experience. However, this last feature desideratum is where  analytic ethics fail completely (or at the very least where I have always been most dissatisfied, but our dissatisfaction is the place where critical engagement starts).

Ethicists, like Gibbard, fail to have a way to verify the assumptions they make about moral experience, but assume a conceptual fit of the philosophical concepts they employ in speculation in relation to moral experience. Insofar as the moral concepts fit within the stated naturalistic worldview. “I won’t be discussing how evolutionary theory might explain proclivities of moral judgment…Rather, I’ll suppose evolution, social history, and the like explain causally what we are like” (33). Gibbard and other ethicists never look to moral experience itself. He will just assume that these third-personal descriptive accounts provide adequate explanation for the contents of first-personal experience. He will just assume “what we are like.” That’s phenomenologically irresponsible, and metaphysically dangerous to handwave the demand for a detailed philosophical anthropology as well as not to consider the insights experience furnishes to us.

While I often lay this charge at the feet of analytic ethicists, especially Gibbard and Harman, they are not entirely to blame. Indeed, Husserl’s efforts have gone unheeded in many circles, but one area where his thought is extremely poignant is showing that philosophy cannot be wholly naturalized. Human life is lived in conscious relation to a world. We find our thoughts directed into that world, and every naturalistic insight finds expression in the first-personal dimension of experiencing the world of persons, values, and action. As such, while naturalists like Gibbard and Harman think they can assume the metaphysical picture to which ethicists and metaethicists should direct their thinking, the transcendental demand of experience would claim otherwise. Only phenomenology can meet that demand, and this explains why it is necessary to bring Scheler into contact with thinkers like Gibbard and Harman.

Let me summarize what I have done thus far. I have attempted to use just one example of Gibbard to gesture as to why the problems of value ontology cannot merely be settled by making claims about experience. Instead, there is an explanatory dimension experience furnishes that cannot be presupposed. In fact, Gibbard’s entire account of a nomrative control system would have to be vindicated by experience. All efforts in ethics are meant to solve the problems of practical lived-experience. Now, I will move onto the two ways in which thinkers have regarded non-natural properties. T

Typically, non-natural properties are simple or primitive. Gibbard is right at least in this (34). By simple, it has no other further parts, and in saying it’s primitive it can’t be explained further. If we take away the word “property” and add quality away from values and substitute “non-natural” for “phenomenological”, we would get a position identical to Scheler (and what I am calling participatory realism). Actions, goods, persons all are given to us as valueable, that is, they all are given in terms of a value-quality. However, the incomplete feature of simply talking about the objects of value means that moral realists are always trapped in a desire for mind-independence. Yet, if value-qualities are experienced as the phenomenologist insists, then there must be a reference point, a touchstone in experience, to which the phenomenologst can describe how these value-qualities are given, and low and behold, emotional life is relevant to both Scheler and myself for this reason. Value-qualities only come to be “known” in how they are felt. Therefore, value-ontology must at least start with the phenomenological necessity to explain experience and locate experienced feature in experience.

That will end the meandering for now.

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